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Ms. Opinionated: I Am The Friend Who Never Pays Her Share At Group Dinners

image of Megan Carpentier

Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don't.

Dear Ms. Opinionated:

I think I'm about to lose all my friends, and I don't know what to do! I'm part of a group of ladies who have been tight since college and then stayed in the same city, and about once a month we do a big dinner together. Now, unlike most of the rest of my girls who are either all married or in well-paying fields, I'm single and I work for a non-profit so between my low salary and my student loans, I'm basically broke—especially right before my paycheck comes in. But over the years as my friends' financial situations all improved, the restaurants people picked got more expensive and the dinners more elaborate, to the point where we were drinking bottles of wine instead of a beer each.

I guess I just assumed everyone knew or would be fine with it because we've been friends for so long, but somewhere along the way, I became the person who doesn't put in enough money. It was just going to be once, when I wound up a little short and didn't say anything, but then a couple of my friends threw in a couple of extra dollars and no one seemed mad or tried to point fingers. And then it was a couple more dollars here or there, just to have cab fare home, and eventually I just started paying what I felt I could afford and trying to be cognizant about drinking less or ordering salads so it wouldn't be as noticeable. But this week, I hadn't gotten paid yet and I didn't really have the money but I wanted to see everyone so I just put in what I had, which left us more than just a little short and it got a little ugly and everyone started pointing fingers at everyone else and I just shut up. But now I don't know if we'll ever even do another dinner and two of my friends aren't speaking to one another and I feel like I should say it was my fault but I know they'll all hate me.

I have to disclose at the outset that you are my pet peeve about group dinners. I'm sure you're a totally nice person otherwise, but every group dinner has at least one person who "forgets" to include the tax in their calculations of what they owe (or something similar), and a large enough group always has someone who orders cocktails, appetizers and dessert and then wants to just split the check evenly. As someone who often used to end up collecting the money for any group dinner I was at, I have definitely thrown in more than my share of extra fives and even twenties to make sure the bill got covered and the server got tipped appropriately and always pretended like I didn't mind that much and didn't know who it was that didn't throw in enough cash.

So, let me tell you the truth: there is at least one person in your group who knows exactly what you've been doing. And she didn't hold her tongue because she loves you or because she secretly agrees with all your self-justifications, she did it because she didn't want to make a scene and ruin everyone else's good time and good feelings about your dinner. But she knows. And I'm betting that she either stopped coming all together or wasn't there this week because, if things got as messy as it sounds like they did, she wouldn't have had any reason to be quiet any longer and probably won't stay that way if the fighting continues.

I know that it's hard (and, in some circles, impolite) to talk about money, but it's about time you did so with your friends. If this particular check is pulling your friends apart and ruining other friendships, you have to bite the bullet and explain that you were the person who didn't throw enough money into the kitty and how sorry you are that you didn't tell them that you didn't have enough cash and didn't speak up when things got ugly. They're your friends, right? Tell them how embarrassed you were to not have the money, and how you didn't know what else to do and you really regret having been the cause of all this ruckus. It's best if you can call them each individually to have this conversation, because it will turn into a pile-on in a mass email and sound less sincere, and it'll also be harder for any individual person to be really mean to you if you honestly feel bad for what you did and briefly let them know that your personal financial situation is more precarious than they realize.

Then, no matter how hard it is, you absolutely have to stop being a freeloader on your friend group. The next time you guys start planning a dinner, pipe up at the outset and ask if people would mind trying to be more budget-conscious in their restaurant choices, because you love seeing them and it's your one big outing a month, but the restaurants are getting more expensive than you can really afford. You are, I promise you, not the only one who is noticing that things have gotten more and more expensive over time, even if you are really the only one who can't afford it. Offer some suggestions of places to go and, no matter what, if a glance at the menu for the place they end up picking looks out of your price range, politely decline.

If you can't afford to split the bill evenly (and that's what they're doing), ask during the planning process if you guys can start paying for your individual purchases and then be cognizant of what you're ordering -- that way, you can have your bottle of beer rather than sharing in several bottles of wine, or skip dessert, or whatever it takes to not bite off more than you can (financially) chew. If that's not feasible, call ahead and see if you can request a separate check from your server and then do so as you're placing the order, which will allow you to, again, control what you spend and pay what you can afford. If it's just about the expense of splitting things "for the table," let them know before they order that you won't be drinking the wine or sharing in the dessert and you appreciate their understanding -- and then keep your wineglass and dessert fork empty.

