But I Only Got the Soup…

“I didn’t drink anything but water.”

“I never eat dessert.”

“I would have preferred the house wine.”

Oh, shut up!

Only kidding. Not really.

Brave Astronaut, who has a fun blog about food and other interesting stuff, addresses an appetite-suppressing issue we all dread when dining out with a crowd–how to properly split the check:

I am going off to a conference, and I will likely head out to dinner with a large group of colleagues, as I do when at conferences. I always lean on the side of splitting the check by however many diners there are. It makes my head fly off my shoulders when people start nickel and diming the check apart. “Well, I just had a salad and he had four drinks…” There has never been a time when I haven’t come up short when the check has been divided by people figuring out their own amount.

Been there, Brave one. When I was in college, one kid always had the same line when the check came: “All I have is this hundred dollar bill. The bar won’t make change. But I’ll pay you back later.” Now, this was back in the day when a hundred dollar bill seemed like a thousand dollars and likely was unbreakable at a college-town bar. And this kid never paid a dime, let alone anyone “back.”

Personally, I am with you. Establish a grand total, including the tip. (You would be surprised how a group is all too happy to have someone be the designated bookkeeper at times like this–might at well be you.) Split the check by the number of people. Couples pay the two-fer rate, singles pay the single rate. Easy. Except when seven credit cards get tossed at the server. “Put $50 on this Amex, $22.50 on the two Visas,” and so on. Such a pain.

Real problems arise when the “I only had…” crap starts up. I find I don’t go out with those types of people anymore. Ever.

Go out with real friends when you want to split a check. Bring a ton of cash and never show your plastic when you are dining out with strangers, co-workers and conventioneers.

Lesson learned, okay? No need for your head to fly off into space by itself.






35 responses to “But I Only Got the Soup…”

  1. Brave Astronaut Avatar

    You will be amused to know that I went out with a group of twelve on Friday night and there was a wide variety of food choices (and drinking – hey, we were in an Irish pub) and when the check came, we passed the check around. I had determined an amount for splitting the check (I love my phone with built-in tip calculator) and most people adhered to it. When the check came back to me, we were only about $4 short of where I wanted to be.

    Sometimes it works.

  2. Induced Homomorphism Avatar

    The problem comes up when you have people ordering vastly differently-priced items. When I went out to a Japanese restaurant with friends the other night, the bill came to $220 for the nine of us, which averages $30 per person when the tip is added (this is because most people ordered sushi – and a lot of it). However, I only ordered the $11 chicken teriyaki. It’s just not fair for me to pay $30 for what I got.

    If the bill is even enough such that each person is two or three dollars different from everyone else, I have no problem with splitting the check. But if the differences are more than that, it’s not fair for some of the people who ordered less-expensive items (and often are much more frugal with cash).

    I go out to eat in groups of six to ten people on at least a weekly basis, and it’s very rare for us to be short on money when everyone puts in their calculated share. Maybe it’s because we’re mathematicians, but it seems to work out well for us, so that’s how we’re going to continue to do it.

  3. Jura Avatar

    I never mind splitting the check, as long as the difference is not too much. But the other day I went out in a group for lunch. We all agreed to split the check, apart from one woman who insisted that she only pay for what she had (the lunches were all set meals, and the largest difference in price between them was about 2 USD). We let her just pay for her meal (she counted out the exact money), and the rest of us just put in together. One of us paid for us all while we waited outside, and she came out with a handful of change. She held out her hand and told us to help ourselves to our share…and the woman who insisted on only paying for what she had exactly was the first one to help herself!!!

    Usually I find splitting a bill is not a problem, except for when you go out for a meal for people like the one above who seem to have a different common sense from everyone else (if that makes sense!) I am a drinker, and I always put in extra to cover that. I know big guys with big appetites, but they also put in extra because they realize that they ate more than anyone else. Splitting a bill when there is not much difference in price is practical, but expecting other people to fund your excesses is just bad manners.

  4. Mary Avatar

    Where I work (it was full-time, but now as on-call) we go out to lunch for each department member’s birthday (there are 7, including me) and the bill is split between 6 of us (the birthday person is being treated) evenly. That said, since I work on-call and do like wine with lunch, I will have my wine put on a separate check (I’ve been doing that for 3 years now with no problem).

    I also do a bi-monthly “retired ladies who lunch” thing and that is separate checks (the restaurant is very nice about it).

