Smart Ways to Split the Check

Forget awkward number-crunching at the end of a meal; use these tricks instead.

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The other day, my friend mentioned her frustration about splitting restaurant bills evenly when she barely ate, which means she ends up subsidizing the drink and food orders of her friends. It makes her more hesitant to go out with groups of people, especially to pricey places pushing pitchers of margaritas, since the trip could make a serious dent in her budget.

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It turns out she doesn’t have to stay home. Frustration over bill splitting has led to some innovative solutions, which are both fair and simple. There’s no need to halt the conversation while one person punches numbers into the tiny keypad of his smart phone to figure out how much everybody owes. Or to annoy the waiter by asking for separate checks for each party at the table. Here are some smart, new ways to handle the check at the end of a festive meal:

Apply game theory: Presh Talwalkar, the blogger behind the game theory site Mind Your Decisions, suggests limiting the menu to a few reasonably priced items, collecting money in advance, and letting everyone know about these plans ahead of time. This strategy takes some a little work, but it’s a great way to make the group dining experience more enjoyable (and equitable). If you have a large enough group, the restaurant might even be willing to work with you to design a special prix fixe menu for your gathering.

Mimic your friends’ orders: If you know you’re going to end up splitting the bill, then adjust your order accordingly. As the website The Awl recently pointed out, you might as well order another $16 drink if you’re going to be splitting the check at the end. Of course, this strategy is a recipe for a massive bill at the end of the meal, along with items you might not even want, but it could also serve as wake-up call to your friends that something needs to change.

Take advantage of technology. Under Visa’s new person-to-person payment system, cardholders can easily transfer funds between themselves as long as they know the other person’s account number and email address or phone number. That means you can split the check however you want without worrying about how much cash each person puts down on the spot. One person could use their credit card and then the other diners could immediately transfer funds into that person’s account.

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Of course, if the cost difference is small, then you might want to just skip the penny-pinching and split the check evenly to keep things simple. But if you always find yourself on the losing end of a split bill, then it’s time to stand up for your wallet.

The restaurant challenge also brings up a related money question: When is money a valid excuse for getting out of a social situation? My friend frustrated with bill splitting wondered whether it would be too awkward to just tell her friends the truth: She didn’t want to subsidize their drinking and eating habits.

The downside of this kind of honesty is that people don’t like hearing it. In fact, they’re likely to start analyzing your budget and income, and calculating what you can and can’t afford. They might even try to argue that you can, in fact, afford a $75 meal. Of course, that is a separate question, because just because you can afford something doesn’t mean it’s a good use of money. That’s why Chow blogger Helena Echlin recommends telling your friends you have a prior engagement to excuse yourself, not that you’re trying to save the cash. That fact that lying has become a reasonable solution shows just how tricky this situation really is.

What would you do? How do you split restaurant bills with large groups of people?

Kimberly Palmer is the author of the new book Generation Earn: The Young Professional’s Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back.