Eating at fancy restaurant with friends when broke
December 31, 2010 3:04 PM   Subscribe

A friends birthday dinner is at a restaurant outside my price range. How can I attend and eat/spend minimally without seeming odd or drawing attention to myself?

Dinner at fancy restaurant with some old friends. It has been clarified that we will be paying for our own meals and the birthday persons meal will be entirely covered by the SO. For various reasons I want to celebrate this person and with that group of people but do not want to bring up the fact that it's expensive. What are some practical ways to spend as little as possible without drawing attention to how little I'm ordering/eating? Obviously I will not be drinking or eating dessert. But otherwise, what can I do? Order salad? Order only one appetizer for a meal? Eat lots of bread? There's no one to split a meal with btw.

posted by lacedcoffee to Human Relations (63 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
What if you eat beforehand and just have wine / drinks?
posted by rossination at 3:07 PM on December 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I hate it when this happens.

The best way to avoid the dreaded 'let's split the check' pitfall is to arrive late. Tell them you can't make it at the beginning of the meal but will drop in for dessert. Order coffee.
posted by bq at 3:08 PM on December 31, 2010 [23 favorites]

I would mention your concern to the ones organizing the dinner, first of all. You may find you are not alone in your group, and if enough people are concerned about the price of the dinner, they may change plans in order to be more inclusive.

I would not consider it an obligation to attend an event I can't afford. Offer to see the birthday guy/gal at a different time or day.
posted by Golfhaus at 3:08 PM on December 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

Soup is often the way I go... for some reason, even at expensive restaurants, soup is often really affordable. Good luck!
posted by faeuboulanger at 3:09 PM on December 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

You already mentioned two of my ideas-- have a salad or an appetizer as an entree. You could also eat vegetarian, or have a pasta dish-- both tend to be cheaper, but none of the above would make anyone think, "Oh, they're just eating cheaply." (Not me, anyway.)

Things that go without saying are to drink water and skip appetizers and dessert (or split them). If absolutely everyone is having an app, soup is generally cheaper. Also, the specials in my experience tend to be more expensive, not less. And specials/additions to the menu generally aren't given with prices, so you'd have to ask.
posted by supercres at 3:09 PM on December 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

Can you lie and say you had some sort of meal plan beforehand that you couldnt get out of? "Aunt Sally was in town and she wanted me to eat with her so I'm just having a glass of wine..."

Oh, and yes, actually eat first.
posted by fillsthepews at 3:10 PM on December 31, 2010

If you want to be really ruthless about this, eat dinner beforehand so you aren't hungry, and just order something small off the appetizer menu that looks tasty as your main course. If anyone asks (they probably won't) just explain that you had a late lunch.

That said -- if available, pasta is often a great way to go -- it's tasty, and it tends to be less expensive without being less filling. Same goes for the "vegetarian option" if there is one -- a high end restaurant will make sure meatless dishes are nevertheless satisfying.

If you want to just stick with an appetizer-sized portion, order the soup as your entree and eat it with lots of bread.

Chances are, no one will make a big deal out of what you order unless you do.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 3:11 PM on December 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would either just get a drink or get an appetizer (and eat a real dinner beforehand.) The appetizer is probably less likely to raise eyebrows (lord knows I've dined on potato skins enough times) but really, if it's a big group no one is going to notice or care either way.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:11 PM on December 31, 2010

thanks for the quick advice! Additional details include that we are actually meeting at their home beforehand for drinks and the dinner place is French. Will definitely eat my own dinner beforehand. Again for various reasons I'm not looking to get out of this or have a conversation about my financial situation. Thanks!
posted by lacedcoffee at 3:17 PM on December 31, 2010

I like the idea of coming late, like 30 minutes late. Come in with the white lie of having overindulged at a previous event, killing your appetite. Order a nice drink or glass of wine, and then something small just to be festive and join in -- an appetizer or a salad. Make a plan and stick to it, but honestly, forget about it once you've made the plan. You can still have a great evening!
posted by thinkpiece at 3:19 PM on December 31, 2010

Order soup and if anyone asks if that's all you're having let them know you're feeling under the weather and soup just sounded good. Or go for the cold factor - you're chilled and having soup sounded divine.

