Against Splitting The Bill [en]

[fr] Partager "également" la note à la fin d'un repas partagé est inévitablement injuste: ceux qui ont consommé moins paient toujours pour ceux qui ont consommé plus. Ceci est facilement une source de tensions lorsque vient le moment fatidique si tous les convives n'ont pas des habitudes de consommation (viande, alcool) et des budgets similaires.

Il y a eu un peu de tension à ce sujet lors de mon repas d'anniversaire hier soir, malgré ma tentative d'utiliser le "système de la banque" de mon ami Stowe Boyd. J'aurais dû prévenir les convives à l'avance, et le ferai à l'avenir. L'idée de la "banque" est simple: chacun regarde la note, décide ce qu'il est juste qu'il paie par rapport à ce qu'il a consommé, et donne l'argent à une personne (l'organisateur, souvent) qui joue le rôle de la banque. La banque paie le tout via carte de crédit et ne vérifie pas les sommes qui lui sont données. Pour ceux qui s'inquiéteraient, la banque perd rarement -- l'absence de contrôle encourage les convives à faire leurs additions de façon responsable, et dans le doute, à payer plutôt large que court.

Ce billet explique pourquoi je suis en général opposée au système injuste du partage arithmétique (sauf en certaines circonstances) et les avantages que je trouve au système bancaire, en réponse à un billet de Tara Hunt (par ailleurs ma généreuse hôtesse durant mon séjour à San Francisco), qui regrette qu'on ait pas simplement "partagé l'addition". Les commentaires en réponse à son billet sont presque tous en défense du "partage arithmétique", d'où mon assez longue explication.

Update: do also read Stowe’s clarifying response to Tara’s post while you’re at it.

Another long comment which turned into a post. This is a response to Tara’s post about the awkward “paying the bill” moment at my birthday dinner party yesterday.

I’d like to chime in here, as the “Birthday Girl” in the story and a strong opponent of splitting the bill.

First, my apologies to everyone present at the dinner party for whom the “settling the bill” moment left a bad aftertaste. You can imagine it wasn’t my intention, and this is the first time I’ve seen a party not wanting to go with “Stowe’s banking system”. I’ve learnt from last evening that it’s important to announce how the bill will be dealt with in the invitation, and will do this in future. I think this is a good thing to do whatever the “system” the party organiser would like to adopt — at least things are clear from the start.

And in this case, particularly as you were kind enough to pitch in for my share — which I greatly appreciate — I guess I should have just kept my feelings to myself about how the bill was being dealt with. Again, I’m sorry if my comments contributed to making it a sour experience for you.

I’m surprised, reading this post and the comments, to see so many people who consider “splitting evenly” to be a just solution. By definition, it’s always unfair — those who consumed less pay for those who consumed more. As a person who doesn’t drink (or hardly), has been on some kind of a budget most of her adult life, and spent many years being the sole “eternal student” amongst friends who were earning a decent living, I’ve done my share of “paying for others” — and I can tell you it doesn’t even out in the end.

Yes, more than once I’ve spoken up and refused to pay for twice the amount of what I’d ordered had cost, sure, but it’s really unpleasant to have to do that. And (comments in this thread confirm this) do that, and you’re sure to be labeled “cheap” by people present. Not to mention that when people know the bill will be split, they stop paying any attention to the price of what they order (or the number of drinks), as “it all evens out in the end”.

As for Royal’s comment:

But if someone has to watch their cash that closely they should not be going out to dinner anyway.

If you can’t afford to spend without looking, then you shouldn’t go out and have fun with your friends? I disagree, and actually find your comment about this distasteful. More than once, I’ve chosen to accept an invitation to eat out rather than stay in, knowing that I could afford it if I was reasonable. And I have many friends who have exactly this kind of budget issue.

Back to the “bank” system, which I feel has not been well understood in this conversation, what is wrong with paying for what you have ordered, or more precisely, what you consider fair to pay for what you’ve had? Counting pennies brings grief, I can see everybody agrees with that. I agree too. Look at the bill, consider what you’ve ordered, what you’ve eaten, and decide how much you contribute. Is that complicated?