    If a card is used, it should be one card and the other diners should pay the card-holder in cash (been there, done that, got the t-shirt).

    I used to go to events where it was the “I only had soup” kind of thing, but I got over that; sometimes I have less than others and sometimes I have more — it all tends to even out in the long run.

  5. Jadetaia Avatar

    Ha, I’ve had lots of fun during these kind of events. But eventually, we found a method that works for us. One person is designated to pay the entire bill — because I’ve worked in a restaurant before and I know it’s annoying as heck — and we keep the receipt just in case people want to start complaining. We usually just pay the person who pays the check at regular time intervals, like paying rent. We have a spreadsheet and everything. It’s annoying, but at least no one feels like they’ve been taken advantage of. *shrug*

  6. hellojed Avatar

    Amen. Can’t stand squabbling over bills, it’s irritating. And with alcohol in Dublin being so expensive, people will spend less out having a meal than in the pub.

  7. Doug Avatar

    Sorry, I have to side with the splitters. I find when I go out with a group, if we don’t, the server tends to not get a tip. I once was $30 of a $90 bill, and put in $40. When it got to the last person, their share was $6, and someone said “you need to put in $4”. I immediately took out my tip and said, “Now you have to make up $14.” I’m not there to fund someone else’s meal or drinking(I don’t drink myself), but I don’t want to server getting screwed out of their 25%. I do like the idea of everybody paying one person and that person paying the server. Had never thought of that.

  8. Mary Whitsell Avatar

    Although endlessly fussing about who had what is tiresome, I can understand why some people do this.

    When I was at university, I frequently went out with a certain group who were always eager to have me along. I’m a cheap drunk — one beer and I’m dancing on the table — and every single person in this group drank a lot. In the end, we always split the bill evenly and I ended up paying a lot more than my fair share every time. I was supporting my way through school, while some of the others were having their educations funded by Mom and Dad — and yet I still got stiffed. There were also a couple of cheap tippers in this group who would decline to tip for the silliest reasons (no surprise, really), so I would often make up their share of the gratuity too. After three or four such meals, I finally learned to say no when they invited me along.

  9. Kim Ayres Avatar

    Oddly enough I’ve only ever really been in this situation once. There were about a dozen of us and all except me and one other guy drank vast quantities of wine. The bill was split evenly. The other non-drinker was cursing under his breath the entire time, but didn’t say anything. I just paid with good grace but made a mental note to avoid doing anything like that again unless the rules were laid out clearly in advance.

  10. restaurant Gal Avatar

    When it is clear that I or Mr. RG and I have eaten more or had more to drink than others in a group, we always toss in more cash or offer to cover the tip or something of that sort.

    But I will never forget an incident when I was out with a group of strangers with whom I was in forced captivity, thanks to work (pre-RG days). We were incredibly short on a check and not one of them would pitch in a dime more to cover it–despite the plethora of identical lunches of chicken caesar salads and iced teas! I could not believe it. In fact, I labeled them all thieves after that, and fully recognized that I had been had as the idiot who covered the difference.

  11. m Avatar

    In a former work life, a co-worker wanted to go to lunch fairly often. I learned quickly that we could only go to the places where you go through a line and individually pay a cashier. At restaurants where a bill was presented to the table, she only paid the menu-quoted price for her meal, not including the beverage, tax or tip (sometimes to the penny)! Even when I pointed out the difference, she continued to stiff a portion of the bill. She fancied us to be friends but I quickly recognized that she would never change, and I wasn’t interested in being played for a fool. Not too surprising, she ended up eating alone most of the time because everyone else got tired of footing part of her bill all the time too. Sad, really.

  12. Lisa Avatar

    I disagree with splitting the tip equally. DH and I are a young married couple, him working full time, me part-time while in school. Our closest friends are dating, but still living with their parents and working full-time careers. When we go out, DH and I each get our meal and one drink, whereas the other couple gets apps, drinks, dinner and dessert. I don’t think it would be fair for us to pay for them when we just can’t afford it.

  13. Lisa Avatar

    I meant to say splitting the bill….I’m in the middle of rolling the change from my tips, so that’s where my brain is! LOL

  14. Induced Homomorphism Avatar

    I must add that the people I tend to go out to eat with are always at least fair tippers, if not generous. Whereas we individually calculate our portion of the bill and won’t pay for another person’s meal, generally each person adds enough in for tip so that when it all averages out in the end, the tip is around 20% or slightly more.

