Because arguing over math can ruin friendships.

Paying the bill at restaurants can be a complex and anxiety-inducing social ritual?—?with lots of expectations. On dates, the person who initiated the date usually pays. Business meal? The client or new hire should eat for free. Splitting is fine when you’re out with friends.

Except that’s where I take umbrage. Splitting can be fine, but seven-way splitsies and overuse of Venmo has ruined what used to be a good thing. You’ve either got people trying to weasel out of an even split because they don’t want to cough up an extra dollar (Does “Well, he had a Coke and I only had water!” sound familiar?), or you’ve got people so obsessed with not “being in your debt” that they refuse even the smallest gesture of generosity.

For instance, I picked up pita and hummus from my friend’s favorite falafel place on my way over to her house. She Venmo’d me $4 for her half of the order. I certainly can’t accuse her of being cheap. But how should I feel the next time we’re out and she buys me a glass of wine? Should I say thanks and let it lie? Or do I have to reciprocate and count my coppers just as carefully as she did?

A ticket to ride

Let me pitch something radical. When on a date or a business meal, stick with the traditional etiquette. But when you’re out with friends, make a rule among yourselves about who picks up the check.

Having a rule is good for everybody. Here’s why:

  • If you aren’t the one picking up the check, you feel good because you got free stuff.
  • If you are the one who picks up the check, everybody thanks you and you get to feel generous. You’re the hero of the moment. (And yes, your pocketbook takes a punch, but if the rule works as it’s supposed to, you’ve got a ticket to ride the next few nights out.)
  • The net negative of shelling out a little more here and there is far milder than the net negative of being the stingy friend who doesn’t like to treat.

Making rules

Anybody who needs a check-splitting boot camp is probably under 40. Once you enter your fifth decade, you should either be able to treat your friends once in a while or you shouldn’t be going out to dinner at all.

But for us young’uns, there’s the grim financial reality of student loans, high rents and low-paying entry-level jobs. So when we’re deciding who foots the bill, it’s important to keep these restrictions in mind. That brings us to my first proposed rule:

Four Or More

The Four Or More rule says that a check shall only be divided if the party comprises four or more persons. A party of two or three shall be paid for by the Inviter. (You may need a contingency plan for spontaneous nights out, where it’s not clear who did the inviting. Maybe whoever’s got the lowest rent?)

Credit Card Roulette

This rule is the most statistically trustworthy when it comes to making sure everything evens out. It’s simple: Everybody puts one credit card into the pile, and someone picks one (without looking). Whoever’s card is chosen pays the bill. (This rule has the added bonus of a gambling thrill.)

Drip Drip Drop

I saw this one happen at a wine bar/butcher shop where I worked some years ago. After this trio had finished their wine, they laid the bottle on its side for a few moments and made bets on how many drops were left. Then, someone upturned the bottle over an empty glass and the group counted how many drops came out. Whoever’s guess was closest to the real number won a free meal; the other two split the check evenly. (IMO, this is better than credit card roulette because the burden of loss is mitigated by the solidarity both losers share.)

Turn Taking

The easiest (and therefore most boring) rule: Establish a rotation. Joey got it this time? Phoebe gets it next time. Follow this rule and you’ll never go hungry again.

Phone Puddle

Each member of the party places their phone in the middle of the table. No matter how many calls or texts you get, you’re not allowed to reach for your phone. Anyone who breaks this rule is allotted one portion of the check to pay. So if only one of you breaks it, tough luck. You’re stuck with the whole thing. If two break it, it’s an even split. And so on.

The Generosity Clause

In theory, the rules above should make things even out in the long run. But if you find that Monica is forking over more than her fair share, you must enact the generosity clause. Which is when you simply say?—?like a civilized, normal human being who doesn’t see ghosts and hate Christmas?—?“I’ve got this.”