I've Got This (don't I?)
November 17, 2017 11:50 PM   Subscribe

A question about how to gracefully keep from having to pick up the tab every single time we eat out with friends and family. Details inside.

My husband and I make good incomes. I would call us well off. I think we probably make more money than most of our friends and family. Because of this, I try to be sensitive about picking up the tab every time I suggest an event, and making it clear ahead of time that it is my treat so that no one feels they can't go because of money. I also try to suggest plenty of things that are free or very inexpensive (a dollar or two) like free days at museums, hikes, dog walks, volunteering days etc. I don't mind picking up the tab most of the time.

But I find that my husband and I are now in the situation where the people we see the most are frankly waiting for us to get the tab every single time we go out. At first I thought I was imagining it, but I saw a movie where the main character is basically fleeced and used by some false friends and my gut just sank, because it totally resonated with me. Not that my friends are false, but the way the movie character was maneuvered into always paying. I recognized myself and my poor, sweet husband.

I want to be clear, I don't expect my friends and family to treat me or my husband to things. I'm not looking to be "paid back." I enjoy treating my friends, I just want them to be prepared to pay their own way when its an activity they have suggested. We make more than our friends I suspect, but they don't seem to be having hard times either. They go out to meals and pay for themselves all the time according to their Yelp accounts. I don't know how or why its become expected that we always pay.

I thought by clearly stating that something was "my treat this time" it would be obvious that I didn't expect to treat every time. But I'll wind up at the end of a meal a friend or family member suggested and when the check comes they suddenly have to go to the bathroom, or get very busy with their phone, obviously waiting for me to pick up the check. I've been putting my foot down lately but its so awkward and unpleasant to have to say "We are going to split this today," and have everyone look all startled and uncomfortable. My best idea is to ask the waitress for separate checks at the beginning of the meal, but sometimes its hard to get those words in when everyone is ordering.

Does anyone have any other suggestions? How to gracefully let everyone know that we don't want to be on the hook all the time.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (30 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Don't tell, assume: ask "how would you like to care of this?", where the choice is between each person paying their way, or splitting evenly. Wait out any people who go to the bathroom. Don't reach for the check first. And get some better friends!
posted by peacheater at 12:06 AM on November 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

Remember that they are the ones being rude, not you.

The most graceful way I would suggest breaking this cycle is to simply dial way back on meeting up with them for several months. When you do get together, simply ask for a separate check and if people look uncomfortable, let them. If someone asks why you’re not paying (which would be some real nerve, but they might), be like, “I never agreed to that. I enjoy getting together with you guys, but I can’t keep paying the entire tab for all of us. I don’t expect you to pay for me, but I certainly expect you to pay for yourselves. Coming here was your idea in the first place.”

It’s uncomfortable and confrontational, but they’re being shitty and they should be called on it. If they’re actually your friends and care about you, they will recognize their bad behavior and become better. If they push back and make a stink about it, then you learned something valuable about their character.
posted by Autumnheart at 12:07 AM on November 18, 2017 [13 favorites]

They easy but awkward way to get out of this and to keep friendships is to talk to them at a non monetary event (like a phone call) and clear up boundaries. Then you aren't waiting them out with stares.

Another not all that subtle way would be like "I notice we are are paying every time, are you guys financially okay? If they say no express concerns and suggest doing things that don't require cost and if they say yes, use I statements that you cannot pay for them all the time, and suggest non monetary events if it is a problem for them.
posted by AlexiaSky at 12:16 AM on November 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

"Hey, do you want to split this or have everyone pay for what they ate?" when the bill arrives. Giving them two clear options, one of which allows for people who didn't drink alcohol/eat as much to not end up subsidising other people, both of which make it obvious that you're not picking up the whole thing without you having to hide in the bathroom.
posted by terretu at 12:31 AM on November 18, 2017 [41 favorites]

"Hey, do you want to split this or have everyone pay for what they ate?" when the bill arrives.

I think this is an excellent question, but that it would be a good idea to ask it before everyone orders. It can fit into a conversation about whether everyone is ordering their own main, or whether you're ordering dishes for the table and everyone will share.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 1:19 AM on November 18, 2017 [17 favorites]

I like turret's suggestion, because it politely forces them to acquiesce or speak up about their unspoken assumption that you'll pay, out loud.
posted by champagneminimalist at 1:21 AM on November 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

When the check comes, just ask if they want to split it evenly or by what you ordered. This is a very normal thing to do at a restaurant! If they are acting weird about it, that's on them.

