Within any group of friends who dine together, people likely have different budgets, different appetites, and different attitudes toward shared expenses.
You may be one of those people who, for the sake of expediency, are happy for everyone to share things equally.
But what about when the meal is decidedly uneven? You may realize you’re not too excited to subsidize your boyfriend’s Porterhouse and three martinis when you’ve just eaten a salad.
Then the check comes, and everyone freezes. Who will cover what? Or worse: your friends all throw away their cards when you didn’t want any part of the bottle of Dom Pérignon they ordered.
“The last thing you want is a situation where the bill comes to your table,” Daniel Post Senning, co-author of “Emily Post Etiquette, The Centennial Edition,” told CNBC Make It.
Here are three strategies etiquette experts recommend to make sure you can share a meal without hurting anyone’s feelings — or finances.
Communication is the key: “The sooner the better”
Suppose you are a vegetarian with a group of omnivores and the plan is to share a bunch of small plates. Or maybe you’re a non-drinker with an alcoholic crowd. If you’re worried about footing a disproportionate part of the bill, speak up early, Senning says.
“The key to good etiquette is good communication,” he says. “The earlier the better.”
This means expressing any concerns you have about the check splitting before placing your order. “Hey, I wonder how we plan to split this – anyone have any ideas?” Senning offers as a possible scenario. Or, “I’m going to keep things really small tonight, so I’m going to ask for a separate check.”
When the bill arrives: ‘We should be quiet advocates for ourselves’
Maybe you meant to split things evenly when you sat down, but the bill became more and more unequal as the meal progressed. When the server approaches your table with the check, address them directly, says Diane Gottsman, etiquette expert and owner of the Protocol School of Texas.
“Don’t look at your friends or your tablemate,” she says. “Say, ‘I’m covering these two’ – that way you’re telling the waiter, not the table.”
If it’s a band you’re close with, don’t be afraid to tell your friends directly, Gottsman says. Either way, communicating your intentions clearly and politely is the best way to avoid resentment or misunderstandings.
“We should be quiet advocates for ourselves — both for our comfort levels and our budgets,” Gottsman said.
Settling in with friends: find “the ideal sweet spot”
Peer-to-peer payment apps, such as Venmo and Cash App, have made it easier than ever to split a bill fairly, especially in places where it’s difficult to split the check. Often one person covers the total and asks their diners to pay back their fair share.
As simple as this setup may seem, it introduces another wrinkle tag: lending money.
Some 61% of American adults have taken out a personal loan or paid a group expense in hopes of reimbursement, according to a recent survey by CreditCards.com. Among them, 59% reported a negative experience in the form of loss of money, harmful relationships or physical altercations.
If one of your friends is generous enough to pay a group bill, try to pay them back as soon as possible, says Thomas Farley, etiquette expert and author of Today.com’s “Mealtime with Mister Manners” column.
“People probably pulled out their phones anyway,” he says. “You can pay while you walk out of the restaurant. Take it off your plate, off your mind and pay it right away.”
And make sure you pay the right amount. “Cover your costs, including taxes and tips,” Gottsman says. “They’re not going to come back to you and say you were missing $6. That person is the one who might end up being wronged.”
If you covered the band, don’t harangue your friends for the money. “The ideal is to pay people back before they ask you,” says Senning. “Money is returned before it becomes an imposition on the person lending it.”
This means it may seem rude if you charge your friends on the way to the parking lot, before they have a chance to refund you. “Let him breathe for a minute,” Senning said.
And if it’s a few days before you get your money back, reach out to your friends, ideally face-to-face or over the phone, to remind them what they owe. Don’t be afraid to bring up an exact dollar figure. “It’s not ‘would you mind’ or ‘I’m sorry, but,'” Gottsman says. “Be direct and friendly.”
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