How to split a restaurant bill.
September 14, 2013 10:47 AM   Subscribe

When should a restaurant bill be split evenly between all parties?

Went out for lunch last week with my brother and our cousin. I ordered a sandwich and a coffee. The other two had entrees that cost almost double what I had and two or three alcoholic drinks as well. When the bill came, the server asked how we wanted it split. I said separate checks and cousin jumped in and said "No, just split it three ways!" I was kind of surprised since my order cost less than half what theirs cost but I just went along with it. I thought it was a bit odd because the only other times I have ever been out with people and split the bill evenly was in a fine dining situation, where the wine was flowing and everybody was sharing and indulging. This was super casual.

My friends never suggest this at home. Either everyone's bill is for what they had or someone picks up the entire tab. However, we were in Montreal. My cousin said "That's how it's done here." I'm curious if there are regional differences. And what would you consider normal for a casual dining experience like the one described above? Thanks all.
posted by futureisunwritten to Grab Bag (46 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think it really depends on the group of people. My friends and I are young and relatively poor, so we usually split according to what we each ate, but it is a big pain and I always feel like it's kind of awkward.

I have been at events where everyone splits evenly - usually big groups where it's just too much of a headache to figure it out, or no one really cares. It bothers me but unfortunately I don't really have a solution - you're sort of stuck if you're in a huge group and you're the only one who doesn't want to split. But if it was just you and two other people you probably could have protested, especially since you're all related.

In my experience, the bigger the group, the more likely to split evenly because it becomes a bigger pain to figure it out. In a small group like the one you describe, I would expect to pay for what I ordered.
posted by queens86 at 10:53 AM on September 14, 2013

Not a good move by the cousin. S/he either knew the split was advantageous to him/her (not a good thing, though maybe s/he is experiencing money problems), or s/he has never had to worry about money to the point where such a concern isn't even on their radar and s/he had an even-split monkey on his/her back for some reason (not... bad, exactly), or s/he was overzealous about protecting the server and thought a simple, even split would be less work than actually splitting up the entrees (which isn't true for a three person group).
posted by jsturgill at 10:53 AM on September 14, 2013 [12 favorites]

At this point in my life, when I'm out with friends, we usually just split evenly. The difference just isn't going to have a huge financial impact on any of us, and we figure it evens out over time. Sometimes my meal will be more expensive, and sometimes theirs will. Whatever (of course if you have a friend who always orders a whole lobster and a bottle of Dom for himself while everyone else gets the chicken sandwich, you might have to re-evaluate). I even have a couple of groups of friends where the entire check is picked up by one person, and we just (very informally -- honor system) rotate it around. I have friends around the US and haven't noticed any regional variation.

But earlier in my life, when money was tighter, I would much more commonly do separate checks. And today, if I'm out with someone who I don't know well, or for whom I know the difference will be material, I'd be more inclined to do separate checks.

I do think it's pretty poor form for the person who knows that they have spent more to insist on splitting evenly, especially if it's not a group of people who have already established that as the norm...
posted by primethyme at 10:58 AM on September 14, 2013 [6 favorites]

Well, of course the person whose bill would be more wants to pay less. The fact that you're eating with another person means you pay for their food too. /sarcasm

I pay for what I've eaten when I go out to eat. I wouldn't expect someone else to pay for my food, and I wouldn't expect to pay for someone else's. For what it's worth, I'm generally a greedy pig when I go out for a meal, so my food/drinks cost more. It still annoys me when someone suggests splitting the bill equally. It's not fair if someone has to pay for food they didn't get to eat.

In the situation you describe, I'd give enough money to cover my food. If the other person complains, tough. I keep track of what I'm paying on my phone as I'm ordering, to make sure I give enough money.

I don't see how your geographical location makes any difference. You could be sat on the moon and you still would be out of pocket.
posted by Solomon at 10:59 AM on September 14, 2013

Short answer: only when everyone agrees.

