There's nothing happy about happy hour when it comes to settling the bill. Did you pass on the calamari? Avoid the top-shelf liquor? No matter - chances are you'll be expected to split the check equally, even if you partied more like Jack Sprat than his wife.

Last summer, when Minneapolis native Catherine N. (last names aren't used so readers still have friends to dine with) moved to Chicago to begin a job as an insurance underwriter, she accepted an invitation for drinks with acquaintances, who ordered drink after drink. She abstained.

Still, when the bill came, so did the call to split the check. "I was taken aback, but I was new in the city and didn't want to make a big deal about it," she said. But she regretted not saying something. "It seems like the times I've gone out and purposely not drunk or eaten a lot are the times I've gotten burned."

Angelyn Davis, president of Etiquette Etc., said Catherine behaved correctly. "If you're new to the group, be prepared to follow the lead of the regular members, no matter how little you've eaten," she said. She's of the belief that expenses will even out in the long run.

Amy D.'s check-splitting headache involves not co-workers or acquaintances, but her group of a dozen or so friends. One group member strongly believes the birthday boy or girl shouldn't pay for the celebratory meal. At the meal's end, the friend invariably suggests splitting the bill and the cost of the birthday person's share.

In this scenario, Davis suggests bringing up your tight budget when you're invited instead of when it's time to settle up. "If you share a little bit of information, somebody will come forward and offer some sort of solution," she said.

But even among friends, that can be uncomfortable. "It's always a question of what you can say and how much do you say," said Amy, who is trying to combat the overly excessive birthday dining in her group by example. When she turned 33 last week, she chose to celebrate over a $5 dessert, not a five-course dinner.

After years of out-of-hand bar bills at celebrations and business dinners, Thomas R. found a way to eliminate the disparity between someone who ordered a bottle of wine and someone who ordered a soda. "Say to the person serving, 'We'd like the bar tab separately,'●" he suggested. They split the food check evenly.

There's also always the option of requesting a separate check, although not all restaurants allow the practice and waiters typically hate to do so. If you take this route, "do it up front before the check arrives and limit it to four separate checks at most," Davis said.

"No one wants to look like they're counting every penny at the table," she said. "No one wants to get out the calculator." Will she pull out the Texas Instrument next time she's out with a group of spendthrifts? Not a chance. "I'll overcompensate by eating plenty," she said.

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