    Oh, and props for those of you who say that you add extra when splitting the check if you’ve ordered more than everyone else. It’s really irritating when someone decides that the check should be split without taking into consideraion some of the people who have ordered significantly less (or more, for that matter) food.

  15. Artful Dodger Avatar

    Ouch. Scarry subject. I have to admit that when I go out with groups of people that I don’t know, I will always tell the waiter as soon as I put in my drink order that I’ll be on a seperate ticket. Another reason too is that I rarely ever have actual money on me, I pay for everything with my bank card. I only do the group thing with those whom I trust. But I always put in more for the tip in either case. Gotta have good karma. I agree with some other posts though that the server must get overwhelmed when everyone pays with plastic. Hmmm…(light bulb goes off in head) maybe someone should invent a speed pay system like the key chain thingies at the gas station. That might be cool.

  16. Ceetar Avatar

    It’s a tough situation, but unless everyones in the same financial situation, and generally orders the same thing, splitting just isn’t fair. Some people routinely order lobster and steak, and some people routinely order salads and burgers. Some people drink and some don’t.

    I find it always works best to let one person tell everyone else how much they owe. Just add up what they have and add 25% for tax and tip. If i’m not out with people that are used to this, i’ll just figure out how much I owe, add my 25% put my money in and put my wallet away.

  17. John Avatar

    I have been very interested in reading everyone’s comments. I have to say in discussing this subject with friends (including some of the people who came out to the aforementioned dinner) that it has been fairly evenly divided, as has been the trend of comments, although I am feeling better about my sticking to my guns when splitting a check – it just all works out in the end.

    While we paid cash for our dinner last Friday, I will apologize to Restaurant Gal and servers everywhere, for the times that I have presented more than one credit card to pay a single check. I know it’s a pain, and usually we do try to do the “use everyone as an ATM” trick and pay it on one card. That usually works well.

    As many have noted, the problem usually occurs with poor calculation of “tax and tip” or as my wife calls it “plus – plus.” Restaurants have come up with a solution to deal with us mathematical idiots – tax included, but that doesn’t help if we can’t divide numbers right. Inducedhomomorphism, can you just always come out to dinner with us? Maybe you could start your own business, mathematician for hire to help with restaurant checks, you could make a fortune!

    Thanks to all and thanks to Restaurant Gal for an incredible blog and making me a small part of it. I am deeply honored.

  18. jali Avatar

    My real friends and I fight over whos turn it is to pay – we all reach for the check.

    I don’t go out with nitpickers or cheap tippers anymore. I get too annoyed.

  19. Split-decision Avatar

    I’ve been on both sides. I found when I had tons of money, I always just split the check evenly, it seemed like we had relatively the same amount of food and come on, it all evens out, right? That was always my thought and got me through the first decade of restaurants, but then again, we were all seemingly in the same spot in life, high school, college, etc. And I had my fair share of the “my dinner was $18.50 so here’s $20” cheapskates. Um, drinks, tax, tip??? Splitting definitely is the way to go!

    Then I got married, and got a house, and…and…and…just got poor. Then I started noticing the difference. Not when its a few dollars, but like other people mentioned, when it was the extreme. My brother-in-law is a foodie, him and his girlfriend simply like good food and good wine, they have more cash flow and like to enjoy dinners at expensive restaurants. I don’t blame or envy them, just different priorities. Plus, my husband can’t eat anything fried which takes a lot off the appetizer menu and I can’t drink – they like 3 glasses of wine with dinner and an app/dessert apiece. Usually now we just invite them over, but whenever they do talk us into trying someplace new as a special treat for us, the difference in what we would pay by splitting and by what we ordered is often double. And I know they aren’t doing it on purpose, they just honestly don’t notice, probably the way I never noticed the difference when it was me arguing for splitting the bill.

    Sorry, I know its sounds petty, the difference is honestly only $40 max for my husband and I on any given dinner, but just be aware that when you’re arguing for splitting the bill, its going to make some people feel slighted. Maybe by a $1 (cheapskates) and maybe for more, but if its a lot for them, its going to make them not want to go out next time. Sometimes that’s a good thing when they’re just being cheap, and I agree splitting has its uses (for us, its just about every friend except for these two), but keep in mind, we’re all in different points in our life, them trying to be frugal and ordering a salad should let them save a few bucks if it allows them to still enjoy your company. That is, if they still add on a decent tip (there’s just no excuse there)!

