But I Only Drank Water!

Dear Helena,

A friend of mine invited a group of friends to dinner at a nice restaurant for her birthday. The other guests ordered a couple of cocktails each, split some appetizers, then had entrées and a few bottles of wine. I had only an entrée and one drink. When the check came, everyone agreed to split it. It was $75 each—a bit more than I wanted to spend on a group dinner. I’m trying to save money right now, but I didn’t want to say anything as I felt I would look cheap. If I’m worried about the cost of a friend’s birthday dinner, should I just not go? Or is there a way for me to politely let others know I want to pay only for what I ordered? —Out of Pocket

Dear Out of Pocket,

If the host is a close friend, you can’t miss her birthday dinner. You have two choices. If you’re truly broke, you should feel OK about saying, “I’m on a budget, so I’m just going to order an entrée.” Bring cash, and when the check comes, grab it and put down the money for your order before anyone suggests splitting it. Don’t forget to contribute to the birthday host’s dinner.

But if you can afford it, it’s always better to split the check. Sharing a meal is supposed to bring people together, not remind them of socioeconomic disparities. If you’re confining yourself to one dish and one drink, other people may feel guilty for indulging themselves. You may feel depressed that you don’t have as much money as they do.

If everyone pays only for what he or she orders, then when the check comes, guests get tangled in petty calculations. Inevitably, someone miscounts how many beers he had, or doesn’t put in enough for the tip, or forgets to chip in for the host’s share. Worse yet, fussing over the details of the bill makes you look stingy. Dan Rubin, a spin instructor in San Francisco, says: “Why spoil a great dinner quibbling over awkward minutiae like who had three beers and who had one?” Rubin isn’t wealthy, but he finds this so distasteful, he says, “It’s worth me spending the extra $25 or whatever to save my reputation.”

If you refuse to split the check, you also must deny yourself one of the great pleasures of dining out: sharing food with others. Ron Kaplan, a seller of processed-food ingredients in Chicago who frequently dines out, says: “Part of the fun of dining in a group is getting to try a lot of dishes. If you’re with people who are serious about food, it’s understood that pretty much everything is available for sampling.”

If the host is not a close friend, you may feel uncomfortable explaining that you’re hard up so you just want a salad. You’ll also feel reluctant to break your budget so you can pay for an equal share of the tab. If the host is a second-tier friend, feel free to bow out. If you wish, suggest joining the group for drinks before or after dinner instead.

When you decline, don’t blame it on your budget. Most likely you’re not struggling to meet your basic survival needs, so the money you’re trying to save is discretionary income. You could spend it on a birthday dinner if it really mattered to you. It’s just that something else matters more. If you say you can’t go because of money, what you’re really saying is: “I’d rather put that money toward a vacation/getting my car fixed.” So tell your friend you’ve got a prior engagement. There’s no need to let her know you don’t care enough about her birthday to part with your cash.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.