Long answer: if there's a clear imbalance, as in coke versus alcohol or sandwich versus entrees and other stuff, obviously not ever. Your cousin got a good deal out of the way it's been done in Montreal, didn't he?
posted by Namlit at 11:00 AM on September 14, 2013 [8 favorites]

My rule is that if just one person wants separate tabs, that is how we go. Anything else is rude.
posted by mumimor at 11:02 AM on September 14, 2013 [37 favorites]

In this casual lunch situation, separate checks is completely normal. I wouldn't expect my dining companions to subsidize my expensive entree and drinks, especially if they ordered a sandwich and coffee.
posted by Fairchild at 11:02 AM on September 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

I do even split all the time, but it's usually in situations where everybody's orders were reasonably similar and the conversation we're having is way too interesting to risk derailing with a dull conversation about who ordered extra sides and split a sundae.

I haven't noticed a regional variation so much as a strong age and wealth variation. (The younger and poorer you are, the more likely you are to have ordered exactly as much food as you can afford. Older or wealthier? It's not worth finicking over a few bucks here and there.)

If you want to stop this shit in its tracks next time you've underordered in a group, then do the math as you choose your food, then have cash ready to bang down on the table before anybody else has even looked at the bill saying "Okay, that's X for mine, plus Y for tip." The rest can then split the remainder equally if they want, but nobody's going to make you recalculate once you've got cash on the table.
posted by the latin mouse at 11:03 AM on September 14, 2013 [5 favorites]

My cousin said "That's how it's done here."

Yeah, by people who ordered way more expensive food and more drinks (which is where the money really adds up).

At best, I'd reply with "How about if we split up the meal and everyone pays for his or her own drinks?" But probably, reply with, "It's not how I do it here," and throw down enough for what I actually consumed plus a good tip (because you know that anyone who tries that crap on family is likely to end up stiffing the server).
posted by Etrigan at 11:03 AM on September 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

Your cousin was out of line, especially since you said first that you wanted separate checks. In my experience, we reach a consensus for what we want to do, as opposed to one person taking it upon him/herself to blurt out their preference to the server as if it's only their decision. Though we usually just get one bill, and everyone pays their share according to what they ordered.

My friends and I only split the bill evenly when it would come out pretty close anyway.

As for your cousin's "That's how it's done here" comment - if that were really how everyone does it there, the server wouldn't have asked.
posted by wondermouse at 11:06 AM on September 14, 2013 [11 favorites]

I don't buy that there is a place where this "is done" and even if there was such a place, what about accommodating guests who do things differently?

To be honest I find the idea of literal separate checks a little awkward and embarrassing- though I see the motivation for doing it with people like this who are clearly untrustworthy. What I would usually do is either just tell the waiter to put different amounts on the cards, or split it and then exchange cash among ourselves to compensate. I would never try to stick someone with an equal share if I ordered something more expensive.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:07 AM on September 14, 2013

I've never been in a situation where a bill is asked to be split evenly. That seems strange to me. I've always experienced either separate checks (or split between couples) or someone offers to pay for everything. FTR, I am an American 33 year old and have lived and dined in Massachusetts, Florida and Tennessee.
posted by KogeLiz at 11:09 AM on September 14, 2013

For more casual outings, groups that I'm in usually do the "put in what you think you owe" thing (often with the bill being passed around so people can figure it out). Once the math is figured out, then people either pass around cash or figure out how much on each credit card so as to make it easiest for the wait staff.

Like you, in fancier situations where there are bottles of wine and such, we tend to split the bill evenly.

I've found, though, that friends with whom I usually do the "nice meal out" thing are more likely to suggest splitting even casual bills evenly, though I tend to find that those friends and I order very similarly, so it works out fine. I have also found that my female friends are more likely to suggest a "pay what you owe" approach and my male friends are more likely to suggest an even split.
posted by jaguar at 11:18 AM on September 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Hindsight is 20/20, but it looks like you can safely add eating with your cousin in Montreal to situations where splitting the bill will come up. It's too late to point out that you wish he'd told you how things were done in Montreal before you ordered.

