In a perfect world, everyone would just split the check evenly and be done with it. After all, we’ve all eaten our dinner and now it’s time to get out of there, so why belabor the process? But the world isn’t perfect, and in this imperfect world of ours, the group check isn’t always going to be split evenly, no matter how much we may want that. So here’s a guide to settling up on the group check on this Godforsaken hell-ball we call Earth…
First thing’s first, should I tell my server up front if we’re going to want separate checks?
Yes! Unless you’re covering the bill yourself or you’re splitting it evenly, the first thing you should do when the server arrives is to let them know that you want separate checks. There are several reasons for this and, like your creepy Uncle Keith with your girlfriend, I’ll be hitting on them repeatedly throughout.
Why though? Is splitting a check after the fact really all that hard on a server?
It can be. For one, they have to remember who got what, sometimes an hour or more after you’ve placed the order. Alex, a waiter at a fancy restaurant in New York’s Hudson Valley explains, “If it’s a busy night and I’m running around, I’ve got a million things on my mind and the last thing I can remember is who had a glass of Chardonnay and who had a glass Pinot Grigio.”
In addition to having to figure out who ordered what, the server also has to go back and split the check, which can vary from no big deal to a colossal pain. As Alex explains, “Where I am now, everything is handwritten, so splitting a check isn’t too difficult, but when I worked at… a corporate restaurant with a point-of-sale system — it was just hell. Every time I had to void something, I had to call a manager over, and things could get really complicated, especially when it came to appetizers.” (Appetizers, by the way, are easily the most complicated part of a group check, but we’ll get to that later).
So, just to make the point super clear, if you’re going to itemize the check later, tell the server up front. As Alex explains, “If you’re already at the end and you tell your server, ‘Oh, I’m paying for this, he’s paying for that, she’s paying for this,’ then you’re an a**hole.”
So what’s the fairest way to split things up?
Fairness is a bit tough to define in this kind of situation, but the easiest way to do things is to split the check evenly. Diane Gottsman of the Protocol School of Texas explains that when you go out with people, it’s understood that everything isn’t going to be exactly the same for everyone. This person’s meal might be two dollars more than someone else’s, and minor differences probably won’t — or shouldn’t be — a big deal. This is especially true when you regularly dine with the same people. If this week you get a more expensive dish and next week your buddy does, that should all come out in the wash.
However, if you’re with a group that doesn’t dine together all the time, it’s best not to assume the check will be split evenly. And so, financial advisor Adam Ditsky recommends that you establish up front whether or not it will be split, that way everyone’s on the same page and it doesn’t need to be figured out when the bill comes.
Should income level matter at all when settling the bill?
No. Ditsky says that it’s all about what you order, and just because you’re going out with your rich buddy for lunch, it’s wrong to assume he’s paying for your poor self.
Is there a limit to how many ways a check should be split?
You want to keep this to about four people or less, and sometimes even that is too much. For Alex, his restaurant limits the amount of checks per table to three, and other restaurants may limit the number of cards to two, sometimes even just one. Even if there is no official limit, when you get beyond four people, it can get a bit unwieldy, as the server has to provide four checks, four trays, four pens, etc.
As much as possible, try to put the burden of settling up on yourselves instead of the server. Alex says, “You can pay on a credit card or a debit card to make life easier on your server, and then square up with your friends with cash. Honestly, I wish people would do that more.”
Additionally, you can make use of money apps to settle things amongst yourselves, which makes things far easier on the server. Also, if it’s two couples that went out, ask for two checks — not four — and just have the spouses settle things between themselves later. Whatever you can do to get that number of checks down to a manageable number.
Speaking of couples, what if there are kids at the table?
As a dad, I feel I can field this one pretty well. When you’re going out to dinner with your kid and some other friends or family, the burden of paying for the kid falls to the parents. If you’re with another couple and they have a kid too, then you can split things 50/50 again, but only if the numbers are clean like that — with each couple having the same number of kids. If it’s not even, have each family get a separate check and let the server know up front — did I mention that part already?
Does someone drinking or not drinking affect how the bill is split?
Yes. This is one of those few times where it’s a good reason not to split things evenly, as drinks can get pricey and it would be unfair to the person not drinking to pay the same amount. In the case where you’re drinking but others aren’t, or didn’t drink as much, you may want to request a separate check for yourself. If your friends persist and say it’s fine, but you still feel like you want to make up for it, Ditsky says you can cover the tip if that’ll even things out.
That said, if you regularly go out with the same group of people all the time and you know things will even out the next time you eat out together, then worrying about one drink isn’t really necessary. Steve, a musician who eats out with friends a lot, says, “For the most part, people should just split evenly. If you had one less drink or no appetizer but someone else did, just deal. Who would you regularly eat out with that you wouldn’t buy a drink for?”
Should having a split bill affect what I order from the menu?
When eating out, you should get what you want, but you should also be aware of how your dish measures up to everyone else’s. If you’re getting a salad and everyone else is getting the surf and turf, you may want to request a separate check because you ordered way less than everyone else. You especially want to do this if you’re going to harbor hard feelings over it later.
