Sunday, February 12, 2006

Eating Out: Splitting Up

Recently, we enjoyed a delicious meal with a large group eating out together for the first time in this particular configuration. When the bill came, we all put in "what we owed" and came up $60 short. Now, I pride myself on eating with folks I know to come up with the cash and a good tip on round one and this is almost always the case. It was weird.

I knew we were already in for $10 extra on top of throwing in for a birthday guest (who under almost no circumstance should be paying for her own meal) and after adding in for an appetizer that I did not order but tasted. Someone who left early had left extra as well. One couple put in significantly more than they thought they owed too. Something was not right.

By the end of it all, we went in for a full $20 more than we owed (again taking into account $ for the birthday guest, tipping more than the 18% required of groups, etc.). I'm not bitter, just wondering why it is such a conundrum to figure out the check. This happens to lots of people and there are really just three possibilities.

1. People are underpaying for their food, wine, chipping in, tax, and or tip.

2. People forgot what they ordered or can't be bothered to remember.

3. The server is screwing us. (I am sorely against blaming servers unless there are cold hard facts. They are on the other end of so much abuse sometimes it is ridiculous).

So that is occasional group dining irritation number one. I seriously can't remember the last time it happened, but it was strange. The sad part is that it can create weird tension. I know some folks at the table make less than others, one person recently lost their job, etc. And of course, the person left holding the bill feels pressure.

To some this may make the argument for splitting evenly. I think people really think this avoids hassle. It would not have solved much in the recent instance with such a wide variance in what people had to eat and drink.

I find this fascinating. The scorn by those who think splitting is always the best for those who don't, the silence, the challenge it presents.

There are several camps here. One says, don't even talk about it. Another says, if you have a concern, pipe up. I personally think its lame to put the onus on the folks who ate less. Listen, are those the folks hollering that we should all split evenly? This was not part of our recent excursion, but has come up several times. If we all eat in a similar range (you know within five or six bucks), of course it makes sense. But beyond that, it can get weird.

I tend to be the one that brings it up in thee instances. I think we can let such challenges be in the light and have been thanked three times by diners who would have paid upwards of triple their meal but who did not feel like it was ok to say something.

To be fair, I think to some folks, it really feels like everyone at the same amount and price-level of food. They just want to be done with it. But, more often than not in my experience, what people actually owe varies widely.

The real challenge for me is, are we all not able to pay responsibly after calculating what we owe?
Can we not deal with a little tension to make it to where those on a budget feel respected and like their food choices matter?

Also, it can come into play that people at the table know and see everyone on a regular basis. Those more in the "group" may feel it makes sense to take on more of a financial risk because they will see others soon. Likewise, those who make more money may be more inclined to say it is a bother to deal with the check, etc.

The prices are obvious, we all know what we had and, last I checked, everyone at the table was pretty darn adept at basic math. You know if you ordered drinks and appetizers and desserts and you know if you didn't initially but shared, etc.

I've been both the person eating the seafood, having drinks, trying appetizers and going all out and the person with the stomach problem eating very lightly and not drinking or having dessert. In neither case did it make sense for those barely eating to pay for my expensive food or for me to subsidize those eating more elaborately. To be fair, I have also been at the table with a group where it was obvious we all had about the same amount of food and drink and splitting was easy and the few bucks here and there was irrelevant.

Let's look at some numbers:

Case #1: Now, if we are talking about a few bucks here and there, I think that we could handle it, but in Case #1, my meal was $35 + tax and tip and there were two people at the table whose meals were $8.95 +tax and tip. The average for the table was $27.50 + tax and tip so about $34.00 per person. Do people really think those at the table who were consciously ordering one dish, no appetizers, no desserts and no drinks should pay nearly three times what they owe so it can be easier or so I can taste everything I want and indulge for the night? Seems silly to me.

Case #2: A birthday party at a Thai restaurant. This was for someone we know but not that well. Our dishes, $11.95 each. No appetizers, no drinks. A table with about 20 people, some of whom, I kid you not, had 5 and 6 drinks, ordered multiple appetizers and desserts, etc. The average for each person was $40. Our "bill" was closer to $80 instead of $24 + tax and tip. Again, why am I paying for people who are really out to get smashed (which is fine) when I am out for a simple dinner. Is it really that hard? So it gets tense for a minute. We will all be ok. That one we ended up paying for because we just didn't know folks that well. I had to stretch my paycheck a bit because of this. When I gently raised the issue, we were treated like pariahs. Again, this was for not wanting to pay nearly $50 more than what we had ordered. Is that really something people think we should have done? Why?

In the "$60 short" scenario, one person had suggested separating the bar tab and having people pay that and then split the rest. If the bar tab had been separated, it would have been close to $150 and this might have helped with the confusion.

The thing is, it's not like I am cheap. I have paid for folks on hard times many times and not sought or cared about reimbursement. I've always thrown in more than I owe because of the mysterious gap that sometimes happens between what is owed and what ends up in the first round of paying. If I drink a lot, I am clear that others should not have to pay for that.

Arggh. Ok, so here are some thoughts:

When Splitting the Check Evenly Makes Sense:

1. No vegetarians who didn't have alcohol.

2. No $60 bottles of wine.

3. No one at the table with a history of asking to split the check evenly after
ordering every course and drinking a gallon of liquor.

4. No one at the table obviously needing to economize (lost their job, just bought a house, works as an intern,etc.)

5. No one opting out of expensive choices due to diet, religious, health reasons.

6. When you see the people with enough regularity that it is sensible that you will take turns being the big/little spenders.

7. When you've really had a reasonably equitable experience.

When it Does Make Sense:

1. We ate family style.

2. We made decisions together about ordering and did some tasting of each others dishes, things were passed around.

3. Our dietary restrictions match up well enough that we should share.

One thing several sites suggest
(see part 2): Split it,but if you were over the top tell the table you are paying more or be the one to encourage the table to pay what each person had.

Even folks who are squarely in favor argue for a standard of reasonability here. $$$ bottles of wine, lobster dishes, desserts, apartifs, etc. Did most people have these? Just a few?

All in all when it comes down to it, I think it is possible to have a meal be enjoyable and reasonably fair. What do you think?

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