It seems a lot of people are experiencing frugal-diner fatigue. That's when a restaurant meal turns into an embarrassing battle over the bill.
I had no idea I would initiate an avalanche of mail by responding to one reader's complaints about a penny-pinching co-worker who, as it turns out, was really being miserly and whose shenanigans to get out of paying his fair share caused a lot of ill will.
To get around the haggling over who should pay, many people have decided that splitting the bill equally is the only way to go. Here's a sampling of what equal splitters had to say:
¢ One reader wrote: "If you are invited to join a group and are afraid that you may be stuck with paying for more food and drink than you ordered and that it will be more than you want to spend, then you should ... decline the invitation."
¢ Tina Salter, of Atascadero, Calif., wrote: "The people who want to pay only for their own frequently forget their drinks, the tax and most especially the tip so others get stuck with those items. Not to mention they often nitpick the amount of the tip. Frugal is good. I consider myself frugal, but when eating out, the entire experience should be good. The meal shouldn't be spoiled by the payment scenario."
But, as always, there's another side:
¢ "I almost always have a salad so why should I be expected to pay for someone's steak?" a frugal diner wrote. "I didn't get a piece of it so I ain't gonna help pay for it. I guess that's the reason I don't go out to dinner more often with friends."
¢ "From my own experience, dinner out with others can be one of the most difficult times to be frugal and social," wrote Melissa Tosetti of Redwood City, Calif., editor and publisher of Budget Savvy, a quarterly lifestyle magazine.
¢ "The last department I was in, it seemed to be assumed when we went out to lunch that the bill would just be divided by the number of people attending," another wrote. "As the newest member of the group, and relatively low in status and pay, I would sit there with my half sandwich and bowl of soup - and then be asked to pay $30 or even $40 toward the bill."
In "Emily Post's Etiquette," a comprehensive guide to manners, author Peggy Post says splitting the bill can be approached in two ways, both of which are socially acceptable.
"First, you each pay only for what you ordered; second you split the bill in equal shares," she writes.
Post says although the latter is preferred by many because it's simpler, it's OK if you don't want to split the tab equally. It's fine if you don't want to subsidize what others ate if, for example, they had a bottle of wine when you had none.
Tips for eating out
I think it's ludicrous to conclude that people should stop dining out in groups because they're budget conscious. Instead the solution is to practice some common sense and sensitivity. Here are some tips for dining out in groups:
¢ Don't be afraid to ask for a separate check, Post advises. "Just make sure to ask before ordering, for both your fellow diners' and the server's sake," Post writes. Here's the polite way to do it she suggests: "Hope nobody minds, but I'm going to have to ask for a separate bill tonight."
¢ Speak up if you really don't want to split the bill evenly. That's what Bruce B. Figoten, of Northridge, Calif., did. "I recently had it with going out with my friends and paying for their alcohol and desserts. My wife and I are trying to lose weight and have stopped drinking and eating desserts. It took me a few times to finally say something to them and they are now sensitive to our feelings."
¢ If you agree to split the bill, then chip in enough to cover your share of the tip and tax. Don't cheat your friends or co-workers in the name of frugality. That's not being frugal. It's being a jerk.
¢ If you order significantly more than others in the party, put more toward the bill.
¢ Don't go out to eat without enough cash or means to pay for your fair share of the meal (especially if you're unsure if separate checks are possible). As a penny pincher, I got irritated on one occasion when I had to pick up the tab for a fellow diner who, after wiping the last crumb from his mouth announced: "Oh my bad, I forgot to stop at the cash machine."
Come on people, if we can make microchips to carry millions of bits of information, it's possible to dine in groups and pay the bill without a lot of financial drama.
- Michelle Singletary is a columnist for The Washington Post.