It relies upon people being honest, but so does splitting the bill evenly. Shared appetizers or drinks? Look at how much was ordered, guesstimate how much you ate/drink (e.g. I ate more than 1/13 of the shared appetizers and I drink a lot of water, so had I been paying, I would have paid at least a whole bottle of water and an appetizer and a half). It’s a solution that allows people with different eating/drinking habits and different budgets to share a party together with no grumble. Dividing equally works well when the party is homogeneous — but honestly, I can’t often make that assumption about my guests. Sometimes I don’t know them well enough to know if they eat meat or drink or not, or what their financial situation is like. And I’d rather people not feel uncomfortable about having to raise issues like that at bill paying time, which is why I went for Stowe’s bank system.

In your post, and in a few comments, I hear concern for what the poor “bank” is going to be left paying in the end. Stowe says in his post that he has not usually been left paying a huge tab. I was also concerned about this when I first heard about this system, and he has also told me this in person — the bank rarely loses. I guess he’ll give details directly if he feels it’s useful.

For me, this is not so much about community vs. individual as about coming up with a solution which is as fair as possible, while minimizing the hassle. The lack of control is the key here — the Bank doesn’t check if people have paid correctly, which also tends to responsabilize people more. There’s no “boss” checking behind you to make sure you added up right, like when everybody pays “their share” but the total has to add up in the end. That’s where the party usually ends up 50$ short or 75$ long — and then what do we do?

People should be able to go and party together regardless of their drinking habits, diet preferences, or financial situation — without being made to feel uncomfortable about going against the “egalitarian we-pay-for-the-community splitting system”.

Are there any cultural issues at stake here? Maybe it’s more acceptable in Europe to care about how much you spend than in the USA, even though on the political scale, quite a few European countries (including mine) lean much further “left” (into “community solidarity”) than the USA?

18 thoughts on “Against Splitting The Bill [en]

  1. I respect where you are coming from, but I will never be able to act from this perspective. I suppose what surprised me the most is that you picked one of the most expensive restaurants I’ve been to and ordered a whole gamut of appetizers (which weren’t cheap).

    We live our entire lives to give. We got a bigger place so we could accommodate friends and other nomadic hackers like yourself so you could stay in SF without paying through the nose. We probably pay an additional $500/month so we can offer that. We give our office space to travelers as well as charge a very modest fee for keyholders so that they have affordable space.

    And we are not wealthy. We are consultants and this month we haven’t been paid by many of our clients so are struggling to make ends meet. But that doesn’t change our attitude.

    I always assume that if I’m going to a birthday dinner that the collective is paying for the birthday person (even the one time we went to an 8 person meal where two of them were celebrating a birthday, one who we didn’t know – and the bill came to $140 each…lol…we thought twice about accepting multi-person birthday dinners after that!).

    I don’t think it’s a European thing. The French have been more than generous each time we’ve been there. They embarrass us with their generosity. We did notice that in Germany there was the individual bill thing, but they started the meal by saying, “no shared appetizers” when I suggested it. They were clear from the outset that we would get separate meals and bills.

    It is an individualist vs. collectivist thing…and I don’t think Europe is of one mind on this. I also think that health care and other social programs are usually somewhat telling (San Francisco is actually very different than the US and the city is actually bringing in universal health). I’m a Canadian, so I was raised as a collectivist.

    I don’t believe it’s about the money. It’s never about the money. Hell, I guarantee you that last night the difference between what people consumed and spent would have been under $10. It’s about fundamental beliefs. The group’s imposition versus the individual’s will. I’m sorry that you’ve gotten the short end of the stick in days gone by. That is wrong. You don’t have very observant friends.

    As for the ‘don’t dine out’ thing, I don’t agree with that. However, it is up to someone on a budget to request from friends that you go somewhere reasonable, then to explain at the beginning of the meal (not when the bill comes) where you are coming from. I know that sucks, but good friends are cool with that.

    But I think we are probably just going to have to agree to disagree on this point. We just come from two entirely different points of view.

  2. To be honest, I thionk this is not Europe vs. US.
    In France for example we have the habit to share evenly, and if someone really feels cheated with that, in small groups I always heard it said, and accepted without any problem.
    There is a very famous sketch of a French humorist, Muriel Robin, called “the note” (l’addition) that deals with that.

