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Business Dining: The Do's and Don'ts of Splitting the Check

When dining with clients or customers, it can be fairly simple to avoid the all-too-familiar discomfort and confusion of just who should pay the bill.
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Check-splitting became more of a commonplace practice when the recession first struck, but it can still feel awkward -- especially as the lines between business and social relationships frequently blur.

The general rule with regard to dining out? You invite, you pay. (And don’t forget -- this includes tip, coat check and any valet parking charges.) However, in more casual situations, the rules aren’t always as clear. The next time your server delivers the bill to your table and you feel unsure of what to do, just follow these simple rules:

Be proactive. Don’t wait for the bill to come to the table. If you're paying, let the server or maître d’ know how your party will be handling the check in advance. In the case of a client lunch, when possible, provide the server with your credit card information before your guest even arrives. This will eliminate any squabbling over who pays the check. Or, excuse yourself during dessert, find your server, and pay then.

Related: Wining and Dining to Grow Your Business and Brand

As a guest, don’t feel obligated. When invited out, you might feel like it would be polite to offer to pay for your portion of the bill -- but consider that this could deeply offend your host. If a business associate invites you to dinner, allow him or her to handle the check. Thank your host graciously and say, “I’ll treat you next time.”

Follow the leader. When you’re not sure what to order, ask your hosts what they recommend. If the other guests are having salad, order on the light side yourself. If it looks like everyone’s settling on filet mignon, it’s also acceptable to order in that price range. And always wait for your host’s cue before ordering an alcoholic beverage.

Related: 5 Tricks to Remembering Anybody's Name

If splitting, say so. In social situations where you plan to split the check, establish that fact with your dining companions as soon as you sit down. Don’t wait until the bill comes to mention it. Just ask your server from the outset, “Could we please have separate checks?”

Don’t let the bill just sit there. If the bill is delivered to your table and no plan has been established -- and no one reaches for it -- turn it over yourself and say to your dining companions, “Let’s see what we owe. Do you mind if we split the check?” We all know the awkward feeling of letting a check linger on the table, so avoid that at all costs.

Split it down the middle. In most social situations, it’s best not to haggle over who had what. In fact, the price difference will probably even out in the long run. On the other hand, if there is a large disparity between the price of what you and your dining companions have ordered -- a salad and an iced tea versus lobster and a glass of wine, for instance -- it’s perfectly acceptable to say something like, “I have enough cash for my meal, but I’m afraid I’m not prepared to pay for both of us.”

Related: Taxes 101: How to Maximize Your Dining Write-Off