Splitting the Dinner Check

Day to Day personal finance contributor Michelle Singletary talks with Alex Chadwick about how to deal with the dinner check at a restaurant without being rude, or spending too much. Singletary writes the syndicated column "The Color of Money" for The Washington Post.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And finally today, dear listeners, don't you all have that friend, the one who brings a calculator, maybe, to dinner at a restaurant and scowls at the suggestion that we all just split the check evenly? Are those people annoying cheapskates, or are they only asking for fairness? Here with commentary on this is our lovable penny-pincher, Michelle Singletary, our own personal finance contributor.

Michelle, you don't bring a calculator to dinner, do you?

MICHELLE SINGLETARY reporting:

Well, I have my calculator--yes, I do. In fact, it got my name on it. And yes, some of my friends do go, `There she goes again.'

CHADWICK: I think you--haven't--you've gotten hundreds of e-mails from people complaining about frugal dinner fatigue, as you call it. What is that exactly?

SINGLETARY: Oh, my goodness. I ran my annual penny-pincher of the year contest, and just as an aside decided to have a conversation about sort of diner etiquette when it comes to paying a check, and I just was flooded with e-mails from two sides; the folks who say you absolutely should split the bill no matter what--if you don't you're rude; to folks, penny-pinchers most of them, who say, `Listen, I only want to pay for what I ate. If you had liquor pay for your own liquor.' And I have to tell people, you know, listen, either way can work.

CHADWICK: So it's just a matter of agree maybe among yourselves before you go.

SINGLETARY: Either agree before you go, or before the orders are taken let the waiter know that you'd like separate checks or that you're going to split the bill evenly and perhaps put the alcohol on a separate tab.

CHADWICK: Now would you decline an invitation if you were uncertain about the kind of--what people would expect from the check? Is that something you're suggesting?

SINGLETARY: I'd ask up front. I mean, listen, we're grown folks; this is not like we're going to, you know, build a ship to go to Mars. I mean, this is pretty simple, folks. If you're going out to dinner and you're not sure of the restaurant, ask. Ask if they take separate checks and how people are going to pay. If everybody has about the same thing, I think it's perfectly fine to split the check. If you're going to a place that's fairly expensive and you're on a budget and you only want to order soup and salad and you only want to pay for that plus tax and tip, then I think it's perfectly fine to acknowledge that, to say that at the beginning before the order is taken.

CHADWICK: You've got to be careful of that tax and tip. That can be a lot of money, actually.

SINGLETARY: That's right. And some penny-pinchers who are really just misers try to short-change their friends by not putting in enough to take care of the tax and tip. And that's not good. You're just being a jerk. I'm a penny-pincher. I'm not a jerk.

CHADWICK: You're proud of the penny-pincher name.

SINGLETARY: That's right. That's right. You know, I mean, having dinner with a group of friends is just a wonderful thing, and it doesn't have to end in some, you know, fight over the check and who paid what and who chipped in what. I mean, just decide when you sit down. And I've done it both ways with no fuss or muss.

CHADWICK: Well, let me ask this question in a different way, 'cause you're talking about going out to dinner with other people, I think. What about in the family--with your spouse? Financially speaking, how do you handle that?

SINGLETARY: If you're married, I think all the money's one pot, so it doesn't really matter who pays.

CHADWICK: Yeah.

SINGLETARY: I mean, if they're taking you out for dinner, it's kind of nice if he says, `Honey, I got the check,' even though it's still coming out of your joint bank account. If you're dating, and I tell women this all the time, I think it's unfair to expect the man to pay all the time or most of the time. And women like to say that they're all--you know, women libbers and we're--you know, bring home the bacon and all that, but when you really deep-down ask 'em, they want the guy to pay. But if you're dating frequently with a person, I think you should be mindful of his budget as well, and maybe one time you pick it up, one time he picks it up. But be careful about that because sometimes the women will pick it up when it's McDonald's and he'll pick it up when it's a five-star restaurant. So make sure it's fair.

CHADWICK: Michelle Singletary writes the column The Color of Money for The Washington Post. Excellent advice today, I think, all around. Bon appetit to you.

SINGLETARY: Oh, thank you.

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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