Also, some restaurants allow you to order a smaller portion of an entree (at half the price). Might not hurt to ask (or call ahead to ask).
posted by Sassyfras at 3:24 PM on December 31, 2010

Doesn't look like coming late is an option since they are meeting beforehand at the guest of honor's house. I would say soup and/or salad, and no drinks, but consider that you still run the risk of having a discussion about money. People often want to split the bill evenly, say by taking the total amount and dividing by the number of guests minus the birthday girl, either not noticing or not caring that one person consumed significantly less. In fact I've probably been guilty of encouraging this or going along with it on some occasions (sometimes calculating individual portions is hard!). So just be aware you may have to say something if it looks like folks are leaning toward an equal split.
posted by JenMarie at 3:26 PM on December 31, 2010 [3 favorites]

You can even go so far as to come very late, and have nothing as a result. then you are only paying for your percentage of the birthday person's dinner. Either claim a very "good reason" or simply apologize for being late, smile and offer no explanation. It depends on your friends.

The other thing you could do is "call in sick" for this. It's not ideal, isn't very much fun, but I've resorted to such in the past when no other alternative seemed feasible. This for when very, very broke..
posted by marimeko at 3:26 PM on December 31, 2010

if everyone will be drinking wine at the restaurant, it might be good to order something as well if you normally would drink. i find that a hearty red makes me feel full. so maybe get a nice glass of red along with whatever small dish you get.

also, can you check out the menu beforehand? some places do offer "small dishes" that are less expensive and a bit more food than appetizers.

i can't tell you how many time i've ordered an app at a nice place and expected something substantial only to have it be "arty" and not enough to satisfy a toddler.

if you get wine, getting the cheese plate with bread at the french place might be a good way to go, esp if anyone asks you can pull the "late lunch" thing. cheese + wine = filling and tasty! plus also together hopefully not more than an entree.
posted by sio42 at 3:27 PM on December 31, 2010

One thing to watch out for is that "we all pay for our own meals" doesn't wind up meaning "we'll divide the total check by the number of people and figure that works out fairly". The last thing you want to do is to go and have a cup of soup and a side salad with a glass of water and then get stuck paying part of the cost for people who were eating steak and drinking wine.

Another advantage of "I've got earlier plans but I'll meet you for dessert and coffee" — even the most cheerfully oblivious are unlikely to think it's reasonable to include you in the calculations for total dinner cost at that point.
posted by Lexica at 3:28 PM on December 31, 2010 [7 favorites]

Having only a breadstick and a glass of water may not work, because they may decide to split the bill equally. Also, it tends to make you stand out as Guy Who Is Having A Breadstick And A Glass Of Water.

I know it's not what you want to hear, but your best bet is to decline and invite them to a dinner on a different occasion at which you cover all of your and their costs, whether that means a cheaper restaurant or a home-cooked dinner at your place.

If they choose to hold their birthday dinner at an expensive restaurant, it shouldn't really surprise them if not everyone can manage it.

However, if you really are bound and determined to go, don't have any alcohol, have only one soft drink for the whole evening, and skip either appetizer or dessert (or both because oomph you are stuffed from that last party), then hope the collective doesn't merrily decide to split the bill sixteen ways instead of adding up each individual's bill.
posted by tel3path at 3:29 PM on December 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

I would definitely eat beforehand. Then, at the dinner, I would make an excuse about feeling ill and either order the smallest, cheapest side dish to pick at or nothing at all. If anyone asks, you're concerned the rich food might further upset your stomach, and be really firm and immediately move the conversation forward.
posted by prefpara at 3:32 PM on December 31, 2010

Oh to clarify - when you decline it's because of a prior engagement, or (if you've already accepted) a sudden obstacle.

I'm not sure it's particularly nice to say you'll come for dessert and coffee - the risk is that you'll come across as doing them a favour by pencilling them into your extremely popular social calendar, which is the exact opposite of what you mean.
posted by tel3path at 3:33 PM on December 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

Absolutely what Lexica said. The check division thing is often assumed by people. Personally, I doubt anybody will have a problem if you want a separate check, or to be certain of the payment arrangements. I've been on both sides of this equation, and it sucks.

