Diner Dilemma: Splitting the Check

Michelle Singletary
Thursday, May 14, 2009; 10:44 AM

In a tight economy some people will do anything to save some money, including shorting their fellow diners.

I carry a calculator with me just for those meals when someone is trying to split the tab when he or she knows there was nothing equal in how everyone ordered.

In his online discussion group, "Siestema's Table," The Post restaurant critic, Tom Sietsema, asked how to deal with those who don't like to pay their fair share after a meal. Here are some of my favorite comments:

* This is my biggest complaint. I've gotten stuck so many times that I insist on a separate check, which has irritated some friends, but when I remind them of the times I got stuck, they shut up.

* Funny how it's always those who order the most expensive entree, dessert, coffee, etc, who say that splitting the check is "oh, just easier" and works out "in the long run." Yea, right."

Once I refused to split the check equally when my colleagues and I went out to lunch. I had ordered a salad while others ordered alcoholic beverages, large entrees and more. Split the check?

I don't think so.

I wrote a column about this issue last year. Take a look: "Whose Turn Is It To Pay the Check?" (Jan. 6, 2008).

Read more of what people said in the thread: How Do You Deal With a Tightwad Diner?

Leftover Chat Q&As: Recession Coping Tips

Last week, I received lots of great questions about the emotional side of the recession. My chat guest Celeste Owens, a licensed psychologist, helped me answer them. Here are her responses to some of the leftovers:

Q: My husband's company recently announced that they would be trimming the head count by X percent in the next few weeks. Psychologically, is it better to warn workers in advance so they can prepare, or is it like emotional waterboarding, since it stresses everyone out not knowing if they're on the layoff list?

A: I personally would appreciate the heads-up so that I could prepare accordingly, however some would argue just the opposite (ignorance is bliss?). No matter your view, I am sure we can all agree that this situation has the potential to be anxiety-provoking. I hope that your husband's job is secure but in this situation having a Plan B makes a lot of sense.

Q: I am in the fortunate position to be able to help out a struggling friend with a gift of money, not a loan. How to make sure that by doing so they don't feel patronized or guilty or indebted? I've stressed that this is a gift and that they don't owe me anything; the money is theirs to do with as they please. On the flip side, how do I not feel guilty that I could be doing more? I'd appreciate your thoughts.

A: I have heard Michelle say many times that if you can't afford to give it away don't lend it. In your case you are not expecting a return, just desiring to help a friend. Many factors will contribute to your friend accepting your gift without feelings of guilt or indebtedness: the sum of the gift, the length of time you have been friends, their ability to receive gifts from others, etc.

Also, while your concern for your friend is admirable you must remember your friend's financial concerns are not yours to fix. All you can do is your best and that is good enough.

Q: I am a 55 year old who was divorced six years ago. It was not horrible but not pleasant -- each of us got what we were legally entitled to get. My girlfriend is now divorcing her husband, after being apart for several years. She is considering not getting her full share of his pension because she is concerned that he will not be left with sufficient money. I view this as her choosing him over me. I don't think of myself as a jerk -- am I reacting like one?

A: If your girlfriend is truly doing this out of the goodness of her heart you should be thankful to have such a loving human being on this journey with you. What a kind and unselfish thing to do for someone she has decided to part ways. If she does this for her enemy (I am using the term loosely)┬┐imagine what she will do for you. So to answer your question, yeah you're kinda reacting like a jerk (but of course I do mean that with all due respect) so cut her some slack and count your blessings!

Q: Thank you both for this valuable discussion! I have three jobs and live very frugally because I have a chronic type of cancer that takes a lot of my income to stay on top of. With the economic downturn, one job has seen a 75 percent reduction in wage hours and now my full-time employers have mandated a pay cut in order to save jobs overall. At the same time, our health insurance benefits are being slashed. I'm terrified and can't sleep. Believe me, there's nothing more to cut in my household budget. I'm current on everything but not sure whether I will be able to maintain that once my pay's cut and the health insurance costs go up this summer. What can you recommend for those of us who earn too much to qualify for assistance but too little to get us through more than a couple months of high financial stress?

