There always seems to be a new startup involving sending money person-to-person, with the most common demo showing how easy it is to split a restaurant bill with your friends. Is this really a huge problem? Are there many groups of friends where one person orders lobster and four drinks without offering to pay their fair share? Yes it can get weird once in a while, but I would think things would self-regulate quickly. (Okay, maybe not the $47,000 food bill for 6 people on the right!) Also, it’s not very hard to ask for split checks with modern POS cash registers… maybe just tip a bit more for the inconvenience.
The economic argument is that if you know you’ll be splitting the bill evenly, you are incentivized to order more. In a group of six, ordering a $6 cocktail only costs you $1 more. A $12 appetizer is only $2. But you’re also subsidizing other people, so social dynamics come into play. If someone believes others are “freeriding” on them, then they’re more likely to order more, and so on. Do people really spend more when splitting the bill?
According to a study pointed out by Undercover Economist Tim Harford, people just might:
Diners were, at random, offered three different billing rules: split-the-bill, pay-your-share, or on-the-house. They were also asked to order food by writing their choices down, without discussion. This odd request was made less odd by the fact that they were all filling in questionnaires at the time.
Homo economicus immediately emerged: diners ordered, on average, 37 shekels worth of food when paying their own way, 51 shekels when splitting the bill, and 82 shekels when the experimenter picked up the tab for everyone. (A small follow-up experiment hinted that people splitting the bill six ways behave similarly to those paying one-sixth of their own bill.)
The study involved bringing strangers together in an actual restaurant ordering real food, so it’s close but not quite the same as eating with friends. Even with friends, I still tend to think as a group the total bill would be a bit higher, like maybe one more person will order a beer if everyone else is having one.