Splitting the Bill

By Sean Carroll | December 19, 2008 10:39 am

Continuing the end-of-year purge of things I don’t have time to properly blog about: be sure not to go to dinner with this guy. He might lash out at you as everyone is heading home.

“We’re going to split the bill,” said the organizer at my friend’s ninth grade birthday party. I didn’t think much of it until I ended up paying $40 for a $10 entrée. I felt cheated because I didn’t order a drink like most others. I was afraid to ruin the party mood, so I concealed my own anger, and that ended up ruining the night for me.

Now, I almost have sympathy; if you’ve ever gone to dinner with a collection of scientists, you’ll find that their vaunted mathematical skills tend to whither under the pressure of calculating tax and tip, and the person who volunteers to collect the money often ends up chipping in extra to cover the shortfall. But Mr. Talwalkar goes far, far overboard, devising an elaborate scheme by which everyone in the party receives emails ahead of time informing them that they will be strictly limited in the menu options once they reach the restaurant. It’s a common syndrome among people with something of a quantitative bent; fixating on the relationship between the money they are paying and the tangible goods in front of them in the form of food and drink, they completely discount the goods associated with having a good time in a social atmosphere and not worrying too much about who had how many bites out of which appetizer.

Admittedly, this guy probably gets more enjoyment out of solving a game theory problem and enforcing conformity with his rules than he would by relaxing and telling stories at dinner. That’s why you have to choose your dining companions carefully.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Food and Drink, Humanity
  • http://thewhitelion.org/mysister Fraser

    It staggers me that he’s put that much thought into it. Going out to dinner with friends is not about the food, and if paying forty bucks for an entree ruins your night, maybe you should stay at home. I say this as a non-drinking vegetarian, which apparently makes me a chronic overpayer, but I’d sure as hell rather pay more than go through that sort of performance every time I ate out.

  • Meredith

    I couldn’t agree more! Whenever I went out to dinner with a group of my fellow undergraduates (at a technical school), the bill was always the most complicated part. Now that I have a group of non-sciencey friends I eat out with sometimes, it’s amazingly simpler, yet they sometimes think I’m the one who should calculate tip and tax since I have a physics degree. Um, no.

  • Julianne

    I actually sympathize with Talwalkar, having been at colloquium dinners where financially secure senior faculty order expensive wines (which only some drink), all the trimmings, and then advocate for an equal split along with vegetarian beginning postdocs (who only had a salad) and grad students. I don’t advocate for a formal system, but just common sensitivity to the fact that some people’s financial situation is not the same as yours.

    My preferred scheme is to calculate the average, and tell people to self adjust if they got (or didn’t get) drinks/appetizers/desserts.

  • http://www.cita.utoronto.ca/~ljdursi/ Jonathan Dursi

    I’ve always wanted to see a cross-disciplinary breakdown of this effect. Whenever I go to dinner with computational/data-analysis astro types we always end up with too much in the kitty.

  • http://www.metcaffeination.net thm

    My first year of (physics) grad school, we went out to eat a lot. Pretty much every night. Often to on-campus dining or fast food, but quite often we had to split a bill.

    Evenly divided is easiest; each pays his own is most fair, but can lead to disagreement if someone decides that 5% is a sufficient tip. We came up with a hybrid algorithm which worked well: Each diner paid the menu cost of his/her own food and beverages. Tax, tip, and costs of shared food (and cost for a guest of honor, if applicable) were split evenly with the whole table. Then modest diners paid modest amounts, heavy drinkers paid their way, the tip was a consensus amount, nobody was mad and nobody cheated.

  • Rachel Mary

    As an undergrad I had the opportunity to work with the High Energy Astrophysics group at Goddard. The best thing I learned that summer was how to split a meal amongst friends.

    You pass the bill around the table with a basket (or the bill holder). Everyone chips in what they feel is fair including tax and tip. No pencils or calculators allowed, and there’s social pressure to be quick. Whoever volunteers to count the money gets to choose the tip. If not enough money was collected, the volunteer forks over the difference. If there’s too much, the volunteer gets the extra. We never had trouble getting a volunteer, since they usually came out ahead. Most people preferred overpaying to looking cheap. The server was taken care of, since the volunteer had a whole table of people judging the tip.

