Julie Bindel

Who picks up the tab?

Some people just don’t get it

  • From Spectator Life

I tend to steer clear of large group meals but the last time I went there was a very awkward moment. When the bill arrived, I saw two individuals tapping away on a calculator app before announcing the exact amount of money they were prepared to put on the table. ‘I didn’t have a starter,’ chimed one. ‘I only had one cocktail,’ said the other tightwad.

When the bill came it was divided equally – except that the couple counted themselves as one person

We were at an inexpensive Mexican restaurant, with two cocktails for the price of one, yet this pair insisted on working out to the last penny what they had each consumed. No one else minded subsidising the others, because that’s what happens when you go out for dinner in a group – somebody always orders the most expensive wine and drinks way more than anyone else, the ribeye steak costs twice as much as the mushroom risotto – and some poor bugger only has the green salad and tap water.

Well, here are my rules for paying the bill. If I invite a friend or friends to a restaurant, I will pay for everyone, from those on low incomes to those who could afford to buy the restaurant several times over. And when the bill arrives, I do not scrutinise it to check if I have been charged correctly, but just hand over my card, or even discreetly slip away to settle up out of sight.

Some people do take liberties when eating with a group insofar as they are more likely to order extravagantly precisely because the cost is being shared. This is beyond rude. I remember one time I wanted to try a quite pricey bottle of wine when I was out with three friends, and insisted that I pay for it because it was my choice (we had all been perfectly happy with the house white prior to that, and although they offered up half-hearted protests, everybody knew it was only fair).

And what about heterosexual dating? Does the man pay? Is there an assumption from the woman that he will? If so, how many times? Men usually earn more than women, but if this is not the case, why should he?  

A little bit of chivalry can be lovely, and certainly an improvement on what happened to a young woman I know recently. They had met online and when deciding where to go for a first date he suggested a rather expensive wine bar. When they arrived, he ordered his drink, paid for it on his card, and let her order hers. 

Some circumstances are even clearer. For example, another journalist asks for advice on a story you have covered in the past, and suggests meeting for coffee or a drink. You give them the dirt, and hand over a contact or two. I would be beyond miffed if they were to suggest splitting the bill. 

One of the most outrageous stories I have ever heard on this topic is about what happened when a group of friends went out, two of whom were a couple. When the bill came it was divided equally – except that the couple counted themselves as one person. You might think this is unbelievable, but I bet you have encountered a scenario where a couple brings one bottle of wine between them to a party. Of course, if they were go into a party on their own, they wouldn’t dream of specifically seeking out a half-bottle to bring.

A good way to distinguish meanness from a tight budget is to have the discussion early on, as soon as you arrange to go to dinner. If somebody says to me ‘That sounds absolutely lovely, but isn’t it quite an expensive place? I am on a tight budget,’ then I have two choices: I can either say that I will pay as it was my suggestion and I’d really like to treat my friend or make it clear it’s their company I am seeking (as opposed to a fancy dinner) and book somewhere much cheaper instead.

Etiquette can be a nightmare, but in the main, your good manners and instinct should guide you in the right direction. And if you only had a Diet Coke, while the others have thrown down a load of Château Margaux 2005? Maybe suggest the cinema next time.