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What actually happens when you can't pay the bill?

This is a big fear of mine -- I'm dining out, hand the server my credit card (I only carry a Visa debit card), and find out that it's been declined. I have no other forms of payment on me, and neither does my companion. (Or, say, I'm alone -- which I often am when I travel on business.)

What acutally happens in this situation? I'm assuming that having to wash dishes is a myth. Am I arrested? Can I promise to send money once I have it?

(It was a good-faith attempt, I swear!)

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  1. I posted this yesterday.

    I just told the server that I'd return the next day to pay. They said Ok and I went back in the morning and paid my bill.

    I was having trouble with my debit card and they just took a check in the morning. I didn't have a check with me on the day I couldn't pay.

    1. Oops, I sorry I missed that post.

      Was the server/management friendly about it?

      1 Reply
      1. re: mudster

        They were cool.

        It felt like this: Just because my debit card didn't work, didn't make me dishonest. I told them the truth, I'd been having trouble with it. I told them I'd return in the morning with a check. They believed me.

        I really don't think they thought twice about it, they were completely cool ... like it was one of those things that could happen to anyone.

        They didn't even ask me for my phone number, they just believed me.

      2. In some businesses which don't take credit cards, they'll often point you to an ATM machine. If you don't have an ATM card, I don't know what they do.

        1. It's definitely uncomfortable... they'll point you to an ATM. They may not take a cheque (given that your credit card was not working), but if worse comes down to worst there'll be a small scene and they'll either write it off (in which case you'll probably not be seated next time) or they'll send you a bill which you can pay after your credit card issues are resolved.

          Much, much more common is the "my credit card machine is broken" problem -- if they post a sign in the door saying "no credit cards, machine broken, cash only" then at least I'm warned, but at least a few times I've eaten the whole meal only to be told at presenting my card that the machine is down.

          I get angry at that one... did you want to tell me that before I spent $50 or $200 on food? I don't carry large whacks of cash with me, I charge larger expenses on my card and write one cheque a month (well, pay online once a month)!

          1. Many years ago when I was in college I had a "no money" issue. I was leaving campus to go home for the weekend, when I pulled up to a fast food drive-thru and placed my order. When I got to the window to pay I fould that my wallet had been emptied of all my cash and my credit card was gone. I was so embarrassed and angry. I told the girl at the window to cancel my order and why. She spoke to the manager and then handed me my food. She told me just to take it and come back later to pay, which I did. I was so thankful for that simple act of kindness when it was so obvious that I was very upset.

            I did find out later that one of the girls in the dorm had taken up the habit of lightening everyones purse load. She was kicked out of school. I wonder if she would even qualify to work in a fast food drive-thru.

            1. This has happened to me twice. Both time completely innocently, but my fault.

              The first time was about 5 years ago. We had just arrived home from an overnight flight from Paris. We were exhausted, hungry and had no food in the house. We headed to a local Mexican place for an early lunch. We ate our lunch while struggling to stay awake. When the bill arrived, I quickly realized I didn't have my purse and neither did my friend. We'd simply left the house with just my keys in our sleepy stupor. I explained the the waiter and he was very agreeable. I went home, slept for a couple of hours and went back to pay the waiter before his shift was over.

              Then about three weeks ago, at about 9 p.m., I was headed home from visiting with a friend and got an uncontrollable craving for a tangerine frappacino from Starbucks. I headed through the drive-thru, placed my order and quickly figured out that I didn't have my wallet. I had my purse, but no wallet. I explained to the fella at the window, apologized and was going to drive away. He told me not to worry, he hadn't rung it up yet, but that they were just going to have to throw it away, so I should go ahead and take it. I managed to scrape up about 2 bucks in change and asked him to toss it in the tip jar.

              No biggie! Things happen!

              Now, a bigger deal was a trip to New Orleans. We got in a cab at our hotel and headed to our reservations at Commander's Palace. We were a group of eight. After cocktails and two courses, the hostess (read person paying for dinner) realized that she left her purse in the cab! Horror!

              We explained the situation to the captain, somehow the hostess got involved, they asked our hotel and told us they would take car of it. By the time we were eating our desserts, her purse arrived!!! Imagine that! The hostess had called the hotel to talk to the doorman who had called the cab, it happened that the doorman had called his cousin the cab driver to pick us up. The doorman was able to contact his cousin who had found the purse and was already en route to bring the purse to us at Commander's when he got the call. Now that's service! And good luck!

              That would have been some bill to deal with!!

