Ask Amanda: What should I do when my friends haggle over the check?

May 6, 2014 at 12:23 p.m. ET

A reader asks what to do when uncomfortable money talk ruins an otherwise great getaway with friends.

Dear Amanda:

I just had what should have been an amazing girlfriend getaway in Miami. We’re all in our 30s, established in our careers and are lucky to be able to afford some good dining and shopping. The problem: My friends kept talking about money, to the point it was uncomfortable. After a great meal out our first night, one of them insisted that we only tip before tax in restaurants. The other one kept maintaining that good tipping is good karma. Although I stayed quiet, I’m a firm believer in 20 percent after tax unless there’s a problem with service. The difference was probably only a few dollars. Beyond the tip issue, there was also a lot of “who paid for what” at every meal, grocery visit or gas station. I’d rather just take turns. I love my friends, but it was stressful. How would you have handled it?

Dear Totally Taxed:

I'm sorry to hear that money talk marred an otherwise great trip. Anytime people need to coordinate spending for group activities, you can expect that there will be differences. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, and it sounds like your friends were okay presenting their different points of view. What's interesting is that you had a point of view, too; in fact, you describe yourself as a "firm believer" in 20 percent after tax. I wonder what made you feel like you couldn't share that during the debate?

All financial behavior has meaning, and our financial values (what is important to us, or what we consider the "right" or "correct" behavior with money) have a lot to do with how and where we were raised. In the Midwest where I grew up, there is a cultural premium put on fairness, individual responsibility and careful respect for money (sometimes this looks like frugality). If six people sit down for dinner, it's normal to ask the server for six separate checks. This isn't about cheapness; it's more a way of saying, "I don't expect anyone else to have to pay my way. I am responsible for my own choices." When I moved to New York, I discovered a different cultural norm where people said, "I'll get this one, you get the next one." This reciprocal arrangement reflects the values of collective responsibility, mutual care-taking and reinforcement of the relationship (future plans must always be made, since it seems someone is always owed that next dinner or drinks). Each region, each socioeconomic group will have norms based on financial values. No particular way is universally right, but each method tells you something about what feels normal or what is valued by the person who advocates it.

What you experienced on your trip was a clashing of financial cultures. But while your friends were hashing out who paid for what, your own values of privacy, interpersonal harmony and care-taking got squashed. So how do you keep money differences from ruining future getaways? Here are four things to think about.

1. Nobody gets to be right

When you hear your friends trying to convince each other that theirs is the right way, a gentle, "You know what? There are a lot of different ideas about this and we might not all agree. So why don't we each tip the way that we feel reflects the good service we received?" Then if you want to throw in a few extra bucks to cover someone who is fine with 15 percent, you are free to discreetly do so. That might not be financially "fair," but you have to determine if an extra few dollars is worth it to you to curtail the argument.

2. Try to appreciate the values behind the behavior

Think about the many non-money things you like about your friends. Instead of seeing their financial moves in terms of how they are different from yours, look instead for how they are consistent with the other qualities you already treasure in them. That person who always tells you the truth about a boyfriend dilemma or new haircut? She also wants everyone to pony up their share of groceries. It's who she is and you love her for it.

3. Take a "tour" of another culture

A big reason you feel so at home in your financial comfort zone is because it's familiar. But maybe if you tried some of the money behaviors that seem foreign to you, you might discover surprising benefits. Who you are and where you are as an adult may be very different from the financial culture in which you were raised. Trying something new helps you ensure that your own financial behavior is consciously chosen, as opposed to an automatic legacy response.

4. You do you

After you've opened yourself to appreciating and experimenting with other financial norms, you're able to better understand who you are and what is important to you. Having that insight will empower you in future situations. For example, if you know that hearing people quibble about who ordered dessert just sounds like nails down a chalkboard, find a way to proactively deal with that ahead of time. You have the responsibility to articulate your own preferences to the group, and you can do that in a way that is respectful and collaborative. Something like, "After a wonderful meal, I would love it if we could all just split the bill equally. Dissecting who owes for what just sort of takes me out of the fun spirit of the evening. It's totally my thing, and I understand that sometimes this might mean I pay more than my share if I got pasta and you got prime rib, but I would be cool with that if you guys were." You should be ready for further discussion (they might not agree with you), but there is a totally different stress level with conversations that happen ahead of time as opposed to when you're in the heat of the situation.

As a clinician, I love that thoughts and feelings about money can point to opportunities for us to grow. Addressing the discomfort you felt on your getaway might help you know yourself better and deepen the level of intimacy in your friendships. Or if all else fails, maybe next time you just pick an all-inclusive. Good luck!

Amanda is the director of a Financial Wellness Program for a national arts-related non-profit. She works with groups, individuals, couples and families to help them pursue financial wellness and bring money into balance.

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