    Now when I arrived in Germany, I was surprised and even shocked to see people always making their own counts, even when it was obvious we had eaten more or less the same, and we were both on good budget, which means one or two euros difference would not be a problem. I was looked at strangely at the beginning with my french habit of 50-50 or 25-25-25-25 🙂 even – and specially – when I was paying less with the actual split than I would have had with the evenly split. People told me “you would have paid 3 euor more” and I answered “well who cares”

    So for me, as long as I know we are on equal financial level, I still think it’s quicker, and nicer, to make the evenly split. We had a nice moment together, we shared everything equally, laughing, nice talks and so on, and I felt hurt with the detailed split (not anymore, that’s acculturation). TO make a comparison, would you imagine when you make a party at home and ask your friends to bring some stuff, that theones who brought bigger cakes or bigger salads or more bottles ask to take some back ?

    In small groups, I still thinks there are some ways to deal with it when you have real budget differences, like “I offer the aperitives”, or “I offer the wine” (the first bottle in a large group) but we share evenly the food.

    For large groups, what I would consider for myself a good solution would be something like “evenly share the food (and specially if you have arranged a menu before 😉 ) and separate the drinks”

    But definitively, in my culture, even sharing is a part of conviviality.

  3. Splitting the bill equally is definitely NOT usual in America (at least where I’m from). And from time to time I’ve had meals with folks that have suggested splitting the bill evenly. This is only acceptable when you’re having a ‘family style’ meal where all of the plates and beverages are shared equally. Even then, one in the party should be given the option of having a meal without appetizers or without wine, and not being expected to pay for an equal share of the bill later on.

    It is almost always acceptable to ask for separate checks. Usually you want to ask at the beginning of the meal. Just ask the wait-staff “Can you put mine on a separate check?”.

    With some situations, you might find that one ore more of your colleagues (used in the American/English sense and not the Swiss one) is happy to be a cheapskate and not pay their fair share. When using the ‘Stowe System’ you describe, you can often figure out who it is and not invite them along in the future.

    Often, when going out for a friend’s birthday, one or more of your dining companions will offer to buy you lunch. This was the case with our usual work lunch group.

    If I was in the situation you describe, I would probably insist on a separate check, as would most of the people I know. But then again, I’m from Seattle and not from California. The culture is more similar between Seattle and Switzerland than between Seattle and California. And, I’ve lived in all three places

  4. BTW, try the tap water in San Francisco (only in The City). I find that it is some of the best water in the world. It comes from Yosemite National Park. I remember being shocked to see Evian in my hotel room on past business trips to S.F… But, if you want the fizzy stuff, then you have to get it in bottles.

  5. Thanks for your comments, everybody.

    Tara, I’d like to clarify two points (of detail) you raise in your comment:

    • regarding the restaurant being expensive: yes, definitely not cheap, for sure, and in my opinion all the more reason not to split the bill evenly. The pricier the place, the more budget and consumption differences are going to come into play.

    • regarding the appetizers: I maybe didn’t make myself clear about how I expected guests to deal with this. My intention was not to force people to pay for expensive appetizers they had not eaten, again, because I was not expecting people to split the bill. Not eaten any appetizers? Then don’t contribute to them. Eaten a lot? Contribute a lot. Same with the drinks.

    I don’t see any of my choices as being inconsistent with my defense of a “bank-like” system. I have no problem with spending money on a meal when I’ve chosen to. But I don’t want to force the group’s eating choices on the individuals composing it. So yeah, I guess, here I am definitely in “individual takes precedence over group” mode.

  6. I don’t know any of you people, but I’m compelled to write because this is a topic that touches a nerve. I have been in at least one group dinner (in the US) where I had to subsidize someone else’s drinks and steak even though I chose tap water and the cheapest thing on the menu to stay within MY budget. After that, I simply avoided going out with some of these people.

