It doesn't have to get awkward.
Friends afficionados will remember it well: Ross, Monica, and Chandler extravagantly eat beef carpaccio, grilled prawns, and Cajun catfish, while Joey, Rachel, and Phoebe, who are trying to save money, nibble on an appetizer-sized pizza, a side salad, and a cup of cucumber soup. When Ross splits the check, he says everyone owes $33.50. (This was 1995.) Phoebe pipes up, "uh-uh, no, sorry—not gonna happen. Sorry, but, cold cucumber mush for 30-something bucks? No. Rachel just had that little salad and Joey, with his teeny pizza. No." Her outburst inspires Ross to say they should each pay for what they had, but not without awkwardness.
Of course, while justified, Phoebe's pithy solution isn't the answer—but neither is breaking your bank to pay for a bottle of wine you didn't drink or an appetizer you didn't touch. So how do you deal with dividing a check over an inequitable meal?
If you know from experience that the dinner's organizer will likely encourage the other diners to simply split the check, you should be upfront with him before you even reach the restaurant, says Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert, founder of The Protocol School of Texas, and author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life. "Say, I'd love to join you, but I'm not the wine lover you are so I'm going to order separately," Gottsman suggests. No, it isn't the most comfortable conversation to have, but you won't be comfortable "stewing about the bill each time you go out, or building resentment towards your friends," she points out.
If you don't take this pre-restaurant proactive route, however, you still have options. When you sit down, consider letting your friends know you're on a tight budget, suggests Annette Harris, etiquette expert and founder of ShowUp! (However, Harris cautions, you shouldn't make this move if you're with your coworkers.) They may take your (not-so-subtle) hint.
You can also flag your server and say, "Please put my order on a separate check," Gottsman says. "The key here is to be preemptive—speaking directly to the server—and not making a big issue of your request." You can also try to make this arrangement before you walk into the restaurant, Harris says. "If you want to be discreet, call the restaurant in advance and ask the hostess if she could ask your server to split the check with your co-diner or diners."
Lastly, of course, you have an option to be a straight-shooter. Say something like, "Guys, I'm going to take care of my own tab. I don't have the same appreciation—or budget!—for your expensive bottles of wine," a short, to-the-point, and even light-hearted explanation your friends will understand, Gottsman says. "Some may follow your lead next time," she adds.
If you somehow get saddled into splitting the bill, there's not much you can do. "As the saying goes, you're a day late and a dollar [or way more] short," Harris says. "Trying to rectify the situation afterward is not a reasonable or realistic option." Think about it: do you really want to track down six dinner guests for the $1.30—or $8 total—they owe you? And "contacting the host to ask that they pay you the eight bucks might just damage your friendship or keep you off future invite lists," Harris says. "You have to ask is it worth it?"
Finally, remember: "There is nothing wrong with asking for your own check—as long as you do it upfront," instructs Gottsman. "When friends go out to dinner or drinks, unless you are clear, it's a given that most people will split the check and toss in their credit card at the end—which is perfectly fine, unless you're uncomfortable. Then it's up to you to take action in advance."