I don't know the financial situation of your friends, but I have friends who make a lot more than I do, and friends who make a lot less. So, please, if someone offers to buy your dinner for you, let them.

When I've been flush I've made that offer and hated when someone turns it down. I'd perfer for everyone to enjoy the meal and feel awkward when a person is just having the breadsticks and water. The money seems like a huge deal, and it is, when you don't have it. When you have the money, the money isn't a big deal, but watching a friend go without is.
posted by bswinburn at 3:38 PM on December 31, 2010 [11 favorites]

Call ahead and ask about the menu, or see if they have one online.

When I am in this situation, I order soup.

My crowd always gets separate checks but if you go in circles that like to split the check swallow your pride and call the spouse ahead of time so they can just let you pay for what you ate.


Find something in your house that you aren't that fond of, pawn it, and go have a nice French meal.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 3:38 PM on December 31, 2010 [4 favorites]

I was in this situation once as an undergrad when I did not have the money for the fancy meal, and after ordering the cheapest thing on the menu, I was pretty dismayed when the others decided to split the bill equally. I think the least awkward and most straightforward thing would be to join for drinks only.
posted by grouse at 3:39 PM on December 31, 2010

I don't know whether it's different in your circle but in mine no one has worked out individual tabs at restaurants since we were impoverished students. To do so is seen as incredibly bad form. We just split the bill evenly no matter what individuals have had. This is the norm everywhere I go. You need to be sure they're not doing that.

I see no problem with privately explaining to the organisers that this is out of your price range. i would hope they would try to be more inclusive and reorganise for somewhere cheaper.
posted by Decani at 3:39 PM on December 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Meet them for coffee/desert after the meal. I expect most people will have 3 courses so eating 1 course will be awkward, I always feel bad when I'm having multiple courses and someone is sitting there watching me eat.
posted by Ad hominem at 3:42 PM on December 31, 2010

Can't you just honestly tell the person organizing the evening that you need to know what "paying for our own meals" means? And if it means everyone splitting the check evenly can't you tell them you're feeling too poor right now?

That way they can say, "No prob, we expect to ask for separate checks," or "Hey, we get it, we'll cover you," or if they are butt-brains, "Gee, too bad, see you next time."

In any case you won't have to worry anymore.
posted by idest at 3:56 PM on December 31, 2010 [3 favorites]

If your friends are in a high enough income bracket to go to this type of restaurant, I think it's highly likely they'll split the check equally. In my experience, Decani is right--figuring out individual tabs is more common when people are strapped for cash. You might have to bow out, come really late so you can gracefully decline to be part of the equal split, or have a convo with someone about money.
posted by Mavri at 3:59 PM on December 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I wasn't really concerned with splitting the bill evenly until now. It might be a cultural thing or just this group of people but we have always paid what we ordered. I might ask just in case but it had never happened before so no need to be too concerned about that.
posted by lacedcoffee at 4:06 PM on December 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I wasn't really concerned with splitting the bill evenly until now. It might be a cultural thing or just this group of people but we have always paid what we ordered. I might ask just in case but it had never happened before so no need to be too concerned about that.

In that case check the menu ahead, if you can, so you budget properly.

I often "graze" and order two starters instead of a main. Skip dessert and have coffee. Don't drink booze.

And if anyone remarks on what you're eating, don't feel ashamed of saying you're on a budget. A lot of us are these days.
posted by idest at 4:12 PM on December 31, 2010

"Shoot, I've got ---- plans that night but I would love to join you guys for drinks after I'm done. Just call me when you leave the restaurant and head out to a bar, ok?"
posted by special-k at 4:14 PM on December 31, 2010

In addition to all the aforementioned tips, I noticed you said you did not want to call attention to the fact that you weren't ordering much or not ordering expensive items. Well, I think the best thing is to enjoy yourself and be very conversant. I find that when I'm out eating, I get so into a conversation (or different conversations around the table) that I'm the only one with food left on my plate.

So, if you didn't order a huge amount to begin with, you might end up being the last one with food on your plate if you're extremely sociable. And no one would really fault you, because everyone's having a good time.
posted by Jack Uphill at 4:20 PM on December 31, 2010

I wasn't really concerned with splitting the bill evenly until now. It might be a cultural thing or just this group of people but we have always paid what we ordered. I might ask just in case but it had never happened before so no need to be too concerned about that.

