A Guide to Splitting the Check

Check-splitting, that most mysterious of restaurant activities. How many cards is too many? Is it better to split using cash or credit? How is check-split formed?! How waitress get coin change?!

The weird thing about splitting the check is that no one seems to know just what the correct protocol is, or what is/is not easiest for servers and customers. I've actually had people argue with me over what's easiest for me, insisting that we do it in the most convoluted way possible for BOTH of us "to make things easy for you." Dealing with check splitting has taught me, over and over and over, that even well-meaning people are often really, really dumb.

With that in mind, here's a handy list of Do's and Don't's when it comes to splitting the check.


DO: If you get separate checks, make sure everything is in the right place.

This is obviously something you should want to do anyway. Mistakes happen, and if you notice one, you're obviously well within your rights to ask your server to fix it. It shouldn't be hard, even if they have to get a manager involved. Just be nice about it — mistakes happen, and your server shouldn't have any problem fixing whatever is wrong. Any server who'd complain about having to correct their own mistake is not good at their job.

DON'T: Ask for separate checks and then pay separately in cash.

Come on. This is a huge dick move. Ask for change for big bills, sure, but if you're all paying in cash, you don't need separate checks. You just don't. Be a fucking adult, figure out what each of you owe, and then combine your cash. It's cash; it joins together better than Voltron. This isn't hard.

In general, really, credit card payments are better than cash payments. If you have the option to pay for the meal with either, just use your credit card. It'll be faster, easier, and everyone will walk away happy. Four people asking for separate checks and then all paying in cash made me want to put my own face through the wall.

First caveat here: customers who want to tip well but haven't been servers (or weren't for very long) are often incredibly concerned with tipping in cash even when they pay in credit. While it's appreciated, I'll let you in on a little secret: this really isn't that big of a deal to us. The IRS has been cracking down on cash tip reporting, so we can't get away with not reporting any cash tips any more. We can get away with reporting most (but not all) of them, so this does help — just not as much as it used to.

Second caveat: none of the anti-cash stuff applies to situations where you give the server a set amount of cash and tell them you don't need change. The issue isn't the cash — it's the dealing with change, especially coin change, which SUUUUUUUUUUUUCKS.

DON'T: Let someone else in the party tip in coins.

Come on. I'm not a fucking laundry machine. If you need to go to the bar and ask for bills for your change, do so. They should have one dollar bills. If you see a friend about to leave an entire tip in coins, tell them to just leave bills. Hell, you can even offer to go to the bar and get bills for them. Just don't leave me fucking coins, because coin change is the Devil. Coins are effectively valueless in American society (which is all that matters for the purpose of this post, since it's only about American society), they're a pain to deal with, the vast majority of managers aren't going to let me cash out with them...I'm stuck.

Oh, and if you're leaving gold dollar coins, seriously, fuck you extra hard. I HATE those things.

DON'T: Ask to take the automatic gratuity off the bill if one exists.

A lot of places will have automatic gratuities for parties of a certain amount or over; the most common number is typically 7-8 people at a table. The IRS started completely screwing over servers on the automatic gratuity this year, so most places won't even do it now. But if a place does, and you ask to have the gratuity removed, you're an asshole.*

Obviously, there can be extenuating circumstances in this case. If your waiter punched you in the face, you are really under no obligation to tip. But if you want the gratuity taken off because one item for a party of ten got there at the wrong time, as one person I was eating with did once, that's a dick move. Here, in case he's reading this: you're a dick, Roy.**

DO: Tip on multiple credit cards.

This is actually fine. That's a point I want to hammer home, here: credit cards are really easy, to the point where I'd basically always rather deal with a card than with cash. If a server is complaining about a multiple-credit-card check when the restaurant isn't slammed, either they're stuck using some sort of horrible computer system I haven't heard of or they're a lazy asshole. It doesn't even really matter how you split it — by what each customer had,*** down the middle by an even amount, by arbitrarily chosen amounts you write down for the server on the check itself — all are pretty easy to deal with.

The one caveat: if you want split checks for "what each person had but split the appetizer evenly," damn well ask your server if its something they can do, because with some systems, that's actually impossible — at least without ritually sacrificing a ribeye steak to Glitchius, God of Micros.

DO: Round up the tip on separate checks.

Save me from people thinking they're tipping 20% after rounding down to the nearest five. For the love of God, tip the amount you actually owe, because it'll usually be something like another 50 cents per person. If each of you has a $13 check and you both tip $2, you just undertipped your server, you are bad, and you should feel bad. Just leave $2.50 each like a decent human being.

DON'T: Only tip your server on half the meal because one of you paid in cash and the other paid in credit.

My least-favorite words to hear from any table were always "we're going to pay with whatever's there in cash, and then the rest on the credit card." NO. NO NO NO NO NO NO NONONONONONONO STAHP.

