To Split or Not to Split? How to Handle Money with Friends

money rules"
money rules
Graphics by: Caitlin Schneider
Graphics by: Caitlin Schneider

Things can get a bit awkward anytime money is on the table, literally. But finances shouldn’t come between you and your friends. We all make and manage money differently, and quite honestly, it’s nobody’s business who makes what, what their bills are, or whether or not they have a cushiony savings account. However, financial discrepancies can make it hard to discern how to handle money with others and determine money rules in your friendships. Should you ask them to pay you back for their coffee? How do you split the bill at dinner? Who is responsible for paying for the bottle service you never wanted?

Friendship money rules have long gone unspoken, but we’re ready to air them out in the open. This set of polite behavior dictates how you should handle money with friends if you want to avoid creating unnecessary tensions in your friendships. Ahead, a comprehensive list of the friendship money rules we swear by.

1. Be clear about what you can afford

Since the days of being tight-lipped about money are coming to an end (thank you, loud budgeting), being upfront with your friends about what you can afford is easier than ever. Case in point? When my maid of honor and I were looking at venues for my bridal shower, we came across one we both loved—only to find that it cost a pretty penny. So, my maid of honor said point-blank that she needed to hold off on signing the contract until she found out whether she’d be getting financial help from others. I genuinely appreciated that she was honest about it being out of her budget. I would have done the same had the roles been reversed.

Being upfront about your finances with others can help prevent resentment. If my maid of honor dropped more than she intended on my bridal shower, she likely would’ve held it in the back of her mind, creating a slight crack in our friendship I wouldn’t have known about. So, don’t be afraid to speak up when you can’t afford something, and do it sooner rather than later. Waiting to admit that you can’t afford something until the last minute will only stress you out, and you don’t need that headache. Plus, it could put your friend(s) in a weird position if you wait until the final hour to admit you can’t afford the bill. A true friend will never judge you for your money situation, so there is nothing to be ashamed of.

2. Always assume you’ll split the bill equally

Regardless of whether you’re going out to dinner with one friend or five friends, friendship money rules dictate that everyone should split the bill evenly—unless otherwise specified ahead of time. Thankfully, when you dine out in a group, the waiter usually asks (or lets you know) whether the check will be all one or separate. This is your time to speak up if you’re comfortable with that or not. If not, assume that you’re going to split every single thing—including the appetizer you might not have even eaten because it was at the other end of the table and the cost of everyone’s cocktails.

If you’re going out and have a $50 spending limit, disclose that before ordering alongside everyone else. Your friend(s) might decide to put your money toward the bill and cover the difference or opt to let you have your own. There’s nothing worse than ending a nice dinner with friends with the nickel and diming back-and-forth of “Well, you had this, and I had that.” It’s just plain uncomfortable.

Remember, you’re all there to have a good time, so communicate clearly what you can afford and what you are most comfortable with. If you don’t, you’ll end up stressed about the bill and not enjoying your time, or worse, holding a grudge against your friend who ordered two more cocktails than you did.

3. Pay your friends back ASAP

If you owe a friend money, it’s common courtesy to not leave them hanging. While this goes for everything, it’s especially important for things that cost a large chunk of cash, like concert or airplane tickets, a hotel room, and so forth. Asking for money can make people feel awkward, so bypass that feeling and get them their money as soon as possible—no longer than 72 hours if possible. This lets them know that you appreciate their efforts and aren’t taking advantage of their generosity.

If paying them back will take a bit longer, give them a deadline of when they can expect it, whether it’s after your next paycheck, the first of the month, the day before the concert, and so forth. And if your budget is tight, consider asking them if they’d be comfortable receiving their money in big chunks, like half now and half on an agreed-upon date in the future. Whatever you decide, being specific is key because it holds you accountable and doesn’t leave them wondering when they’ll have their money.

Alternatively, if you’re the one fronting the money, be clear about how much your friends owe you and give them a deadline for when you’ll need it. This is something I did for my bridesmaids regarding the price of hair and makeup, and everyone appreciated the heads-up. Asking a friend to pay you back can be unpleasant, but if they haven’t paid up by the expected date, inquiring about it will feel less awkward. You can send a text that acts as a gentle reminder. Try something like, “I’m running through my finances right now and wanted to check in to see when you’ll be able to send me the money for XYZ!”

4. Don’t ask for money for insignificant purchases

Asking someone—especially a close friend—to pay you back for insignificant purchases under $10 or $20, like coffee or drinks, isn’t a good move. When you’re close with someone, there’s an implied understanding that they’ll return the favor in some other way. They might grab your coffee next time, pick up the next round, and so forth.

