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Whose Turn Is It To Pay the Check?

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, January 6, 2008

They're just four little words, but they can cause strife after a pleasant meal out with co-workers, friends or family.

You've all heard them at one time or another: "Let's split the check."

I once went to lunch with a large group of co-workers. I purposely ordered a meal that cost less than $10, which even at that amount was more than I typically budget for lunch. One co-worker ordered a couple of appetizers, a steak entree and a drink. When the bill came she was the first to chirp, "Let's split the check."

I looked around the table. A few people discreetly rolled their eyes. Others, who had also ordered frugally, just reached for their wallets.

"Well, I would rather not split the check," I said. "I'm only paying for what I ordered and ate plus my share of the tip."

The woman who ordered the large meal and liquor said, "Michelle, you're such a cheapskate."

Some people laughed. I didn't think it was a funny or fair comment. This woman often ordered much more than everybody else when we all went out to lunch.

This is the kind of situation that makes dealing with money so maddening sometimes. We get into these little scuffles, and someone often walks away feeling used or abused. A less well-off friend may think you should pick up the tab more because you earn more. A sibling is always borrowing money from your parents, who complain to you. A relative is angry because you won't co-sign a loan. What's the right way to respond to all these situations?

For some useful guidance, I suggest reading "Isn't It Their Turn to Pick Up the Check?" (Free Press, $21) by Jeanne Fleming and Leonard Schwarz.

I've selected the couple's book for the January Color of Money Book Club because it is a great coffee-table volume. Leave it out, and it will surely stir up some interesting discussions and debates.

"Once upon a time it was sex that people felt uncomfortable discussing, but today it's money," the couple write. Now "it's the money problems you experience with friends and family -- problems you hate to mention for fear of sounding judgmental or just plain small, problems you're slow to raise because you think a confrontation could be in the cards."

The book certainly delivers on its subtitle, "Dealing With All of the Trickiest Money Problems Between Family and Friends -- From Serial Borrowers to Serious Cheapskates."

"We are . . . for speaking up, drawing lines, and not allowing yourself to be taken advantage of," write Fleming and Schwarz, who also author the "Do the Right Thing" column that appears in Money magazine and on CNNMoney.com.

Using a question-and-answer format, Fleming and Schwarz have produced a handbook to help diffuse uncomfortable and potentially hostile situations that come when you mix money and personal relationships.

The authors cover a lot of ground, from borrowers and lenders behaving badly, to handling gifts that come with strings attached, to getting through wedding bill blues.

The couple sprinkle throughout the book the results of two surveys they designed and analyzed. It didn't surprise me to learn that among family and friends, borrowing and lending cause some of the biggest rifts.

Of those who made the largest loans, 43 percent were not repaid in full, the couple found in one survey. And 27 percent received nothing in the way of a repayment. Here are some of the other results from the surveys:

¿ 87 percent of respondents say that every family has at least one person who tries to get more than his or her share of things after a relative dies.

¿ 85 percent of respondents think it's wrong to attach a "string" to a gift of money. They believe money should be given without any conditions or not given at all. (The authors disagree. "There's absolutely nothing wrong, unfair, or unethical about making a gift or loan conditional," they write.)

¿ 59 percent of respondents say they have run into trouble as a result of having a lot more money than a friend or relative.

People often say, "Don't let money ruin a relationship." With this book, you'll get some good advice on how to follow that mantra.

To become a member of the Color of Money Book Club, all you have to do is read the recommended book. I also invite you to join me online to chat with the author or authors. If you've gotten into a fight over finances with a friend or family member and you want to see who is in the right, join me online at http://www.washingtonpost.com at noon Eastern time on Jan. 31. Fleming and Schwarz will be available to take questions.

In addition, every month I randomly select readers to receive a copy of the book, donated by the publisher. For a chance to win a copy of "Isn't It Their Turn to Pick Up The Check?" send an e-mail to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name and an address so we can send you a book if you win.

¿ On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" and online athttp://www.npr.org.She also has a new personal finance call-in show that airs Sundays on XM Satellite Radio, Channel 169 "The Power," from 8 to 10 p.m.

¿ By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

¿ By e-mail:singletarym@washpost.com.

Comments and questions are welcome, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses are not always possible. Please note that comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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