Splitting the Bill With My Sisters

by Megan Reynolds

My sisters and I do not fight that often anymore, because we are older and more mature, but every time we do, it’s because of money. It happens when my mother is in town. Our mother makes the visit every year, like clockwork, to run in a half marathon in Central Park and to see her children, who dutifully gather around her, clucking like hens. Usually, we have spent too much time together, walking the same strip of Broadway in Soho, from H&M to Uniqlo, on a too-hot, too-crowded Saturday afternoon, when the streets are thick with tourists and halal carts.

Someone always makes sure that Mom is still with us when we walk, her short legs taking twice as many steps as ours. My youngest sister bodyguards her fiercely, a long arm draped over her shoulder, towering a good foot above her head. When forced to hang out with each other, under the specter of our mother (who is lovely but can be tiresome), our good nature slips away. We are usually hungry. The weather is either unseasonably hot or cold. Most likely, we have been up for longer than we’d like, some of us hungover, some of us sharp with exhaustion because they drew the straws, and Mom got to stay with them. Usually, we are very hungry, so we do what we do best — we eat.

As my sisters and I have found our way into gainful employment, we have realized that it is our duty to pay for our mother’s meals. We do it because Mom is about to run a half marathon throughout Central Park with a bunch of women in power ponytails, while we sleepily stand on the sidelines, waiting to catch a glimpse. We do it because this is what you do when you are of a certain age, and making enough money to feed yourself beyond your means at least once a month. You pay for your parents because they spent an awful lot of time and money paying for you. (Also, because you love them.)

One year, we went to Speedy Romeo, a pizza restaurant in Clinton HIll. It’s the kind of place that is too dark to see your dining companions and too loud to properly hear anyone. The food, however, is delicious. Because Mom was going to run the half-marathon the next day, we carbo-loaded in solidarity, devouring pizzas with the speed and ruthlessness that is my family trademark. Eat quickly, because the food will be gone if you look away to take a sip of water. When the bill came, it was high. Not terribly high, but high enough. After a prolonged weekend of eating every single meal out, we were all feeling it, but some more than others.

My youngest sister looked at the bill, and counted out exactly what she owed. It was considerably less than what the rest of us owed. She had had her share of the pizza, and three large glasses of water. There was no dessert. She put her money on the table and pushed the bill over to my other sister, who was finishing her third $9 glass of rosé.

“The easiest thing for us to do is to split this four ways,” she said as she finished her drink.

“I’m not paying for what I didn’t have,” said the youngest. “You had three glasses of wine. Megan had two beers. I had water. This is what I’m paying.”

I am sure an argument ensued, all aggrieved silences and the quiet tapping of a single index finger onto the screen of an iPhone calculator, figuring out who owed what and how. Someone surely over-apologized to the waitress about the different amounts to put on the four debit cards foisted upon her. I am sure we left the restaurant salty, angry at each other, licking our wounds. I am sure the cab ride back to our respective homes was silent. The argument, as petty and as dumb as it might have seemed, was valid. My youngest sister was correct. It’s not really that okay to split the bill when the split is unfair.

You have two choices, when faced with the bill splitting at a group dinner: If the purse strings are tight this month, you have certainly eaten a side salad and as much of the free bread you could manage while sipping a water and thinking about the 99-cent ramen you’ll get from the bodega on your way back home. With every top shelf whiskey ordered, every bottle of wine, you start a panicky mental calculation of how much you’ll be expected to pay versus what you actually owe. When the bill shows up, you can show your hand by quietly slipping a twenty into the pile of plastic and crumpled bills, while telling someone that you only had a salad, anyway, so this should be more than enough. This is the right thing to do. It is what you can afford. It is what you owe. Entering the social contract of a group dinner does not mean that you also agree to pay for your college roommate’s boyfriend to indulge the budding sommelier that lives within. If your friends are your friends, they will understand when you tell them, “I love you, and I want to celebrate, but this is what I can pay.”

It’s an uncomfortable thing to be at that modern horrorshow, the birthday dinner, when you are not currently making that much money, yet know that you need to show face. It’s cute and fine to say that you “really can’t afford it” when you’re invited to a 10-person birthday blowout when you’re fresh out of college. It is less cute when you’re a little bit older. Admitting financial insolvency by way of bowing out of events that don’t seem to faze anyone else is embarrassing. It broadcasts the fact that you simply can’t keep track of the money that comes in, so much that a $35 dinner will throw your budget irreparably. It is embarrassing to admit that you are somehow, not quite, keeping up with the Kardashians.

But, it’s okay. Live within your means. Be confident. Tell your friends, your family, what you can afford and they will understand. You are not a bad person because you don’t want to pay for someone else’s drink. You are not a bad person because you understand what your financial limits are and are respecting them. Staying in your lane is powerful. Stay there until you feel comfortable getting out.

This story is part of our food month series.

Megan Reynolds lives in New York.

Photo: Dan4th Nicholas

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