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Your Take: Splitting Checks

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Reading this brief post on Alpha Consumer on money etiquette brought on a thought about a weekend several weeks ago with a bunch of friends. I spent part of Saturday afternoon at a local Baltimore bar called Lime drinking some margaritas with some of my friends, BS’ing about the week, and drinking some more margaritas. (That place has this thing called a Birdbath, three margaritas in one huge cup/bowl for $13… can’t beat it) Anyway, several hours later we go to split up the check and somehow the bill is short. Short by a lot. We eventually figured out that it was just that someone had left and misjudged their part of the bill and everything was settled later on, but it got me thinking about how splitting checks always seems to end badly 9 out of 10 times.

I’m a fan of splitting checks evenly as long as it’s reasonably equitable. If one person gets a rack of lamb and a bottle wine while another person gets a grilled cheese sandwich, then splitting the check evenly just isn’t going to be fair. However, in cases where it’s hard to gauge who got what (like at bars, which are exasperated by a larger crowd), I think splitting it evenly just makes it easier to take care of. Ultimately, if the difference is a few bucks, I would argue that most people are okay with overpaying a few dollars.

However, you almost never have the case where the inequity is so apparent. If there are two people and one person gets lamb and another gets a grilled cheese, I would hope the person with the rack of lamb wouldn’t be so obtuse that they would ask to split the check 50-50 (if they are, I recommend never eating with them because they obviously suck). It’s always something a little grayer, like 10 people and everyone is about the same and 1 person got there late (or something like that). In those cases, I think it’s fair for that one person to pipe up and say “Hey guys, I got here later and I only had one margarita, I think that should run me only about $x.xx.” Hopefully no one is looking for a free ride, it’s just a matter of simplicity.

What’s your take on this sticky wicket? Is the onus on the person who should pay less or on the person who obviously got the more expensive drink or meal? A little of both? I realize it’s one of those gray area type questions with no real answer but I’m curious what all of you think.

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19 Responses to “Your Take: Splitting Checks”

  1. Danny Tsang says:

    This happens ALL the time. The bill is almost always short. What I do is memorize the items that I order and the prices..I’ll factor in tax and tip and come up with my portion in a group situation. Of course it depends…If I’m out with friends whom I haven’t seen in a while, I may be inclined to split it any way they suggest. My girlfriend thought it was unfair on one occasion because we both had water while everyone else had wine and desert…the bill was split equally..Normally I think its only fair that everyone pays their part. Rule of thumb..Never order the grilled cheese :)

  2. donna jean says:

    I’ve found that it usually depends on the social circles and I was recently commenting to the partner on how nice it is that this is never a problem in my primary social circle. In fact, the amount thrown at the bill is always way over and we leave behind some very, very happy servers — this is compensation over and beyond what you should be doing as a large group that has taken up lots of time, space, and attention.

    When I go out with other social groups, I’ll often toss extra cash down because I hate the nit picking over the bill, but I’ve still found people fussing at the end that there isn’t enough there which really burns me because I’ll know I’ve thrown enough to cover at least one other person too and that means several folks aren’t being fair.

    I hadn’t really thought about the entree selection, with my main group the places we frequent are all very consistently priced (or it’ll be all you can eat sushi), and the other groups dine at places with huge variances in menu. So with the first group, a split x ways works best and everyone is happy; the second group has everyone adding up this and that and trying to cover their bill.

  3. That One Caveman says:

    Unless it’s agreed upon before we go out to eat that it’s a treat and will be paid for one party, we ask for separate checks as soon as the waitress arrives. It’s easier for everyone if all parties know up front that each will pay their own way than waiting until the end and trying to do some quick, sloppy math. No inequity; no hassle; no worries.

  4. Posco says:

    Hitchhikers of the Galaxy will recognize that this is an intractable problem that has so much power as to be able to drive starships.

    Quoting from Life, the Universe and Everything, (and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bistromathic_drive),

    “Bistromathics itself is simply a revolutionary new way of understanding the behaviour of numbers. Just as Albert Einstein’s general relativity theory observed that space was not an absolute but depended on the observer’s movement in time, and that time was not an absolute, but depended on the observer’s movement in space, so it is now realized that numbers are not absolute, but depend on the observer’s movement in restaurants.”