    (Disclosure: I’m a non-drinking vegan)

  • Brian

    I disagree. I’m often the one that’s had an extra glass of wine or two and I would NEVER want anybody else picking up the tab for me. It’s easy enough for me to throw in an extra $20 and tell others to adjust accordingly. How hard is that?

  • Spiv

    what, you people have never heard of individual billing? There’s never a debate with our groups. Just separate checks. I can have all the single malt I can stand up to, and not put my undergrad ramen-eater friends into ruin.

    Is this an option that’s unavailable in the rest of the country? Or simply has no one asked their server if they can do that? Seems we’ve been able to get this done in places ranging from applebees to the $50/plate-before-drinks-and-dressings establishments.

  • http://astrodyke.blogspot.com The AstroDyke

    My favorite line from the movie “Kissing Jessica Stein” is when a loser accountant charges his blind date >50% for the salad they shared. The reason: She ate more than half of the arugula, and “Arugula is one of the more expensive greens.”

  • http://astrodyke.blogspot.com The AstroDyke

    That said, I was often the vegetarian grad student asked to pay 3x what my salad+tip cost, to subsidize alcohol for post-docs, after a well-meaning professor suggested we divvy up evenly.

    I’m all for “Pay for what you ordered, plus your share of the appetizers & drinks, and don’t forget an 18% tip.” And then not letting anyone leave until enough dough has been coughed up.

  • gopher65

    Personally it isn’t about the money. I just have a problem with people cheating me, either purposefully or through incompetence and lack of thought. I’m fair with other people, and I expect the same in return. When I don’t get treated fairly, I get pissed off.

    What I don’t understand is why people are too stupid to remember what the approximate cost of their meal and drinks were (you have to be really stupid to be *completely* clueless as to the cost of your meal), add tax (5% in my case, but even if it is 17.5% or some other ridiculous number, it isn’t hard to give a rough estimate), and then see how much that adds up to. It should usually be around the amount of the total bill. If it is slightly less (as it is more often than not), then divvy up the difference. After that, calculate the tip from the total bill, and then *split the TIP* between everyone equally (because the while the meals may not be equal in value, the service general is).

    It really isn’t that complicated unless you’re an idiot… or drunk.

    Or, if that’s too complicated, people could actually show even the tiniest smidgen of foresight *gasp*, realize before ordering that after the meal they are going to have to figure out how to slit the bill, and actually bother writing down the cost of their meal. Wow. That’s unbelievably hard.

  • gopher65

    I smooshed 2 sentences into one flowing thought :P. This is what the lack of a preview brings, sadly.

  • Alan French

    We’ve sometimes asked the waiter or waitress to write up separate bills when we’ve gone out with another couple, but I wouldn’t dream of asking for such treatment with a large group of people.

    Clear skies, Alan

  • Egaeus

    I personally go out once a month with my thesis advisor and his grad students. I’m still working on my thesis, but am employed full time. The original agreement was that he agrees to pay the first $50, and we split the rest. Now that I’m working, I subsidize “the rest” ($20-$30) leaving the full-time students typically with about $5 each. This is a “from each according to his means” method that works well for us, but maybe not for someone like the original author who resents paying more than his “fair” share, so if it’s appealing to you, you should avoid dining with those who resent the progressive taxation system.

  • http://www.pieter-kok.staff.shef.ac.uk Pieter Kok

    Separate bills for groups are a nightmare, not just for waiters but also for the other customers, who don’t get service because their waiter is tied up. I speak from experience as a waiter.

    I’d also say that the way to split the bill depends on the circumstances. With just a modicum of social awareness you can easily determine whether an even split would be appropriate or not.

  • http://www.pieter-kok.staff.shef.ac.uk Pieter Kok

    Egaeus, that is an elegant solution.