The first time people might just be caught off-guard, and I wonder if you're reading more awkwardness into it than is actually there, because you're feeling uncomfortable. But if there are people who are acting genuinely put-out, I'd suggest just never treating them. I love treating people (it's fun) but not if there's a ton of baggage associated with it, and if financially secure people are giving you an attitude about paying their own way, well that's just obnoxious.

Hey, do you want to split this or have everyone pay for what they ate?" when the bill arrives.

I think this is an excellent question, but that it would be a good idea to ask it before everyone orders. It can fit into a conversation about whether everyone is ordering their own main, or whether you're ordering dishes for the table and everyone will share.

Eh. I mean, if it comes up naturally, sure. But it's not necessary or expected. I mean, these are grownups. It's reasonable for them to expect to pay their own way when out with other grownups.
posted by lunasol at 1:32 AM on November 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

So from what I understand, when you suggest an outing you handle it as an invitation and you state upfront that it's on you. You are content with this.

But when your friends suggest an outing, they don't state at any point that it's on them, and in fact they indicate that they expect you to pay - not in so many words, but there's no other way to interpret their actions.

That is outrageously presumptuous of them.

You shouldn't have to declare "we are going to split this this time" on someone else's outing. The only way it's appropriate for you to have to say that is if they had insisted on paying for you, and you were insisting on paying your own way against their expressed intentions. (This could communicate friendliness or hostility on your part... if it were happening... which it's not.)

My advice would be to not accept these people's invitations in the future, unless it's to something free like a bike ride. If you end up roped into something like an expensive lunch while on a bike ride, don't accept any more bike ride invitations.

It's up to you whether you want to keep inviting them to stuff. If so, you also probably want to keep that to free stuff.
posted by tel3path at 2:26 AM on November 18, 2017 [6 favorites]

I mean, these are grownups. It's reasonable for them to expect to pay their own way when out with other grownups.

Yes, this.

I dislike ambiguity about this very thing. To eliminate said ambiguity, I always watch the waiter like a hawk to see when they are finishing up taking the order from the last person, and then I do the 'oh one more thing' with quick but obvious handwave to get their attention so I can say 'please put these on separate checks; thanks!' If they are not a full-on terrible waitperson they will notice the handwave despite all the people ordering at them.

Alternatively, when the waiter takes your order specifically, open with 'please put these on separate checks' and then order. To cushion the blow, so to speak, you could insert a perfunctory 'that all right with everyone, right?, great, I will have etc'.

I'm sorry you're in this position. But to me, these grown ass adults expecting on any level NOT to pay for their own meal when it was not explicitly stated beforehand, no matter how much YOU make/how nice YOU are, are the ones committing the faux pas. Not you.
posted by phonebia at 2:29 AM on November 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Oh, terretu's answer is great, though.
posted by phonebia at 2:33 AM on November 18, 2017

Yes, I wholeheartedly agree that you need to pointedly ask if you're splitting the bill evenly or by what people ate. It would be an outrageously shitty person to say to your face that they expect you to pay for everyone. When they do (and yes! This has actually happened to me!) you can do as I did and throw cash on the table as you walk off and tell them, you hope they enjoyed the last time they'll ever see you.
posted by Jubey at 2:41 AM on November 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

As a former waiter, if you're going to ask for separate checks, PLEASE ask before everyone orders, because often the way that the waiter writes down and mentally organises the orders is totally different in a separate check situation. In fact if they have a handheld POS device to enter orders, they may have to start over entirely.

Also keep in mind that many restaurants won't separate checks for groups above a certain size - but having said it, where everyone can hear, will at least make them realise that you are splitting the check.
posted by cilantro at 2:50 AM on November 18, 2017 [26 favorites]

The practical aspects of this has already been covered, but it would be helpful for you if you can reframe this in your mind as being absolutely on them. I found myself feeling vaguely guilty once I started putting my foot down because of the surprise and the general discomfort with the situation (especially since it felt like paying would be an easy way to make those uncomfortable feelings go away), and had to rethink situations in terms of being not my fault. It isn't yours, either.
posted by Nieshka at 3:40 AM on November 18, 2017 [7 favorites]

I don't know, I do wonder if you are hyper sensitive to this and reading more into your friends' behavior than is actually there. If this is multiple friends and family members, on multiple occasions, who are not even all part of the same social circle, I think it's more likely that the common denominator is you and your interpretation of the situation.