If it happens again that don't quite have the cash to cover something, don't just throw in what you have and expect that no one will mind covering an unexpected shortfall (especially because, in an unexpected shortfall, it almost always ends up the unsaid responsibility of the person collecting the money). Ask one of your friends if you can borrow a few dollars with a promise to pay them back in a couple of days. If you have a credit card, ask if you can put your share on a card -- which will allow you to pay the restaurant then and the credit card company later. At the very least, apologize to the group, let them know exactly how much you are short and promise to make it up to whomever can cover you in any way you can.

But you need to start asking their permission to lean on them this way, rather than just assuming they will or they can afford it. In effect, you need to start taking responsibility for living (and dining) within your means, rather than trying to keep up with the Joneses. And if your friends are really your friends -- or stay your friends, after you caused this whole issue and made everyone feel bad about the last dinner -- then they'll not understand why you're asking to try a burger place rather than hit a steakhouse, but they also might appreciate the reminder that a big group dinner is supposed to be more about the friendships than the food.

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Comments

17 comments have been made. Post a comment.

I agree with most of this,

I agree with most of this, except for using a credit card so you can live outside your means. That's not a good path to go down.

Alternatives

Another idea would be to have a group dinner and take turns rotating at each others' living spaces. One month, someone cooks the main dish and everyone brings drinks, desserts, etc. This is cheaper for everyone, but you still get to see each other every month.

I have loathed the tyranny of

I have loathed the tyranny of the "let's just split everything evenly" group dinner, and have absolutely refused to participate in them, since the one time in college I somehow ended up paying $70 dollars for two pieces of the sushi I ordered (I also didn't know everyone intended to share food as well... unfortunately the kind I ordered was the only thing I liked on the menu).

I've totally been in places where my friends suggest places I can't afford. If I can't afford it, I tell them so, and no one has ever in my life fallen down dead, or gotten mad at me and said "You suck, poor person! I shall not be seen with the likes of you!" Either I sit that particular outing out, or we decide on a place we can all afford. On occasion, they'll offer to get me with the understanding that as soon as whatever freelancing check I'm waiting on rolls in, I'll return the favor. If you're honest with people, things have a way of working out.

I love this advice. I also

I love this advice. I also love the delivery (that is, you're not rude about it).

What about just ordering what

What about just ordering what you can pay for? You have $20, order something that with YOUR SHARE of the tax and YOUR SHARE of the tip will total $20. e.g., if you have a burger and a beer and it's $15 (some days I really wish that I didn't live in NYC...) then pay your $15 for the meal, figure out what the tax is on $15, then add 15-20% on top of that, that's what you pay. When the bill comes say something like "oh my beer and burger was $15 so I'm gonna throw in $20". You shouldn't have to pay more in tax and tip because your friends are ordering expensive entrees and bottles of wine. If your friends aren't ok with it, remind them that your meal was just $15. Done and done.

Sensible advice. May I also

Sensible advice. May I also suggest having a look at the menu price list online, or ringing the restaurant up before you go, to get an idea of what each course is likely to cost? And don't forget to include corkage or order your own drinks.

I've been the broke girl more

I've been the broke girl more than you could ever imagine. I've been lucky to have friends who didn't mind treating me just for my company. But the most important part is you have to speak up before hand and let them know that you can't afford it. It's a shitty, shitty feeling to not be able to spend time with your friends because your poor. It kills your self-esteem. I know that you might be afraid of the 'well, why should we have to downgrade just because SHE can't afford it". If that is the case, then maybe you should find new friends. You have to speak up and let them know though. Pay for your stuff separately and I'm sure that your friends wouldn't mind forking over a bite of cheesecake every now and then.

What about just ordering what

What about just ordering what you can pay for? You have $20, order something that with YOUR SHARE of the tax and YOUR SHARE of the tip will total $20. e.g., if you have a burger and a beer and it's $15 (some days I really wish that I didn't live in NYC...) then pay your $15 for the meal, figure out what the tax is on $15, then add 15-20% on top of that, that's what you pay. When the bill comes say something like "oh my beer and burger was $15 so I'm gonna throw in $20". You shouldn't have to pay more in tax and tip because your friends are ordering expensive entrees and bottles of wine. If your friends aren't ok with it, remind them that your meal was just $15. Done and done.

I believe in paying for what

I believe in paying for what you order. This whole split the check evenly pisses me off every time it happens. I am often the poor one in my group outings but I budget for them appropriately and fortunately I have a mouth on me and will speak up when I feel like I am being treated unfairly (paying for THEIR meal) If your friends are real friends, they would totally be down for a potluck or you should offer to cook them brunch and let them know your situation. It is most definitely about the company and not the food. My favorite wine costs 2.99 at Trader Joe's and if they are concerned with costs, throw it in a fancy pitcher and they will never know the difference...not that I think you should try to impress them, BUT if you are concerned with what they will say/think and you want to stay friends with those type of people, there ya go. If you are the person that came up with the divide the check evenly, shame on you. That's kind of scammy. Dutch all the way.

