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?

A 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.

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About the author

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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 www.pattylamberti.com. 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 [email protected]