For example, it is very common to get up and go to the bathroom at the end of the meal. That also happens to be when the check usually arrives. I have a tiny bladder and I would never want my dinner companions to think I am using it to hint that I don't expect to pay; I just don't expect to give myself a UTI making sure I'm there to meet the check upon arrival. It is totally fine to let the check sit untouched on the table until everyone gets back from the bathroom.

Perhaps I'm a little cruel, but I would just let the check sit for a while and see what happens. If your friends really expect you to pay for them all the time, they'll let you know; if they appropriately realize how inappropriate that is (or, if they are fine with splitting and it just hasn't come up before), they'll take the hint and start suggesting ways to split.
posted by telegraph at 5:04 AM on November 18, 2017 [10 favorites]

I have a friend who makes about twice what I do when I'm employed, and now that I'm unemployed it's a lot, lot more. Sometimes he'll pick up the tab - I'm talking casual lunches that are no more than $40 - but if he doesn't want to, he signals that by asking for separate checks beforehand. I never accept his lunch invitation on the premise that he'll pay. Sometimes I demure and say I can't afford it right now (at the time of the invitation). Either he'll offer to pay just to be able to see me, or he'll say "okay, some other time then." My point is to address it upfront, every time and not when the check comes.
posted by AFABulous at 6:43 AM on November 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

Also, I suspect he's purposely choosing places that don't have $25 entrees.
posted by AFABulous at 6:44 AM on November 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

This is on your friends. They have no shame. I have a friend who is literally worth in the mid 9 figures who I dine with about once a month. I have gone so far as calling the restaurant in advance to give them a cc number for our reservation and telling them to add a 25% tip so that no bill ever comes to the table.

Your friends are either clueless, extraordinarily cheap, using you or something I cannot figure out, but they should be, in the least, making a half hearted reach for their wallets. I don't think the time to do this is when the check comes or before ordering. The time to make this clear is before you go to the event. At the point of suggesting an event say something along the lines of, "Let's go to the museum on Tuesday when it is $5 entry that way everyone can afford to go." Or, "let's go to Mama's restaurant. It is family style and all the entrees are less than $20. I think everyone can afford that."

If you do it at the event, there will be someone there who was expecting to be comped. They may not even have a wallet or cc. Set expectations before you go so that it does not cause a sudden resentment.
posted by AugustWest at 7:40 AM on November 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

I had a friend who would, for a long time, just pick up everyone's meals. He had a decent amount of money and this was a thing he liked to do, so we let him. After a while it become the done thing "Oh, F is going to pay for dinner" and we got into the habit of it. At some point, he stopped. Since it had become the thing (no matter who had initiated the outing since we were a small group and all went out together fairly frequently) he let us know that this was changing before a recent meal: "Hey I can't pick up everyone's meals anymore. I love hanging out with you guys, but we're going to have to split the check from now on" and this was absolutely his right to do, but also considerate to let us know that this wasn't just changing for a single meal, it was a thing changing in general and we were being notified. No excuses, just "Hey doing things differently now." and it was fine.

I also support what others are saying: it's possible you're grabbing the check earlier because of anxieties, or because you don't want to make other people feel awkward. Both of those are gracious but it's clearly something that is happening at the expense of your own discomfort and so something needs to change. As others have said, it's completely OK for you to want to make this change. I'd discuss it with your husband in case there are complicated family issues that may be wrapped up in this (you should be on Team Us about this) but just let people know before the next meal/outing either during the planning stages or at least before ordering a meal.
posted by jessamyn at 7:59 AM on November 18, 2017 [19 favorites]

I try to be sensitive about picking up the tab every time I suggest an event, and making it clear ahead of time that it is my treat so that no one feels they can't go because of money.

I don't think this is on your friends, I think this is on you. You have created an assumption that you will always pick up the tab because you always pick up the tab.