I hope you're right for your sake, but if it were me, I'd discreetly ask the spouse to be sure. (Clarity is important here, plus I don't think it's inappropriate for it to be brought to their attention that by choosing an expensive place, they are causing discomfort and trouble to at least some of the guests.)

If you really want to go, and you're really sure they're not just going to split the bill evenly by number of paying guests, then do your math on what you owe (including tax and tip) discreetly well before the topic comes up. And make sure you have plenty of $1s with you. That way as soon as the bill comes -- before someone could possibly pipe up with the idea of splitting it evenly - you can be all "hey, I'm putting in what I owe, and there's a lot of ones here in case anyone needs change!"
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:22 PM on December 31, 2010 [11 favorites]

Just a note that you probably want to make extra sure about the bill splitting thing. In my experience, the fancier the restaurant, the more likely are people to expect to do the "let's just split the bill evenly" thing. I think some people feel that it's some sort of faux pas to ask for separate checks in a fancy establishment. Maybe this is just my circle but it kind of goes like that. Everyone goes to Denny's and we all get separate checks, go to a fancy french place, divide the bill evenly.
posted by katyggls at 4:36 PM on December 31, 2010

Could you use a New Years diet resolution as an excuse? "Seriously, just a salad for me. I really overdid things during Festivus - it took me an hour to find pants that fit tonight!"
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:36 PM on December 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

The best way to avoid the dreaded 'let's split the check' pitfall is to arrive late.

The _only_ way to be sure to avoid the "let' split the check"-pitfall is to leave early, before the dessert.
posted by iviken at 4:49 PM on December 31, 2010 [9 favorites]

Seconding equal split woes. I always end up paying twice as much as I should no matter what I order.

I have seen people request a separate check for themselves before they even order though.
posted by Ad hominem at 5:02 PM on December 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd tip off the SO before, so they don't think you're snobby, scattered and/or so on. Just say you're a bit short of the old shekels, and that you're thrilled to be invited, love to wish the B-day boy happy returns, and would she be offended if you show up for coffee, etc. Poverty isn't a moral failing, and I'd rather have someone tell me that he can't afford the event than think he didn't like my husband/SO.

After a certain age, the b'day celebrant picks up the check for the entire party.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:04 PM on December 31, 2010 [5 favorites]

Another vote to be concerned about equal split. This has happened to me a couple of times, including alcohol which adds up quickly. I once ended up throwing $60 into a tab where I had one glass of wine and one starter. I would definitely tell whomever is organizing the shindig what you're doing and why ahead of time, calm and matter-of-factly; I mean, in this economy, people should understand. I've been in your spot before and while not wonderful, your friends should be cool with this unless they're jerks (in which case you probably wouldn't want to go to this dinner).

If you really don't feel comfortable being upfront about it, I think iviken's idea of leaving before the bill arrives while paying down your costs + tip + donation to the birthday person's meal defrayment is a good one. Good luck!
posted by smirkette at 5:17 PM on December 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you want to zero in on an amount so you can budget, go online and find the menu or reviews which give prices. While you are looking, discover the famous or wonderful appetizer or soup that then becomes your "must have" for dinner. You do not have to explain why you are choosing to eat only this; you just smile and say, "This is what I want!" (It's bad manners to argue with people and force more food on them.) When it comes time to pay, pull out your twenty or thirty or whatever covers your food, drink and tip, give it to the person who is playing treasurer and turn your full attention to the celebrant. With much hugs and kisses, take your leave in a cloud of happiness.

I found after I had enough disposable income to eat whatever I wanted that many times I only wanted an appetizer and that restaurant's special bread (free) or another restaurant's famous vegetables, and ordered the two I liked best with no entre! Nobody cares. Trust me on this. Smile and tip -- people care about that.

Enjoy your friend's party.
posted by Anitanola at 5:18 PM on December 31, 2010

When the waitperson is about to take orders, but before the first person places the order, say helpfully to the waitperson, "These are on separate tickets." You're not bringing attention to the amount you have to spend. Instead, you are helping the waitperson get the tickets right from the beginning, instead of having to split them all out at the end of the evening.
posted by Houstonian at 5:19 PM on December 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

When the waitperson is about to take orders, but before the first person places the order, say helpfully to the waitperson, "These are on separate tickets." You're not bringing attention to the amount you have to spend. Instead, you are helping the waitperson get the tickets right from the beginning, instead of having to split them all out at the end of the evening.

