Ask the Editor: How Do I Split the Check With Friends Without It Being a Nightmare?

Going out to eat with all your buddies? So fun. Paying for the meal with all of your buddies? Hell on Earth.

Uh oh. | iStock

Welcome to Ask the Editor, a new weekly column by yours truly where I answer all of your Philly food and drink questions. Have some burning ones already? Email me here.

My friends and I roll deep when we go out to eat — which is great until the bill drops. How do we split the bill without making it awkward between us (and the server)?

— Rosa in Fishtown

Philly Mag food editor Alex Tewfik

Yes, yes, yes, the age-old conundrum of dealing with friends who have different standards about personal finance and what smooth transactions look like. It’s stressful because there’s a lot at stake: Orchestrating a complicated money-swap could make the group dynamic weird, but if you’re careless about it, you could be shafting your server who did nothing wrong to deserve a bad tip.

But it is a necessary evil we all must deal with, so here’s everything you need to know to handle this correctly.

Bring cash:

Duh. Everybody pays for what they ordered and the server gets a cash tip. Win-win.

Don’t have cash? Download Venmo:

This is the simple and most obvious solution — “simple” because it’s free and extremely user-friendly; “obvious” because, at this point, it’s so ubiquitous that I’m starting to forget what the world looked like pre-Venmo, like Uber or cell phones themselves.

The check arrives, one person elects to pay the entire bill (and gets those sweet, sweet credit card miles), and everybody “Venmos” that person for what they ordered, including tax and tip. That way, the person who just got fries doesn’t get screwed over by the person who ordered the surf ‘n’ turf.

Sure, there are other mobile payment apps you can use: Square Cash (from the company behind all those coffee shop spinny screens) is good because nobody else needs to download the app to receive a payment. PayPal is the O.G. payment app, and its user interface has improved dramatically in recent years. Hell, even Facebook has a mobile payment thingamajiggy in its Messenger service. But there’s a social media aspect about Venmo — you can see what all your friends are up to with their money, and voyeurism is fun!

Oh, you’re out with a bunch of old people who still use flip phones? They want to split the bill six ways and one guy brought cash?

Okay, so now you have to actually split the bill. Take a deep breath.

First things first: If you’re at a restaurant that takes credit cards, take a look around the room. Are all the servers placing orders at one of those touch-screen POS (Point of Sale) terminals? Good. That means you shouldn’t feel too bad about splitting your check in six. Most terminals come with a nifty function that divvies up the check automatically. There’s literally a button you can click that splits the bill in half, in sixths, in thirds — even the dreaded ⅓ on one card, ⅔ on the other. It’s all very automated — all the server has to do is swipe the cards and organize the receipt paper.

But, again, Venmo makes this a non-issue.

NOTE: If one person paid cash — and explicitly included tax and tip into their contribution— please remember that your individual bill will be a little less than if everybody had used plastic. Calculate the total tip, split it evenly, and tip that amount when you get your card back.

If you don’t see those POS terminals:

Those machines? They’re expensive. Not every business owner can afford such luxuries — regular credit card machines and their processing fees are already a bitch to deal with as it is. So if you’re in some mom-and-pop gravy joint at 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday, and you hand your server a brick of cards, it can cripple the entire front-of-house, and that’s when things get ugly. That’s when you get eye-rolls from your server.

Consider the ripple effect:

Each credit card transaction (at a regular credit card machine) could take up to 45 seconds each. That means your server has to spend four-and-a-half minutes at the machine, swiping and stapling and shuffling reciepts. They cannot leave to attend other tables, and if you’re in a small restaurant that only has the space for one machine (which is very common in Philly), they have to hog the machine from the other servers who also have checks to run. On a busy weekend night, four-and-a-half minutes is a lifetime.

That’s four-and-a-half minutes of empty water glasses. Four-and-a-half minutes of orders not being placed. It’s four-and-a-half minutes that guests have to wait out so they can leave the restaurant, and when you have 15 people at the door waiting to sit down, four-and-a-half minutes can make them hangry.

But if you must split, make sure you do it evenly — or calculate the charge amount for each card and write it down on the back of the check. Never ever ask the server to split the bill based on what people ordered.

Oh, and download Venmo, for chrissakes.