The Subtle Art Of Picking Up The Check

I sat at the counter of a Mexican restaurant in Pinedale, Wyoming, a couple Saturdays ago, and watched two guys in their 40s approach the register to pay for their meal. One man reached around the cash register to hand the manager the check, and didn’t notice as the other man snuck his credit card around and slid it onto the counter to the manager, who picked it up and slid it. I smiled as the first man realized what was happening, but too late. His friend had paid for their meal.

I smiled because I am familiar with the sneaky practice of snatching the check from your friend or family member and paying for it, an endearing cloak-and-dagger scheme that’s probably as old as the concept of restaurants. And I’m a huge fan and practitioner.

Picking up the check is a sort of love language between friends or family members, a financial high-five or a hug. I prefer it in most cases of one-on-one dining, a way of saying I’m confident enough in the friendship that a) we will eat together again sometime in the future and b) my friend is enough of a class act to remember who paid last time. I’ve enjoyed years of this game, with old friends, new friends, business acquaintances, and my favorite, my parents. And it usually works out, according to my unscientific data.

When it comes to picking up the check at a restaurant, there are no hard and fast rules (besides paying for the meal instead of dining and dashing, obviously). But here are some of my personal guidelines:

Guideline #1: Do not announce at the beginning of the meal that you are paying for dinner/lunch/breakfast. This takes all the fun out of the game, and also is a little egotistical in that you’re announcing it to the entire table.

Guideline #2: Generally, everything else is allowed. Including, but not limited to:

  • Pretending to go use the restroom before the check arrives, finding your server and giving them your credit card while your friend sits unaware back at the table.
  • Getting your wallet out and keeping your credit card on your lap but out of your friend’s vision so that when the check does arrive you are ready to swoop in
  • Taking your friend’s card off the tray or out of the receipt book, replacing it with yours, and holding onto their card until the server walks away to run your credit card
  • Snatching your friend’s entire wallet out of his/her hand and holding onto it until you’ve successfully paid the bill

Guideline #3: When your friend buys, thank them. Even though you’re buying next time.

Guideline #4: When your friend buys, do not attempt to give them cash to pay for your half of the meal. Maybe offer to leave cash for a tip, but don’t insult their generosity by trying to pay for your half after it’s already been decided.

Guideline #5: If your friend picks up the check first and insists he/she is paying for it, you are allowed to protest only once. None of this repetitive “are you sure?” and “you really don’t have to” bullshit. If you’re not going to insist on paying, citing reasons such as “ because you paid last time we had lunch” or “but you saved my son’s life that day you knocked him out of the path of that ice cream truck that had lost its brakes at the top of the hill” or “the last time we bet on our golf game I cheated and took your $40,” just say “Thank you” and move on.

And think of this old Mitch Hedberg joke: “If I’m out to dinner with a group of friends, and somebody offers to pay for the check, I immediately reach for my wallet. Inside is a note that says, ‘Say thanks!’”


10 replies on “The Subtle Art Of Picking Up The Check

  • libi K

    Interesting Blog.
    iF you are going to ‘pick up the check’ I think it’s better to say
    ‘my treat’
    This can possibly alleviate any un-stated obligation that the next time is on the person you are treating.
    a generous gesture is NOT generous if there is an expectation of future. recipricocity.
    If there is an expectation that next time you buy, you have created an obligation.
    I also hate ‘splitting the check’. It never comes out even on my end and to be honest I’m sick and tired of paying for my friends lavish orders!
    For me, it’s separate checks pleeze! And Thank you!

  • Nate

    Another great post. My sister likes to theateically simulate spitting on my card or cash once she’s established that she’s paying… may be a NY thing.

  • Greg DuPey

    In my family, paying for the meal is an olympic level competition. I’ve seen mom, brothers, sister and, even yours truly go to silly lenghts to fork over the green….including showing up 15 minutes early, or calling ahead to give the waiter a card. Sick really but its who we are. Great post Brendan!

  • Wali p

    My ‘BFF’ worked out a brilliant solution to our formerly frequent squabbles about picking up the check: when we go mtb-ing/hiking/etc., whoever drives, eats for free. Then we take turns driving on excursions. End of story.

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