Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Splitting the check and tipping

A reader writes:

My wife and I enjoy eating out. Once a week or so we hit a nice "sit-down" restaurant where a fine hard-working server tends to our every need. Sometimes we engage in our favorite activity with friends.

In your opinion, what's the best way to handle tips for a party of four or more? I've heard some say never to ask for separate checks, but to split the entire bill, tips and all, on a 50/50 basis. Some, like myself, say pay for what you get. As neither my wife nor I are alcohol drinkers, our check is always substantially lower than the other party. Additionally, we are both generous tippers and do not want the double deduction of paying extra for what we didn't consume and possibly covering the difference from others who are cheap-skate tippers.
So where do you weigh in on the great group-tipping debate?

Sincerely, C.

Ah, how to split the check when it's a group outing. This is one of those fuzzy areas that is constantly under debate.

In a perfect world, everyone would pay their fair share and no one would ever be shorted a penny. But it rarely works out that way.

There's nothing wrong with asking for separate checks, as long as the restaurant doesn't have some pain-in-the-ass policy against it. You could preface your request with something like, "Just so this is easier, could we have separate checks please?"

Or, when the bill for all four comes, you could say, at payment time, "Pass it here, let me see what Suzie and I owe. Why don't we all just pay what we owe?" I do this with friends some of the time, and they nod in agreement. I've never had someone say, "No! We must split it!"

Other times, when there's four of us (or more), we just say, "Let's split this." I honestly don't mind paying a little more when the bill is somewhat balanced. When it's majorly out of whack I'll speak up and say, "But I didn't have any of those lovely top-shelf margaritas." (I was asked to pay $40 at a group birthday dinner. My intake? A single $3 burrito.)

The argument goes that "it all comes out in the wash"--an argument I'm inclined to disagree with, because, just like in your example, what if you don't drink, but Tommy and Sally are sucking down the $13 Appletinis like air?

Here's my solution: Lay out expectations at the start (if you're comfortable enough), or ask to pay for just your share (plus tax and tip) at the end.

And if what you pay is consistently, egregiously off-balance? You don't dine out with those friends again. Trust me, Ms. $40-For-Her-Margaritas hasn't seen me outside of a cocktail party in seven years.

On a side note -- thank you for kindly and generously tipping your servers. One way to also ensure that the server is tipped fairly is to look at the bill, and announce, "Okay, it's $60, so let's say $72 total..." and allow the now-calculated-tip to be part of the calculations.

Got an etiquette question of your own? Ask me! Email etiquetteb [at] gmail -dot- com