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‘I was outraged’: Our restaurant bill was $35 each, but our friend wanted to pay $22 for a gluten-free dish. Who’s right?

Dear Quentin,

I went for dinner with six friends last weekend, and we each ordered entrees and desserts, and some side orders. One of our group only eats gluten-free food, so he ordered two starters. We split the bill, and it worked out at $36 each. But our gluten-free friend cried foul, and asked for a separate check to pay $22 for his gluten-free dish. I was outraged — and almost felt physically sick. I kicked my husband under the table, and said under my breath, “Can you believe that?’

Can you believe it? Do you think he should have just paid the $35 instead of asking for a separate check? Adding insult to injury, he left the waiter a $10 tip. Why not just pay $35 like everyone else? I told my husband I was never going for dinner with him again. Don’t you think he should have just paid $35 like everyone else? It was a big crowd. If everyone did that, you’d need a forensic accountant to figure out how many breadsticks someone ate. 

We otherwise had a nice evening, and it was a bring-your-own-bottle restaurant. I work as a teacher and my husband works in tech. We own a home together and have three kids. Our gluten-free friend is a freelance consultant, and is divorced with two kids. He had a very privileged upbringing. I worked hard for everything I have. I’m not saying any of us are rich, but when we go out to eat, we like to share and share alike, and split the bill down the middle. 

When did eating out become so full of these cringeworthy moments?

Equal Bill Splitter

Dear Equal,

I’m sorry to say that the most cringeworthy moment here happened when you kicked your husband under the table. I’m not a big fan of under-table communication in a group, and while we could debate the pros and cons of asking for a separate check for a $13 difference, I don’t think there’s much of a gray area when it comes to calling someone out at the dinner table, especially when your eye-rolling and disapproval could be picked up by the other guests.

As far as your friend is concerned, $13 is a lot of money to pay when you did not eat all the food that was ordered by the table. Maybe it doesn’t seem like it to you or anyone reading this column, but your friend is divorced with two kids, and works as a freelancer — so let’s assume his income is not always stable. Could he have just split it down the middle and paid $35 and another 15% or 20% for a tip? Sure. But he has good financial boundaries. I applaud him.

The real issue here may go back to your respective upbringings, and could explain your dramatic — and I would argue disproportionate reaction — to your friend asking for a separate $22 check. You’ve worked hard, and maybe your friend had an easier start in life, but that doesn’t mean he’s not entitled to pay for what he ate, and watch every dollar. Divorce is like a recession. You can end up struggling to get back on your financial feet for years.

Perhaps your friend had always intended to pay $22 for his gluten-free dish, and tip the server 50%, or perhaps he has a well-trained side eye and caught your reaction to his paying for his own order, and he decided to pay closer to what everyone else had paid. But ordering separate checks, I suspect, will become more common as prices continue to rise, even at a slower pace, and people feel uncertain about spending money in restaurants. 

You believe in equality of bill splitting. I suggest you apply that equality to all dinner guests, regardless of upbringing and dietary restrictions, and allow them to make their own choices about what they pay for at dinner. People often have problems — financial or otherwise — that we are not aware of, so try to leave space for that. And if your friend did see your eye-rolling and under-the-table antics? I’d like to think he made space for your behavior too.

Readers write to me with all sorts of dilemmas. 

By emailing your questions, you agree to have them published anonymously on MarketWatch. By submitting your story to Dow Jones & Co., the publisher of MarketWatch, you understand and agree that we may use your story, or versions of it, in all media and platforms, including via third parties.

The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

More from Quentin Fottrell:

I had a date with a great guy. I didn’t drink, but his wine added $36 to our bill. We split the check evenly. Should I have spoken up?

‘I’m living paycheck to paycheck and I feel drained’: My fiancé said he would pay half of the mortgage. Guess what happened next?

‘We live in purgatory’: My wife has a multimillion-dollar trust fund, but my mother-in-law controls it. We earn $400,000 and spend beyond our means.

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