  • Steuard

    I’m a stickler for fairness, too (and also well aware of the research showing that groups expecting to split the bill tend to order more just to make sure they get their money’s worth). If I order something expensive, I’d feel terrible making everyone else subsidize it. And if I’m watching my budget (aren’t most people these days?), why should it be socially unacceptable for me to do so at dinner with friends? It absolutely boggles my mind when people say, “If you can’t afford to pay for your friends’ filet mignon, you shouldn’t eat out with them at all.”

    The easiest solution to this issue that I’ve seen was a bill-splitting program that my wife had on her old Palm Pilot: you just entered the price of each item (and which person or people got it) and it would calculate everyone’s share, including tip.

  • Luis

    I agree with gopher65: if you are old enough to go out for dinner, you are also old enough to add three two-digit numbers in your head and remember the result for a couple of hours.

    I’ll keep Egaeus’ system in mind for whenever I become an wealthy elderly full prof. As a finishing-postdoc-about-to-begin-as-an-assistant-prof, I let grad students choose the restaurant, on the basis that I can afford the food they can afford, but not viceversa.

  • Spiv

    splitting the check is not that huge of a thing to most modernized restaurants, and frankly I think they make up for it in spades by ending up with a good portion of the table giving 25%+ tips because it’s only a couple bucks, instead of calculating 15% for all so that no one feels like they’re being made to pony up money they don’t have.

    In the end, the server almost definitely wins.

    We used to have a weekly venue, they always gave us one of the same 3 servers because they knew we were coming. One week none of them could work (might have been exam week or something) so someone else filled in. The next week we got a story from one of our usuals that basically was “The person that served you last week came up to me complaining about you guys, I told him he must have done something horribly wrong.”

    I think some are good at dealing with groups, some are not. All I can do is tip well for putting up with it.

  • http://www.pieter-kok.staff.shef.ac.uk Pieter Kok

    Spiv, from my experience, tipping is significantly worse when people pay separately. Granted, I “took my data” (over six summers in the nineties) in the Netherlands, but without further evidence to the contrary I would say that this hold true in the US as well.

  • Spiv

    Pieter: It’s very likely that my experience is not universal, after all I’m working with an n=1 kind of a thing here. I guess I’ll ask a number of server friends and see what they think. Perhaps I just roll with a generous crowd. Which could be nice too.

  • Jim

    billmonk.com. Problem solved.

  • John R Ramsden

    > Admittedly, this guy probably gets more enjoyment out of solving a game theory problem

    A clue is if the guy orders a large cake for everyone’s dessert, and insists on each person’s slice being cut by someone else.

  • Egaeus

    I’m curious as to how the anti-separate-check crowd proposes that each pay their fair share these days with so many people who don’t carry cash. Those people (myself included), either go to an ATM and have nothing but $20’s, or forget altogether and have nothing but plastic.

  • http://phoenixmagoo.com Drnecropolis

    Unless it’s somebody’s going away party, I never pay for more than what i ordered plus tip. Tip is determined on what I ordered and does not factor in the total (groups) bill. THe problem with asking for separate checks is that it makes more work for the server, and 9 times out of 10, no body asks for separate checks until the foods already been received and eaten, so the server has to figure out what each person ordered and split it on their own. As somebody who dated a waitress for a long time, every minute spent fooling around splitting a check is taking away from service to other tables and thus losing the server money. Splitting the check is fine, just give the server heads up in advance

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    We trialled a colloquium student dinner program where the students were subsidized to $5 plus drinks. Dunno what ever happened to it, but it seemed to be a good idea at the time.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Eh. I’m all for a good company, but I’ve been burned by too many freeloading jerks too many times to put up with it anymore. Unless it’s business or family, I generally ask for my own check now. If a waitron protests, I insist. If they want to include the 18% gratuity due to party size, I never complain. But I’m not paying for somebody’s three coctails and top-tier entree when all I got was a Cobb salad and an iced tea again. In my experience, anyone stand-up enough to pay their fair share isn’t offended. If they do take offense? Guess who that guy probably would have been. Yeah. One of the jerks.

