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picking up the tab

Picking up the Tab Can Stress Your Budget- and Your Relationships

How much is dinner out costing you?

As we were heading out from a restaurant dinner party last week, my friend, Ann, leaned over and griped to me about the group decision to split the check evenly. While grumbling about how “This always happens to me,” Ann noted who’d had cocktails and who’d ordered the market price fish, who’d had appetizers and who’d ordered desserts. She knew exactly the cost of the items she had ordered and was well aware of the group members who had gluttonously allowed others to pay for their purchases.

Picking up the tab for others at the table during a casual dinner out with friends hadn’t entered her mind. Ann questioned whether she should have eaten and drank more to get her “fair share.”

Ann didn’t want to appear “cheap” by asking for separate checks at the beginning of the meal, but now she was picking up the tab for others.

In discussing it further, Ann told me she didn’t want to appear “cheap” by asking for separate checks at the beginning of the meal, but now she was picking up the tab for others, smarting as this girls’ night out ended up costing her $80. In reality, her share should not have been more than $30. Where is that $50 supposed to come from, and why should Ann be subsidizing the meals of her adult friends?

Stick to Your Budget or Pick up the Tab? It’s Your Money… isn’t it?

The fact that Ann mentioned that this “always happens” left me feeling uncomfortable. If this happens to Ann (or you) even twice a month, at the end of the year, that equals $1,200 lost. Not only is that initial $1,200 consumed and gone, but that was $1,200 that Ann could have invested in, well, anything at all! Even if Ann loses all of her $1,200 in investments she’d made, at least her money will have been lost in her investments, not as a result of her paying for the expenses of others.

How do you deal with going out to dinner with your friends? Are you the one who has to pick up the tab for others? Or are you the taker? I have been in situations where the check is split and the higher orderers immediately offer to, and do, pay more to cover their purchases. I have also been in situations where I reach for the check (after waiting a reasonable amount of time) because it is time to leave, and the other party doesn’t even reach for his or her wallet.

Are you the one who has to pick up the tab for others? Or are you the taker?

People do, for some reason, often expect that I will pick up the tab. Maybe they think I have more money, or assume that I am always generous. It is incredibly awkward to have to say, “Are you going to contribute to this check?” And, truthfully, it is sometimes just easier to pay. But that doesn’t make it the right decision.

You may also like, “Living Frugally Makes for a Rich Life

In another group dinner situation, everyone independently put cash into the pile in an amount they determined covered their purchases. When I added up all the contributions, we were $30 short. Now, is someone intentionally stealing? Or mindlessly forgetting to add in their drinks or their share of the tip? Here again, people who had paid for their share were stuck picking up the tab for more than their fair share, as we decided to split up the difference not knowing where the short occurred, and needing to close out the bill.

Communicate With Friends Before Going Out

I am sure the answer to the money questions isn’t to stop going out to eat with your friends — although that is a very expensive habit, even if you are paying only for your purchases. I would suggest, however, that you be very upfront with your friends before you head out to the restaurant. We all have our friends who only go to the very best restaurants and order expensive wine by the bottle.

Before you accept the invitation to dine with those friends, plan to be clear with them that your personal expense fund for the week is limited and that you intend to ask for separate checks. 

If your friends balk at your suggestion, better you know now. You can always suggest a more reasonably priced restaurant, or maybe you can meet before for appetizers only, or join later for coffee and dessert.

If the idea of the engagement is to socialize and have fun, it shouldn’t mean you are forced to use the majority of your discretionary income for one dinner out on the town with friends.

You may also like, “How to Stay Afloat When You’re Swimming in Financial Debt

If you do choose to go out to a restaurant, when you are seated kindly and discreetly request separate checks. Be aware of the appetizers. Two other friends recently went out to lunch and requested separate checks. At the end of the meal, when the checks arrived, Friend 1 asked Friend 2 to “contribute” to the appetizer, because she had eaten a few of the chips. Very awkward.

Budgeting for Dinners Out Can Help Fulfill Personal Goals

If you have a budget and you know exactly how much of your weekly allowance is available for entertainment and social expenses, it will be easier to see where you are spending your money. Is it immediate gratifications (or worse yet, picking up the tab for the immediate gratifications of others) that don’t enhance your life or add to your overall well-being?

If you have set goals for where the majority of your money should be going, and have allowed a small budget for fun, you will find it easier to say no to (or limit the expenses associated with) restaurant meals that do not help you reach your true personal goals. You can choose to abstain from all of those dinners, or some of them, or you, at the very least, can decide to no longer pay for the portion you didn’t consume.

If you have a budget... it will be easier to see where you are spending your money.

Then, make it a point to save those funds in a separate account (while you have just as much fun making potluck dinners at home). In this way, you will be amazed at how quickly those saved dollars (and the interest they can earn) add up. Doing so will support you in empowering yourself to make decisions that align with your personal goals and the food that you eat doesn’t become a big lump stuck in your throat.

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About Michelle Gershfeld

I’m a debt settlement and bankruptcy attorney who negotiates resolutions between clients and their creditors. I am also a real estate attorney involved in both sides of purchasing and selling distressed real property. I am passionate about teaching people about money and helping individuals of all ages achieve financial independence and success in a "no…

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