If you want to know how to ruin an otherwise perfect night out with friends, just ask for the bill. No sooner does the check come to the table do people scramble like roaches when the lights come on. Nervous stares are exchanged across the table, people stare at the bill as if it’s written in Japanese, and all of a sudden everyone forgets what they ordered and just ate. Tired of getting stuck with a larger than anticipated bill on numerous occasions, I thought I would offer a few tips on eating out with groups.
1) If you know where you will be eating ahead of time, call the restaurant and ask if they will allow for separate checks. If not, arrive early and let the wait staff know that you may need to leave early and therefore you will need a separate tab.
2) Lie! Explain that you are traveling for business and need a separate, itemized receipt with only your purchases. If you do need to leave early, make sure you let someone know that you have cleared your portion of the bill and explain how much you are leaving and for what. I have found that people leave early and while they have graciously left money, they don’t leave enough.
3) Bring cash. I find that at the end of the night, deciding how much goes on what card is a hassle as well. Cash saves time and it also eliminates the need for people to say, “Just put it all on your card and take the cash”. If you do bring cash, don’t bring a $50. Making change when the bill arrives is a pain. I am guilty of NOT bringing cash and never having change – something I’m going to work on in 2010.
4) The cost of your meal is not just the salmon and the glass of wine! Make sure you have enough to cover your purchase, gratuity, AND taxes. While you may opt to not to pay a tip while dining alone, large groups often incur mandatory gratuity. Gratuity is normally around 15%-20%. Sales tax is the applicable tax rate in your city. If you are not able to leave enough for the tax and the tip, stay home. But if you just have to go out, order something less expensive. Many cell phones have gratuity calculators so you can determine how much you should leave. If not, any basic calculator will do: $10 meal + 1.06(10) (assuming a 6% sales tax) + 1.20(10) (assuming 20% gratuity). This means that you should leave at a minimum $12.60 or $13 if you round up to the nearest dollar.
5) Milestones – many of us enjoy taking our friends out for their birthday or other important milestones such as engagement or new job. Make sure everyone knows that they will be contributing money towards the dinner. Preferably, this should be agreed to before the outing. It’s not fair for 2 people to contribute and 10 other people are sitting at the table staring at their empty dinner plates. If you can’t afford to contribute, stay home. Regretfully decline the invitation and think of other ways to celebrate your friend like cooking a meal at home or taking them out when you do have enough money to treat.
6) Order everything you want because we will split the bill down the middle – NO. I don’t believe in ordering the whole menu and then splitting the bill in half. If you wish to partake in this, all dinner attendees should be made aware of this in advance. It’s not fair to have the person on the budget (which is usually me) ordering a small, modest meal that they can afford and then have to pay 2 or 3 times their meal price because everyone else ordered alcoholic beverages, every meat on the menu, every alcoholic beverage on the menu, and 2 deserts each. I had this painful experience once and had to borrow money from a friend to contribute to the bill. Never again! However, one polite dinner attendee asked the wait staff to provide him with a separate bill for his alcoholic drinks because he felt it wasn’t fair to make the whole table pay for his drinks. I will admit, splitting the bill down the middle is easy and if the bill is modest, I prefer this rather than sitting with the pen, paper, and calculator in hand trying to figure out how much each person spent.
These are just a few of the pains that I have experienced over the past few years. If anyone else has any other tips that they would want to share, please pass along.