  20. rabrab Avatar

    I suppose that my problem with “just splitting” and assuming that it’ll all even out in the end is that it often doesn’t. There are circumstances where the same group is unlikely to be together again (conference lunches, gatherings that involve two or more circles of friends) that there’s no chance for it to even out; and there’s the situations with a group that does gather frequently, but has very different eating patterns (Big meal at noon and light meal at night? vice versa? drinks or not? appetizers or not? dessert or not?) and financial situations, that while it may even out, it often doesn’t. And there’s always the person who proposes splitting evenly because it lets them off cheaper. They never even out.

    As long as there’s one mathematically capable person at the table, dividing the check by who got what is not difficult.

  21. restaurant Gal Avatar

    I can tell this is a touchy topic. Glad Brave Astronaut brought it up. (And thank you, John, for the nice comment above.)

    I guess I only go out in groups with those who drink a lot of wine (like I do) and basically order what I do (as much as I can eat because I am always hungry!), even when I can’t eat 90 percent of apps and desserts because of the pesky gluten allergy.

    However, I completely understand those who feel awkward when they know they didn’t order a five-course spread like their companions did. I would have to say, though, shame on the companions. They didn’t notice? Really? Come on. Go with those you know or who know you better–or ask for separate checks, if it is that bad.

    As for tossing a lot of plastic at a server, not always a pain. Just a pain when ten people all want varying amounts charged to their cards. As for separate checks for a group of 15? Tell your server up front, and don’t complain when it takes forever to get your checks at the end of the meal.

    One last thing a little off topic: Jali, I love your style! Someday I will travel to Atlanta to hear your stories in person!

  22. Katie Avatar

    I work in a casual dining estabilishment. When I have a party I will ask right away if it’s on one check or split. That way there is no fighting when the check comes.

    When I go out with my friends it depends, most of the time we will do the 1 person pays and everyone else pays that person thing. Otherwise, if we decide to split the bill, we always let the server know as soon as we put in our first round of drinks.

  23. Smithee Avatar

    While I’ve been visiting your site for a while now, I’ve never felt compelled to write before. Maybe it’s just a Southern thing, but I’ve rarely ever been in a situation where it wasn’t just assumed we would get separate checks. We always tell the server upfront that we’d like to do it that way, but then again, they usually ask us first. Or maybe it has nothing to do with geography and more to do with the fact that most of my friends and I are all in different financial situations, and we don’t want to put an unnecessary burden/pressure/embarrassment on someone who is watching their pennies. Or it could be that my friends and I are all cheap misers who don’t want to inadvertently pay for someone else. 🙂

    Truthfully, I think it’s because we just find it simpler to pay our own way. Everyone pays for what they ate and drank, their own tax, and their own tip. If there are things like shared appetizers, then one of us puts that on our bill (this would be the one who wanted it the most/suggested ordering it in the first place), and the others throw a couple of bucks our way if they have the cash. And if someone doesn’t have the cash, we don’t worry about it. When you’ve been friends since kindergarten and have seen each other through careers, broken hearts, weddings, divorces, children, miscarriages, etc., you know it really will even out in the end. And that there are much more important things in life than who had the extra potato skins.

  24. Induced Homomorphism Avatar

    There is one thing I want to ask of Restaurant Gal and the other restaurant people here. I went out to dinner with a group of students once (some of them friends, some of them weren’t), and we ended up having about three people wanting to pay for their share on their cards. One of the girls in our group wrote the names of those three people, along with the amount to be charged to their cards, on the back of the receipt. That way the waiter was able to just flip the receipt over when at the pay station and see exactly how much to charge to each card. I assume that would make things go a bit more smoothly. Is this common practice, and if so, does it make things easier on the waiters and waitresses?

