The world of dining and drinking is an obstacle course wrapped in a labyrinth wrapped in a logic puzzle — it’s full of pitfalls, gray areas, and bewildering questions that really shouldn’t even be questions (How do I find the bathroom?) and yet, somehow, are. Fortunately, your friends at Eater are here to help: Life Coach is a series of simple guides to the arcane rituals of modern dining. Have a question or a quandary you’d like us to tackle? Drop Life Coach a line.
Dining with friends is truly one of life’s great pleasures — but who hasn’t had to endure a meal out with that one friend who insists on busting out a calculator to determine the exact cost of their appetizer and entree down to the cent? Or, perhaps you’ve had the unfortunate experience of throwing down a credit card for a birthday dinner of 15 people, only to be left with a hefty tab after a few people skimp on their share.
Mobile payment apps have greatly improved the ritual of splitting the check, but like anything involving friends and money, it can still be a precarious situation. Figuring out how to pay the tab at the end of the night need not be complicated, and no one should walk away irritated or lamenting their cheapskate friends. By remembering a few simple guidelines, you and your dining companions can focus on what truly matters, like Great British Bake Off spoilers and whether or not “cauliflower steak” is a term that should be legally allowed on menus.
Speak up in advance
If you have strong feelings about how the meal should be paid for — like if you’re not particularly hungry and don’t want to pay for anything other than the salad and water you’re ordering — speak up before anyone orders. Otherwise, your silence implies you’re fine with everyone’s food and drink going on one bill, with each diner being asked to contribute an equal amount to the total. On that note, it’s also helpful for your server if you let them know from the get-go whether you’ll be all together or on separate checks.
Consider separate checks
While a select few restaurants still adhere to an archaic “no split checks” policy, the vast majority now use a digital point-of-sales system that makes separating checks quite easy.
Some people may scoff at the idea of separate checks, but don’t let anyone make you feel like a cheapskate or a simpleton for not wanting to chip in on a combined bill. Separate checks are actually the perfect way to avoid the kind of hair-splitting that can come with trying to divvy up one combined bill: Everyone gets their own tab, plunks down their respective payments, and goes about their merry way, zero discussion required.
A major caveat, however, is the ubiquity of small-plates dining: While splitting a bill into separate checks is simple when each diner ordered their own appetizer, entree, and glass of wine, it becomes exponentially more complicated when the table just ordered a bunch of small plates to share. (No, you cannot ask your server to put two of the prosciutto-wrapped dates on your check and the other three on your dining companion’s. I mean, you can, but… please don’t do this.)
There’s also a limit to the amount of separate checks you can reasonably ask for: Four diners with separate checks is fine — maybe six if the restaurant isn’t super busy. Any more than that and you’re potentially becoming a real pain in your server’s ass. Note that some restaurants limit the number of ways they’ll split the check to two or three, because all that divvying up of menu items and printing multiple checks ties up your server’s precious time at the POS, which can really put a snag in front-of-house operations.
Otherwise, expect to split the bill evenly
If you’re dining with five friends and agree to one combined bill, expect to chip in one-sixth of the bill — no more, no less. The notion that you somehow owe less because your entree was $12 cheaper than everyone else’s is not a hill worth dying on, and it is guaranteed to annoy the hell out of your fellow diners. Also, do you really want to be the person involved in a bout of calculator smashing at the end of the meal while everyone else is devouring the remainder of dessert?
That being said, people who aren’t drinking shouldn’t necessarily foot the bill for those who are
Not drinking at a table full of people imbibing can feel awkward enough as it is. If someone isn’t drinking for whatever reason (Maybe they’re pregnant! Maybe they’re in recovery! Maybe they just don’t drink at all, or just don’t feel like it tonight! It doesn’t matter why!) and the rest of the table is drinking a significant amount, it’s not fair to make them chip in for everyone else’s drinks, especially in this era of $18 cocktails. Kindly encourage that person to get a separate check so they don’t have to foot the bill for the rest of the table’s boozing, or make sure the alcohol gets left off their portion of the split bill. If that person is you and no one else mentions it, don’t be afraid to politely speak up (a simple “Hey guys, I’m not drinking tonight — cool if I get a separate check?” should do the trick. If anyone makes a fuss, they’re a jerk.)
Venmo is your friend
It hardly needs to be said that in 2018, many people don’t carry cash at all; we are the obnoxious generation that swipes our debit cards for a pack of gum at the gas station. That being said, cash generally just complicates things when it comes to splitting the check, because even people who do keep cash in their wallet are highly unlikely to have exact change.
Instead, most check-splitting among friends these days seems to occur via mobile app: Venmo is perhaps the most ubiquitous, but there’s also Paypal, the Cash app, Chase Quickpay, and numerous other options. Venmo is particularly useful because users can include a stream of emojis along with their payment (how better to let your friend know that this $23.57 is payment for tacos and beer?). If you’re the friend that’s been entrusted with plunking down your Chase Sapphire for the entire meal, Venmo also enables you to simply send payment requests to your friends, which can help cut off any potential quibbling over amounts.
Relax and enjoy your meal
Dining with friends should be fun, remember? Hopefully you enjoy the company of your dining companions enough that you won’t care about whether you technically overpaid by $5 because Mary had three beers to everyone else’s two. “If you’re dining amongst close friends and someone is bitching about $10, they have an issue,” says Brian, a frequent diner in Dallas. “But then again, people have budgets and some people strictly live by them.”
If splitting the bill with certain friends always becomes a huge headache that creates tension at the table, consider ways of avoiding the situation altogether — such as choosing a counter-service spot where everyone can order and pay individually ahead of time (Shake Shack actually has a pretty decent wine selection). And if all else fails, just dine solo while staring into your cell phone — it’s the millennial way!
Whitney Filloon is Eater’s senior associate editor.