Monday, December 14, 2009

But I Only Had Water - How To Split The Bill And Stay Friends

Several years ago, I attended a birthday dinner for a close friend at a high-end restaurant of her choice. There were about 20 people at the table, half of whom I didn't know. At the time, I was trying to dig myself out of debt and had a very limited entertainment budget. Accordingly, I ordered one glass of wine and a small salad. Other guests ordered expensive entrees and, while some asked for appetizers "for the table", I made sure I didn't touch them as I was short on cash. When the waiter brought our group cheque, the person on my right (a stranger to me) grabbed it first and it gradually made its way around the table with each person putting in what they felt they owed.

When it finally came back to me, I put in my fair share and counted the large wad of cash in the billfold. To my horror, I realized that it was $30 short of the total, even before the tip was factored in. I got the group's attention and suggested that perhaps some people had forgotten to put in their share of the tax, tip and contribution to the birthday girl's meal. I was met with blank stares, awkward glances and a few murmurs that a couple of people had left early. After an interminable silence, a precious few of us cobbled together enough money to make up the difference and leave a decent, although not generous tip. While I was never able to prove it, I'm convinced that one or two of the guests contributed nothing at all and the whole experience left a very bad taste in my mouth.

I'm sure this scenario, or elements of it, are familiar to anyone who has ever dined in a group and it provides an opportunity to explore several dining etiquette questions: If someone organizes and hosts a dinner, who pays? Is it okay to establish how the bill will be handled at the beginning and ask for separate cheques? Should the bill be split evenly or according to what people owe? What is the appropriate protocol when everyone has contributed and there's still not enough?

Unfortunately, this is one of those murky etiquette areas where there is no correct answer, no Emily Post dictate from on high to reassure us that we're right and everyone else is wrong. It's really a question of the occasion, the group, precedent, and how well everyone knows each other. Sadly, group dining also involves facing up to some unpleasant human truths like the fact that, when we find ourselves confronting the honour system, not all of us will rise to the occasion and behave honourably.
Everyone has different beliefs about money and everyone feels strongly about it. My mother's theory was "it's made round to go round" but you might feel that "a penny saved is a penny earned". After more than 20 years on the group dining circuit, my personal theory is that every circle of friends includes a cheapskate. He's the one who whips out his calculator when the bill comes, doesn't have any cash on him when you're filling the car for a weekend trip, or always offers to bring the soft drinks to a pot luck dinner. Fiscal beliefs run deep and chances are remote that this person will change his ways and start throwing money around. But, he may have many other wonderful qualities. You need to decide if your friendship is more important than the fact that he has trouble parting with funds, and if it is, accept it and move on.
Does the host pay for everyone? There is an etiquette guideline about restaurant meals and that is, the person who does the inviting is the one who pays. While this might be clear in a business setting between two people, it's a bit murky in a social setting where someone might take responsibility for organizing a dinner get-together but has no intention of covering the cost. In this case, if you're concerned about how the bill will be divided, bring it up with the organizer before hand.
Do honourees pay for themselves? Although there's no firm rule, it's generally accepted that, when the occasion is a celebration of a birthday or other anniversary, the person being feted will be treated by the others. If this is the case, it's essential to ensure before the meal start,s that the other guests know they need to factor a percentage of her meal, tax and tip into their contribution. The easiest way to handle it is for the other guests to split the bill evenly, in which case the guest of honour can offer to perhaps provide the tip...or not.
When should you split the bill evenly? My belief is if this is a group of friends or family that you dine with often, or even a group that includes some strangers, every bill should just be split evenly to avoid awkwardness. Life is too short and the hope is that it will all even out over time. As they say, sometimes you're the windshield and sometimes you're the bug. When the cheque is placed on the table someone needs to take charge, calculate the total including tax and tip and let everyone know how much they owe. Clean, simple and hassle-free!
But what if I only had a salad? This is where it gets tough. Some people routinely eat more than others. Some drink alcohol with every meal. Some never order dessert...and so on. There's no question that splitting a bill evenly favours the big eaters and drinkers and punishes those who didn't consume much. I have a friend who always orders less than everyone else and, when the bill comes, she takes it and announces what she owes and plunks down exactly that much in cash. The rest of us, who are not so concerned, usually split the remainder between us and we get back to the socializing part of the evening, which, after all, is why we're there. You could try this approach, or, you could follow the advice of another friend of mine who, after being repeatedly 'burned' by splitting the bill evenly, came up with her own system. When she arrives at a group dinner, she always asks the waiter for a separate bill on the pretense that she might have to leave early. Sometimes she does leave early and sometimes she stays till the end but she never pays more than her share.
If you're only paying your share, only eat your share - Some people want to have their cake and eat it too - literally. They order very little and only pay for what they actually ordered when the bill comes, but during the meal, they have no problems taking that last piece of bruschetta from the platter or dipping their fork into someone else's dessert. If you insist on just paying for what you ordered, you can't partake of the communal plates, lest you want to become the subject of negative post-dinner gossip.
Choose with care - If you are organizing a group dinner, you need to take into account the economic situations and desires of your guests. Chances are you guests are experiencing a wide range of fiscal realities. Some may be flush with cash and others could be unemployed or have fiscal obligations that you don't have. If you choose a high-end restaurant, be prepared for the fact that it might be difficult for some guests to attend. If you are a guest in this situation, it's okay to call up the organizer and let her know that you would love to go but you can't afford it. Maybe she'll offer to treat you, or maybe not.
Honesty is the best policy - If you're the big eater/drinker in the group and find yourself in a situation where the bill is not being split evenly, PAY YOUR SHARE. It's very poor etiquette to expect others to fund your hunger (or gluttony). Ante up and put in an extra share of the tip since the wait staff probably had to do more work for you. Believe me, nobody likes a mooch!


  1. This is a great and timely post! There's nothing worse than that awkward moment when a bill sits on a table, ignored by all the diners, who each wait for someone else to make the first move.

    I was at a dinner not too long ago when the other couple, who had initiated the get together, suggested the restaurant and ordered the second bottle of wine, winced when I proposed we split the bill evenly. But split it we did.

  2. Thanks for the comment Martin. After having many dinners with you, I can say if everyone approached splitting the bill with as much class and generosity as you, I wouldn't need to write this blog.

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