check fight
CNN  — 

It’s the sobering finale to every raucous restaurant meal: the arrival of the check. But do you prefer to split the cost evenly or should each person pay their own share?

Two CNN staffers argue the case for and against.


New York-based Channon Hodge is now a video producer for CNN but spent 10 years waiting tables in New York City’s eat-or-be-eaten restaurant scene. Despite her disdain for splitting checks, she actually loves math and hopes no math teacher takes her argument the wrong way. Math is great.

I always think you should split the check evenly at the end of a celebratory group meal. That’s coming from someone who’s often the lowest salary earner at the table. After all, I’m a journalist.

During a recent end-of-the-meal math session, one person attempted to “be fair” and divvy up the check. Out of a group of 10, two people didn’t drink, one person had their meal comped because it arrived late, and another person didn’t take part in the shared melted cheese appetizers. The math was more perplexing than my senior year calculus class.

I won’t disagree that it’s nice to demand less from those four special people, but I argue that they all partook in the same social experience. It’s an experience full of conversation and laughs, and no one had to pretend they wanted to help you clean the dishes after. That experience loses its warm fuzzy glow as soon as the check-haggling starts.

Worse, getting the math wrong could lead to an argument or to hurt feelings from anyone who left feeling cheated. Even splitting avoids all that fire-starting tinder.

Splitting a check is never really fair, really

It’s nearly impossible to be totally fair to everyone. Vegetarian meals often cost less than meat-centered ones. Will you allow for that, too? What about the folks who just got an $8 beer versus those who guzzled cocktails at $20 a pop? Think you can just split off the drinks bill among the drinkers? How do you ensure the nondrinkers put in for the birthday girl’s four frozen margaritas?

I’m a former waitress, so let me be frank now that I’m out of the game.

Running the same amount on five or even 10 cards isn’t difficult with the computers restaurants use now. What infuriated me more was when people did the math wrong, because, more often than not, the person who got short-changed was me … the poor soul running around for your happiness all night long.

There’s an app for that. So what?

Of course, there’s now an app for that, but it’s just another example of technology replacing the dying art of simple common courtesy. Want to be fair at a group outing? Try not being the jerk who guzzles down five cocktails when everyone else is sticking to one or two.

Is there someone at the table who’s been strapped for cash and tried to get away with only eating a salad? Don’t include them in the split at all. One day they’ll be able to really join the party (and that salad split among all of you will cost you each a pittance).

Leave a meal feeling like a true friend, like you’ve gotten closer, and having improved your friendship. That’s the whole point of going out. Remember, true friendship is never an even split. Some days you give, and some days you get.

Get your wallet ready, the check's here.


Peter Wilkinson is weekend editor of the CNN International website. Originally from Yorkshire, in the north of England, he now lives in Brighton, a hip coastal city in whose numerous bars and restaurants he’s never knowingly paid more than his fair share.

Fail to agree who’s paying and you’ll be left with a bitter taste

The etiquette of how to divide the bill after a restaurant meal can be an unsettling experience for the unprepared, and a depressing one for the impoverished. If you’re not careful you can go home with a burning sensation in your pocket, and a bitter taste in your mouth.

But it needn’t be so difficult to get right, and to help you navigate the ethical minefield, here is my tried and tested guide.

The main thing to remember is that you should never agree to split the bill equally with your fellow diners. It’s just wide open for abuse. Because while you might choose from the menu frugally – selecting tap water and an omelet for example – you know the world doesn’t work like that. And if you don’t, you should by now.

Don’t be surprised when you see everyone else tucking in with abandon into the finest fillet steaks, potato dauphinoise and profiteroles, all washed down by Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1995. And Cognac. Look at the smug feeling on their faces, too – because they know that you’re subsidizing their slap-up meal.

At the end of the evening, the bill comes. And your heart sinks when you realize your share is five times what you’d budgeted for. It’s too late to start getting your calculator out at this stage though and working out what your modest platter cost. You knew the rules, and you’ve been had!

Next time you go out on the town to break bread with your friends then, don’t beat about the bush, or feel guilty that you can’t pay a week’s wages on one meal. If someone has deeper pockets, or a monster appetite, that’s up to them. Just agree beforehand that everyone pays for just what they consume, then no one goes home with burning feelings of resentment.

The etiquette of the generous gesture

The second moral dilemma for today’s diner is when a cherished friend, or an aged and benevolent parent perhaps, takes you out for a fancy meal. Sky’s the limit, they may say, generously. Eat and drink whatever you want. Money no object!

But should you really eat as though it’s your last meal on Earth? Truffles, roasted swan and Champagne?

Hell, yes! Fill your boots. You never know when you’ll eat again. And it’s a long time until breakfast.

You see, just as with the first situation, it’s all about what you agree before you sit down. If someone is kind or foolish enough to make such an offer, it would be most churlish and ungrateful to refuse to accept their hospitality.

That’s why if I decide to pay for a friend or relative’s meal (and I do sometimes, so ignore the lazy stereotype about Yorkshiremen being stingy), I announce my gesture only when the bill arrives. After all, they might have chosen the omelet and tap water.