A couple of months ago, I was on the verge of makin’ merry with a large group of friends in the city when I made a fateful error: I checked my account balance at an ATM. Thus, with just the touch of a button, I summarily executed my merry mood. Just like that. And so, when it came to my turn to order at the restaurant, I found myself having to choose between what I wanted (oysters! steak! champagne! dessert! more champagne!) and what I could actually afford without taking food out of my own children’s mouths or having to recycle Tiddles’ disposable nappies until pay day.
With a heavy heart, I went for the cheapest option on the menu: a daal which proved itself to be the same colour and consistency of some of Tiddles’ more liquid bowel motions (the very same ones that made the option of recycling his nappies unthinkable). In addition, I had a miserly half-glass of champagne from one of the communal bottles (which definitely felt half-empty rather than half-full) and stoically averted my eyes when the dessert menu was brought out. But of course, when the bill came, the size of the group made it easier to divide it evenly rather than pull out the calculator and/or start some kind of ledger. And, of course, this meant that the miserly and the frugal (such as myself) ended up carrying the slack for the boozers eating foie gras. But rather than just pay the money, I found myself explaining – in a rather choked voice – that I’d deliberately chosen the closest thing on the menu to wet cardboard because I was broke and that I did not wish to pay for anything more than what I actually consumed. And in doing so, I saved myself a whopping $7 and lost myself a whole lot of face. Yes, you read that right: seven whole dollars. And while I was on a roll, I went on to bypass the taxi rank and instead grimly marched three of my friends across town to the bus stop where we waited 30 minutes in the cold for the next bus.
By the time I got home, I felt meaner and more miserly than the meanest, most miserly meanie-miser in the world. And, upon seeing my husband, I burst into tears because I felt so bloody ashamed of myself. After I’d blurted out my sorry tale, my husband shook his head and said “If you’re going to do these things, you need to do them properly and in the Right Spirit.” And then went on to suggest I should have paid for everyone’s dinner on the credit card. Hmmmm, sometimes he takes this Right Spirit thing too far. But a few weeks later, as I was leaving a small birthday gathering at a bar, I remembered his words and slapped the bill for the group’s drinks so far on my credit card. And though I felt that choking anxiety of having spent too much money all the way home, I at least felt I had done the Right Thing in the Right Spirit.
Which is more than you can say for my friend MGK, who recently went to a boozy lunch in a chichi restaurant for a friend’s birthday that she couldn’t really afford. According to her email account, she did a quick assessment of the number of bottles of wine being ordered and the general appearance of the other guests at the luncheon and concluded that they would be the type to go the Even-Split Bill Approach because they were too drunk and/or too casual about money to do it any other way. Determined to rort the system, she promptly ordered the expensive lamb shanks, numerous glasses of the finest bubbly and even threw in dessert for good measure in the hope that she could consume more than she ended up paying for. Of course when the bill arrived, someone decided that everyone should pay what they ordered and as MGK herself went on to write in her email: “$65 later, I walked out with an empty sandwich bag”.
It took me a while to work out what the hell she was talking about with the sandwich bag, and then I remembered she had lost her wallet some weeks earlier and had taken to walking around with her cards and cash in a zip-lock plastic bag. I don’t know about anyone else, but if I was sitting next to someone who was counting out their money in $2 coins from a sandwich bag, I would have paid for their meal and then slipped them another twenty at the earliest opportunity. In any case, MGK walked away from that lunch feeling that she had ripped herself off. Big Time.
So what lesson can be learnt from all these tales of restaurant bill woe? Should you only order what you’re willing to pay for? And pay for what you ordered and not a cent more? Should you pay for everyone even though you can’t afford it? Should you do the self-sacrificial thing and order the cheapest things on the menu so you can cut costs for everyone else? Or sit and order nothing but a glass of tap water, all the while swigging heavily from a secret hip flask? Let’s face it: dining out with large groups is a fraught business, whatever way you look at that final bill. The one thing that is for certain is this: the more you drink, the larger the bill and the less you’ll care. And I say cheers to that!