On the other hand, if you’re on a tight budget, you should never accept anything if you can’t return the favor. You must make that very clear. Chances are, a friend won’t mind paying for your coffee or transit fare, but they will notice if you constantly accept drinks and never buy a round. While what they do with this information is ultimately up to them, giving them the heads-up can prevent resentment.

A true friend will respect your finances if you respect theirs.

5. Always offer money if a friend buys you something

Even with a “return the favor” mentality, you should always offer your friend money whenever they buy you something—after thanking them, of course. If they decline, make it clear that you’ll get them next time or return the favor somehow. If your friends are anything like mine, they’ll shove your $5 back at you when you try to hand it to them. But even if you know that they won’t accept your money, offering it shows that you’re not opportunistic and taking their generosity for granted. It also shows that you don’t expect them to cover you. When it comes down to it, the gesture often has more value than currency.

6. Send a gift if you RSVP “no”

While you’re likely going to make the bridal showers, baby showers, and weddings for your closest friends, friendship money rules dictate that you should still send a gift even if you RSVP “no.” Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be a big gift—flowers or a card are always appreciated. More often than not, brides and moms-to-be care more about the thought than the actual gift itself; the monetary value is an afterthought. This rule stands firm regardless of how close you are.

If you’re not going to the event, send a thoughtful congratulatory message or card and be honest about why you can’t be there. Doing this shows that you’re honored to be invited, and even though you can’t be there (whether it’s due to financial constraints or prior commitments), you’re excited to help them enter this next chapter in their lives.

7. Be mindful about how much money you give as a wedding gift

Not sure how much you should spend on a wedding gift? Consider how much it costs for the couple to have you there. According to The Knot, the average spend on monetary or cash wedding gifts for close friends is around $200, with those in the wedding party typically gifting around $170 to help offset the cost of their wedding-related expenses. This typically covers the cost of their plate plus the bar and can help the couple recoup some of the costs of having guests present—including things like gratuity and decor, for example.

Try to budget with this in mind, and double it if you plan on bringing a plus one. Of course, you can use your discretion as it pertains to these money rules, but this should be carefully considered before the event. If you can give a little extra to the newlyweds, that’s a bonus. At the end of the day, your friend wants you with them on their special day, so don’t feel pressured to gift something outside of a budget you’re comfortable with.

8. Don’t expect a full refund if you cancel

Life throws everyone unexpected curveballs, but if you back out of a group trip at the last minute, don’t expect to get all your money back. A lot of time, energy, and money goes into planning a vacation, and accommodations are usually made based on the number of people attending. More people equals more rooms, so losing one person can dramatically increase the cost for everyone else attending. If you drop out last minute, it’s not fair to expect everyone else to cover your portion.

If you do have to back out of a trip, talk to the friend who handled the booking about your dilemma. Explain to them why you have to cancel, and make it clear that while you don’t expect to get refunded, you’d love to try and find a way to work it out for everyone. Chances are, they’ll try to find a way to refund you some—if not all—of your money if they’re able to. But don’t get mad at them if they can’t!

9. Don’t expect your friend with deeper pockets to pay more

Every friendship and friend group has financial differences. There’s likely going to be someone who makes more, but that doesn’t mean they should pay for more. This is improper friendship money etiquette because it looks like you’re taking advantage of their deep pockets and not pulling your weight. Regardless of your financial discrepancies, everything should be as equal as possible if it’s not already agreed upon that it’s every woman for themselves.

If you have large differences as it pertains to budgets in your friend group, remember to be upfront about what you can afford. For example, if you’re planning your next night out and your friend picks an upscale club they can afford but you can’t, you need to let them know before they book a table for the night. Likewise, you should also give them another place that is in your price range. Doing this puts the ball in their court, and they can decide whether they want to cover the majority of the bill or go to a place where you can return the favor or split the bill evenly. Don’t ever assume a friend will cover your portion of a bill, even if they are financially able to.

Money rules can help you maintain close friendships

I know we are all working on how to effectively discuss and manage our finances—it’s not always easy and can be uncomfortable! But the more aware and open you are about your finances, the better you’ll be able to manage these money rules with friends. If you’re struggling with money and it’s affecting your friendships, being honest about your current situation will help them gain a better understanding of where you stand. Plus, they’ll appreciate the fact that you confided in them. No matter what your financial situation is, your friends won’t meet you with judgment or look at you differently. A true friend will respect your finances if you respect theirs.