In the future, you can try to direct your comments to the server and ask for a separate check and not engage your cousin except maybe to tell him he's free to split his bill with your brother however he wants and/or you're on a budget and are only prepared to pay for your small lunch. Things would have to be very different indeed in Montreal from how they are in the US for him not to get that.
posted by alphanerd at 11:18 AM on September 14, 2013

Cousin sounds like a cheapskate. Even if that is how things are normally done there, it's poor form for someone who knows they had more expensive food to suggest sharing the bill equally. At the very least your cousin should have offered to pay more.

I consider it normal for the person whose tab was more expensive to propose to pay their share; if the person who had less says, "No, let's just split it evenly," that's fine. Usually with friends we split things evenly but if someone had a couple cocktails, he or she will offer to put in more, or to pick up the tip. If I know money is tight with someone, I'll offer to split the bill evenly if they have spent more than me, and to pay my own share if they've spent less than me.

What I find awkward is splitting the bill with someone who is a cheap tipper, no matter how it's split.
posted by brianogilvie at 11:19 AM on September 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've lived in Montreal all my life. There is no such standing rule here.
posted by zadcat at 11:22 AM on September 14, 2013 [22 favorites]

I swear to god, the only way to ever deal with this shit painlessly is to pick up the check every time. The last time I was in a large group where we were all going through and figuring out just what we owed (in such cases I always go last knowing that the total is always going to come up short and instead of arguing over that it's just easier for me to make up the difference) two people got into a very loud argument about personal debts between them. As in person A owed person B money from event C but B claimed that A owed B money from event D and so on. It was freakin' embarrassing. So I grabbed the check and paid for everything.

The two people arguing never did pay me back. I didn't expect them to. Every other member of the group came to me within the next week, thanked me for ending the whole thing as gracefully as possible, and paid me their share (I really wasn't looking to be paid back. Picking up a tab is like lending money to friends/family -- it's charity that you should never expect to get back).

The point is that there is always going to be those people who just suck. Either you don't go out with them or you pay their way. Nipping embarrassing situations in the bud is key (even if costly). Don't get angry or resentful, just accept it and avoid the person in the future if it bothers you that much.

Now I'm dirt poor living on couches so I don't ever go out to eat unless someone states up front they're paying for me. Life is funny like that.
posted by bfootdav at 11:26 AM on September 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

However, we were in Montreal. My cousin said "That's how it's done here."

I'm pretty sure that's not how it's done in Montreal. In any case, it seems weird that he would ask for the bill to be split evenly when you already asked for separate checks. Separate checks would have been the simplest way to handle it since it's the restaurant's computer that does the work.

In the future, I'd tell the server before ordering that it will be separate checks.
posted by Bokmakierie at 11:29 AM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Usually, before a meal, friends talk about what they're going to get so you know "ok, this is a sandwich meal" or "got it, entrees and drinks." That way, when you split, everyone is at about the same level.
posted by zippy at 11:29 AM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've had friends that are horrible about putting in enough to cover their shares. After a few too many times getting screwed, I just get a separate check when going out with them. It's not really a big deal. Just ask the waiter / waitress when you first arrive. And be consistent about doing I every time you go out with that person.
posted by reddot at 11:31 AM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Incidentally, in Montreal an entrée is a starter, not a main dish. Talking about entrées when you mean a main dish could have caused confusion.
posted by zadcat at 11:32 AM on September 14, 2013

IME everyone pays for what they ate/drank and that is that. I have only ever been in a "separate checks" situation maybe one or two times in my life, and it seems fussy and unnecessary. Bill comes, everyone puts in cash, and life goes on as usual.

The very few times someone in my party has pushed for everyone paying an equal share regardless of the actual cost of everyone's food and drink, it would have worked out to the pusher's advantage, so I tend to look at these situations with suspicion and distaste. There is a wide spectrum of economic stability in my group of friends and I think it would be grossly unfair to expect less comfortable people to subsidize the fancy eating/drinking habits of the more comfortable ones.
posted by elizardbits at 11:34 AM on September 14, 2013

If that were "just how it's done" in Montreal, then a waiter in Montreal wouldn't have asked how you wanted the check split. Your cousin is either totally clueless (in terms of not really understanding that different people have different amounts of money, or that it's rude to demand that other people pay for your stuff), or he's actively a jerk (in that he was trying to mooch off of you even though he knew full well that his meal cost more than yours, and then he tried to make you feel as though you were doing something wrong by not wanting him to pick your pocket).

