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How to Split the Check When You’re Out With Friends

“Should we just split it evenly?”

Six words that will bring angst to at least one person at the table — likely the poor guy who tactfully dissected the menu to build a meal that, including tip, added up to exactly the amount of cash currently folded in his pocket.

And while Venmo now enables us to split tabs with pinpoint accuracy — so long as we’re comfortable auditing the bill like a CPA — it still doesn’t ease the split-the-check anxiety among friends (or a number of couples who are friends). What are you to do about the one friend with a taste for Napa cabs and the other who recently collected their five-year sobriety chip?

As usual, for answers we turned to our resident etiquette expert — Daniel Post Senning, the great-great grandson of Emily Post, the matriarch of the country’s first family of manners.

When two or more couples have dinner together, does one couple pick up the tab? Do they split it evenly? And most of all, how do they figure this out gracefully?
The traditional rule of etiquette is that the person who has done the inviting is the host and should plan to play. Often, however, it’s a meal that was collectively decided upon, and it’s unclear exactly who the host is. In those circumstances, it’s always best to ask at the start of a meal. Just say, “Hey, how do we want to divvy this up?”

I was recently in a situation where someone volunteered and said, “Do people here use Venmo? I’ll pick up the bill and contact everyone with their portion.” I live just outside of Waterbury, Vermont, which is becoming known as a microbrew destination. So there were people who were really excited about sampling microbrews. But it was the furthest thing from my mind since I have a 6-month-old daughter at home. So it was nice that one couple could order extra appetizers; another could order multiple rounds of beer; and my wife and I could split a pulled-pork sandwich and some fries and not be concerned that we were actually spending a quarter of what the others were spending.

What if one of the people doesn’t drink? Is it appropriate to square that up ahead of time and say they aren’t drinking and won’t be paying for it?
That’s one option. It’s also easy to get the server’s attention and ask for a separate check. That’s sometimes the most most elegant solution, rather than getting into the whole, “I’m going to be spending less than everyone and want to make sure I’m not being asked to pay an equal share here.”

If not, that can breed resentment, right?
Absolutely. Particularly around drinks — two rounds can often be the equivalent of an entree. That’s where a little social awareness is required from everyone involved — awareness of yourself and the people you’re with. Sometimes you don’t worry about it, you split the bill evenly and it’s all a wash in the end. But if you do notice that resentment building over time — or if you fear feeling that resentment — take responsibility for yourself and manage your own finances. Don’t blame other people for your own internal feeling and dialogue. Either speak up or get a separate check.

Always at the start of the meal/night, too?
I think that’s the best way to do it, rather than handling it at the end of the meal and saying, “Wait, I just had a salad so I’m just going to put in this amount. Subtract that and the rest of you divvy up everything else.” That’s tough math to do quickly and painlessly at the end of a meal, especially if you’ve had a few rounds of drinks.

What about a situation where a couple is having dinner with two friends who aren’t a couple?
I’d expect the couple would cover half of the bill and split the balance up by the person. Be sure you include enough for the tip as well. There’s potential for a difference of opinion in terms of what that total amount might be. A 15 percent or 20 percent tip might result in a $5 to $20 difference in tip. So I’d think of it on the higher end of that range, just to be safe.

How about two people who are just friends — split it down the middle?
Yeah. Think of it as an investment in your friendship. It really is often easiest to take the total and divide it up by the people who are there. The difference between whatever my fancy cocktail was and your beer was is probably a couple bucks; it’s not that big of a deal. And there will probably be a day in the future when I get a drink and you don’t. So for ease, split that bill rather than itemize everything. Though, if you did have an extra martini, you should pay for the Uber home.