Dining out in groups means playing a little game called, Now how do we split the check for four charcuterie plates and 16 beers? While plenty of people are happy to slap down six cards to split it equally, or one person covers it all and lets friends Venmo them later, there’s often that one person who doesn’t want to split the average of the check across all parties. They are content to take a lot of time calculating their share and only paying their share exactly, leaving the server to then split the rest, or someone to do a lot of extra math while buzzing. Is it okay to hate that person?
Over at New York magazine’s “The Cut,” such a person materialized — a reader named Vanessa asking if she is, in fact, “cheap” if she hates splitting the check equally. She was described as a 31-year-old nurse who just “wants to pay for what she ordered, not Nancy’s steak!” A roommate told Vanessa she was a cheapskate who bummed everyone out, and Vanessa wanted to know if it was true. After all, she just wants to save money, and how can she do that if she’s always picking up part of a steak she never ordered?
The advice was thoughtful, advising Vanessa to basically split not just the check, but also the difference between saving money and enjoying life. At the MEL offices, we debate whether it’s ever okay to refuse to split the check.
Tracy Moore: People who refuse to split the check equally in a group setting — how annoying is this, really? The check comes, there’s, say, six people who all had dinner and drinks, and there’s that ONE guy or girl who’s like “I’m only going to pay for exactly what I had.” What’s the real harm here?
John McDermott: I’m one of the more money-conscious people I know, and even I feel awkward about insisting I pay less, even when that’s my “fair” share. There’s just something about it that seems gauche, and brings a lot of attention to yourself.
Tracy: Because you don’t want people to think you’re cheap? That you can’t roll with the expense that your peers can clearly afford?
John: Partially that. But mostly I just prefer to keep my personal finance decisions exactly that: personal. (I should not, I’m but a humble Midwesterner.)
Tracy: But why are you eating out in the first place if you can’t split an extra order of chips and guac?
As someone who grew up in abject poverty, I’m still not going to attend a group dinner if I can’t split a check that I know will easily be $20 or $30 more than I intended to spend. This is the price of admission for having friends.
John: Well, there are degrees. Bickering over a few scoops of guac is overkill. But if you’re not drinking and the table has downed four bottles of wine, you’re totally within your rights to say you want to pay less.
C. Brian Smith: I used to think people who wanted to pay for things a la carte were cheap and petty. I drunkenly mocked them. Until I got sober and became one of them. So yeah, I’m not up for splitting your $80 bottle of cab, guys.
John: So how do you handle this situation?
C. Brian: Always bring cash. Which is difficult, because who carries cash?
John: And then that becomes a whole thing. I imagine it’s doubly awkward for you, since you might not want to bring attention to being sober.
C. Brian: I have no problem bringing attention to that, but now I wonder if I should. Thanks.
Tracy: I think being sober as a reason not to cover a bunch of booze is correct and beyond reproach here; just wondering if anyone ever objects.
C. Brian: No, but one thing I will do is order an extra appetizer or dessert, and then when the check comes, throw my card in and say to split it evenly, and look like a fucking hero.
Tracy: Evening out the scales!
C. Brian: Exactly.
Tracy: Sobriety gets a pass, but what if like, you’re ordering domestic cans of beer and everyone else is drinking Pappy Van Winkle.
John: Same logic applies. I’m not paying for your $80 shot of booze. Anyone who orders something like that and assumes the cost will be split among everyone is an asshole. This isn’t Russia.
C. Brian: (Is this Russia, Danny?)
John: But the anxiety still exists: No matter how much less you ate or drank, no one wants to be the guy who makes the paying process more difficult by asking to pay less.
C. Brian: I think it’s an age thing. Once you’re in your 30s, if you’re drinking, you’re paying the same as everyone else who is drinking. Grow up.
Tracy: People like to maintain the illusion among their friend group that they’re all equally well off. You’re all in the same socioeconomic class roughly, so it’s fine. You’ve all come to this bar with this menu and this price point so it all shakes out. The burden is on the poorer person and they have to sort of pretend they can roll.
John: Yes! This speaks to a general anxiety about money and friendship.
