Money and Etiquette: Why are the important things in life never taught in school?

The waitress handed the bill to a guy sitting at the table of 10 family members. The group included a few small children and a majority of adults with disposable incomes, plus a girl hoping to keep some of her savings account for graduate school a few years down the line. In this situation, it looks as though this girl (that would be me) is expected to pay. There’s nothing offensive about being expected to pay for one’s own share of the meal.

It is never that simple. The biggest problem last night, it seemed, was my lack of access to cash. My debit card had been turned off for suspected fraudulent activity (there wasn’t any, It was re-activated this morning after a lengthy Q&A session with BoA) so that’s why I had no access to cash. I had a credit card and figured if they didn’t offer to cover my portion of the bill, I’d just pay my way with plastic. No big deal, right? I ordered a $16 plate of fish & chips… which was one of the least expensive full dishes on the menu. I didn’t go with the salmon or fancier fish dishes since, despite that they were a healthier and more desirable choice, I wasn’t going to splurge on a 20-some-odd dollar meal that may or may not get picked up by family. Either way, it paid to be frugal.

So when the bill made it to the table, it looked like I was, in fact, going to pay for my share of the meal. The question, then, was the sum of my share. In my mind, I had purchased a $16 meal and ordered water for a grand total of $20, tip included. As I suggested my $20 fee, a variety of suggestions regarding my proper payment hit the table. “What about the appetizers,” asked a relative. Right. The appetizers. The three of them that I didn’t order, but ate when offered. I wouldn’t have chosen to order them on my own, but since they were there (and quite tasty looking) I enjoyed my fair share. Fine. I’ll chip in for the appetizers I wouldn’t have ordered, but that I ate. My $16 meal is now costing me $25.

Suddenly another relative suggests we just split the bill evenly. I cringe. Luckily, others realize this isn’t fair and continue to split the bill according to purchase. It doesn’t always work out that way. But I’ll get to that later.

Ultimately, my offer to pay with a credit card offended my family member to the point where she said, in an upset voice, forget it – and hastily paid for my portion of the bill. Unfortunately a few minutes later I had to ask her to borrow $5 for bridge tolls since I was out of cash and realized the bridge didn’t accept charge either.

I don’t want to seem like this stingy, ungrateful bitch to my local relatives, but it seems like I manage to always leave a bad impression on them every time I visit. I’m contemplating writing a check out for $30 and sending it their way, but here’s an untold piece of the story – the woman of the family (who ultimately paid the bill) didn’t want to pay for my portion, whereas the husband, who ran off to entertain his children at the time of payment, made some comment under his breath that made me think he’d gladly cover my portion. No one else heard that, it seems. I don’t know if it would be even further rude to just send a check in the mail to cover my costs.

I did suggest that I owe both of them dinner – which may or may not happen. Because then we’ll all be having dinner and get to the bill and what-do-ya-know, they’re going to want to get the bill and will refuse to let me pay it.

It seems etiquette is rarely about follow-through, but instead just about an offer.

However, what happens when you are at social lunch or dinner and someone boldly suggests the bill be split (of course, it’s usually the guy who ordered two top-shelf margaritas who thinks this is such a brilliant idea). Do you speak up for yourself or do you sit back and watch your affordable meal turn into an extravagant expense?

If this occurs with friends, it’s usually easy to say something. But what about co-workers? This happened once early on in my time at my current company and I was flabbergasted by the entire situation. I mean, how stingy can one be around people whom she sees as important networking contacts down the line? As far as my company goes, it seems that all of this has balanced itself out over time. Colleagues who have gotten new jobs with great promotions have covered entire bills, and in the long run I’m likely out of the red when it comes to overspending on my meals in aggregate costs. Obviously it doesn’t always work out that way. It’s important to fit into company culture and go out with co-workers to social lunches, happy hours, etc, but it can be costly. How much is networking worth?

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8 comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    I think your family was incredibly tacky to expect you to pick up the tab as the younger person at the table who still isn't completely set up in life. That said, when dining with friends/colleagues where everyone is expected to pay a portion of the bill, you shouldn't be there unless you are financially comfortable paying more than just 'your share.' It's not only about anteing up for your portion, but for the social experience of sharing a meal. don't like it? Don't go. Also, in situations like this when everyone just pays their part, you inevitably underestimate and the server ALWAYS gets screwed on the tip.

  2. Tiffany says:

    I agree with other folks to clear the air about the bill at the very beginning of the meal. If I'm going to be treating I tell the person at the beginning of the meal (99% of the time the person is gracious and doesn't order the most expensive meal). Likewise, if I am going to be paying my portion of the bill, I tell the waiter up front that I need a separate check. It gets the awkward stuff out of the way immediately so that we can all enjoy our meals together. If someone is going to treat me and I don't know that it will come up when I ask the waiter to separate my check and we have the "argument" over the check at the start and get it out of the way.

  3. Elaine says:

    I've decided that when I'm out with certain friends, I'm going to have to ask for a separate check before I even order. I was too timid to speak up when the pancakes and glass of water that should have come to about $5 including tax and a pretty nice tip ended up costing $10 when they decided to split the check evenly. I know it wasn't a big deal, but it irked me nonetheless. As a college student with a limited entertainment budget, I saw that as subsidizing their meal at the expense of an afternoon at the movies for myself.

  4. Olga says:

    I always prefer to pay for my share, but I'm unsure what I would do if I were with co-workers. Your post really hit me, because I came across it while I was writing my own post about a bad experience in a restaurant, so I was in the right mood:) Such things should be definitely taught in school.

  5. SavingDiva says:

    When I go out with friends, I frequently ask the waitor for my bill separate. However, when I go out with my family, my bill is always covered by someone older…unless I go out with my younger siblings where I'm expected to pay the entire bill.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I'm so glad someone else feels like this. Last week I attended a leaving dinner with colleagues and my boss (earning a lot more than me) suggested splitting it evenly and I ended up paying $50 for a $25 (including tip) meal. As I was with co-workers I felt unable to say anything and no-one else seemed to mind, probably cause I'd just bought everyone a drink! Now I'm just going to try and avoid these situations.

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