I like that this is being discussed

Being almost 30 and making very little at a nonprofit, and knowing that most of my acquaintances make more money than I do, I feel ashamed. Unlike the author, though, I don't go out when I can't afford to. I was invited to a bachelorette party then found out it cost $100/person, which seemed incredibly high for one night to me, and I turned it down. I would never ask all my friends to pay that much for one night if I got married. I've also experienced eating out with a group, ordering according to my budget, and then getting stuck paying 50 percent more because they all ordered several drinks and averaged out the bill. Anyway, I'm glad others feel the pain of poverty too.

I feel you on wedding costs -

I feel you on wedding costs - I'd be interested to read a column about wedding etiquette, because it's LUDICROUS what couples expect their friends to pay (for example, I just found out my friend is doing THREE round trip flights to another state because she is in a bridal party - engagement party, shower - what, the wedding presents aren't enough? - and the wedding itself. Plus hair, makeup, and nails (apparently), and dresses and gifts). My sister is a MOH and throwing a bridal shower, and suddenly the mother of the groom wanted to invite 30 of her own friends - on the bridal party's dime. The couple, for the record, are doctors, and my sister is a teacher... slight income disparity :/

On this article itself, I agree with the advice but want to toss in another perspective: I make more money than some of my friends who are still in grad school, and while I sympathize (having been unemployed and broke as shit for a while), it can be frustrating when every plan is met with "How much will it cost?" Dude, look at the menu online, or suggest a spot, or invite me over.

If I am left to do all the planning, I'll get annoyed, because while you're my friend and I love you (can you tell this is coming from personal experience?), your financial situation is YOURS to manage. Also, if we go to dive bars or sit in my living room all the time, it gets old after a while. Could we go somewhere cheap but dress up? Have some wine beforehand so we spend less but can still have a "night out" (I'm pretty tired of two beers being the end of the night unless I offer to pay for more - no there's no pressure, I just don't want to go home at 9 and like my friend's company)? I'm about to have a problem with a friend over this, so anyone else's advice would be welcome...

Also, that became a much more involved comment than I intended... apparently this has been bothering me more than I realized!

Ideas

Ditto to the wedding etiquette one! I think it's fascinating.

As for the planning with friends, I definitely get how frustrating it can be. Since you asked for ideas, here's what I've got:

- if it's 1 or 2 people where there's friction, are you close enough with them to talk to them about it? You can frame it as 'I want to be able to hang out with you, and I don't want to make things awkward if I'm suggesting things that won't work for you, budget-wise. What do you think might make things better?'

- dressing up can be a bit fraught when you're grad student poor, even if you're not going anywhere expensive: $ you have for nice clothes goes towards interview-nice things, and if you're someone who would like to care about trends, getting gussied up in something that feels dated can end up being a bummer. (Particularly true if grad school has coincided with a change in body shape, so your 'nice' things don't fit the way you want them to).

If that may be part of the issue, could you focus on doing stuff that's different, but that wouldn't bring up the fancy dress problems, like plays in the park / art shows / themed potlucks + watching ridiculous netflix / etc? If you focus your invitation on the part that you want, people may feel freer to suggest ideas - I wouldn't suggest an evening of falafel + Designing Women if you wanted to go out on the town, but I would if you were just looking for something different.

The best is when these folks

The best is when these folks then have kids. My son has been invited to several birthday parties at theme parks/ restaurants where we are expected to foot his bill. We get to pay his and our admission, buy him associated food, tickets for rides, and so on... Happy to take him to these places, but as part of a birthday party, where we are expected to pay our own way and then also provide a present? A bit insane.

What??

That is kooky! I have a son and not a lot of money, but we just had his birthday party at a children's museum. We paid for everyone's admission and the party room with food, etc. It didn't cost the guests anything, and I've never been to a birthday party that does. The nerve of some people! Yeesh....

Re-Adjusting the Real Cost of Group Dinners

A few things. First up, scabbing off your friends is not cool. If they want to treat you to dinnner, or to pay the difference if your share comes to more than your small budget allows, that is their decision, and an opportunity for them to extend that generosity if they think of it. You never know, amongst your group of friends splashing out on an expensive dinner, may be one or two who otherwise have to watch their dollars and cents and dread the socialist-style bill sharing at the end of it.

Think back to when you first became friends. Think of all the things that drew you together and kept you together: study, social life, caring, sharing. None of those reasons have anything to do with money. Why are you still friends now? What riches of friendship exist - and have grown - because you like each other, etc.?