This is not "just how it's done" anyplace I've ever lived or spent time, and I've lived or visited most major metropolitan areas in North America. I've seen some customs around checks that struck me as unusual (for example, I spent some time in Pittsburgh, and we were always asked "separate checks?" by the waiter before we ordered. That's different from what I usually see, but I thought it was really smart, since the server can separate out from the beginning). But I've never been to a place where it's considered anything but rude for someone to order a bunch of expensive shit and then insist that their guests pay for it.
posted by decathecting at 11:35 AM on September 14, 2013

If everyone's bills are within ~25% of each other (and you're not poor/super-thrifty) split it evenly, it's simpler for you, your eating companions, the waitstaff.

If there's a marked imbalance like drinks/non-drinkers, expensive items, somebody getting the tasting menu, etc. -- absolutely separate checks.

This is both my personal opinion, and what I've seen others do (amongst late-twenties New Yorkers).
posted by wrok at 11:42 AM on September 14, 2013

FYI, in Montreal it's very common to get separate bills for everyone (you don't need to ask in advance) in small groups. Large groups things are usually split evenly.

Your cousin is just cheap.
posted by jeather at 11:48 AM on September 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

I was born in Montréal and I've lived in Montréal all my life. I've never ever seen this, even with big groups, even in very fancy restaurants or cheap diners. I eat out a lot.

I'm always surprised when I go on vacation in the United States to find that waiters generally do not want to split bills so that every one pays for what they ordered. This seems very inconvenient to me !
posted by agregoire at 11:49 AM on September 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you want separate checks, then it's good to ask for that before you order. It's a courtesy to the server. The other option is to have the server bring the check and pay in cash or hand the server a list of what to ring on each credit card: Smith Visa: $10, Jones Amex: $35.

Short answer: your cousin is rude or cheap. Either way, I wouldn't go to lunch with them again.
posted by 26.2 at 11:51 AM on September 14, 2013

I'm a split evenly sort of person usually (or even I'll get dinner, you get the bar tab after) because sitting about doing math after dinner, and it always being short when people throw in, and we all just have twenties — ugh not fun. BUT the classy thing to do when you see one person got less is to subtract their share, then split or honestly, if they're so poor a couple bucks makes a difference, just buy them lunch.

So he was clueless, but in general I don't find splitting motivation to be about being cheap.
posted by dame at 11:57 AM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I go out to dining meetups a lot. In general we share a lot of dishes so we split the cost on those, but for drinks we all keep separate tallies.

If you have a smartphone there are actually apps to help you figure out the math. Just search for "bill splitter". These apps will let you split the cost of shared dishes, and you can add individual items for each diner. For large groups it's still a pain, but for three it's a cinch. Everyone paying in cash is ideal, but you can still split the bill across multiple credit cards. Just write down the name and how much to charge on the receipt.
posted by rq at 12:08 PM on September 14, 2013

he was trying to mooch off of you even though he knew full well that his meal cost more than yours, and then he tried to make you feel as though you were doing something wrong by not wanting him to pick your pocket

This is how the situation reads to me.

FWIW, I'm from Ontario and that never happen for meals here, in my experience. Pitchers or appetizers might be split a few ways, but not entire bills - that just seems weird. Here the waiters bring bills separated by default, and everyone pays for their own food unless someone offers to cover the whole bill. When I've visited Montreal, same thing.

I did notice when I visited NYC that a lot of waiters seemed reluctant (or outright refused) when asked for separate checks, so maybe in some places, machines aren't set up to do that easily. But even there, we didn't split the meals equally - one person paid and we settled up (roughly) with each other later.
posted by randomnity at 12:16 PM on September 14, 2013

The only way your cousin wouldn't be in the wrong would be if they said "let's split it" and then paid considerably more than their share, which I've done before.