  • gopher65

    I’ve worked in a restaurant before, so while I like the idea of separate checks in principle, it usually isn’t a good idea in practise if you have an overly large table. It creates a large amount of extra work for the server, and I don’t like to do that to them. However, as Drnecropolis already mentioned, this problem is diminished somewhat if you inform the server of your payment plans prior to the order being taken. This problem has also been (somewhat) diminished with computerized ordering systems.

    On a completely separate topic, I really dislike rereading my own comments on boards like this. Every time I look at a previous comment I find grammatical errors, misused words, and improper punctuation. I mean, I know this isn’t formal writing or anything, but eeesh, it still bugs me.

  • http://whenindoubtdo.blogspot.com/ Eugene

    As somebody who don’t normally drink in joint dinners, I can sympathize with the poster.

    Now, as a rich postdoc, I don’t have a problem with “subsidizing” (his words) my friends’ drinks. But the group of friends i hang out are those who are *conscientious* enough to pay for their own drinks, especially since they know I don’t drink. In fact “paying for what you ordered” is the usual way to go.

    Personally, I don’t mind paying more if it is a big group dinner (say in speaker dinners where not all diners are regular buddies). But what I feel is not nice is when some faculty member suggest even split between every diner, even grad students. Everyone here was a former grad (or even current) student before, we know how poorly we were paid then. And I always notice that grad students generally go for the cheaper stuff (yes I pay attention to this stuff, since I am always curious about social issues like this). Not surprising of course….but an even split will mean that poor grad students subsidize rich faculty. Now don’t tell me there is nothing wrong with that.

  • http://www.pieter-kok.staff.shef.ac.uk Pieter Kok

    Another thing to remember about separate cheques: in large groups there are very often items that are not paid for because the customer “forgot” to mention it to the waiter. So when everybody has paid, the waiter then has to scramble the remainder from the people that have not yet left the restaurant. So I think restaurants are perfectly justified in refusing separate checks for large groups.

  • st

    Y’all should grow some balls and try telling your fellow diners if you end up overpaying.

  • Gort

    I’ve always thought it best to keep track of what I’ve ordered, round up to whole dollars, factor in 25%, then never pay a dollar more. For some reason it always comes out to $25, which I don’t have on me at the time, and so I just end up taking everyone else’s cash and paying on a credit card. In which case I always come out ahead.

  • Ginger Yellow

    This situation is a lot easier to handle in the UK where tax is always included and service usually is.

  • http://knotmyline.com/blog Ron Hager

    Gort, I may be wrong, but you are the problem and NOT the solution. You never pay more than a dollar more but are very willing to skim the money of others. Tsk, tsk, tsk!

  • Richard E

    I used to work in Japan, and we had a lot of group dinners (often fairly liquid affairs) at places that charged a flat, per-head rate. The prof kicked in the first, and then one of the senior grad students would go round the table, applying an incredibly complicated algorithm based on seniority, and the known value of your stipend or fellowship — the result of which was that the youngest student usually paid an order of magnitude less for their meal than the prof.

  • Gort

    irt Ron

    and the odd thing is people are always happy because they think I’m doing them a favor.

  • st

    Nice scam, Dork! Sorry, Gork! I mean, Gort!

  • Gort

    takes one to know one :-)

  • Pingback: Dividing a Restaurant Bill Using Mechanism Design - Mind Your Decisions by Presh Talwalkar()

  • Mel H

    I have had several waitress jobs, and never would have hesitated to allow a table separate checks. I’m there to serve them, not the other way around.

    It is way easier to deal with a table of 8, then 4 tables of 2. I ask from the get go – will these be separte checks or all together – and write them up accordingly.

    It’s no big deal. Maybe some wait staff are terrible at math, I don’t know. I’m good at it, and it takes just a few moments with a calculator to tally a bill.

    I want my guests happy. I don’t agree with restaurant policies that say ‘groups of ___ or more will be on one check, with a __% gratuity automatically added’

    I think that’s really disrespectful of guests

  • Mel H

    If you want separate checks, mention that at very first contact with server.


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Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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