  25. amsNYC Avatar

    RG – what a great topic… clearly you hit a nerve!
    Being a control freak I usually am the person organizing a group meal and I almost always take control of the chq – after telling the server to add 20% for tip BEFORE she brings the bill to the table if we are more than 4. If 1 or more person has had significantly more or less to eat/drink I tell them what they owe (incl tax/tip) subtract that from the total owed and then divide the rest evenly (thank g-d for cell phone calculator!)- rounding up to the nearest even $ or sometimes to the next # that ends in 5 or 0. I never allow more than 1 or 2 CC’s and usually remind people to bring cash and give them an idea of $ range in the final email confirm before the dinner. Even with a firm plan in place though, I can’t count the number of times people have been petty over the chq or tried to argue that I am overtipping!
    One time we went out with another couple – an old friend and his wife (who doesn’t like me). We went to a good friend’s restaurant, a place I go at least 3x/month and she, knowing I was trying to win my married friend’s wife over, went overboard…. sending out a an appetizer plate, a round of drinks and 2 desserts on the house. I had explained the idea of splitting the chq and given my friend a good estimate of the pp cost beforehand. When the chq came he grabbed it out of my hand – took a look and announced that since they had shared an app and didn’t drink any alcohol (only 1 alcoholic drink was on the bill since we had bought/paid for a bottle of wine at the bar before they came) they owed X – about 1/3 of the total – I was horrified! My husband swooped in at that point and told him not to worry about it and paid the entire bill. Needless to say we have not been out to dinner with them since and his wife likes me even less now 😉

  26. wineward Avatar

    The wife and I recently dined at a Smokey Bones in our area (a casual barbeque concept). I was blown away when the waiter asked if we wanted separate checks! We were a couple sharing one side of a large booth and holding hands! Nobody else was at the table with us.

    Has it really gotten so bad that even couples on a date routinely ask for separate checks? I could understand the question if we were business-attired and sitting across from one-another, but sitting closely on one side of a booth?

    This issue is so high in the public conciousness that it was even featured in an episode of the television show Friends. Yes, I watch Friends (hangs head). In the episode, the three friends who didn’t have big salaries were complaining that the three friends with high-powered jobs were always dragging them off to expensive meals, ordering expensive items, then expecting them to split the check evenly. Hi-jinks ensue.

    On the flip-side, it used to be considered declassé to ask for separate checks, at least in the context of fine-dining. In certain circles this is still true. Almost as annoying as the “split the check 5 ways” people are the ones who engage in mortal combat over who gets to pickup the entire check.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been assaulted by a guy who feels I’ve belittled his manhood becuase I wouldn’t allow him to pay. “I’m dreadfully sorry, sir. We have a firm policy that the first person who asks gets to pay”.

    Many times, when two or more people were arguing about who would pay, I wanted to drop the check folder onto the middle of the table like a hockey referee, and let them fight it out for real. Hi-jinks ensue.

  27. Liquor Store Stories Avatar

    When I got out to lunch with my labmates, we usually ask to split the check. The three or four of us pay with credit cards, but we’re all generous tippers, so I figure it’s worth the trouble. I don’t see why that is such a big deal, especially in a day and age where people carry less and less cash (I rarely if ever have cash on hand). As long as they tip in the neighborhood of 25%, I think customers who ask to their server to split the check are pretty reasonable.

    I suppose I’m lucky that most of the people I go out with are very good about chipping in their fair share. I’m usually the one who pools the cash when we pay together, and I rarely come up short. Then again, I’m not afraid to bug my friends to chip in a little more to make the tip fair. Besides, we’re all poor and no one ever orders anything really expensive.


  28. Tiana Avatar

    And what’s the problem with getting seperate bills? We almost invariably do this in groups and at most restaurants (in this town anyways) it is the default.

  29. Split-decision Avatar

    wineward – ha ha, the show Friends is exactly what I was thinking. Money is such a touchy subject!

  30. laura Avatar

    I mostly dine with friends who do ‘family style’. We do several courses and We get to try a lot of different dishes and usually spend the same as one plate a person or more. We tend to frequent restaurants that are friendly regarding bringing wine. We are all collectors and enjoy sharing numerous bottles in an evening as well. Happy to pay a reasonable cork fee. Family style is a fun & fair way to handle the check. Everyone pays the same amount.

  31. […] But I Only Got the Soup… Personally, I am with you. Establish a grand total, including the tip. (You would be surprised how a group is all too happy to have someone be the designated bookkeeper at times like this–might at well be you.) Split the check by the number of people. Couples pay the two-fer rate, singles pay the single rate. Easy. Except when seven credit cards get tossed at the server. “Put $50 on this Amex, $22.50 on the two Visas,” and so on. Such a pain. […]

  32. rose Avatar

    Where I work,we don’t do split checks-however ,we do split totals on ONE check. Everone sees exactly what they owe and the cashier will separate the checks. This is easier on everone and has reduced the number of walk-outs.

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