To split or to itemise?

The dinner bill etiquette analysis…

Toby Harris

Eating out causes problems – “How do you cover the tip?” and “What is the bank note and change scenario?” are among some of the multiple concerns that need to be addressed. Whilst you do not want to come across as a cheapskate, at the same time, you do not want to over-pay. How should one break up the bill at the end?

Different scenarios call for different approaches. The most common and difficult of them all is when some people booze up and others do not. Five friends may go out for a meal, some drink, others stick to the product of the kitchen tap – beverages distort the overall bill. Non-drinkers are well within their rights to not split the final bill if they did not drink. Nonetheless, it is the responsibility of the drinkers to alleviate this burden, jump on the bill and insist on the structure of payment. The drinks bill should be dealt with at the drinking contingent’s discretion.  However, speaking out by the non-drinkers can be somewhat uncomfortable. Whilst it is never nice to be seen to ‘nit-pick’, you do not want to be taken advantage of. It is the responsibility of those that have the larger bill to seize on this opportunity and cough up the extra cash without hesitation.

At the same time, pedantic itemisers are a production of the anti-Christ. They are equally, if not more, uncomfortable to eat with. If my main course was £6 and yours was £8 – that is just luck of the drawer – we ordered what we wanted, we saw the price of our respective dishes – split the bill and stop being dramatic! If you are going to squabble over every single dime, it is not worth eating out in the first place. Why would you be happy to pay £6 but not £7 – is that one extra pound a real deal breaker to the social arrangement?


Complications arise once again if the majority of the social party orders starters but one solitary individual does not. Pressure mounts and several thoughts enter the mind of the single-course muncher.

1)   “Should I just eat a second course because I am going to have to split it between all the guests, even if I don’t want it?”


2)   “Should I be brave and stand up for my right to eat a single course? I am not hungry enough for two – why should I conform? What’s more, I am not content to pay for an overpriced started that I did not particularly desire.”

Itemising can be awkward but it is down to the discretion and gumption of the single course eater.

Bank notes: if my meal is £6 and I pay with a £10 note – I will wait and I want my change. If the dinner is £8, after paying the waiting staff a tip – I think I can let it go. £7 is a tricky one – it seems wasteful to forego £3 when your meal is £7 – it is 43% of your overall dinner cost.

At the same time, the worst of all social diners are the ones that I call “the opportunistic grabber”. They are the type that have an accumulated meal cost of £12 but only carry a £10 note on them. Usually, they’re “broke” thus deferring responsibility to the rest of the table to settle up the shortfall. There are always “free-riders” that look for that extra bit of subsidy from the other guests. It is embarrassing dinner etiquette that should be named and shamed as it places a strain on the social dynamic when it needn’t do so. If you eat, you pay. If you know you want £12 of food – carry the correct change on you.

Saying that, there is a hefty difference between those that you can tell are in it for the group-dynamic subsidy, which contrast to those that may ask the occasional favour. The latter may have forgotten some cash, left in a rush or the restaurant may be slightly more expensive than they initially anticipated. In this instance, sharing is caring. We all have an instinct to decipher “the opportunistic takers” from “the forgetful one-off mistak-ers”.

The dos and don’ts of eating out are challenging and adults appear to handle it effortlessly. It must come from years of experience, on mass discussion and a personalised tactic to avoid these financial encounters. It is testing when social meets financial and whilst standing your ground, you have to be cautious not to appear like a penny-counting Scrooge.

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