Tracy: For this reason, being broke should be a pass for not splitting the check equally. It’s just the burden is on you to cop to being poor, and it’s embarrassing.
John: If you’re broke, you shouldn’t be going out to eat at an expensive restaurant in the first place, unless it’s previously agreed that your friends will pick up some of the slack. I’m mystified by people who insist on spending large sums of money on dining-out experiences that they can’t afford.
Tracy: I’ve always absorbed the cost even if I couldn’t really afford it, because I think it’s worth doing so for the good of the experience and group, and I just figure out how to cut corners elsewhere so I can still have the pleasure of dining out on occasion.
John: Why not just ask the group to eat somewhere cheap?
C. Brian: Tricky.
Tracy: That’s embarrassing, too. I know you wanted to go to this exciting, trendy new restaurant, but we could do Chipotle instead? That’s an enormous amount of negotiations among people who can primarily afford the better thing.
John: Well, what’s the most tactful way to go about being broke?
Tracy: One thing I do in small friend groups is we all go out to eat and buy our own food and drinks (if it’s three people), or we all split it equally but we’ve all eaten and drunk about equally. Or we might order our own food, but we take turns buying the bottle of champagne or wine. In smaller groups you can be aware of the equity and try to make it all even out. But more than three people? You gotta split it evenly or else face severe side-eye.
John: Can’t this be fixed with technology? What if there were an app that allowed everyone at the table to pay for just what they ordered? This can’t be that difficult.
Tracy: Venmo is sort of a fix, but it still involves someone covering you and you reimbursing — that’s still math.
John: Yeah, that pesky math.
C. Brian: Restaurants don’t strike me as Venmo-friendly.
Tracy: The only other situation I can think of where it’s okay to not split the average check is if you just show up and eat nothing, but what’s the point?
John: To be with friends!
C. Brian: Something I would do when I was unemployed is just eat first and only order drinks (when I was still drinking).
It’s perfectly reasonable (and feasible) to say, “I actually already ate, sorry I’m late.” It just makes it crystal-clear that you’re not to be included in the bill. And if you really want to look like a fucking troll, you can accept scraps from your employed friends’ plates. Like an impoverished labrador.
Just don’t bring food into the restaurant.
John: The nice thing would be to have an ally at the table who will speak up on your behalf. That’s a huge friend move. Ten bro points for the guy who says “Brian, just pay for what you ate since you weren’t drinking.”
Tracy: So actually being broke as a reason to not split the check is understandable, but also more debatable. Are you always the broke friend? Are you really broke or just cheap? Do you make splitting the bill a chore because you’re haggling over your exact part? Or do you bring cash to make this painless and fair (enough)?
C. Brian: Just show up 20 minutes late having eaten. That’s my jam.
Tracy: And bring a flask if you drink.
John: I support that move.
Tracy: Do literally any other drugs beforehand.
C. Brian: Adderall helps with hunger pangs.
Tracy: Painkillers make everything feel like rainbows. Can you eat rainbows?
John: I’m letting my personal bias show, because I’ve never liked spending money on dining out to begin with. It’s so fleeting. Don’t get me wrong, I love good food, but it’s such a waste of money.
Saving is a pain, and that’s largely because we’re socialized to believe any worthwhile social activity should cost a considerable amount of money. Instead, we should be more attuned and sensitive to people who just don’t want to (or can’t) play that game.
Tracy: Yes, it’s “eat, drink and be merry,” not “eat, drink and let someone who can’t pay explain themselves, take pity and don’t hassle them too much, okay”? But it should be.
C. Brian Smith: Doesn’t really roll off the tongue.
John We’re socialized to overspend; it’s madness.
Tracy: But studies show spending money on experiences — fleeting by design — engenders more happiness than buying “things.”
John: Studies also show that people don’t save because they have trouble delaying gratification. They’d rather have that fun immediate experience, even if it comes at the cost of their future wealth. And I tend to care more about the latter. My goal is to be the only millennial to actually retire.
Tracy: But also the only millennial to never eat out.
John: Life’s a trade-off.