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How to Split the Bill at a Restaurant, No Matter How Complicated

Oct 01, 2023

By Li Goldstein

You’re out to dinner with a group of friends and the night’s winding down. The banter is electric, the drinks are flowing, and the vibes are downright jovial. Then the check comes—and so commences the perennially sticky song and dance of splitting the bill. One person tepidly reminds the group that they weren’t drinking. Another taps the mic to emphasize that they only ordered the Caesar salad while their neighbor to the right opted for the filet mignon. Every possible solution leaves at least one person feeling scorned (and overcharged). It doesn’t help that dining out is pricier than pretty much ever right now—and let’s be real, nobody wants to pay more than they owe.

A recent TikTok chronicling a full-on verbal brawl over a group’s $4,600 dinner check renewed debates surrounding the right way to split the bill—that is, if there is a right way at all. That particular video may or may not have been staged (it was probably staged), but it raised an all-too-common conundrum: awkwardly nickel-and-diming the check at the end of the night.

Apps like Splitwise and Venmo—and, more recently, QR code ordering that allows each diner to pay for only what they got—have significantly streamlined the process of splitting the bill. But doing the math is only one element of the equation; the harder part is often figuring out who owes what in a variety of head-scratchy scenarios.

The truth is, speaking up to request a separate check or asking to pay less can feel awkward. But with some etiquette ground rules, dinner table brawls (and most excessive spending) are avoidable. In any scenario, be courteous to your waiter, who probably doesn’t want to juggle six credit cards and three separate checks, by gauging their preference on how to split a bill before you order.

So, here’s how to split the bill when…

If only one person at your table is drinking, they should offer to cover the cost of their drinks—either by requesting a separate check at the start of the meal or, if one diner in the group is putting their card down, by offering to pay more to cover their share.

“Often, alcoholic beverages are more costly than the food,” says Myka Meier, founder of Beaumont Etiquette, which offers courses on dining protocol and other social etiquette. “So if only one person is drinking, it would be kind for that person to offer to pay more.” Sean Jung, assistant professor at Boston University School of Hospitality, also suggests that the one person who’s drinking could open a separate tab at the bar, if it’s that kind of place. In any case, “it would be a common courtesy for the person who is buying drinks to say that they will be paying on a separate check,” he says.

Whether by opening a separate tab or just covering the tip at the end of the meal, make a concerted effort to cover your costs, and don’t expect others who aren’t drinking to split the bill evenly. In short: Pay for your drinks.

If you’re not drinking and everybody else is, it’s more than reasonable for you to speak up and ask for a separate bill or otherwise expect to contribute less to the final cost of the meal. Yes, this can be uncomfortable to propose, but you’re very much justified in doing so. In an ideal world, the rest of the group will proactively suggest that the person who isn’t drinking pay less.

Be conscientious of any nondrinkers at the table. If you notice that two people aren’t drinking while eight are, recognize that they might find it daunting to advocate for themselves and speak up on their behalf. BA executive editor Sonia Chopra has another solution to an imbalance of drinkers and nondrinkers at the table: “Have them ring up the food costs on one bill and all the drinks on another, so you can split the meal evenly between everyone, and the drinks evenly between everyone who is drinking.” Mic drop.

If you ordered an expensive entrée while everyone else ordered just an appetizer, you should offer to pay for it. “It’s the job of that person to offer to pay more,” Meier says. “The table may not take the person up on that offer, but the person eating the lobster when everyone else had chicken should offer out of respect.” She adds that if one person is treating, it may be in poor taste to knowingly order something pricey and expect them to cover for you.

Practice some self-awareness here, and try to order in the ballpark of other diners at the table, generally speaking. And hey, if you’re really yearning for the lobster, all power to you—just don’t expect your friends to split the cost.

If you, as the birthday-celebrator, invited out a group of friends, you should expect to cover the bill. “If I invite everyone to a party [at] a restaurant, and I want everybody to enjoy themselves…I’m going to pay,” says etiquette expert Diane Gottsman, owner of The Protocol School of Texas. The group “may insist that they pay, and that’s fine—everybody can split it,” she says. “But the intention should be that you’re going to pay.”

However, if a group invited you out to celebrate your birthday, you should expect that they’ll cover your cut of the check. “Typically the group chips in for the birthday guest and they divide the bill equally as a birthday gift to the person,” Meier says.

You order the drinks, you pay for them, Jung says. “I think that would be an obvious expectation from other people as well,” he adds. Nobody wants to shell out for a drink they never asked for in the first place. Ordering a round is a fun and friendly gesture so long as you actually follow through and cover it for the group. Otherwise, it’s kind of… annoying?

If you know off the bat that you won’t be able to eat many of the dishes on the menu, your safest bet is to request a separate check at the start of the meal, says Gottsman. Meier agrees: “It’s the role of the person with the dietary restrictions to say before ordering that they have a restriction or allergy and will therefore be ordering their own meal.” And if you’re allergic to shellfish and everyone wants to split the seafood tower, yes, it’s well within your right to get your own check or Venmo a friend for just your portion of the meal.

To put it plainly, don’t be this person. “It’s important when planning a group meal to send around a menu or link to a restaurant ahead of time so people can decide if it’s within their budget to attend,” Meier says. In this worst-case scenario, ordering on separate checks is a reasonable way to assuage blindsided attendees, says Jung.

If you’re tasked with selecting the location and you want it to be a surprise—because you’re sneaky like that—employ a little bit of common sense and empathy and don’t choose somewhere shockingly expensive. Trust us, everyone will end up happier.

So, here’s how to split the bill when…