    “The first nonabsolute number is the number of people for whom the table is reserved. This will vary during the course of the first three telephone calls to the restaurant, and then bear no apparent relation to the number of people who actually turn up, or the number of people who subsequently join them after the show/match/party/gig, or to the number of people who leave when they see who else has shown up.

    The second nonabsolute number is the given time of arrival, which is now known to be one of those most bizarre mathematical concepts, a recipriversexcluson, a number whose existence can only be defined as being anything other than itself. In other words, the given time of arrival is the one moment of time at which it is impossible that any member of the party will arrive. Recipriversexclusons now play a vital part in many branches of mathematics, including statistics and accountancy, and also form the basic equations used to engineer the SEP Field.

    The third and most mysterious piece of nonabsoluteness of all lies in the relationship between the number of items on the bill, the cost of each item, the number of people at the table and what they are each prepared to pay for. (The number of people who have actually brought any money is only a sub-phenomenon in this field.)”

  5. Dariaclone says:

    When I go out with friends we all throw in what we think we owe and the total never ends up short. Perhaps my friends are better at math than yours :-) Actually, I think there are a lot of former servers in my group, so they all round generously and we just tip well if/when there is extra.

  6. Adam Williamson says:

    It is easy to forget to ask for seperate checks at the beginning of the meal (though after three months of business travel it has become second nature). Depending on whom I am with splitting the check evenly usually keeps itself evened out over time. In fact, as an experiment, my senior year college roomate and I would pay for the entire cost of the two of us going out and just trade off who bought on what nights. We kept the reciepts and then at the end of the year tallied up the difference, he ended up owing me $0.67. We weren’t actively tracking it and only totaled it up at the end of the year to see how it worked out.

    That being said I have one friend who will only pay his exact share every time. Generally also forgetting that tax and tip should be included (he refuses to tip except on rare occasions). This has only caused a probelm once since we were going to movies afterwards and the general consensus was that the couple that purchased the movie tickets (had to be bought in advance) would eat for free. My fiancee and I ended up paying for four meals alltogether since the other friend threw in only the cost of his meal. Don’t get me wrong, this is the same guy who left his job early drove 4 hours to pick me up and bring me home because I missed a bus and expected nothing for it, just don’t go out to eat with him.

  7. Adfecto says:

    I have a tendency in my group of friends to pick up some extra slack in these situations. It is most apparent when we order an appetizer or dessert. We ask the server to split checks at the start and then I put the “shared” nachos (or whatever) on my tab. On occation one of my other friends will step up and do the same. Some in the group have never volunteered for their turn but that doesn’t bother me. There is a wide range of financial means in our group and I know that I am in a situation where my ability to kick in some extra is appreciated. I am also more likely that my other friends to suggest we order up a starter in the first place (though not always) so it makes sense that I pay for being a ‘bad influence.’

    I did once have a female friend that would ask me if I’d like to do XYZ on Saturday night. I had a long distance girlfriend (and made this clear to this girl) at the time. Twice she stiffed me for the check. It wasn’t like it was a $5 burger either. One time it was a $40 tab at Ramano’s Macaroni Grill and the next it was at a sea food place and she ordered LOBSTER ($30) while I had shrimp pasta ($15). The second time we also had plans to see a movie after dinner so I suggested to her that since I got dinner she should get the movie tickets (still far less than her dinner). In my head I was thinking, “wtf – this isn’t a date, I’m not trying to get lucky, and she invited me!” She bought the tickets but seemed aghast that I asked. I stopped returning her phone calls shortly thereafter.

  8. I’m a big advocate for splitting the check. I do however; make sure to let the waiter/waitress know as soon as possible so he/she doesn’t have to run the bill twice. That’s pretty rude…

  9. Lord says:

    This really varies with the group. Friends and small groups usually have no trouble splitting things up, but I have been with others, some of whom won’t put in anything unless you catch them on it. Are they just cheap, privileged, or what?

  10. Monevator says:

    Splitting cheques is definitely best, but in a big group there’s always someone who takes (maybe unwittingly) advantage of the situation. I have a friend who unfailingly orders a la carte, drinks cocktails and so forth, and just doesn’t realise others around the table are all ordering the special, or whatever.

