Together we can put an end to the stress of paying the bill. (Image: Archi Banal)
Together we can put an end to the stress of paying the bill. (Image: Archi Banal)

FoodApril 9, 2022

The art of splitting the bill

Together we can put an end to the stress of paying the bill. (Image: Archi Banal)
Together we can put an end to the stress of paying the bill. (Image: Archi Banal)

It can ruin a good meal and make a bad meal worse: splitting the bill is, in many instances, the worst part of dining out. But it doesn’t need to be.

Dining out with a group of friends, and friends of friends, can be an especially merry time. With one big asterisk – before you leave the restaurant, as lovely as your night may have been, you’re doomed to the nightmare that is splitting the bill. In most cases the conundrum isn’t so much to split or not to split, rather, it’s how we split.

The whole state of affairs can create a barrage of uncomfortable emotions. There’s the ceaseless awkwardness of chasing people up for money. The lingering guilt of being the person who doesn’t pay their fair share. The bitterness of paying far more than you owed when you’re already skint. The indignity of having to pull your calculator app out at the table to do basic arithmetic. The added chaos at the till when you realise your maths was very much incorrect. And unfortunately, with the rising cost of living, anxieties around settling the bill at the end of the night are only going to be foregrounded more and more often.

So how best to navigate this nightmare? These are your options.

The even split (at the till)

In the first instance, splitting evenly seems to be the most egalitarian and classy way to go about settling up without all the palaver of dissecting who ate what. 

The even split (after the fact)

This involves nominating one person to pay, who is then transferred even amounts by the group. This is far more efficient than your whole group loitering around the till. Even better, it’s far easier for the likely harried person working at said till. The only downside is that for the person who paid, it comes with the burden of following up with unreliable friends (and there’s always one).

Someone gets too drunk and shouts everyone

Always a great outcome, just say thank you and enjoy it.

The rising cost of living will only exacerbate the stress that comes with splitting the bill. (Photo: Getty Images)

So far, so good. But there are of course instances when one person at the table (we all know this person) orders two dozen Bluffies, incessant bottles of natural wine, a $32 main and a panna cotta to finish – only for the bill to be split evenly at the end of the evening. Those who ate an austere meal of olives and a pint of beer at the other end of the table has to pony up for someone else’s far more sumptuous dining experience. And you can bet they’re going home feeling swindled. 

As Ann Perkins in Parks and Recreation says, “I’m not a big fan of group dinners where everybody splits the bill no matter what they get. I ordered a Tyranna-Caesar salad, and that’s all I’m paying for.” 

Going dutch

And so, at the other end of the spectrum is going dutch – transactional pedantry – the extremities of which involve a carefully itemised breakdown of every last item eaten, perhaps assisted along the way with a set of scales to assess who really got the lion’s share of the starter plate of pani puri. This is also egalitarian, in the sense that everyone pays for what they got, but in an individualised way. It can also be a pain for the person at the till, and sometimes items ordered are missed out of calculations, leaving the last to pay a nasty surprise. 

High-school level maths didn’t prepare us for the complexities of splitting the bill.

The socialist approach

If there are big earners at the table, they pay the bulk of the bill, with everyone else splitting whatever is left over. Alternatively if it’s known that someone is a student or having a tough time financially, everyone else picks up their share. 

When you get down to the heart of how best to split a bill, you realise that in this economy equal doesn’t necessarily mean fair. And if you can afford to be generous, why not be generous? Yes, perhaps your friend who’s in between jobs may have shared that plate of spicy eggplant with you, but if you can afford to, why not cover it for them instead of dividing it to the precise percentage point – that’s something we could perhaps apply more broadly to our lives and society too. 

And despite the social norms against discussing salaries, wages and our financial situation in general with those around us, being more aware of what our buddies earn would actually help in these niggly social situations. Thankfully, times are changing and, according to The Washington Post, it’s a taboo that’s being broken increasingly often by millennials. If we want to progress beyond the unnecessary awkwardness of splitting the bill, it might pay to start being more transparent about how much we get paid, or don’t get paid.

Still not convinced? Here, let Friends explain it for you:

The point is, this final part of sharing a meal out has the potential to sap some of the joy from what should be an experience we can’t wait to repeat again soon. So whatever you do, try to resist the urge to pay in an ultra-persnickety way. Once your bill calculations start looking like a quadratic equation you’ve gone too far. In other words: paying for a third of a plate of a som tum salad, half of a serving of pad Thai, espresso martinis times two and “one glass’ worth of the bottle of white” is too far. Your equation should absolutely only have one kind of mathematical symbol in it: either plus or divide.

If you’re in charge of organising a group meal out, pick a spot that facilitates sharing: places with grazing-style dishes that suit your groups’ dietary requirements, or set-menus and importantly, affordable options. When everyone’s spent their night happily sampling delicious and reasonably priced helpings of food, there’ll be a lot less resentment when the bill shows its mean little face.

The key here, like so many things in life, is communication. How the bill will be split should be something agreed upon from the get-go. If you’re organising a dinner, there’s plenty to be gained from considering your friends’ backgrounds and financial situations. For people who belong to particular cultural and religious backgrounds, evenly splitting the bill and indirectly paying for types of food or drink that are prohibited by their beliefs might put them in an uncomfortable position. 

Anyone who has ever been in a tight spot with money knows that the buzz of eating out with friends can be drowned out by the uncertainty around whether you’ll even be able to afford the number that pops up on the Eftpos machine at the end. Nobody wants that, so be cognisant of your friends with limited budgets and don’t be afraid to be honest if you can’t afford to splurge.

The Spinoff’s first-ever food newsletter is here. Written by Charlotte Muru-Lanning and produced in partnership with Boring Oat Milk, The Boil Up is your weekly catch-up on what’s happening in our diverse and ever-changing culinary landscape, covering the personal, the political and the plain old delicious.

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Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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