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I’m in my mid-20s, and while I’ve kept a steady job, I haven’t climbed the corporate ladder like my friends have. When we go out to dinner, they tend to pick expensive restaurants. I order conservatively, but it rarely matters, because we end up splitting the bill. I don’t want to make waves among the group, but I also don’t think it’s fair that I get stuck paying for other people’s food. Any suggestions as to how to handle this?
–TheBudgetLifestyle; New York, NY
Boy, do I know where you’re coming from.
My 20s played out exactly as you described yours, minus the whole steady job thing. I had a couple of those, but I also had extended stints of unemployment in which I lived at home Costanza-style while earning ketchup money as a substitute teacher.
So going to dinner with friends who were far more successful could be all too stressful.
In my everyday life, I could set my own budget and make my own spending choices. Even though I wanted Bounty paper towels, I had the autonomy to opt for the generic brand.
But when that check came at the restaurant, suddenly I was on the same level as everybody else — even though my bank account was not.
When I was about your age, I actually wrote an article about this dynamic. It was one of my first stories that ever got published. (Sadly, the website is now defunct and no longer online.) But from what I remember, that was mainly me complaining.
Now, it’s time to offer solutions.
What follows is a set of general guidelines both the haves and have-nots can adhere to in order to keep the communal dining experience palatable — for everyone.
Be mindful when picking the restaurant
Many dinners are ruined before they start. That’s because not enough people think about their fellow diners when selecting the restaurant. And naturally, it’s often the people with the most cash making these choices.
Consider the following “Sports Illustrated” story about Tom Herman, the new head football coach at the University of Texas, from his time as an assistant at a small program. While he now earns over $5 million a year, that wasn’t always the case:
He got an invitation to have dinner at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse with a group that included Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. Herman, who made about $42,000 at the time, couldn’t afford the meal, so he ordered a cheeseburger and drank water while, as he recalls, Stoops and his crew ate lobster tails and filets and drank $200 bottles of red wine. At the end, Stoops suggested everyone throw down a credit card to split the bill. Herman chipped in an equal share, $150, before calling his wife to apologize.
Bite the bullet, or brace for embarrassment. That’s the decision a person is put to when they go somewhere that’s beyond their budget.
So when picking a restaurant, assess the crowd you’re going with while keeping in mind the person who makes the least. This doesn’t mean you can’t ever go to fancy places; it just means you probably shouldn’t go when you’re going with certain people.
Show a little empathy and compassion by saving that spot for another night. If the roles were reversed, isn’t that what you’d want your friends to do for you?
Know what you’re getting into
Just as selecting the restaurant requires awareness, so too does accepting the invitation.
Some of your friends have a taste for caviar, others have a taste for Chick-fil-a. And you know who each of them are.
So when you say yes to their invite, you know what you’re saying yes to.
There’s also the matter of notable occasions, like birthdays, engagements and the like. Celebrations bring special restaurants, which bring higher tabs.
If you really can’t swing a certain restaurant, don’t go. Tell the truth, make up an excuse, whatever.
But if you choose to go, that’s ultimately on you. Accept that responsibility, and adjust your expectations. Doing so is key, because when someone inevitably suggests you split the check (or chip in to pay for the birthday boy), you won’t feel as violated.
And if you’re smart, you will have ordered a meal that’s on par price-wise with what everyone else did, so you at least got to enjoy (more of) what you paid for.
Splitting the check fairly
Addition is one of the initial math lessons you learn in school. First graders can do it.
Yet when the bill comes, adults are suddenly terrified of it. Instead of adding up the cost of what they consumed, they resort to the more complicated concept: division.
Just split it, they tell the server.
I get it — splitting the check is the cleanest, quickest thing to do. But in most cases, how much time are we actually talking about? How long does it take to figure out what each person owes? Seconds, right?
And I could never stand when people rationalized it by saying everything would even out over time. Not necessarily. Not if you’re the guy who always orders a chicken sandwich and water.
That said, I’ve come around on splitting the check. I’ve accepted it, and it’s what I practice. And I’m OK with it.
It’s standard social operating procedure, and in reality, at many restaurants, most meals are comparable. So why make paying the bill messier than it has to be?
My only issue is when things get lopsided, when somebody orders (extra) drinks or appetizers nobody else eats or entrees that have an “MP” in the price column. Under those circumstances, I offer a simple rule:
If you order more, pay more.
Throw in a few extra bucks or say that you’ll pay the tip. In most instances, your friends will wave you off, but they’ll appreciate the gesture, because it’s a show of consideration and a sign of respect.
It’s also the right thing to do.
Take care of yourself
If I could tell my younger self anything about this dynamic, it’d be this.
I understand how easy it is to give in, to go to whatever restaurant others suggest and to handle the bill however they want to handle it. I understand you don’t want to make waves, and I understand you don’t want to highlight that you have less money.
Right or wrong, money is one of society’s most defining status symbols, and when you don’t have it, it can be harder to hold your head up quite as high. At least it was (and still is) for me.
But it doesn’t have to be that way for you. It’s OK to speak up. It’s OK to say no to that restaurant, or to that appetizer, or to splitting the check.
Yes, it might be awkward initially, but as with anything, the more you do it, the easier it will get.
More importantly, you’ll respect yourself, you won’t resent your friends, and you’ll be able to enjoy what’s supposed to be an enjoyable experience.
And if you play your cards right, you might have enough leftover cash to cover those Bounty paper towels.
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