Ask LH: Can A Restaurant Refuse To Split My Bill?

Ask LH: Can A Restaurant Refuse To Split My Bill?

Dear Lifehacker, Is it legal for a restaurant to not allow split bills? What would happen if at the time of payment you suddenly realise you do not have enough money in your account so you want to pay most of it from your savings and the remainder from a credit card? Thanks, Curious Diner

Restaurant picture from Shutterstock

Dear CD,

As we’ve pointed out before, in Australia, it’s legal for businesses to accept or refuse any type of payment they like. There is no obligation to accept any particular form of payment (including cash). If a business wants to display a sign that says “cash only” or “credit card only”, there’s nothing illegal about it.

The same goes for split bills; if the restaurant doesn’t want to accept them, you have to put up with it. Their only real obligation is to ensure that this condition is made clear to diners before they order, which is why you’ll typically see signage on menus or at the counter. Don’t like it? “Go to another restaurant” is the consumer law approach.

That doesn’t mean there are no rules around payments in restaurants. If businesses want to charge an extra fee for using a credit card, that fee can’t be excessive and must reflect the actual cost of processing that card. Previously, restaurants were also required to have a separate menu if they charged extra on public holidays, but that law was recently changed, and a sign saying “10 per cent extra” is now considered sufficient. (Thanks to commenter timinator for pointing out the change.)

But again, there’s no legally-backed consumer right to demand that a bill can be split in Australia. Restaurants generally resist split bills because they take up lots of staff time — each person has to pay individually, and then the bill has to be checked to make sure everything has been covered. Others embrace the concept, hoping it will attract more customers. Approaches vary, so it always pays to check if you’re out in a group.

As for the second part of your question: your inability to pay for a meal you have ordered is surely as much your problem as the restaurant’s. With that said, under those specific circumstances I would always ask regardless of signage: after all, the restaurant wants to be paid, and it’s not a question of having to work out how payments are being split amongst multiple people.


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  • As always, vote with your feet. If you think all restaurants should split bills then only dine at ones that do.

  • If a restaurant doesn’t offer the payment terms you’d like, I’d suggest not going there. But if you’re going to take that route, make sure you write to them to let them know why you’re not going there. They’ll only change if they’ve been told people want it.

  • A split bill isn’t the same as paying with multiple payment methods. An itemised bill gets the restaurant to separate the charges for you. Go up and say, I want to pay $50 with this card, $60 with this card, and there’s no extra work for the staff. Each payment takes off the amount remaining.

  • As a person experienced in the hospitality industry, I can say that generally that only customers that want to split bills are groups of school teachers. And the reason that restuarants don’t want to accommodate is because of the time it takes to work out the cost of things like a third of a bottle of wine and half a garlic bread etc (I kid you not)

  • “Restaurants generally resist split bills because they take up lots of staff time — each person has to pay individually, and then the bill has to be checked to make sure everything has been covered.”

    Crap! It takes far more time to process if they refuse to split. Each person needs to take a look at the printed receipt (hopefully itemised.. if not, let me see a menu!) figure out what they owe. Oh, I only have a $50.. can you give me $20, I’ll cover yours, here’s $5 back.. you pay this bit. Takes far longer. Some invariably ends up paying more or less than they should be.

    Any POS system of worth should easily be able to handle paying for separate items. If not, a cashier with half a brain could!

      • which is still lost revenue…. the longer it takes for customers who are not going to order anything new to vacate the table is lost money that new customers could be being served

      • Which holds up the staff whislt they wait for the customer to sort the payment out.. also holding up others waiting to pay.

        Actually, I think I need to clarrify – this is when paying at a counter not when they bring the bill to your table 🙂

    • Well, first of all, you’re talking about talking the customer’s time, not the STAFF’s time. When you take the staff’s time, that’s time that should be used providing service to the rest of the restaurant. When you don’t see a server working for you, they’re working for someone else, either at another of their own tables, running food, or some other work for the well being of the entire store. It’s a huge teamwork operation, like an ant colony. every minute of service you receive is a minute of service that someone else does not. Splitting checks is a pointless waste of time, for a small bit of convenience for you. Secondly, you act like figuring out who owes what is a huge ordeal. IT’S BASIC MATH THAT I LEARNED IN 3RD GRADE. All simple addition and subtraction. And even all of that is done just so make sure nobody gets over on anyone else for a dollar here or there….it’s petty. Just split it even, take turns picking up the tab, or at least just make a quick estimate of what you owe, and throw some cash down ( because you’re a smart person, and always carry a little bit of spending cash with you, right? ). If you’re surrounding yourself with honorable, trustworthy people, it’ll all work out over time, even if you spent a couple extra dollars this time.

  • The article mentions that it’s the law that a Sunday or holiday surcharge requires an additional menu, or holiday-totalled price. Hospitality sites are reporting that this law changed last week, so it’s legal for restaurants to keep on using the “10% surcharge” statement on a menu for this.–17052656/

    • Ah, thanks. I knew that change was proposed but hadn’t realised it had passed. I will update accordingly.