Some of you are probably wondering why this is such an issue. It's pretty simple, really. Let's say you have a bill that comes to $80. You ask me to take $48 off in cash (factoring in an $8 tip on the $40 you owe, a 20% tip) and then "do the rest on credit." Here's what happens: I process $48 in cash, $32 in credit, then the credit customer leaves $6 — a reasonable tip for a $32 check.

Unfortunately, it wasn't a $30 check. It was a goddamned $80 check that you just left me $6 on, because cash guy somehow thought he was tipping on that amount despite the fact that we can't process a tip until the amount is fully paid, and credit card guy didn't leave the full tip even though logically, he has to be the one covering all of it there. 95% of the time, credit card guy won't realize he needs to tip the full $16 on his card to work it out — he'll just see $32 and leave the $6 without even thinking about it. This isn't deliberate; they just don't give it a second thought. People screw their servers over despite actually wanting to tip them well — they just can't math.

I used to Jedi Mind Trick customers like this. When someone would ask to "do X amount of cash and then the rest on credit," I'd get real apologetic and ask them if we could just do separate checks by what each person had. Most of the time, this worked — it's what they wanted to do anyway, they just thought it would be a pain for me (it would not). On the rare occasions this did not work, I'd tell them our system was terrible and didn't like processing cash and then credit, so could we do a set amount on credit and then do the rest on cash?

It was total bullshit designed purely to workaround the customer's lack of understanding of what numbers meant, and it was amazing how well and how consistently it worked. Suddenly, because they actually had to think about it, the customers would realize that maybe they should each just pay $40 goddamn dollars and then tip individually, which would've been easier in the first place. But to help out those servers who haven't yet worked out the beautiful art of lying to customers and getting away with it, how about you as a customer just not put them in a crappy situation?

DO: Tell your server you need to split the check at the start of the meal.

This one is just basic courtesy. It's not 100% required if there's only two of you, or even four, but it's still a nice thing to do. If you forget, it's no big deal — just ask "we'd like to split the checks, is that OK?" I guarantee you it will be if you're a small party; it's just a basic matter of courtesy that takes little to no effort on your part. It's a little thing that shows you actually give a crap about your server as a human being and that doesn't make you go out of your way at all. Basically, it's what decent human beings do.

DON'T: Ask for individual checks on parties of more than ten people unless you work it out beforehand.

By "beforehand," I mean "when you make the reservation." Oh, you didn't make a reservation — actually, you didn't even call 10 minutes ahead to let us know you were coming? You just showed the fuck up with 20 people on a busy Friday expecting that'd be totally cool? Get the fuck out.

There are also going to be places that won't let you split checks on parties of more than a certain number of people. If you get mad at your server for this, you are an asshole. There's no getting around that: you are an asshole. They didn't set the policy, and if you take it out on them by leaving a crappy tip purely because of restaurant policy, you are pond scum.

At places where it IS possible, I've done separate checks for 20 people before. It's definitely doable, although that's a 5-10 minute sink on my time during which I can do nothing else (longer, if the system's being an asshole about how long it takes to process cards — a common occurrence in most places). Still, if I know that's coming, I can plan for it and work around it. If it's credit cards, it's really not that bad, just tedious and time-consuming. If some of you are paying in cash and some are paying in credit, it sucks a lot harder, but I could still do it; it just means it's going to take longer, so be prepared to wait a bit.

If you tell me at the last second instead of giving me the heads up at some point earlier during the meal, though, you've basically just brought everything to a crashing, screeching halt. If I've got other tables (and of course I have other tables), I have to find someone to cover them, or, failing that, I have to be prepared for them to get really pissed at me and probably not tip me well purely because of your asshattery. A table doing this can ROYALLY fuck over an entire shift, especially if they don't tip well themselves.

If you do all of this, then complain about how long dealing with the checks took, for the love of God never come back, because you are terrible.

I hope that's cleared things up for you. If you've got any questions about splitting the check that I haven't answered (actual check splitting questions, not "how much should I tip at a buffet"), feel free to ask them in the comments and I'll be sure to add them to the post.

* If you try to argue that the gratuity doesn't apply because you got separate checks and therefore count as separate parties, I want hell to exist just so you can go there when you die.

** Some people might have an issue with me using his real first name in an article calling him a dick. There's a simple solution to not wanting thousands of people on the internet to know you're a dick, though: don't be a dick, Roy.

*** The protocol on this might be different if it's a place with hand-written checks rather than a computer system. I know nothing about how that sort of system works, since I would rather gnaw off my own arm than work in any restaurant that didn't have a computer system. Really, everything here only applies to places with computer systems.

Image via RTImages/Shutterstock.