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Money Manners: Should You Split the Check at a Restaurant Evenly, or Only Pay for What You Ordered?

You’re on a budget and out to eat with friends who want to split the check evently. Is it impolite to ask for separate checks when you didn’t order as much?

Young friends clinking glasses night restaurantA reader recently asked:

“Every few weeks, I get together with two girlfriends at a Mexican restaurant. Whenever the bill comes, one of them usually grabs it off the table and says, ‘Let’s just split it three ways.’

“My other friend agrees, and I end up throwing in a third, even though I don’t drink as many margaritas as they do. I’m saving up for a new car, and the more I think about this, the more I want to just pay my share. But when I told my boyfriend about wanting a separate check, he said I was being stingy and it would be rude to suggest.

“What do I do?”

I hear ya’…During my recent pregnancy, I found myself in a similar situation whenever I ate out with friends. I wasn’t drinking, but they were. Why should I pay for their wine, especially when I had big expenses coming up?

But like you, I said nothing because I didn’t want to put a damper on a good time. Plus, I didn’t want to be the one who had to figure out what everyone owed at the end of the meal.

But my situation is different than yours in one key way: Now that my little 8-pound bundle of coos and gas pains can stay home with daddy when mommy goes out to play, I’m drinking wine again. Once again, my share of the bill is more in line with my friends. I’ve attributed the money I shelled out unnecessarily to the cost of a good time. And I certainly know that in years past, my friends, who may not have imbibed as much as me, likely picked up more than their fair share of the tab.

But from what you wrote, it seems like you’ve paying more for a long time, and likely will be in the future (after all, don’t start drinking more just because you’re paying more). But before you do anything, ask yourself one question: Are you sure that there haven’t been many times when you order dessert or appetizers and your friends don’t?

If you’re confident that you’re always ordering less than them, then definitely speak up. The extra money could buy you a car with seat warmers!

And you don’t have to sound like a penny-pinching, stick-in-the-guacamole when you bring up the issue. In fact, etiquette expert Diane Gottsman thought of the perfect way to avoid discussing bill paying with your friends at all. “There’s no shame at all in saying to the server, before a meal starts, ‘I’d like mine on a separate check,” she says. “That way you’re not being loud about it, or standing on a pedestal preaching about money. If your friends ask why, tell them you might be leaving early.”

Worried your friends won’t buy your act or still think you’re tight-fisted? Change your perspective. “You’re not cheap,” Gottsman says. “You know what you’re doing.”

According to Gottsman, the only time you shouldn’t split a bill if it’s a work-related meal, and you invited the person. But if you’re going out with co-workers for a friendly drink, just ask the waiter when he or she first comes over to put yours on a separate tab. “The key is to do it before a meal starts. Otherwise, you’re being rude to the server,” she says.

But if you get to the restaurant too late to ask for a separate check, the restaurant frowns on divvying up bills for one table, or your friends don’t buy your leaving-early act, grab the bill before anyone else can, whip out your cell phone and start divvying up the tab with a bill-splitting app like Divvy, which allows you to take a photo of the bill, then drag each item to the name of the person who ordered it.

And if your friends give you any lip for trying to save a few bucks, you may want to consider saving yourself even more money by skipping out on girls night all together next time.

Published or updated on February 5, 2014

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About Patty Lamberti

Patty Lamberti is a freelance writer and Professional-in-Residence at Loyola University Chicago, where she teaches journalism and oversees the graduate program in digital media storytelling. If she doesn't know something about money, you can trust she'll track down the right people to find out. You can learn more about her at And if you have any story ideas, or questions about money etiquette that you'd like her or an expert to answer, email her at


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  1. Patty Lamberti says:

    I like the idea of bringing cash! That way you can just say “I’ve only got x amount. That covers my portion.” The trick is to bring lots of fives and ones so you don’t need change!

  2. Mark Ross says:

    I’ll say talk to them and insist to only pay what you order. If you didn’t order anything, then don’t contribute your hard-earned money. I do that whenever my friends and I hang out. It became a habit for us to pay what we order and if we really want to buy something we all like, that’s the time we split the bill.

  3. Laura says:

    I don’t drink at all so I’m not really happy splitting bills with people as the drinks are really what drives up the price.
    During the year I was getting married I went out with a good friend and her co-worker. I was extremely cost consious that year due to expenses and I did not know her co-worker at all. I ordered water, didn’t eat their appetizer and order a deal that restaurant had so my portion was literally $10. They had ordered several drinks each, expensive meals as well as a dessert. Splitting the bill would have driven my individual cost up to $21. I was willing to contribute to the larger tip with no problem but I don’t want to pay for food/drinks that I did not consume. The co-worker had given me quite the attitude saying that I should have ordered more so I told them they could split their cost and I would put in my individual cost including my split of the tip. She made me feel like I was a nut job.
    I usually do just split the bill because it does work out cheaper, but in that instance and during such a cost saving mode in my life I couldn’t bare to pay double when I was careful with my meal options.
    As an ironic twist, this individual lost her job within weeks of this and she had no savings or any back up plan.

  4. Erica says:

    I’ve been here before. Whenever I anticipate a situation like this – I bring cash. It usually works out with me throwing down cash for what I owe, and then everyone else splitting the check, and it doesn’t make anyone feel weird.

  5. Mike says:

    Most of my friends are my age, which means we all were in school around the same time. Splitting a check is not even an issue. The only time there is an even split is if we honestly shared the same things and amount of drinks. I always tip well, but especially in situations like this. Sometimes it’s done beforehand, sometimes not. Usually if they are not willing to split at all, it goes on one card and cash gets handed over to that person immediately. However, in large groups I ALWAYS ask for a separate check up front because I don’t want to have any part of the confusing mess that I know will ensue. Sometimes, it’s ok to have gatherings at your home. It takes the mystery out of things and sometimes people may bring things over when they don’t have to so it’s a win-win.

  6. Matt says:

    If you are not willing to pay for it, don’t order it. Some drink more than others. Others might just want a salad when someone orders a steak. Paying for what you order is only fair to everyone else. There will be times when you spend more than others, and vice versa. If you find yourself with people who aren’t inclined to do what’s right and fair, it’s time to find new friends

  7. Sarah says:

    I’m going to suggest another tactic – honesty! It sounds like these are close friends. When you’re planning your next night out, announce that you’re saving for a car or cutting down on expenses. You can do this gracefully – “I’m looking forward to a burrito, but margaritas are on hold for awhile” – and that way, everyone is prepared when you ask for a separate check or only put in your share. I don’t eat meat and my food is always much cheaper than my friends. No one thinks its nuts that I cover my food plus tax/tip rather than covering the cost of anyone’s surf and turf.

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