Why You Probably Shouldn't Split the Bill

Should you split the bill or have separate checks at a dinner with friends or colleagues? Social norms favor splitting the bill evenly so as not to complicate the payment process or annoy the waiter. But research suggests that it makes better economic sense for each of you to pay your own way.

A 2004 University of California San Diego study in The Economic Journal compared the spending habits of four dining groups consisting of three men and three women. Two of the groups were told that their meals would be covered; one was instructed to split the bill evenly; and the last group was told to pay individually. The results should give you pause before you sit down for your next group meal.

Of the four groups, the two that received free meals spent the most (no surprise). But contrary to what you might expect, the group that was told to divide up the bill evenly spent the second most per meal. People who had to pay their own way were the most conservative with their meal choices and spent the least, apparently because humans are selfish, the researchers concluded.


"The unscrupulous diner’s dilemma reveals how negative externalities — and even the mere threat of negative externalities — affect our behavior," FiveThirtyEight reported. "Participants in the bill-splitting experiment expected the others to order more, so they tried to maximize what they could get out of the situation by ordering more themselves."

In fairness, your friends are not necessarily motivated by an interest in exploiting you at the dinner table. Bill-splitting comes at a cost for them, too, as there are costs associated with paying individually that might contribute to their insistence that the group split the bill evenly.

"A part of it could be the mental cost of figuring out one’s share of the bill and calculating the portion of the tax and tip that apply to that share," the researchers wrote. "Another part would be the social cost of appearing stingy or unfriendly."

Whatever the justification, the conclusion leaves little room for interpretation: Splitting the bill is going to cost you more in the end.

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