(The only cultural variation I've noted is that the families I'm part of never split or have separate bills--one person/family is always generous, and it's always someone different, and we mostly subsidize the poorer folks and get repaid years later when their ship is in.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:30 PM on September 14, 2013

When the bill came, the server asked how we wanted it split.
Clearly, paying separately was an option. Your cousin's line about regional differences was manipulative.
posted by kbar1 at 12:50 PM on September 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

I only agree to split the bill evenly if everyone's orders came to within $2-$3 of each other. Seriously. It pretty much only happens at lunch. (And I only suggest it if my order was the least expensive - the person with the most expensive order does not get to suggest splitting the bill evenly. Tacky.) Your cousin sounds like the most annoying kind of person. Things can be different when you're out with people who have tons of money to throw around, but that doesn't sound like your situation.

If waiters are reluctant to split the check - it happens, I get it - we usually appoint someone to be in charge of the check. They look at what everyone ordered and add 30% for tip and tax, then collect the money. Otherwise you always end up with some cheapo who only tips 10%, or "forgets" he had a third beer. You know who you are.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 1:19 PM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have lived in a number of parts of Canada, including (currently) Montreal. In all of these places, separate bills have been completely normal. Splitting it evenly sometimes happens, but it tends to be if a restaurant doesn't do separate bills... and that's clearly not the case, since the server asked.
posted by snorkmaiden at 1:25 PM on September 14, 2013

I'm in the US, and my experience is that even splits are only for when food is shared - for instance in Chinese restaurants with a lazy susan, Ethiopian restaurants, etc. The only other case where a group might do an even split is in a party of 10+, because at that point "okay, everyone just throw in $20" is overwhelmingly logistically easier than keeping each person accountable for their exact share, figuring out their share of tax and tip, etc.
posted by capricorn at 1:58 PM on September 14, 2013

My guess is that regardless of location, this will depend a lot on your circle of friends. I have encountered both an expectation of even splitting and an expectation of everyone paying for what they ate. (I'm in Australia and most places won't do separate checks, but tax is always included in the advertised price, and tipping is usually a nominal amount). I'm a vegetarian and my meal is usually on the cheaper side, so it often annoys me when someone suggests an even split, though I'll often go along with it. ). On occasions when I have had the more expensive meal, I usually feel awkward about splitting evenly. So I agree with the developing consensus that your cousin was a jerk.
posted by Cheese Monster at 3:11 PM on September 14, 2013

In my various social circles, we generally split the check evenly regardless of whether we've shared dishes or not. However, that has only come now that we're all older and in stable, reasonably paying jobs, and if there's someone at the table who hasn't been drinking or eating as much, we let them take the lead in requesting separate checks or an even split since they'll be most impacted. Even then, the drinkers almost always throw in extra.

Nthing the opinion that your cousin was either being rude or cheap.
posted by scrute at 3:45 PM on September 14, 2013

If you want to go out to dinner with friends and they believe in splitting it 3 ways, and you just want to pay for yourself, then don't go out with friends to places that have bills.

I typically have a beer and my friends have mixed drinks (which is more expensive), but I'm not going to argue over it. If you can't afford to split the bill evenly, either go to a place that does separate checks (like Chipotle, where there's alcohol) or don't go out. Or get different friends.
posted by discopolo at 3:51 PM on September 14, 2013

I have lived in countries where people usually split the bill evenly. Even in those countries people usually make an exception for someone who is obviously not eating equally expensive food (i.e. non drinking vegetarians). Also, even in those countries it would be rude to override someone who had a cheaper dinner and wanted to pay individually. Not feeling like your cousin handled this gracefully.
posted by feets at 3:52 PM on September 14, 2013

Most social circles I'm in, it's pay 'approximately' for your own. Very few places here offer separate checks, so usually there's a struggle for change - it's common for us to just round to the closest $5, and it evens out over time. We've never come up short - and we usually end up with meal + tip. This is a group that is about 50:50 drinkers/non-drinkers. We'll also often cover whoever has no cash/a $50 note/etc - which is always paid back (we're disorganised and rarely stop by cash machines, as opposed to other reasons someone might have trouble.)

