Split the bill? Etiquette Experts Say This Attitude Is “The Last Thing You Want”

Within any group of friends who eat together, people are likely to have different budgets, different appetites, and different attitudes toward shared expenses.

You might be one of those people who, for the sake of expediency, is happy to divide things equally.

But what about when the meal is uneven? You may realize that you’re not too excited to support your friend Porterhouse and three martinis when you just had a salad.

Then the check comes and everyone freezes. Who will cover what? Or worse: your friends all throw their cards away when you don’t want any part of the bottle of Dom Perignon they ordered.

“The last thing you want is a situation where the bill arrives at your table,” Daniel Post Senning, co-author of Emily Post Etiquette, Centenary Edition, tells CNBC Make It.

Here are three strategies that etiquette experts recommend to make sure you can split a meal without hurting anyone’s feelings — or money.

Communication is the key: ‘sooner the better’

Let’s say you’re a vegetarian with a carnivorous group and the plan is to share a bunch of small plates. Or maybe you don’t drink outside with a noisy crowd. If you’re worried that you’ll pay a disproportionate part of the bill, speak up early, Senning says.

“The key to good etiquette is good communication,” he says. “The sooner the better.”

This means expressing any concerns you have about splitting the check before submitting your application. “Hey, I’m wondering how we plan to split this up – anyone have any ideas?” Senning is suggested as a possible scenario. Or, “I’m going to keep things pretty small tonight, so I’m going to ask for a separate check.”

When the bill comes: ‘We must be discreet advocates for ourselves’

You may have intended to divide things evenly when seated, but the bill became increasingly uneven as the meal went on. When the server approaches your table with the check, address them directly, says Diane Gottsman, etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School in Texas.

“Don’t look at your friends or your neighbor at the table,” she says. “Say, ‘I’m covering those two’–that way you tell the servant, not the table.”

Gottsman says if a group is near you, feel free to tell your friends directly. Either way, expressing your intentions clearly and politely is the best way to avoid resentment or misunderstanding.

“We have to be discreet advocates for ourselves — for both our comfort levels and our budgets,” Gottsman says.

Settle down with friends: Find the ‘perfect spot’

Peer-to-peer payment apps like Venmo and the Cash App have made it easier than ever to split a bill fairly, especially in places where it’s hard to split a check. Oftentimes, one person covers the total and asks fellow diners to pay their fair share.

As easy as this setup may sound, it introduces another wrinkle etiquette: lend money.

About 61% of adults in the United States have taken out a personal loan or paid group expenses with the expectation that they will be repaid, according to a recent survey from CreditCards.com. Among them, 59% reported a negative experience in the form of losing money, damaging relationships, or getting into physical fights.

If your friend is generous enough to pay the group bill, try to pay it off as quickly as possible, says Thomas Farley, etiquette expert and author of the “Mealtime with Mister Manners” column on Today.com.

“People would probably have gotten off their phones anyway,” he says. “You can pay while you’re out of the restaurant. Get that off your plate, get out of your mind, and pay it right away.”

And make sure you pay the correct amount. Cover your costs, including taxes and gratuities, Gottsman says. “They won’t come back to you and say you have a short $6. That person is the one who might end up with a short change.”

If you’re the one who covered the group, don’t argue with your friends for money. “The perfect place to be is to pay people money before they ask you,” Senning says. “The money shall be returned before it is imposed on the one who lent it.”

This means that it can be rude if you bill your friends on the way to the parking lot, before they have a chance to pay you back. “Let him breathe for a minute,” Sinning says.

And if it’s a few days before you get your money back, reach out to your friends, face to face or over the phone, to remind them what they owe. Don’t be afraid to subtract a specific dollar number. “It’s not ‘do you mind’ or ‘I’m sorry, but’,” Gottsman says. “Be direct and friendly.”

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