A: The Cancer Information Network has a great Web page devoted to financial assistance of all kinds for cancer treatment; I think that's a good place to start. Also, ask your local hospital if they receive funds from organizations devoted to cancer care. I know that Susan G. Komen does contribute funds to hospitals and has money available for financial assistance for breast cancer patients (may or may not apply in your case), as does the American Cancer Society. I hope you find the financial assistance that you need and in turn reduce the stress caused by the economic downturn.

Q: How do you handle the scenario where a beloved pet becomes suddenly ill; you take him to the vet and before you know it there is a $1,000 vet bill. How do people handle making the decision to spend a thousand dollars on their pet or putting them down? This is an emotional moment and one reacts as such.

A: Your decision should be based on what is best for you and your household, not simply emotions. Nonetheless, I can appreciate how difficult this must be for you but I get the impression that this decision is based primarily on economics and not the value you place on your pet's life. Thankfully, you don't have to feel guilty about a circumstance that is out of your control.

For more on the recession, take a look at editorial cartoonist Tom Toles and watch the Voices of the Recession. It's a series of personal stories from D.C. locals about the impact of the economic downturn.

Distressed Daughter Asks For Help

Here are the ingredients in a recipe for disaster: a wife, a recently deceased husband, his girlfriend and the payout money from his life insurance policy.

A reader wrote to Ask Amy (May 4) concerned about her mother's financial obligation to her husband's girlfriend.

The mother and father were married for 30 years and have been separated (not legally) for eight. The father died and left a small life insurance to his wife. The girlfriend wants some of the insurance money to pay some of the deceased debts.

Read the entire question and then answer The Color of Money Question of the Week: Does the wife have a moral obligation to give some of the insurance money to her husband's girlfriend?

Send your comments to colorofmoney@washpost.com. In the subject line put "Debts at Death."

Feeding the Family

I was pleasantly surprised at the many compliments I received following a piece I wrote for The Post Food section last week Here are some of the comments I received:

Sylvia Hazzard of Columbia, Md., wrote: "I am greatly moved by your article. I come from an older generation, born 1937, and didn't even think to question my role as the family cook. But I certainly understand your early feelings about that role. My mother was an excellent cook, but, for some reason she didn't want to share that role with me, and actively discouraged me from learning her skills, although she taught me every other skill that she could."

"I think it's important that young men (go ahead Lil Kevin) be as self-sufficient as possible countering the thought that only girls should know how to cook," wrote Sharon Chatman. "On top of that, as much as they can eat, it is far more economical to bring the food home and let them prepare it from scratch then to visit the fast food chains."

Rebecca Farr, of Gurley, Ala., said: "I LOVED your column on eating with the family, the tangible value that cooking family meals has. So many of my friends and relatives have abandoned it, they're all too busy going to basketball tournaments or church activities or a million other after school and weekend kid activities. Sometimes I feel like an anachronism because we refuse to participate in that madness and we eat together every night as a family, usually food I cook."

Dorothy McDonald wrote: "Loved your article and will share it with my daughter who also enjoys cooking with her family in addition to working full-time as a surgeon." She continued, "I wasn't paying attention to my Italian mother when I was growing up either. She worried about my future husband who would never be cooked a wonderful Italian home cooked meal. My young husband also believed that he was marrying a capable Italian cook - like mother, like daughter! Fortunately, I did have a memory of food dishes that she enjoyed preparing and in the years that followed with her help I quickly learned how to put it all together and today my children are cooking the dishes that I have taught them. Someday your family will do the same."

Check out a few of these family friendly recipes that were featured as part of my column:

* Turkey Cutlets with Walnut Parmesan Sauce

* Mango Salad with Ginger-Raisin Vinaigrette

Color of Money Book Club Chat

Don't forget next week's chat!

Authors Deborah and Gerald Strober will join me on May 21 to discuss their book "Catastrophe: The Story of Bernard L. Madoff, The Man Who Swindled the World." The book is May's Color of Money Book Club selection. Chat starts at Noon ET.

You are welcome to e-mail comments and questions to singletarym@washpost.com. Please include your name and hometown; your comments may be used in a future column or newsletter unless otherwise requested.

Charity Brown contributed to this e-letter.

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