  • I have to say this is one of my favourite “what things are better in the USA” topics. I moved to the USA from AU last year, and EVERY restaurant/cafe/pub here will happily split the bill, just throw in as many credit cards as you want to use and the server will happily go process them. You can even ask for an uneven split – for instance if I’m paying for 2 people at a meal with 3 of us, I can put 2/3rds on my card and the rest on the other person’s. I have only seen a couple of restaurant menus say “maximum number of splits is X” (e.g. 6).

    I suspect a lot of it (not liking it in Australia) has to do with the general problem that EFT and Credit Card fees are just too high for merchants in Australia, so even if there is no actual additional cost, they just resent the EFT/CC companies too much to bother… old habits die hard.

  • Just don’t be a tightarse! If the bill’s $200, and there’s four of you, just put in $50 each! Don’t look at the bill and umm and ahh over who had an extra glass of wine or the steak instead of the pasta. Go out to enough dinners and everything evens out in the long run in terms of overpaying and underpaying anyway. As someone who spent many years as a waiter, there’s nothing more pathetic than people going through the bill with a fine tooth comb to see who should put in $2 more than someone else.

    • i agree with this sentiment if thats the understanding before the meal. I know in my circle of friends i earn significantly more and as such i sometime order something a bit more pricier – a nicer cut of meat or an aged wine – why should they have to pay for my exotic tastes.

      Back when we were all on similar money (when we were all students) we all used to just split evenly as we all knew we could only afford the same sort of price ranges and it worked out nicely.

      Pros and Cons to both methods.

      • So, then all you have to do is volunteer a slightly larger slice of the bill, and then they can divide the rest.

      • I understand if someone orders, for example, a $100 bottle of wine and drinks most of it themselves, then basic etiquette states that you would pay for at least the majority of that yourself, as well as make that clear before ordering it. But if someone orders a dish that’s, say, $20 more expensive, then between four people that’s only an extra $5 each. It works out even less if there’s less of a price difference or if there’s more dining guests. The next time you go out, buy your mates a drink or something, which would probably cost more than the extra they shelled out for your meal anyway. That’s what I mean when I say it all evens out in the long run.

    • No. I don’t care if you think it’s pathetic, that’s not for you to decide.

      I have a tighter budget than most of my friends and family, so when I head out to dinner I avoid wine and desert, every time. I choose my meal based on price – if I couldn’t do this, I wouldn’t be able to go out with them.

      • I’ve seen people at group functions stack multiple plates of prawns like mountains and drink bottles of wine.. then argue for an even split when the bill comes… I laughed at them.

      • I agree dog. I am in the same boat. Also my partner eats like a bird (if we could order the kids meal for her we would and there’d still be leftovers!) so why should we pay when she always orders the smallest thing on the menu?

  • I hardly ever carry cash these days and prefer to pay by card. So I’m always that guy who doesn’t have any cash to throw in when we split the bill.

    I’m always happy to pay the total amount on my card and collect the cash from my friends so save any extra hassles.

  • When are they all going to accept electronic payments via location-based apps like PayPal or Passbook?

  • Wow, I honestly didn’t know a business could refuse to accept cash if they wanted to!

    That’s kind of amazing – surely cash is legal tender everywhere in Australia…?

  • I cannot understand why it is even LEGAL for restaurants to refuse to split bills just because a group of people are all dining together. I have seen people very embarrassed as they have been on a shoestring budget, only ordered what they could afford while others in the group have ordered expensive bottles of wine willy nilly “knowing” the bill would be split and others would be subsidising their extravagance, while those on the shoestring budget haven’t known. Understandably, the bottles of wine may be shared, but the individual meals should be able to be itemised separately to each individual diner. You’re not necessarily tight because you don’t want to split the bill. Maybe you’re just genuinely not in the position to pay for what you haven’t eaten.

  • Yet you think that the answer is legit ? :O

    For those assholes who says to go somewhere else, it’s not just your fuckin business to advise that. What if all the places that is appropriate for me to go have a fuckn lunch with my friend requests “no split bills” ? Are you fuckn out of your mind ? How come a restaurant can legally refuse splitting the bills ? It might be a kind request from the customer, but no authority on earth including your fuckn gods can demand such a thing. Are we all clear at this page ?

    • I agree with what you said, there should be some more consumer protection in place for this, as well as forcing customers to pay cash (so the business can avoid paying tax or minimum wages). My company goes to lunch together a few days each week, and the ability to pay for a more expensive meal is often beyond the junior /casual staff (they seem to live on instant noodles the rest of the week), they also rarely drink so splitting bills equally is unfair on them and paying cash instead of credit is often not possible. Does it fall on the draft of the group to cover them every time? Or should the restaurant be accommodating and allow splits /card payments? What happens if someone genuinely doesn’t have the ability to pay – leave an IOU.

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