If the waiter then replies "I'm sorry ma'am, we don't split checks here" then she is totally screwed.
posted by special-k at 5:22 PM on December 31, 2010

or rather, we only do one ticket per table.
posted by special-k at 5:22 PM on December 31, 2010

When the waitperson is about to take orders, but before the first person places the order, say helpfully to the waitperson, "These are on separate tickets." You're not bringing attention to the amount you have to spend. Instead, you are helping the waitperson get the tickets right from the beginning, instead of having to split them all out at the end of the evening.

This is not an individual guest's call, and certainly not at the moment the waitstaff appears; first, the host and other guests may have no intention of having separate tickets, and some restaurants won't separate tickets anyway (or will only do it up to a limited number). So this would actually be a potential landmine on a couple of levels for the OP to do this out of the blue at the table.

The best way to do it is to mention it matter-of-factly to the host ahead of time, using either the "I'm on a budget" or "previous commitment that also includes food" story, depending on your comfort level.
posted by scody at 5:27 PM on December 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I feel your pain. Soup and dessert is the way I go. I am a light eater, so it kind of works out and doesn't look to odd. Sometimes i just get bread and cheese, or a salad. Last time this happened the waitress was awesome and gave up about 20 separate checks.
posted by wandering_not_lost at 5:28 PM on December 31, 2010

Don't be a poseur, be upfront that you don't have the resources to enjoy such an evening but would still like to celebrate the occasion. I think people get into trouble trying to pretend something is other then what it is to make it more socially palatable. Its perfectly fine to not be able to afford an expensive night out. The way I was socialized is if you invite someone to dinner, then you pay. The guest shouldn't have to worry about if they can afford to accept the invitation or not.
One other point about group splitting checks is that you'll often get a person or two who take the opportunity to indulge themselves on everyone else's tab.
They can do things like order an expensive appetizer or bottle of wine and then let the rest foot the bill. Everyone paying for themselves keeps such behavior in check, and doesn't have anyone paying for more then they had.
posted by elle.jeezy at 5:53 PM on December 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Chris and Terry, I can't swing dinner @ ElExpensivo. I really want to help celebrate. May I join you for dessert?"
This gives them the heads-up that your finances are an issue.
"No, I couldn't possibly allow you to pay for me."
At this point, you have a very good hedge against the split check dilemma.
Call the restaurant or check the site to see what's on the menu, and what you can afford. If you can afford soup and/or salad, fine. Otherwise, join them for dessert.

I totally support you in being realistic about what your budget is. Your friends will, too.
posted by theora55 at 5:57 PM on December 31, 2010 [3 favorites]

Sides of vegetables slathered in oil are often very filling. Asparagus, yum. Then lots of bread.

If they have beer, a big thick stout will keep you relatively full.

Keep a granola bar in your purse.

Keep good track of what you're eating and only put that much in. If anyone wants to split evenly, speak up and say something, even if it's "oh, I only brought enough cash for what I ordered!"
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:17 PM on December 31, 2010 [5 favorites]

If you can't join them late for dessert only, you could do the opposite: come up with a plausible reason to need to leave early (another dinner engagement - you don't need to say it's at home with a packet of ramen), and say, "So sorry - I have another dinner tonight, but wanted to celebrate with you anyway, so I'm just here for the appetisers." It often takes up to an hour for the mains to arrive, so you can still spend quite a bit of time with the group, and get to eat good food, just a very small amount.
posted by lollusc at 6:25 PM on December 31, 2010

How many people are going? If it's less than 8, I'd expect the waitstaff to split the pill automatically- you may just need to let them know. It's when parties get larger than 8 this becomes hard. If need be, just tell the waiter to give you a separate check- it's not a big deal and is normal practice. This comes as a former waiter.