If it's an event - birthdays and the like - we split the cost of the birthday person's meal. That's pretty much the only time it's an even split.

With very close friends, where we both eat something approximately similar (e.g. one main, one non-alcoholic drink, share a dessert) it's common to alternate paying.
posted by Ashlyth at 5:19 PM on September 14, 2013

On our monthly dine-outs with the brothers & sisters & spouses, we split the bill evenly... after the drinkers have subtracted their booze cost. We always have at least 3 drivers who aren't drinking.

Before we started subtracting the booze, us non-drinkers were ordering fancy desserts to catch up to the cost difference. The food-only calculation is much kinder to the width of my ass.
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 5:52 PM on September 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

I hate your cousin.

(But if he's young, he's maybe feeling a bit cheap at the moment.)
posted by ovvl at 7:55 PM on September 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

I split checks evenly now that I have a good job and enough cash that it doesn't matter. It mattered hugely when I had 250.00 bucks to get me to the end of the month after I'd paid rent, heat and hydro. Splitting it down the middle only works when the amount is trivial to all concerned.

So your cousin was a jerk. Meet them for coffee, but not food, unless it's at the sort of cafeteria style place where you pay before you sit down.
posted by jrochest at 8:05 PM on September 14, 2013

Your cousin sucks. If I knew I had ordered something more expensive I'd be going out of my way to make sure I paid my share/chipped in more.

In my world, a group of 5 or more is generally split, with guesstimated extra contributions from the people who drank more or to cover the vegetarians who couldn't eat as much on offer. It's symbolic, but it's polite. Usually the non-drinkers or vegos jump in and insist it's fine to split but you do it anyway.

In a group of three where the ordering was simple and dishes not shared, it's pretty rude to jump in with a three way split when someone has just asked for separate cheques.
posted by mooza at 8:05 PM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sorry you had trouble with your cousin.

Folks I go out to dinner with all have disposable incomes they earn themselves or they have life-partners who share their disposable incomes.

We generally take turns picking up the check when we see each other or we all agree to split as many ways as there are people paying, and we almost always tip 20% or more.

If we're splitting the check and I'm reasonably sure someone in the party would have an easier time if I picked up their portion, I offer, and I offer in as easy a way as I can think of doing so.

I remember when money wasn't so easy and I hated it when people kite, or kite on tips. I usually paid a little more to offset that kind of hijinks even when I didn't have as much money.

Money has never been as important to me as having a good, easy time (if at all possible).
posted by kalessin at 9:10 PM on September 14, 2013

I'm a server -- actually just got home from my shift! I'm in the US, and I've worked on both coasts, in multiple states, etc (though never anywhere near Montreal). How people divide/pay the check doesn't seem to be regional, but it does change depending on what kind of restaurant it is.

The following has been my experience:

Bar/Cocktail/Club --> separate tabs. If it's not done automatically, most people (if non-couples) will request it. Occasionally, one person in a group will pay for a round of drinks, then another person pays for the next round, then another person pays for the next, etc.

Casual Dining --> big groups usually want separate checks, people coming in for a quick bite (ie, they just stepped in for lunch) usually want separate checks, but otherwise people tend to either write "Put X amount of Card A, Put Y amount on Card B, put the rest on Card C, etc" on the receipt (very common), or put the whole bill on one card/leave cash (most common by a hair).

Fine Dining --> rare (but at least 1x/shift) to get requests for separate checks, slightly more common for people to specify amounts per card, a lot of checks are put all on a single card, and probably the most common request is for an even split. If a table doing an even split has some people who ate/drank much more expensively than the others, the expensive members will often put the entirety of the tip on their card(s) to make up for it.
posted by rue72 at 10:27 PM on September 14, 2013

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