Friday, March 25, 2011

How to Split a Check at a Restaurant, Moneybags' Style

Mailing Junk back to Junk Mailers

Reader Tricia asks

I was curious about how you deal with splitting the bill with a group of people in a social setting. For example, dining out, bar/club when all drinks are on one bill, or bachelorette/birthday type situation. Do you bring cash? What do you say? Etc....

Great question! Depending on your circle of friends, this can be a really tricky situation. There was a recent post about this at the Awl which got linked all over the internet last week: How to Split a Check at a Restaurant by Neel Shah. The main point of his article is that if you're over 25, you divide the bill by the number of people at the table, regardless of who ordered the filet mignon and who ordered the veggie plate.

I have to say I totally disagree with him. The economics of that approach encourage everyone to order more expensive food and drinks under the assumption that someone else will pay for it. You can see how the bill can skyrocket out of control pretty easily. That doesn't really sound like my idea of a good time.

Luckily my friends are reasonable, and when we go out for brunch or dinner or whatever, people pay for what they order. We pass the receipt around and people are great about putting in more when they've ordered an additional drink or appetizer or whatever. Everyone's also really good about putting in enough for tax or tip -- we often end up leaving a very nice tip or shoving singles back at people who were too generous.

However, what about those situations when you're with people you don't know so well or a situation where you're facing one very large bill? I have definitely been there.

Let's go through the two places this plays out in most frequently: sit-down meals and bars.

At bars, it's frequently possible to open a separate tab for yourself with no problem - you can always tell the server that you may need to leave earlier than everyone else and want to make sure he or she's taken care of. Bachelorette evenings involving table service may be more difficult, so if you're concerned about it, it's perfectly reasonable to check with the host and let them know what they expect the expenses to be and let them know if your budget won't allow. Etiquette forbids a host from setting up an evening that is too expensive for the guests to handle, so this is one situation where it's perfectly acceptable to have a real conversation about money.

For sit-down meals in restaurants, this can be a little harder - some restaurants won't split checks or handle different types of payments, and it's often hard to know ahead of time whether a group prefers a split-it-evenly or everyone-pays-for-their-order division. And because of the economics described in the Awl link above, the prospect of splitting things evenly means a lot of people order that second drink or pricier entree, so sticking with water, salad, and an appetizer doesn't mean you'll save any money.

It's a little awkward, but it can help to break the ice by mentioning this at the beginning of the meal, as everyone's looking at the menu and before ordering. You can semi-jokingly ask whether you'll be dividing the bill equally, because that $25 steak sure is looking great tonight! If you can get everyone to agree to how to pay before the bill arrives, people may be more inclined to order circumspectly if they know they'll be paying for every single thing they order.

I do try to bring cash to these situations, because it's easy to say, well, this is all I'm ordering because that's all the cash I've got on me. (Just make sure to bring enough!) Whatever you do, don't offer or agree to put the bill all on your credit card and have people give you the cash - you could get burned like I did at a friend's birthday dinner a few years ago. Try to at least split it between two credit cards so you're not stuck picking up all the slack from stiffers, or take a moment to do the math and be sure everyone has pitched in enough, whether you're dividing it equally or by what everyone ordered.

Since then, to be honest, I've avoided situations where this might come up again. I show up a bit later or leave a bit earlier than everyone else at a bar, thus needing a separate tab. I meet everyone at the restaurant for dessert instead of for the whole dinner. I still get to celebrate with my friends but my wallet's not screaming at me and I don't feel taken advantage of.

Lastly, if you have a friend who regularly puts you in these situations, evaluate the friendship. If it's worth keeping, tell them you can't afford to keep splitting meals in a way that means you pay for more than what you really ordered.

Question 2 from Tricia coming up over the weekend!


  1. Great post! I'm very lucky in that my group of friends has never minded splitting the check on different bills, and in fact that's always been the norm. In the rare event that a restaurant won't let us split the check, we always contribute our fair share even if calculators need to get involved. I was shocked when I first started reading personal finance blogs and realized that others went about things differently.

    That said, if I had friends who insisted upon splitting the check evenly, I don't know that I'd be going to dinner with them much more, simply because I wouldn't be able to afford to.

  2. Agreed, this is a great post. I completely agree. I hate when people assume you're just going to split evenly. I love the idea of leaving a little early... you can always throw down the $20 you owe without being stuck with an extra $20 payment to cover the rest of the table, esp when they ordered 3 rounds of drinks and you drank water.

  3. I like the trick of coming later or leaving earlier to clear your portion out first.

    I HATE splitting things evenly. HATE. I never drink alcohol so I get screwed with paying for wine, and I don't take expensive meals but everyone is eating foie gras. :P

    Unless our meals were exactly the same and we shared it all, then I don't split.

    I'd rather keep track of what I spent, calculate the tax, the tip and then throw in the cash to cover my side and be done with it.

  4. Normally, when I'm with my friends we usually pay for what we order so I have never encountered problems with that or sometimes one of my friends pay for everything. :)

  5. My friends and I are pretty like minded so we don't really pay for each others food and seperate the bill evenly. We do split it in cards a lot though which can cause problems. None of us like cash though. I might make it a point to start carrying a 20 on me. =)


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