On a Budget? Here's How to Tactfully Avoid Splitting the Bill When Dining Out With Friends

An etiquette expert weighs in.

Going out to eat with your friends sucks. OK, sure, it’s super fun and you love doing it and some of the best memories of your entire life were meals spent out with your friends and loved ones…but it has drawbacks, too. Namely, figuring out how to split the bill when it’s time to pay up. The easiest solution, and what happens most often, is that when the check comes everyone just drops a card and the server splits the bill evenly.

But sometimes that’s not really fair. Maybe you ordered the soup while your friend ordered filet mignon. Maybe you didn’t partake in the bottles of wine the rest of the table decided they wanted. Whatever the reason, there are plenty of situations where splitting the bill evenly isn’t fair. But what’s the best way to voice that without sounding rude?

To find out we asked Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert, author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life, and founder of The Protocol School of Texas.

“If there is a consistent history of getting ‘stuck’ with a bill much higher than you are comfortable paying, honestly addressing it is the best policy,” Gottsman states. “The next time you are invited you can say, ‘I really enjoy going out with everyone, but in the future I'm going to pick up my own tab. I am not a drinker and I will keep my bill separate.’"

But it’s also important not to pinch pennies with your own friends. “When you go out with a group, there is an unwritten rule that, most of the time, it’s going to be split among the group. It usually works out evenly, give or take a few dollars,” says Gottsman—and if you set your boundaries ahead of time, you can avoid any uncomfortable situations that may arise. “You can say up front, especially if you are a couple, ‘We’d like separate checks,’ but keep in mind your tone of voice and your body language is important. Don’t come across as angry or cheap.”

And if you're really concerned about your budget, Gottsman suggests considering alternate plans. “Invite your friends over for cocktails, meet for coffee, or find activities that aren’t as costly. You can let friends know you are saving for a new house and are watching your funds for a while.”

The one thing you don’t want to do? Give off a bad attitude. “You don’t have to say ‘I can’t afford it.’ Or, ‘You guys are taking advantage of me.’ You sound like sour grapes, and you don’t want people to feel uncomfortable, regardless of your reasons,” she explains.

At the end of the day, your friends are your friends and they’ll understand your situation. And if they don’t? “Then maybe you should look around for a few new friends who share your financial values,” Gottsman advises.

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