Splitting the bill

IMG_0024 (Photo credit: rodriguezdan)

I’m a big fan of Dan Ariely and, more generally, the often suprising insights into the way people act that can be gained by behavioural economics (this is a great resource http://goo.gl/vZALS9, bookmark it and come back to it).

Dan does a regular Q+A column in the WSJ. One practical suggestion he made that always stuck with me was about the best way to settle a restaurant bill when you are out with friends, but last night, in a Vietnamese restaurant in Shoreditch I think we stumbled onto something better.

Dan’s suggestion is that the most effective way to pay when you are out with friends is for you all to take turns. The ‘pain of paying’ is what we feel when we have to part with money and the suggestion of rotating the payment provides the following benefits

  • the person paying gets to feel good about treating their friends, this makes paying for them more palatable
  • the other friends can just enjoy the meal – but don’t have to feel guilty about someone else paying as they will pay later in the rotation
  • it keep the meal as a social occasion, as soon as you start having to exchange money with each other (you put in 10 so take 5 change and I’ll put the rest on my card) it turns a social occasion into a transaction

I’ve always considered this a very good suggestion — although not without flaws – but the new solution that I was presented with yesterday was so good that I can remember it even as my hangover recedes from the wine I drank with the meal.

At the end of the meal we held a lottery for payment. There were 6 of us and we decided that was too much for one person to pick up, but we agreed it would be reasonable to split it between three. We handed 6 credit cards to the waiter and asked him to shuffle them and then return 3 cards to the table – those people didn’t have to pay – the remaining 3 cards then split the bill.

This had the following benefits

  • it put some fun into the event – thereby mitigating some of the pain of paying
  • as we were playing a game it still felt sociable and fun
  • there is no sense of loss in the game (everyone is happy to pay for the food) but the people who don’t pay feel like winners
  • over time we know that we’ll all probably end up paying as often as each other – although none of us would resent the others getting free meals if they did get a ‘lucky streak’ and that would probably be fun too

So, next time you are out with regular friends consider a ‘restaurant bill lottery’ to end the meal. By the way, I won….

(thanks to AHT and CWT for the suggestion)

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