I’m in my late 20s, and I try to be sensitive to the fact that some of my friends are still in school or have jobs that pay less than mine. It’s important to me to maintain those relationships, so I block off a couple evenings each week to get together. I’ll usually suggest something easy and inexpensive, like going for a walk or getting ice cream after work. If we do go out to dinner and my part of the bill is more expensive, I always split based on what we got.
However, I’ve noticed a different trend among my more well-off friends. I don’t drink during the week and have dietary restrictions, so my portion of the bill tends to be quite a bit lower than most people’s. If our bills are similar, I don’t mind just putting both of our cards down, but l’ve been to a lot of dinners where the difference between our meals was $30+ and my friends still wanted to split evenly. It’s starting to feel unfair that so much of my food budget ends up buying other peoples’ $17 glasses of wine, but I’m also afraid to say anything. I think a lot of my friends have figured out I’m earning a pretty good salary for our age and secretly expect me to start picking up bills, but I have hefty student loans and don’t get the familial assistance that many of them do. Is it dramatic to say I feel taken advantage of? Am I being cheap if I ask to split based on what we ordered?
No, you are not being cheap if you ask to itemize the bill! I’m sorry that your friends have made this awkward, and I understand that you feel taken advantage of. Luckily, there are many ways to handle group meals so that no one gets shortchanged. But I do think it’s worth addressing your problem on two levels: 1) How to gracefully wiggle out of paying for all your friends without a weird confrontation, and 2) How to be more honest with your friends about money in general, so that you can all stop making misguided assumptions about each other’s finances.
The first solution is more tactical. As someone who’s experienced both sides of this equation — I’ve been the person who orders wine and steak and owes a lot more than everyone else, and the person who isn’t drinking and owes a lot less — I’ve found that dealing with the bill is much easier if I simply ask before we order, “Is it okay if we each get our own checks?”
Alternatively, if that request seems fussy or it’s a bigger group, sometimes I’ll volunteer to put down my card for the whole bill and send itemized Venmo requests for what people owe me. (This move has the added bonus of looking generous and saving everyone else time and trouble, but is also fair.) Or you could just say, “Since I didn’t drink/only got a salad/etc., do you mind getting the tip?”
If you’re still feeling squeamish about speaking up, my friend Claire — who’s a vegetarian and doesn’t drink — suggests using a buddy system at large gatherings. “Beforehand, I’ll enlist a friend to get my back when the bill comes and say, ‘Claire didn’t have any alcohol, so she should pay less,’” she explains. “It’s always easier to advocate for someone else than for yourself, so no one ever minds doing it for me when I ask them.” (I have done it for her myself, and in addition to making me feel vaguely heroic, it always works.)
On that note, it’s also worth giving your friends the benefit of the doubt here. Perhaps they aren’t secretly hoping you’ll pay for them; instead, they probably don’t know how to have these conversations. They might even be glad when you bring it up. Personally, I’m always relieved when a friend suggests a way to split an uneven bill, especially when I know my portion is larger. I’d hate for them to walk away feeling secretly peeved, and your friends are probably in the same boat.
Which brings me to part two: You should never underestimate the degree to which we are conditioned to avoid confrontations over money, and I would encourage you to be more open about the topic with your friends, overall. “It’s amazing how taboo it is to talk about our financial fears, but I think keeping them hidden prevents us from learning from one another and receiving advice and guidance,” says Megan McCoy, a licensed therapist who teaches financial therapy and personal financial planning at Kansas State University.
McCoy recently co-authored a study that found that 90 percent of the sample group had not talked to anyone about money for at least an entire year. “That’s incredibly sad, and perpetuates the sense of dread we often experience when we are forced into it,” she says. “All of us would benefit from remembering that if we do not speak up about our needs, then our loved ones will not be able to meet our needs.”
To practice doing so, McCoy recommends looking at other realms of your life where you feel more comfortable being assertive. “What skills can you borrow from those other areas?” she asks. “Think about how you would word it, and then try to substitute that other need for your financial need.” You aren’t reinventing the wheel here; you’re simply translating your communication skills from one topic to another, and applying it to a new scenario. Also, it doesn’t have to be heavy and serious! You can lightly point out that your portion of the bill is a lot less than everyone else’s without making it seem like an intervention.
As for your salary: I’m thrilled your career is going well, but frankly, it shouldn’t have much bearing on who pays for dinner when you go out with your friends. Most adults know — or are in the process of learning — that your paycheck is just a piece of your larger financial picture. For example, if your friend tells you she got a raise, do you automatically think that she’s a bottomless pit of money? Probably not. Making assumptions about anyone’s finances usually just leads to being wrong (and maybe hurting that person’s feelings, while you’re at it).
Of course, that doesn’t mean you should volunteer more details about your own finances if you don’t want to. “You don’t need to use excuses such as student loan debt or other expenses,” says McCoy. “Everyone has the right to say to their friends and family, ‘I don’t think this is fair to me.’”
Finally, for what it’s worth, I found my late 20s to be a strange time, financially. Like you, I had some friends who were still in school, while others were starting to make serious paychecks, more money than I could fathom. People had really expensive weddings but still stressed about making rent. It was all very confusing. When I started to talk about ways that I found money to be daunting, almost everyone responded in kind — and it got a lot easier to set boundaries, too.