That said, there is zero reason the cash discussion even needs to come up if the check is split properly. Just get water and soup. Seriously, if I ordered that and somebody asked me about money, I'd like, "Are you bloody for real??? WTF does it matter?" It would be incredibly bad form to question somebody's order. Even when I eat out with people who drink, I sometimes order water and soup not to be a cheapskate, but just because it is what I'm in the mood for.
posted by jmd82 at 7:04 PM on December 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh and to people suggesting wines and stouts, I just don't see the rationale if the OP also plans on getting some form of food, it would get questions to get just a drink if you're there the whole time. The price of alcohol at restaurants + appetizer = full meal + water instead.
posted by jmd82 at 7:06 PM on December 31, 2010

I often get an app as my main, and it sounds like your friends are doing their best not to be jerks and to Just Let You Pay for Your Own Dinner. So, yes, eat first, have some bread and an app, maybe offer to split a dessert, ask for an ice water with lime in it so you look like you have a "real" drink. Even at an expensive French place you will blend in and not spend too much.

Have fun with your friends! That sounds like what they want!
posted by ldthomps at 7:48 PM on December 31, 2010

while most people have suggested arriving later and skipping dinner, you might try leaving early (drawing from the same list of excuses). this gives you a chance to show up, have a drink, and skip the split-evenly-at-the-end-of-the-night scene entirely. leave money for your drink/appetizer/whatever with somebody, or pull the waiter aside quietly and ask for your bill.
posted by crash blossoms at 8:10 PM on December 31, 2010

It seems like you're really overthinking this. Unless you're known as a wino glutton, then just say "no wine for me" and order a salad or an appetizer as your main course. This is my normal eating habit (I don't drink and I'm really small so I don't eat much), and I can't say anyone has ever really noticed or thought it was odd. At most, I might occasionally get a single question about it every 20 times... so you shrug and say "I'm driving" or "I didn't feel like drinking tonight" or "I wasn't very hungry" or "it looked really yummy" and then everyone moves on and nobody cares. When the check comes, pay for what you got (please take into account appropriate tax and generous tip), and call it a night. The end.
posted by brainmouse at 11:39 PM on December 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I often go to quite expensive resturants for my birthday dinner, and every year, some people have three courses, some people have a drink or fries or an app, or one course. sometimes i pay or other people pay for those who cannot afford it, as a kind of modifed socialism. if they are true friends, shit gets figured out right qwick.
posted by PinkMoose at 12:15 AM on January 1, 2011

Guys, the OP already made it clear that proposals to split the bill evenly will likely not be an issue. She is asking for tips on how to spend as frugally as possible without drawing attention to herself - not how to make sure she only pays for what she owes.

Salad and bread (and/or soup) is an easy combo, which would pass well if you're a female amongst males. I agree that you can arrive late but if that's not possible, just ordering the cheapest entree and acting confidently as if that's what you wanted will raise the least flags to anyone. I think ordering anything out of the ordinary would actually draw more curiosity.
posted by pinksoftsoap at 12:59 AM on January 1, 2011

It doesn't sound like this is a scenario you're worried about, but just this week, I was at a friend's birthday dinner in a nice wine bar/bistro. Because of the group being >8, we had to order from the set menu - i.e. I'd come planning to just have a main course, and I ended up having to pay for a starter, dessert and coffee as well. We split the bill evenly and the worst part of the evening was someone quibbling like a child over paying as much as who had half a glass of wine more than them - all of us were stuck with the higher cost of the set menu, but we decided it was about the birthday and that we had to deal, so this person upset everyone.

Anyway, if you can be clear for whatever reason with the SO or the organiser, this will probably draw the least attention because you've someone else to deflect. But for god's sake, the soup and dessert combination above sounds like the biggest way to draw attention, spending the longest section of the meal foodless, so I'd avoid that one.
posted by carbide at 4:54 AM on January 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Everyone is having financial difficulty these days except for the very lucky. Always be honest, don't make excuses, things are what they are. I am in and out of financial straights on short term disability sometimes making only $74US a week. All my friends who care know this and still invite me. They drink like fiends, running up $50 bills in no time, and I make it very clear early on that I'm on a budget. I drink water with lemon (or sparkling water if they don't charge for it), and have an appetizer, telling the wait staff it is my main course. Frequently the appetizer is more than enough (even taking a to go box) to eat along with the rest. In many cases your friends will buy you a drink on them and there will be plenty of bread to go around. We always have a great time, with no guilt and that's what is important. For certain, take every opportunity to go out, it's good for the soul, especially when you are under financial pressure. The very fact they included you in this gathering shows that you've earned their trust.
posted by ~Sushma~ at 8:47 AM on January 1, 2011

We always used to do "split the bill and everyone except birthday boy pays an equal share". This often devolved into "and the waitress gets a shitty tip", so I and one other guy always ended up throwing in extra to fix that. In that case, ordering just a soup means you're subsidizing everyone else's steak or splitting the bill becomes this special pleading, "oh, wait, I only got soup, so..." mess.

