Check Splitting Can Tarnish A Friendship
We received this note from a reader who fears she may have lost a friend when she asked her to split restaurant bills.
I have a good friend whom I met through a long-ago job that I see every few months for lunch or dinner. She likes to drink more than I do, but I often agree to split a bottle of wine with her due to her coaxing me to join her. We have great conversations and laughs.
About 5 years ago we started doing occasional dinners out with the husbands. The differences in the two couples’ eating styles were soon obvious. My husband and I like to share dishes; she doesn’t eat meat and her husband loves meat, so they both order separate dishes with her invariably taking half of hers home for lunch the next day. Interesting, but not a problem.
Alcohol became the problem. Following a cocktail at the beginning of the night—usually Prosecco for my husband, myself and her, a top-drawer whiskey for her husband, my friend would order a bottle of wine “for the table.” But really, it was just for the three of us, since her husband, Joe, would continue on with his whiskies through the course of the meal. Between the cost of the bottle of wine she chose and her husband’s multiple whiskeys, I remember that the first bill that we split with them was startlingly expensive for a night out. And then it happened again and again.
Eventually, I thought, “Why don’t we do separate checks for the two couples, like I often do with other friends?” That way I could order the wine that I liked by the glass and not worry about how much Joe was drinking. I mentioned it to my husband, who agreed it sounded like a good way to go (although later he said he was nervous about it).
When we sat down at a restaurant table with them the next time, I brightly said something about my new policy of asking for separate checks, if they didn’t mind. Well, you would have thought I started WWIII. My friend frowned and said, “Why? Why would you want to do that? What’s changed?” I wished I could have said right from the get-go, “It’s because we’re tired of paying for your husband’s expensive drinks habit.”
But I wavered in the face of her outrage. Instead, I muttered something about, “This way we can order what we want and it doesn’t matter.” She quizzed me about what I wanted to order that would matter so much. Then said, “What will we do about sharing? How does that get split?” I guess she was thinking about the red wine. I could have said, “Well, we might not all want your wine every time.” But I didn’t.
Then, “Why do you want to make extra work for the waiter?” and “I’ve never heard of this kind of thing between friends. Why are you doing this now?” Both of the husbands sat there silently.
The grilling went on for a while. I finally weaseled out of it by saying, “Oh, never mind. It was just something I thought made sense.”
But I still thought I was right—what was the big deal with each couple paying their own way? It just seemed good sense to me and I just couldn’t see why she was acting so insulted.
Later, my husband and I decided that if we wanted to continue dining out with these two, we just had to accept we’d come home with much heftier bills than we liked. And that’s what happened the next few times we dined with them, although during that time the pandemic also happened, so more of our visits took place at each other’s homes rather than restaurants. (Sad to say, we didn’t serve whiskey to Joe since we didn’t have any at our house.)
Then on July 26, 2023, the New York Times Social Q’s column ran a Q&A on a similar topic: very expensive drinks at restaurant dinners when one couple doesn’t drink—how to split? I copied the numerous remarks from non-enabler commenters who wrote things like:
“I’m not sure how separate checks became ‘embarrassing’ or even unusual.”
“There are absolutely people in the world who find ways to get others to subsidize their expensive dining habits.”
“With friends like these who needs enemies.” “People who give into people like this are conflict-averse.” (Guilty.)
Many people said if separate bills were out of the question for some reason, you should grab the bill when it comes and figure out what you owe, and just say, “We’ll be paying $XXX.” I had trouble imagining this assertive payment system with my friends.
It was quite eye-opening, however, to learn I hadn’t been alone with this dilemma, and in fact, most people thought separate checks were fine. But it was also behind us now; I’d capitulated.
Then a few weeks ago, years after the original contretemps, I stayed with my friend for a few nights while her husband was out of town. On the walk back to her place, after we went out to dinner (even split) and a comedy show that my friend had picked out, I paid her back for getting my ticket. She said something like, “See this is how it should be—splitting the costs.” And I said, without thinking, “Sure. Because we’re both doing the same thing and it’s easy to split, right?” And lo and behold the whole crazy conversation started up again.
She soon was saying, “Doing it your way, with separate checks is just not what friends do. Keeping track of who spent more is way too penny-counting. When you go out you always should just split things. I’ve never heard of anyone doing it another way. You are our only friends who have ever wanted separate checks.”
I said, “It’s just dinner I was talking about, not counting every penny in life. If two couples say at the outset of a meal to a waiter, ‘We’d like separate checks’ and it’s a problem, he could easily say, ‘That’s too big of a problem. We don’t do that here.’ And then we wouldn’t do it. But it is done all the time. They are VERY used to it. Friends groups and business colleagues ask for separate checks, for all sorts of reasons.”
So there it was. The moment of truth. I said slowly, “Well, when you and I go out we have similar meals and drinks. When we go out with Joe, he orders numerous expensive whiskies and we don’t. It’s a big expense to have to pay for.”
She replied, “Well, I think it’s wrong to be such a penny pincher. Think of the times you’ve spent the weekend at our summer place—we don’t hand you a check at the end for all the food and drink, and trust me it’s not inexpensive to host.”
Wow, this was going from bad to worse, and bleeding into a whole other topic. Now somehow my husband and I, who come to their house with food and bottles of wine, had become the moochers in this conversation.
Then she said, “Never mind. We don’t do this with anybody else, nobody’s ever asked for this, but from now on we can have separate checks when we go out.”
I said, “As you know, I right away stopped bringing up the two couples covering their own costs because you got so upset. I still think it’s a good idea, but we’ve decided that with you and Joe we’ll just keep splitting checks. It’s not worth all the agita.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “From now on we’ll ask for separate checks at the outset.”
I took a deep breath and said, “Well, okay, if that’s what you want.” (ha!)
I am an enabler and also an excellent represser, so the way I choose to view this whole episode is that she and I talked it out, we agreed to disagree, but in the end it appears that my request for separate checks, albeit years later, now makes sense to her.
But I do wonder if the four of us will ever go out for drinks and dinner again! And if we don’t, maybe that’s for the best.
Questions for Friendship Rules Readers to Ponder:
We would love to hear your opinions, too!
What are your thoughts about check splitting?
How have you handled situations like this one?
Could Jane have handled this differently?
Why did the friend react so defensively?
At this point, can anything be done to ease the tension between the friends?
Do you think that the impact on the friendship is irreparable?
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