How or even whether to split up a restaurant check and have each person pay their part is a lot more of a cultural thing than one might realize.
One morning I went out for breakfast with a group of friends after a marathon poker game. At the close of the meal, someone said something like “How much do I owe?” or “How are we splitting this?” The whole table groaned. One of the people at the table said, “What are we, a bunch of little old ladies having lunch after church?”
Splitting the check wasn’t, in his eyes at least, a “guy” thing to do. The norm is for someone to pay the whole thing, with future such meals being paid for by others until it works out to be roughly even. So a kind of informal rotation.
But what if you are a bunch of little old ladies having lunch after church, or any other group for whom it is not a faux pas to want to divide up the check? How should this be done?
1. Separate checks
From the standpoint of the customers, this is certainly the easiest, most accurate way to make sure everyone pays for all and only what they had.
However, anyone who has worked in restaurants will tell you that creating separate checks adds considerable work for the server. At many restaurants it’s not even allowed, or is not allowed for parties above a certain size.
So understand that when you ask for separate checks, you’re making the server’s job more difficult. This means that if you’re a considerate person, you should either, a) not do it, or, b) increase what you would have tipped by an amount commensurate with the added inconvenience.
Still, if you can get separate checks, it certainly solves the problem. But try to do it only if you’re a fairly small party, the server is not very busy, it is not contrary to the restaurant’s policy, and you let the server know at the beginning of the meal rather than the end.
2. Divide the check equally
If you’re not going to get separate checks, the next easiest method is simply to have everyone pay an equal share. If five people are dining, each pays 20% of the total.
The obvious drawback to this is it’s unlikely everyone ordered items of the exact same price, so some will be paying more than they should, and others less.
But really this is probably too petty and insignificant to worry about as long as it’s at least reasonably close. If one person had a $17.95 entrée and another person had a $19.95 entrée, is the one really getting over on the other if they throw an equal amount of money in the pot?
If there are more substantial differences than that, then it’s fine to deviate from strict equality and adjust the numbers in an approximate way to account for it. For instance, if the bill for five people is $100, normally you could just pay $20 each and be done with it. But what if the five people ate roughly the same amount, however four of them had multiple drinks, and the fifth is a teetotaler who just had water? In that case it’s perfectly reasonable to have the one person pay, say, $12, and for the remaining four to split up the other $88 equally and pay $22 each.
3. Figure out each person’s share precisely
It can be a lot of bother, but if you don’t mind doing it, and everyone is agreed that it’s really the only fair way to proceed, it can certainly be done.
A calculator helps, as does something to take notes with. Just assign each item to the person who ordered and ate it (splitting shared items appropriately), and total up the figures. Don’t forget to include tax. Then make sure the totals taken together add up to the total on the check (give or take a few cents).
After the check’s correctly divided up, people still have to put in for the tip of course.
Again, a lot of it’s just a matter of social custom. In some groups it’s allowed, if not expected, that you’ll split up a check a certain way, while in another group it would be totally out of line. (Comparable to the way in some dating situations you’re a sexist cad if as the male you try to pay the whole check, whereas in other dating situations you’re a hopelessly cheap loser if you don’t.)