"Everyone pays his own" works even worse, as most people end up not accounting for tax and tip, leave quickly, and again, I or my friend had to add up what each person paid and then dig in to cover the actual total with tax and tip.

Not to mention thge "oh I had no idea the fancy drinks had fancy prices, now where am I supposed to come up with $200"

When I invited everyone to a fancy French place for my birthday, I just paid the full bill and tip myself. My gift was seeing my cost-conscious friend blanch more and more as I insisted we order expensive drinks and dessert, he not realizing that he wouldn't be paying for it. And not having to watch my friends pay the poor waiter with three different credit cards and a handful of crumpled cash.

That is to say, the only way to win is not to play. Go to the drinks at the house before hand, wish the birthday boy your best, and skip the dinner. You don't have to worry all throughout the dinner about what the bill will be, or whether you're subsidizing the guy who ordered the lobster Thermidor, and no one else has to wonder why you're not drinking and trying to make an appetizer last all dinner long.
posted by orthogonality at 9:33 AM on January 1, 2011 [7 favorites]

There are dozens of those "by a restaurant gift certificate for 1/2 the price" deal websites- I would google around to see if the place you are going to has one. You could toss the excess towards your friend's tab and buy yourself an entree.

Ask about the specials. You can also inquire if they do half portions for a lower price.

Lastly- order what you want & can afford- I'm confused as to why you think the entire function will stop and everyone will stare at you until you come clean on why you aren't eating the same thing they are.
posted by haplesschild at 11:29 AM on January 1, 2011

Will there be anyone there in the same situation? An equally cash-poor person and I once handled this scenario by agreeing beforehand that we would split a dish together (so it was $15 each instead of $30). We had a "late lunch" beforehand.
posted by availablelight at 12:50 PM on January 1, 2011

Say you started a diet/resolution to eat healthier in the new year. Then just eating soup and salad and avoiding the cream laden stuff is a dietary necessity. I'd also look online at their menu in advance to make sure there is a cheap soup and salad option. And you never know there may be a cheap entree. I find with expensive restaurants it's often the appetizer + wine + salad + entree that really adds up and not just the entree itself.

I find myself doing this all the time with the added bonus it's cheap.
posted by whoaali at 1:29 PM on January 1, 2011

you could always leave a few minutes early, before the check arrives for the whole table - when people start ordering dessert/coffee, make an excuse about having to dash off and on your way out, "settle" your bill by handing the host enough cash to cover what you ordered (+tip).
posted by wayward vagabond at 2:55 PM on January 1, 2011

You have a perfect excuse with it being the New Year. Get salad and soup and skip the alcohol and extra coffee, etc. Just be comfortable and matter-of-fact about what you want to order, and concentrate your energies on being fully socially engaged. If you're acting sheepish or embarrassed, you'll draw attention to the very thing that you'd like to minimize.

The point is to celebrate with your friend; skimping on how much you eat for dinner does not mean that you're not participating correctly.
posted by desuetude at 3:37 PM on January 1, 2011

Thanks everyone. I think I'll just go the soup and bread route as I'm don't think I'll be comfortable making up a story about arriving or leaving early in this situation but I'll keep it in mind for the future. I feel this askme got severely sidetracked by the concern of splitting the bill evenly which I had little concern about and even clarified with the organizer. But it's good to keep in mind in the future with other groups of people. I did end up seeking with the organizer about financial concerns and I feel much better about it overall. And of course the most important thing is to enjoy the company and celebrate!
posted by lacedcoffee at 4:15 PM on January 1, 2011

How did it go?
posted by hazyjane at 8:12 AM on January 3, 2011

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