The solution is to be as clear about ending that practice as you were about establishing it. "We can't pick up everyone's tab anymore," not "we can't pick up everyone's tab today."
posted by headnsouth at 8:00 AM on November 18, 2017 [15 favorites]

I like the suggestions for asking in advance if this will be an X-way split or individual bills. You can also say, cheerfully and firmly as you are ordering, "that will be a separate check for me and husband." That way, even if a group bill arrives, it won't be given to you and the rest can decide how to deal with it.
posted by rpfields at 8:22 AM on November 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I agree with headnsouth. It's an unfortunate situation, but it's ridiculous to say "What awful people your friends are!" It's natural to get used to a pleasant situation and expect it to continue. If you come in to work ten minutes late for months and your boss never says a word, you will naturally feel aggrieved if your boss suddenly chews you out for it, and rightly so—if it was important, it should have been mentioned much earlier. If you give your cat a treat around the same time every day, they're going to get pissed off if you don't give them that treat, even though they have no right to it. This is not to say the asker is in the wrong either: they've been generous and they have a right to set limits on that generosity. But the solution is not to suddenly start glaring and waiting for someone else to pick up the check; it needs to be addressed openly along the lines terretu suggested above, so that everyone is aware the situation has changed and they shouldn't make the lazy assumption they've been making.
posted by languagehat at 9:08 AM on November 18, 2017 [7 favorites]

I think you need to stop picking up the tab in general. People may be way less attuned to "who suggested the outing" than you are, especially if there's a group of you, and may just genuinely be confused about when you're assuming you'll pay and when you're not assuming you'll pay (especially if you also sometimes end up paying when you haven't issued the invitation). I like jessamyn's example of how to bring it up.

It's possible all your friends are horrible people who are simply using you, but it may be easiest to start with the assumption that everyone's confused and awkward and in need of explicit guidance, and see if that fixes it.
posted by lazuli at 9:09 AM on November 18, 2017 [7 favorites]

I think this needs to be handled at invitation and planning time, not after the fact.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:50 AM on November 18, 2017 [6 favorites]

The solution is to be as clear about ending that practice as you were about establishing it. "We can't pick up everyone's tab anymore," not "we can't pick up everyone's tab today."

Yeah, I think this is about established norms. If you are usually the one who treats, it may not be as clear about which situations you are expecting to treat in. It's worth remembering also that for some people - especially family- it is considered an absolute insult NOT to let them pick up the check, and they may not be sure about how these things work.

Like, for example, if I go to dinner with my father, or my aunt, or my grandmother, if I even make a motion to pick up the check, I will never hear the end of it. "Do you think I'm so poor I can't afford to take my own daughter out to dinner?", combined with at the next dinner or five, loudly announcing, "I'm not so poor yet I can't afford to pay!"

I think basically it's worth figuring out different solutions with family and friends, though - with friends, just announcing in between outings that you can't afford to treat anymore should be good. Not once everyone has agreed to the outing and is already there.
posted by corb at 11:07 AM on November 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

If the norm between you and your friends at meals is to split the whole thing evenly, I'd suggest bringing cash and small bills so that when the bill comes you can put down your share and let the others handle how they want to proceed.
posted by homesickness at 12:13 PM on November 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Split checks when ordering - "My husband and I will be on one ticket" - then the other people will likely pipe up with their splits (or they won't, but that's not your problem) and then they know before they order. Do this a couple times and everyone should get the gist. After the new system is well in place, feel free to ask people out for your treat again.
posted by I'm Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today! at 4:44 PM on November 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I try to be sensitive about picking up the tab every time I suggest an event, and making it clear ahead of time that it is my treat so that no one feels they can't go because of money.

I thought by clearly stating that something was "my treat this time" it would be obvious that I didn't expect to treat every time.

Seconding corb's comment. I know quite a few people who insist on picking up the tab as a point of their own pride, rising above past poverty and needing to be generous now that they can, feeling like it would be shameful to not get the bill every time because of their position of seniority in the friend or family group, social/cultural convention, really a huge number of cultural and personal reasons. A lot of people upthread seem to think your friends have become accustomed to getting nice things for free and why wouldn't they want to continue that situation, but my first thought was honestly that this might be a case of your friend group feeling like they are the ones accommodating your emotional needs, rather than knowingly letting you unnecessarily shoulder the burden of their financial needs. Your friends might be mooches who are taking advantage of you, but they might also have come to the conclusion that being the one to pay is something that's important to you, and think they're being considerate of you by not fighting you on it or letting it come up as an awkward moment in conversation every time you get together.