On the other end, if you got the surf and turf for $55 and everyone else got $12 burgers, you’ve got to address that. Ditsky says that you should establish things with your friends that you’ll either get your own check or pay more or cover the tip — whatever you can to make clear that you’re covering your meal and you don’t expect others to make up such a big difference.
Now, it may even out if you’re always dining with the same people, in which case, splitting the check may still be fine, but if you’re always the guy ordering way more than everyone else, you should ask the server for a separate check up front, that way no resentment begins growing amongst your friends.
Yeah, but what about my jerk friend who always wants to go itemized?
This, without a doubt, is the single most frustrating part of splitting up a group check. Everyone else is content to split things evenly, but one person only wants to pay for what they bought and insists on doing the math every time you go out to eat. First of all, screw them, this should be grounds enough to throw them out of your life, but assuming you can’t (like you’re related to them or something) then there are ways to deal with that person.
For one, if you know up front that someone is going to want to itemize at the end, once again, you’re going to want to request separate checks up front. Steve shares, “I’ve literally pulled waitresses aside and said something like, ‘Listen, I know four separate checks is a pain, but I assure you, it’ll result in the best tip for you. These people are animals.’” But, assuming you forgot to do that up front or didn’t know the person you’re with was a penny-pincher, you’re going to have to let it go and let them do it. “There’s no reaching that person,” Steve says.
Now, if that one pain-in-the-butt itemizer fails to account for tax and/or tip, you can definitely say something and ask them to throw in more.
While we’re on the subject, what the heck is wrong with this person? Why can’t they just split it like everyone else?
While that person may just be a jerk, Ditsky points out that there may be legitimate reasons for their anal itemization. For one, they may be on a fixed income, or they may have a super tight budget. The problem for them is that a penny pincher just looks like a penny pincher if you have no further context. Especially in cases where the penny pincher is someone who rarely joins you for dinner, it’s best to be a little more empathetic — they probably can’t really afford to be there, but didn’t want to let you down.
What if I’m the itemizer in my group?
If it’s something like what Ditskty said — where you’ve got a strict budget — it may help your tablemates to let them in on why you’re itemizing. You don’t have to go into minute detail, but if you tell your friends, “Hey guys, I’ve only got 25 bucks ‘til payday, so that’s all I can pay,” then that’s fine as long as the order you placed falls within that amount. By giving your friends some context, you’ll likely find their annoyance melt away because they now know why you’re doing it. Even a rage-filled guy like myself would be totally understanding if one of my friends explained that they were simply light on cash.
Now, if you’re always itemizing because you’re on a budget or because you make way less than your friends, make sure that you always request your own check. Ditsky says, “Some people can’t afford to get an expensive dinner but that shouldn’t mean they’re excluded from activity.”
What if one of my companions is a lousy tipper?
Another pro of having separate checks is that if one of your friends is a bad tipper, the waiter will know who the jerk is. But if the money is all going into one big pot and you notice one friend left a paltry five percent tip, it’s up to you how you want to handle it. If you feel confident enough to say something to them, go for it. Another thing you may end up doing is covering the difference yourself so that the server can get the 20 percent they deserve, though it may mean that you refrain from future meals with that person. Author and etiquette writer Debby Mayne shares, “I’ve been in a situation with people who didn’t believe in tipping at all, so I covered the entire tip and made it a point to never dine out with those people again.”
Oh, and by the way, cash is king when it comes to tipping.
Finally, what do we do about appetizers?
Even though an appetizer is the first thing you order, I left this for last because settling up on appetizers is nothing short of a complete mess. After all, if you order the appetizer, but everyone partakes in it, does that mean everyone is splitting it, or do you pay because you ordered it? And what if everyone ate it except one person, does everyone pay except them? How do you make sure things are equitable when there’s something like nachos, where it’s not easy to tell if everyone’s getting a fair portion? What about mozzarella sticks that don’t have an easily divisible amount? Or what if you order an appetizer for yourself, yet you offer one piece to a friend, is that friend now responsible for half an appetizer they didn’t even order?
Everyone I spoke to admitted that it’s a pretty confusing subject. Shoshanna, who was a server at an upscale Manhattan restaurant, says that one restaurant she worked for had a “split appetizer” button, but another one’s point-of-sale didn’t allow for that. For Alex, he says that dividing the amount of the appetizer isn’t the problem, but when people begin to say things like, “I didn’t have any of that,” it gets dicey.
Everyone has their own personal rules on the matter, too. Ditsky says that if you ordered an appetizer for yourself, then offered a piece to a buddy, you’re still obliged to pay for the whole thing. Personally, my thinking is if we all agree that we’re getting an appetizer for the table, then you only eat one lousy nacho chip, screw you, you’re still paying for one-quarter of those nachos like everyone else.
As you can see, sorting out the appetizers is really something of a free-for-all, and may depend more on the personality of the people that you’re dining with than it does who ate or ordered what. After all, family fights need not happen over some lousy mozzarella sticks, and friendships need not be lost over someone counting just how many ounces of artichoke dip you consumed. So, if you’re with a group of people who care that much about the minutiae of fairness over appetizers, just skip the appetizers and move onto the main course — you’ll probably regret the extra calories anyway.