              1. This happened to use recently... the restaurant's credit card system was down and we didn't have enough cash to cover the bill. We left the credit card number with the waitress and crossed our fingers and keep an eagle eye on our credit card statement...


                1. I usually carry enough cash to cover a restaurant tab in case there's a problem with my card, although I can only recall 2 problems in my adult life (now 57).

                  But - I have a question. Years ago, if you presented a card and it was declined, the merchant could override the decline and the credit risk shifted to the merchant. I don't know whether this is still ever done or is allowed under the terms of current merchant agreements.

                  If it is still done and it happened to me, I would prefer that the merchant tell me that there was a problem but she decided to override. That way I know there is a problem and I can get it corrected. If they just treat it like a normal transaction and don't tell me there was a problem, then there's every chance that the next time I use the card (say to pay a hotel bill) there will be a problem and the merchant might not be so lenient.

                  1. here's my experience with overriding declines...

                    when i used to be a cocktail waitress, i discovered how to override declines. the clientele was mostly very rich, bratty, difficult, international college students who most likely weren't paying the bills for their cards anyway (what college student can afford bottles of cristal?) and cards would get declined left and right at the end of the night (too many similar nights out that week i presume?). anyway, rather than dealing with going over to the drunk kid who's been giving me a hard time all night to tell him his card's been declined, i would just push the charge through not really knowing or caring how or where the money was going to come from, as long as i got paid (and i did). i hated this job, my employers and the clientele so i didn't feel bad. it was not the right thing to do, but i didn't care.

                    at the last restaurant i worked at, i was waiting on one of the investors. a very nice guy and his wife, with another couple having a nice dinner. while he was a good guy, he was still an investor who could and would report back to the owners if there were any problems with his dining experience. so there is a little fear instilled in me. the dinner goes off without a hitch, he's very happy. it comes down to pay the bill and he hands me his black amex card. i run it and it declines! i grab the GM and she has no idea how it could decline seeing as how you can theoretically buy a house with a black amex. remembering my little tricks as a cocktail waitress i tell her we can override it, but i'm not sure what actually happens after that. we push the charge through, hand him his slip and card as if nothing ever happened and all is good (from his view). i think if we decided to go back to the table to tell him his credit card, that is only carried by very wealthy and powerful people, has just declined it would have looked very bad for everyone.

                    1. years ago my dad and i were at dinner and he handed our waitress an AMEX and they didnt take it...it was the only CC he had and no cash. they were fine with it and he went back the next day and paid cash. ( dont know if it makes a difference, but this was in a very small town )

                      1. This happened to me once, though not at a restaurant (and for a very small amount of money). I had ordered an ice cream sundae at a local, independent, home-made ice cream shop. The owner (I think he was the owner) was there scooping that night, and when I got out my credit card to pay, he told me that he didn't take cards. I had absolutely no cash on me (and my friend had just spent her last 5 dollars on her sundae). I felt horrible, but the owner just told me not to worry about it. He told me to enjoy the ice cream and to just make it up to him the next time I came by the shop (I was not a regular, and hadn't met him before). I felt to sheepish doing this, so after enjoying my sundae, I went to an ATM a few blocks away, withdrew some cash, and went back to pay. The owner was surprised I came back, and kept telling me, "you really didn't have to do that!" I appreciated his kindness!

                        1. My wife and I had a similar experience at a local bagel shop called Greg's Bagels. We went in and ordered, then found out they didn't take card. The owner wrote me an IOU and said that I could pay next time. Instead, I went to an ATM across the street and paid that way. I also used the rest of the money from the ATM to ask him to show off a selection of his smoked salmon (they have at least 25 varities there).

                          1. This happened to my husband and me at one of our local hangouts. We both thought the other had cash. When we realized that we had about $10 between us, we told our waiter that we had to run down the street to the ATM. We asked if he wanted an ID or something to hold, and he said no, he trusted us.

                            We got the cash, went back and asked for the bill. Being regulars, and our waiter trying to help us out, he charged us only about $10 for the food and comped our drinks. Good thing we did got to the ATM, we needed the money to give him an awesome tip!

                            Another time I went to get my morning coffee at the place I'd go every day and realized I had no cash. I told the cashier and she said, "Just pay for it when you come in tomorrow" which I did.

                            I think if you're a regular, it's not going to be a problem.

                            1. This is probably a rerun, but a good story:

                              My BIL and SIL were in a restaurant on the Cote D'Azure. Card was declined. Apparently VISA felt strongly that these were not South of France kind of people. My BIL left SIL at the table and drove back to the hotel to get her wallet/credit card. She sat there and cried while the waiter fed her free dessert and apologized.