    That’s fine when I’m out with him, but in a big group it’s almost rude. But he’s pretty oblivious to it.

    My dirty secret: The other day a very robust friend called him up on it and broke all the bills down by person (he’s a bit of a mental maths whiz) and I was secretly happy. My high-rolling friend’s bill was literally 50% more than the average…

  11. Rob Carlson says:

    I think you should always come to a table of co-workers prepared to pay the mean cost per person. If everybody consents or the meals are horribly mismatched you should be able to adjust it to the fact that Sally had fries and Bob had the sirloin and four margaritas.

  12. saladdin says:

    Like someone posting above, in my circle checks are never split. There is no count of “who paid last.” It is always my intention to pay for the meal and normally have to go to the extreme to do so. For example, faking going to the bathroom and paying ahead of leaving. There is no thought of “returning the favor” and not looked upon as a gift in any way.

    saladdin

  13. Rev says:

    Blah I hate shared checks. I normally am not a cash guy but I have to be now because it always seems to work out I end up paying for my meal and all of the tip. I am starting to get a separate checks now because it is just easier.

    Last time it happened really bad I was invited to someone else’s birthday dinner. They passed the check around and everyone added cash and by the time it passed 10 people and got to me it was short 40 dollars and my meal was only 15. needless to say that was a 70 dollar meal I won’t forget or be going back for. Especially since everyone start to jump up or not make eye contact or when mentioned said “i paid my share”. It just depends on the people.

  14. MoneyNing says:

    It definitely is based on the social circle. I have some friends where we always end up having TOO MUCH money. I have other friends where it is always short. I also have friends where one of them always tries to pay with credit card and dictate how much everyone needs to pay him (safe to say no one really wants to eat with him that often).

  15. Daily Yeah says:

    Really depends on the people i’m with. If i’m really close with the people then we’ll take turns fronting the whole bill. It takes forever trying to split something big, and somebody’s feelings is bound to get hurt and friendships ruined over a few dollars. In the end if 1 person fronts it all and then takes turns with his/her friends it’ll all even out.

  16. Meg says:

    It’s best to just split the check evenly between people/couples. In my opinion it’s annoying and even tacky (depending on the circumstances) to make the waiter break up a check 5 ways based on exactly what you got, or to quabble for half an hour over the bill as each person tries to figure out what they owe. If a few dollars is that big of a deal you probably shouldn’t be eating out anyway.

    If one person orders significantly more than the others, s/he should offer to pay the gratuity for the whole bill, or cover the whole bill entirely.

    If a person owes significantly less, (like more than $15) then by all means speak up and suggest perhaps that you won’t add any gratuity on your portion of the bill, or put in cash for their portion before the check is split between others’ cards.

  17. EA says:

    It depends on who you eat with. I’ve found that the easiest thing, if you eat with the same person/couple a lot is to alternate paying. It will all work out in the end. Presumably they are people you like if you eat with them all the time and it won’t matter if you pay a few percent more than your share.

    Back in the day, when we’d go out to the bar, it was usually split evenly among the drinking folks so the designated driver (if we were off the public transit line and there was one) would have their soda/snacks/billiards paid for. That compensated them for gas and such.

    In a group that’s less friendly, there aren’t many good options. Asking for separate checks up front is probably the best.

  18. I wish we could ask for seperate checks. I know everytime we go out, people are short. It’s a lot harder with coworkers than friends. And the other night, sorry I was particularly pissed when they ordered wine by the bottle and I don’t drink. Then I was expected to chip for the drinks?

    Um, hello! But I tossed in cash and didn’t toss in for the bottle of wine. And yes we were short, but tough. I mentioned it and said I wasn’t paying for wine. And I think some people were upset, but tough luck for them. They were expecting a free ride and I was not about to give it to them. I called them on it, it’s pretty obvious if you don’t imbibe that you shouldn’t have to pay.

  19. clare says:

    i’m usually the one who orders without regard to price.

    i add up what i ordered, add 15-20%, and then add $10 on top of that…

    and then i go to the bathroom and let everyone else figure it out.

    there’s no point in not being as generous as possible in situations like this.


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