Splitting the Check

Beth Teitell has an interesting article in the Boston Globe about the changing dynamics of how people pay for their meals at restaurants. For a long time, friends would meet to share a meal, order whatever their hearts desired, and split the check evenly when the server brought it out. These days, that's not happening so much anymore.

(from minusbaby on Flickr)

As a student of economics, I couldn't help but come across the restaurant check splitting problem on more than one occasion. It's an illustrative example of how incentives can get warped to the point where they significantly change an individual's behavior.

Typically, the story follows that, in a world where everyone pays for what they order, each person does a cost / benefit analysis to determine which menu item offers the best value for the best price. But when friends split the check evenly, everything changes. Now the incentive is to order the most expensive item on the menu, since everyone else is splitting the cost. In the end, you wind up with a table full of people ordering expensive dishes they wouldn't have otherwise wanted, and walking away at the end of the night with a lot less money in their bank accounts.

Really though, I'm not sure I understand at what point it became so offensive for people to pay their fair share. Maybe it's because I'm young or because I've never had any money; but I've always been under the impression that the default among friends was to split a check based on what you ordered and only what you ordered.

For that matter, if I wasn't able to pay my fair share, there's no doubt that I'd go out a lot less often. Being able to budget what I can afford to spend on a night out is important. Otherwise, I'd have to skip out on outings where I knew people were going to spend like crazy and that I'd get stuck with a big share of the bill.


    Maybe it's a generational gap. But almost always when I go out with people, the check is split proportionally, not evenly. I've never really dined with anyone who insisted that a check be split evenly, except when people have ordered substantially the same cost in food.


    It depends on many factors, I think. When I got out with a couple of people from work for lunch, I think everyone pretty much expects to pay for only what they ordered, although actually coming up with the correct assortment of bills is often a problem.

    When I lived in Washington, I would occasionally go out to a pretty nice, expensive restaurant with a fairly large group, like say 8 people, and it was far easier to just split it all evenly, so that's what we did. For that to work out, everyone has to be on more or less the same financial footing, and it helps if nobody is consuming signifcantly less stuff than anyone else. On the other hand, you can do stuff like order extra appetizers and split desserts without getting all bent out of shape about who's paying for what. These were special occasions, though, it's different if you're going out with people all the time.


    I am 44 years old and have never gone out with friends, family etc. and ever considered not paying for what I ordered - my "fair share" as you say.

    If I was ever put in a position of dividing a check based on number of people vs. on what each person ordered it would be the last time I ever shared a check with those friends.

    Surprisingly enough in all my middle aged years I have never run into this particular problem.

    Perhaps it was just the way we were raised.


    In China, it's very rare for people to split the bill. The following may be some relevant factors:

    1) A culture of hospitality which causes people to want to treat others to the meal; this also depends on who initially suggested meeting for the meal, with the person originally suggesting the meal being considered the host, who should therefore pay for everything, even (perhaps) if the guest ends up bringing his aunt, his girlfriend, and his dog to eat, too.

    2) A desire to demonstrate wealth/ability to pay, related to the Chinese' obsession with "maintaining face"

    3) A higher significance placed on personal connections ("guanxi"), which is important in all aspects of society (particularly business, government, etc.). It's all about "who you know", and one of the biggest ways to succeed in all aspects of life is to constantly build your network of relations (and treating people to dinner is perhaps the single most common strategy)

    There may be more reasons. It's common to see people fighting over who will pay the bill (with everyone trying to treat everyone else). Or, people will discreetly sneak away to pay when nobody is looking.

    I'm not sure how relevant this is to your post, but I thought it would make for an interesting cross-cultural comparison.