I don't know what it is about sharing costs, but for some reason, any time I go out with a group of smart, young professionals, we're reduced to incompetent consumers the moment the bill arrives. Perhaps it's the taboo of publicly discussing money or sheer apathy towards social spending, but the amount of misconceptions and failed considerations that surround sharing costs and splitting bills with friends and colleagues never ceases to amaze me. Here are some guidelines to help:
1. Pay for your order. If you're sharing something like a pizza, it makes sense to simply divide the total bill by the amount of people. But when you go out in large groups, there's bound to be more variation. Someone orders an extra drink or two, another person orders the filet mignon, and meanwhile you're sitting there with your salad and water. Why should you be expected to contribute as much to the bill as your expensive-taste counterparts? Asking for separate checks from the outset is a great way to avoid any confusion.
The same policy applies to self-prepared group meals. I'm all for sharing the costs of a summer barbecue, but as a vegetarian, I don't think it's fair to pay as much for salad and pasta as everyone else is paying for ribs, burgers and steaks. In those cases, I prefer to BYOF (bring your own food).
2. A tip is a percentage. If you've dined out more than once your life, you know perfectly well that the tip is based on a percentage of your total bill. That fact doesn't change when you're in a big group. Just like your meal, tips shouldn't be split equally (unless you've all ordered the same thing). Rather, it should be calculated as a percentage of what you ordered. That doesn't change when the tip is included, either -- just use the same percentage the restaurant used to calculate your included tip.
Once again, separate checks can spare you this confusion. But if the restaurant can't accommodate that request, here's my strategy. I calculate what I owe based on my order, then figure the proper additions of tax and tip and add it to my total bill. With the prevalence of smartphone calculators and apps designed specifically for this purpose, there's no excuse not to put in your fair share. If you're not a smartphone carrier, just use this simple calculation for the tip: move the decimal point one space to the left and double.
3. Speak up. I'm definitely the frugal one in my social circles. When you've grown up together, it can be tricky when your income and spending values start to become very different from each other. The peer pressure to spend beyond your means can be incredibly tempting, but it's also dangerous. I decided to "come out" as frugal to my friends. Now that they know my spending priorities, they're more inclined to consider low-cost group activities when I'm involved. As an added bonus, I'm also the first one to score hand-me-downs, freebies and other extras!
4. Offer an alternative. If you can offer a low-cost alternative to group activities (for example, a potluck rather than a fancy restaurant), then you can have a lot more social time without so much spending. Even if the meal or activity is already planned, take it upon yourself to research promo codes, coupons or group rates. If you put in a little extra effort, you might be able to score savings for everyone involved, including yourself.
5. Say "no." Sometimes the best option is to opt out. I've been on a few group trips where I've sat out of select activities or meals that I knew would be beyond my price range or outside of my spending plan. Don't be afraid to explore on your own while your colleagues venture elsewhere. By picking and choosing which group expenses you partake in and which you opt out of, you can still be involved, but on your own terms and in line with your budget priorities.
Don't let money dictate your social calendar or create a divide in your friendships, just find ways to share group expenses that are fair and work within your budget.
Stefanie O'Connell is a New York City based actress and freelance writer. She chronicles her struggle to "live the dream" on a starving artists' budget at thebrokeandbeautifullife.com.
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