Should You Really Split The Check? 5 Etiquette Tips for Restaurants

We asked etiquette experts about the best—and classiest—ways to handle this and other common money questions.

There's often an awkward pause when the check arrives at a restaurant. Should the bill be split down the middle? Or should you tally up the bill so each person covers their own meal expenses? There's also the option of requesting separate checks entirely. What's the check protocol these days? We asked the money etiquette experts about the best—and classiest—ways to handle this common conundrum.

First things first: "The decision to split the bill should happen before you sit down for dinner," says Toni Dupree, an etiquette coach with Etiquette & Style by Dupre in Houston. "Not when the wait staff brings the check."

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Consider Your Dining Companion's Situation

The best way to handle dining out with a friend or a group is to be mindful of your companions. Before you default to splitting a check down the middle, consider that not everyone is in the same financial situation. Also, diners may order varying items, indulge in alcohol, or even have more courses. Experts say it's perfectly acceptable to ask your companion(s) if they are amenable to dividing the check with these considerations in mind.

"If, and only if, everyone agreed to split the bill before the meals are ordered, then it is OK to evenly divide that check when the bill arrives," confirms Karene Putney, CEO of Etiquette Etiquette.

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Splitting Tip and Tax Is the Norm

Even if meal and beverage totals are tallied according to each person, different standards apply to tax and gratuity. "However you tallied the check, it is proper etiquette to split tax and tip evenly among the table," Putney says.

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Be Your Own Advocate

It's your prerogative to ask for separate checks based on your dining history with a certain friend, or if you expect to order modestly. Just tell your companion(s) your preference.

"Friends should be comfortable enough to have an upfront conversation and just put everything on the table in advance without worrying about it," says Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert with The Protocol School of Texas in San Antonio.

"Most people feel the same way and are waiting for the first person to speak up," she explains. Gottsman adds that good friends should be able to feel "emotionally safe" to broach uncomfortable topics such as their personal finances. "After the conversation, there will be an understanding, and everything will fall into place," she says.

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Pony Up to Pay for an Honoree

There's an implied understanding that if a group is taking someone out for a birthday or other celebratory occasion, the group will pay for the guest of honor.

"The friends would split the check evenly and pick up the birthday honoree," she says. This is one case where even if one person orders more than the others, you still split the check evenly down the middle–and tack on the honoree's portion equally, too.

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Pay for Own Meal for a Non-Special Occasion

Even if you don't bring the subject up at the start of the meal, it's acceptable to pay for only your share of the bill.

"At the end of the meal, you can just contribute what you have calculated that you owe," affirms Gottsman. "The key is to speak up so you don't feel taken advantage of."

Bottom Line

To avoid an awkward moment when the check arrives, Gottsman says it's best to state your preference early. Announce it pre-meal by saying something like, "Please put this on separate checks" to the server. Then everyone can relax and enjoy the conversation.

There are always people who just want to split the bill down the middle. For some, that works, and for others, it's an annoyance. If you suspect someone in your group is in the first category, sidestep conflict by establishing your preference early. "You can say to the group, 'I'm going to grab my own check' so they know you're not going to be part of the final split."

Ultimately, be communicative. If you walk away confused or irritated that the bill was not split to your liking, Gottsman says it's your responsibility to respectfully and kindly correct the situation the next time around.

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