March 10, 2009
Bill-splitting. Out of date?
Everyone says the same thing about splitting restaurant bills in large groups: “I always feel like I pay more than a owe.” Is it just that everyone feels this way when, in fact, everyone always owes more than they think? Or is there just always a freeloader? I tend to think there’s usually a freeloader, because the other comment I hear about bill-splitting, though not as often, is “People shouldn’t take money so seriously.”
First, I think restaurants need to catch up with modern times and realize that customers always want separate checks and never carry cash. And what is wrong with that? I’ve had several servers tell me outside a work that separate checks aren’t a big deal at all, and that a lot of servers just pretend it is. And those people who do claim the whole “it’s too hard to enter it into the computer” excuse have never made that explanation comprehensive or convincing. But even if it is hard, I’ve got to say ask, so? It obviously isn’t impossible since a lot of restaurants allow it, but it seems the more popular ones refuse. Why get away with denying us basic customer service because you’re a hot-spot? I mean, you’re being paid to satisfy your customer, right? Well every time someone forces me to split the bill with a large group obligating me to pay 3 times what I owe because of some mathematically incompetent person, I do not leave satisfied and I don’t get why servers feel ruining my evening deserves a tip. Without splitting the check, you’re just carrying food. But until restaurants realize what they could improve to up their sales in this economy, it’s an etiquette issue we all must face often.
So these are the rules:
- First, accept that there might not be a freeloader: A lot of people forget about tax. They think they can just take the flat cost of their item, such as a salad $(6.85), and think that’s all they’re responsible for putting down before they add on whatever tip at the end. This could possibly be the reason that a surplus is created that no one can explain and makes everyone suspect a freeloader and turn on each other. If everyone forgets to include tax this can create a cost that seems like a whole entrée but isn’t, which could be the answer to this mystery in most situations. You’ve got to calculate tax into whatever total you put down initially. Don’t think you can do the tax at the end with your tip because you won’t even meet the total if just one person thinks this. So if a waitress comes back with a total that’s missing a few bucks, remain calm and say “Alright, did everyone remember to calculate their share of the tax into the bill before tip?” and someone will usually speak up since this doesn’t always occur to people. It’s an honest mistake so let them take care of it without hard feelings.
- Don’t pick on the person who owes the least: never point at the person who put down $15 for a salad and the water and say “Are you sure you paid enough?” then look at them hopefully like you really expect them to jump in with “Oh you’re right. I should pay $30 for that.” Obviously this person is overpaying (possibly double what they owe already to avoid being accused for simply having a small bill), so there’s no reason they should have to pay even more. Just because you feel that they paying a similar amount to everyone else will somehow make the situation seem fair, doesn’t mean anything. Why should they pay the same as everyone else when they didn’t order the same as everyone else? Obviously, they’re trying to watch their money, so don’t ruin it for them. If you do, be prepared for them to pass on dinner in the future.
- Make sure everyone checks how many drinks they ordered: Unclaimed drinks can create a lot of excess and people tend to forget how many drinks they’ve ordered once they’ve had a few. This is also an honest mistake, so again, nothing to get angry about. Just ask everyone to check all their drinks and someone will usually speak-up to correct their omission, especially if they order a signature drink no one else ever gets.
- Don’t pull the whole “I brought this much cash so close enough” thing: close enough isn’t okay in this situation. If you don’t have enough cash, pay some other way. Good for you for remembering to bring cash but you’re probably the only one who did and unfortunately you underestimated your share. One more card isn’t going to make that big a difference to the server who’s already dealing with 6 so pay by credit or debit. Don’t force someone else to pick up your slack.
- Be the bigger person, but only in public: Now even if you do all these things and everyone remembered tax and everyone seems to be claiming their items, sometimes there’s still an excess. That usually means that you really do have a freeloader, someone who can’t/ won’t pay for their order because they’ve exceeded their budget/ whatever. It’ll usually be obvious who this person is, the oversensitive-acting one who keeps saying angrily “Well I can’t afford to put in anymore,” and someone’s going to have to settle it. Now I know what you’re thinking: “that person is always me,” but everyone claims that. Yes, everyone’s had to do this at one time or another and it isn’t pleasant but it hasn’t been you every single time. If just feels that way. If you think you’ve located the person I say for the moment suck it up and don’t embarrass them at a table-full of people. This could be a one-time thing, you could be wrong, or they really could be clueless about how to calculate what they owe (a lot of people are). But feel free not to eat out with them again. Either they’re too lazy to learn basic math or they really expect you to pay for their friendship with food, which is ridiculous. But if you feel this is an isolated event, feel free to take them aside after the meal and say “I think I might’ve paid for some of your food. In the future could you please make sure you calculate your bill correctly or bring enough money?” but be sure that you haven’t misidentified them. There’s nothing more insulting than being told you didn’t pay enough for your meal when you paid 3 times what you owed because of some sneaky freeloader that someone later decided was you. But since they’ll act defensive regardless, try to remember if this only seems to happen if this specific person is included in your group. If so, you’re probably right. If you decide to eat with this person again and you don’t think this is an isolated event, be sure to ask “Are you going to be able to afford this place?” before your next outing. Hopefully that’ll embarrass them into bringing more money than they need. Also make sure you two go to a place that doesn’t routinely split your bills, and once you’re sure the freeloader can cover the cost of their meal and then some, dine and dash on them. But what if your freeloader doesn’t have enough for the 15% tip? Who cares? Servers need to learn to split checks.