Splitting the Bill

"The Bill"

It’s a scenario I see repeated often: a group of people go to a restaurant to share a meal. At the end of the meal the bill comes and all chaos ensues. Relatively intelligent people become failures at basic math. Friends become adversaries. “Fairness” becomes a thing that’s hotly contested.

Let’s just say it’s one of my pet peeves. I tend to sit quietly by and roll with the punches, but still … it often frustrates me.

Sometimes I wish that people could let go of their egos long enough not to end a meal on a sour note.

To be fair, there’s one solution that I wish were common: let the computer figure it out.

Seriously, all the information should be there. Each item was ordered by, and delivered to a position at the table. Keep track of that and splitting the check across any combination of payers becomes trivial. 1 & 2 are a couple with a single bill, 3, 4, and 5 are singletons each with their own. No need to even state up front that the check will eventually be split … just track the position at order time, and then ask for the combination before printing the bill.

It’s a software problem. It’s a user interface problem. I’ve never seen a system that allows for this. I don’t understand why it couldn’t be done.

As it is, most systems seem to require that individual checks be treated as completely separate tables from the very beginning. That can add a lot of work for the server, especially if the fact that the check will be split isn’t noted until after all’s said and done and eaten. I’ve seen servers have to deal with that, and I understand and sympathize with their frustration.

The most common case is that the total bill for the meal gets dropped on the table and one of several scenarios plays out:

  • The bill makes a long trek around the table with each individual trying to remember what they had, add up the amounts, factor in their portion of tax and tip, and come up with a number that they feel is “fair”. More often than not, the number is wrong. At the end of the trip around the table either the restaurant is seriously overpaid, or the kitty comes up short and an embarrassed “banker” requests that people poney over some more. Or, in frustration, they just eat the difference themselves. Not fair. Either way the server is given a confusing collection of cash and credit cards asking for particular amounts to be run against each. Also not fair.
  • Someone suggests that the total bill simply be divided by the number of attendees. Easy and quick. The problem is that this only really works if everyone consumed more-or-less the same amount (or value). More commonly someone will get frustrated because the person who had two pre-meal drinks, steak, and dessert ends up paying the same as the person who only had a small entree salad. Not fair.
  • Someone gets frustrated and simply pays the bill, in full, and just tells everyone else to pay him whatever they think is fair. This generally results in the same unfairness – over or underpayment – as the first scenario, but has the benefit of being much faster and typically generates less animosity.
  • Someone simply pays the bill, in full. Be it a decision borne of a desire for world peace, or just a delightful way to treat a group of friends, this places the entire burden on one person. At least it’s a voluntary one.

And, yes, I’ve been in each of those scenarios on more than one occasion.

It’s difficult to walk away from any of them without some frustration, and perhaps even animosity or guilt, and that’s a shame. A meal with friends, co-workers, or whomever can often be an incredibly enriching experience. It’s frustrating to see it marred by an after dinner game of “check roulette”.

Other than restaurants beefing up their technology to make it easier, I know of no simple solution.

The only practical solution I’ve found is to be generous — perhaps even overly so — and not worry about fairness. Enjoy the meal, enjoy the people, enjoy the experience. When you come right down to it, everything else isn’t nearly as important as it seems.

Comments

  1. Well there is a restaurant called First Watch, and when the bill came it had broken down the 3 meals and drinks quite nicely. So they are coming into the 21st century. This bill was presented as one as the server asked if it was going to be 3 separate or all together.