  7. hello
    i also do not know any of you….but find the conversation interesting…and i have definitley been in these situations.
    I do feel that the unspoken here is class…isn’t this in part a class issue? I think it is easy for some to say if you can’t split the bill don’t come…but do all of you make a lot of money and always have had money? If we only surround ourselves with people who can afford to eat at expensive restaurants and not have to think twice about the cost we would be limiting ourselves and our friendships based on class. When one has privledge it is easy to be flip and not consider those that may not have the same privledge as you. I mean the ultimate would be that we could all share in food – be up front and say hey i am flush this month i don’t mind putting extra in or gee this has been a bad month who can cover me….but we are not that generous…and we are often judgemental of those who have less…’s to a good old potluck!
    thaksn for then post

  8. Sorry for adding this a bit late here, but isn’t the central issue to the bank system (which I find great, by the way!) the issue of trust? If I decide to have dinner with someone, then usually I also assume I can to a large degree trust them. (Biz lunches can be a bit tricky that way, but let’s just go with it for the time being.) So when I go out with a group, I’m quite happy to assume that everybody pitches in according to their perceived consumption. (Shall we call it a “truthy” payment morale?) I’m from Germany, where splitting the bill by individual is pretty common, but it definitively isn’t very elegant: After all, it’s simply nice to share your appetizers with your friends, right? So in case someone repeatedly and intentionally underpays massively, i.e. tries to game the bank, then I’d rather not have dinner (or contact) with that person again. But let’s face it: Mostly it’s simply that someone forgot some items, and a brief reminder to double check is more than enough.

    (In Berlin there’s a restaurant that works as the bank: Everybody just symbolically “rents” a wine glass for 1 Euro, then gets as much wine & dinner as they like. And not like a crappy buffet, but a great, amazing, lovingly created several course dinner. In the end, everybody pitches in what they feel they owe, and according to the owner, it works out just fine. The atmosphere is great, too!)

  9. I don’t like splitting the bill evenly for the very simple fact that I usually never consume the kind of thing others do and while I may feel like inviting somebody else, I am not comfortable doing that in a normal condition.

    I don’t drink wine, I don’t drink alcohol, but I do drink a lot of water, usually at least one or two, and if I find something nice on the menue I like to order more – but as I am picky too, it may very well be that I choose only a very limited small selection. Or something really expensive.

    Either way, I am usually always NEVER with what the rest of the crowd does, either I am using up much more, or much less than the rest.

    I could make a smiley face and say I don’t care, but I do. I could “be nice” and just swallow it up, but I won’t because I see no reason to.

    I agree with Stephanie on that if everybody pays, that is taking advantage of, and more than once I have overheard those happy “yeah we like to share and it is great!!!” people afterwards grumpling about how X did have so much more. It is fake in many cases.

    It is a good reminder though to pay attention to ‘group’ habbit and make things clear in the beginning.

    Something I feel comfortable with for example is a combined thing – I pay my share first (remember, this being either much more or much less) and the rest can go for a shared meal if they like, I do not mind that at all.

    If this makes the rest of the group uncomfortable I am sorry, but I rather am at peace with myself than just make somebody else comfortable. Tara’s argument of “oh but that is just greedy individualism whereas the other one is cool collective” does not go with me either IN THIS SPECIFIC case.

    Collective for me is not about being made equal all the time, but for me to have a choice and an agreement with the group I am in that this is the direction how we all think is good to go. There has to be compromise on both side usually, which is fine, but that is about it.

    In this specific case just reading how it worked I would have expected from you to pay for the starters, since you ordered it (my perspective: usually resulting in a lot of stuff I have no interest in eating) and after that it is up to everyone to organize themselves.

    The cultural side of it being that you pay for the birthday girl – over here it is more responsibility for the host to invite everybody is another dimension to it.

    To sum it up – it is not easy and needs talking. But there is not the case of “my way is the only one which is the correct one”.

  10. Can’t argue that this should be settled before spending, but regarding the various methods described here, not everything is face value. What about ambiance and venue?

    A million dollar interior is not covered by a water and a salad. Trendy panache is not covered by your single glass of iced tea and appetizer.

    If you came alone to have water and a salad you would not get a table.. because you generate a loss and take up space somene else desires. Why do you think you can come with a group and just pay for your water and salad? You are asking the group to subsidize your enjoyment of the amenities.

    If you go out with friends be prepared to be generous. Your friends will appreciate the offer, even if they don’t accept it. One day, when you need a friend, you will be glad your friends are prepared to be generous.

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