Splitting the bill is a big, big, big ask vs guess thing, and I think you might be encountering a misunderstanding with what you think you're implying vs what your friends are reading- if the social dance of politely/implicitly claiming the bill is something your friends are familiar with culturally or personally, your explicitly saying "my treat this time" might have signaled the opposite of what you thought. You meant the emphasis to be on "this time," but that could also be heard as "I don't want to be rude and socially aggressive enough to flat out say 'I will be paying every time' like some kind of dictator staking my claim as the boss of this social group, but I want you to know that The Tab Is Mine."

It sounds like you aren't comfortable talking openly about money-- this entire situation came about because you wanted to be quietly sensitive to your friends' financial needs without ever openly discussing your class disparity-- but I think being open and explicit about changing this is going to be the only way to deal with it without getting mired in more resentment or confusion and misread social cues.

I would let them all know that you and your husband can't keep paying using something like jessamyn's script, make it really casual and brief, then suggest a cheap or free outing like a hike or whatever to let them know you still want to spend time with them and aren't just dumping the social circle. Being explicit is going to feel really hard and suck when you're working up to do it, but I promise it's not as rude as you think and it's going to be OK.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 6:37 PM on November 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

A lot of the scripts above are good. If you don’t want the conversation though you could try out other cues. When I got pushed into this habit of paying for the same friends, (bathroom/phone/ignore/sorry I didn’t bring my wallet scenarios like you mention) even though they had jobs, I did get annoyed about it. I started waiting longer for the other people to deal, but if that failed, I’d check the bill, and rounding up to nearest convenient note, put that on the bill and would pass it to my left or to the other person. If they made a big deal out of finding their money, counting out change slowly waiting for me to fix the situation, I’d be cheerful and brisk, get my purse on my shoulder, push my chair in and say bye, thanks for meeting up. It quickly dried up my invitations to lunch from those who invited me with the assumption that I’d pay.
posted by honey-barbara at 6:37 PM on November 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

It sounds like your friend may not understand when you intend to pay and when you do not. My general advice is always fix it on your side, because changing how other people act is prohibitively difficult. I think the doubly applies in this scenario as you have the financial power in this interaction.

I would suggest that when you are going to pay for something, make it extremely clear at the invitation stage of the event. For example "Lets meet up at Fancy McDinner Place, I'll buy" . If you are telling someone after the check arrives that you will pick it up, the normal assumption is that you picking up the check is an aberration and everyone was expecting to split it. It sounds like your friends are under the assumption that going out with you means you pay, so everyone is expecting you to pick up the check when it comes. If your friends are finding out who is paying after they accept you could be placing a significant financial burden on them. Don't get me wrong here, I think it is not great that they are just assuming you are going to pay. Ideally they should have approached you long ago asking for clarification or explaining they cant afford to do things like you do. We can't make other people do it better though, we can only affect change on ourselves.

If you consistently only pick up the check when you say ahead of time that you are going to, this should set expectations in a much clearer way for your friends. I do think, however, you are going to have to have the slightly awkward conversation of "I can't afford to pick up the check all the time, so I'll make sure to tell ahead of time you when I am buying". It will likely suck, but your friends will just be confused otherwise.

In my life, I have been the "rich" one who fed all my poor friends, and the poor one who agreed to lunch only to find out it cost my months entertainment budget for a meal. I can tell you from experience that the fear of a poor person with a rich friend is that they will accidentally agree to something that cost way more than they can spend. As the rich friend it's your responsibility to make sure you aren't signing them up for things they can't afford, it is not your responsibility to always pay.

Hope it helps, and good luck.
posted by Oceanic Trench at 5:01 AM on November 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

Totally agree that you need to announce to waitstaff at the beginning of the meal. When they come to take your order. “Hi,separate checks please, husband and I are together. And I’ll have.....” This is what works for us, and is not awkward. Or at least just minimally so.
posted by raisingsand at 7:51 AM on November 20, 2017

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