You have stuffed up, but you CAN afford to be generous. Be open, be honest, apologise - including for asssuming that your mates won't care about you if your hard-earned needs to stay in your wallet when they decide on an expensive dinner out and you won't be able to make it. Also, as you work for a charity, how thick are your friends for assuming that you can afford a pricey dinner?

Be pro-active. Be the leader who invites everyone to her place for a tasty, home-cooked meal, cooked with love. Maybe this could be your apology.

After that, maybe some of these dinner nights out could occasionally be dinner nights in at someone's home, or a night picnic, or chips on a ferry and a drink afterwards.

Maybe everyone brings a dish or something to drink. Bring your friends into YOUR world, give them an opportunity to share once again in the beauty of being your friend.

Darls, I am in the low-budget boat myself, and sometimes I quite simply have to say thank you for the invitation, but I won't be able to make it . Next time you are invited out for a meal at a venue you cannot afford (I like to check the restaurant menu online first, if my friends haven't indicated a price range - plus I'm vegehairian, so like to see what's on offer), be upfront and say, "Thanks, but that's a little outside my budget range at the moment." Or, "ILet me know what time your booking is and 'll meet you (there/elsewhere) for dessert and coffee afterwards." That way you stick to your budget AND you have a great catch-up with your friends.

Value yourself more. As others have suggested here, friendship is about more than money, and you have much to share.
x

So entitled.

Wow. I could barely even get through that letter. "either all married or in well-paying fields, I'm single and I work for a non-profit so between my low salary and my student loans, I'm basically broke—especially right before my paycheck ..." The implication here is that YOU should pay less because you make less, have loans, and aren't married...and are living paycheck to paycheck. But you have NO claim to your friends' money, as you are implying here, especially without taking responsibility for doing it. If they offer to buy your drink, cool. Don't take advantage of them (that's what you've been doing for months) and use "because you make more" as your excuse.

I make $80K a year, and my teacher friend makes $50K. I would pissed if she stuck me with the bill at the end and didn't acknowledge it. I earned that money, I make sacrifices for it, I get to choose how it's spent. I wouldn't ask her to spend her summer off babysitting my kids "because she has more time". She chose that profession; she reaps the benefits and downfalls. Also, be aware that the difference may not always be as great as you think. Friends aren't always transparent about their costs. How do you know they're not saving for a house, a car, a baby, a wedding, a loan they had to take out, early retirement, supporting their parents....

"paying what I felt I could afford..cognizant about drinking less or ordering salads so it wouldn't be as noticeable." What? How about BUYING what you think you can afford? How about suggesting you just go to someone's house every month? What about just getting a glass of wine somewhere instead of full meal, or have a self-hosted happy hour? If they're really your friends, they'll value the time over the place. (And if they really want to go to the place without you because you can't afford it, fine.) Why not suggesting each person takes turns picking the place? Why not simply point out, "I would love to go to X, but I just won't be able to afford it. Can we go to Y instead?" That's simply being responsible.

"I didn't really have the money but I wanted to see everyone" Rough. So stay home. Obviously if you're living paycheck to paycheck, spending lots of money once a month on ONE dinner isn't affordable. Here's another wild concept: if you're not saving squat, then you CAN'T afford things like this.

"I feel like I should say it was my fault" - Buying what you can't afford and SILENTLY getting your friends to cover it IS your fault. It was your responsibility to set your own boundaries. Don't go to the dinner if they refuse to have it somewhere that doesn't split checks and is out of your price range. What's more, do you even REALIZE that it is your fault, or do you just "feel like saying it" because that will make your friends less mad? The whole tone is still off.

Incredible. I doubt the letter writer sees anything wrong with her behavior.

I think this situation can go

I think this situation can go both ways. When I typically go out in a group, I refuse to split a bill evenly; not because I am trying to save money, but I typically have a larger bill compared to most due the types of food and drinks that I like to order. I think it would not be fair for others to have to pay more than they typically because I may have offset the price and typically its the ones who have higher bills that make out the most because its cheaper to split the bill evenly then to pay it individually.
If you want to go out and have a grand time, then expect to pay all of your bill to include any appetizers that you decide to order and share with others. It sounds like the posters friends have been trying to enjoy well beyond their means if they are going to squabble over the amount of a bill and even end friendships over the situation. If they where financially well off then this should never have occurred.
Bottom line, if you don't have the money to splurge on an expensive evening then don't expect others to cover your costs by splitting a bill evenly. Also, if you are limited on funds then you should either let the group know in advanced that you would like to pay for your bill separately or just don't go until you have the money saved to do so.