Lauren Goode

Bill-Splitting Causing a Splitting Headache? Try These Apps.

Splitting bills can get pretty complicated, whether you’re calculating utility costs at home or tallying up what everyone owes for dinner while trying not to look like a total cheapskate.

With this in mind, a few developers have created apps that aim to take the pain out of splitting bills. For the past week I’ve been testing three of these apps: Billr, SplitWise and OpnTab.

All three are available for the iPhone; SplitWise also runs on Android devices. While SplitWise and OpnTab are free, Billr costs 99 cents.

I could immediately see the usefulness of SplitWise, which also has a full-fledged Web component and is geared toward dividing up household bills or big group costs like vacation rentals. OpnTab works similarly, and also offers a PayPal option, so you can actually settle up through the app and not just create a log of who-owes-what. Billr, for splitting dinner bills, lets you send the final tab to friends via text message or email. All of the apps but Billr will keep an ongoing log of the bills for you.

I found these apps to be most useful either with recurring household bills, or while out to dinner with a large group when there were big discrepancies in cost (say, if you ordered a salad at dinner while your friend had the filet mignon). Otherwise, I’m not entirely convinced you can’t perform some of these calculations … well, with a calculator.

In fact, when I was using Billr one night to divide up the bill among seven people who each ordered roughly the same items, my friend — not a smartphone devotee — took out her flip phone to demonstrate she could figure out the same thing for us with her phone’s calculator.

But one of the good things about these apps is they can be great excuses when you are saving your pennies. It was easier at times for me to say, “I’m testing out this app — want to try to save some money at the apartment?” than it was to say, “You owe me money.”

And all three apps offer some visibility for people who haven’t actually downloaded the apps. But in most cases, your friend or housemate will have to sign up for the service in order to see the continuous log of bills or fully participate in bill-paying.

Billr, which launched this year, allowed me to split the bill up to 16 ways per bill, one for each person dining, though I never exceeded seven. From there I could enter the value for the items ordered, or pass the app around to let people punch it in. After tax and tip were added it would show how much each person owed.

Then, I could email or text message the final results to my dinner companions.

Despite its simplicity, there were some parts of the app that weren’t immediately clear to me. For example, I didn’t know that where it says Column A, B and so on, I could change the letters to a short name or set of initials. So when I emailed the final bill to a friend, he just saw Column A and B and had no idea which column was his –- and I had forgotten, too.

Also, there is a section of the app for shared items, like an appetizer or bottle of wine, but when I first started using the app I didn’t know that was an option. So I said, “I’ll just pay for the appetizer,” and added it to my column — unnecessarily, as it turns out.

And as I said, Billr at its core does a lot of the same work that your cellphone’s calculator will do. So I’d mostly use Billr for more complex bill-splitting.

SplitWise launched as a Web site in 2011 and came to iPhone and Android phones just a few months ago.

From the SplitWise app I invited my roommate to join a group called “New York Apartment.” Then I added our electricity bill, which could be either one-time or recurring, and a couple of household items I owed her, like a candle and a wine stopper. As part of the test, she said she would pay me if I recorded “Grey’s Anatomy” for her.

Both of us were able to easily use the app and communicate about bills without incident, although she did say she once had trouble uploading an image of a bill. You can also add notes in each line item. And SplitWise’s Web site was great for seeing more details about our exchanges.

But I have two gripes about SplitWise: First off, you can’t actually pay your housemates or friends through it, unlike OpnTab, which uses PayPal.

Second, SplitWise doesn’t always make it clear when bills have been paid. Because SplitWise wants to maintain an ongoing log, it doesn’t eliminate or gray out a bill once it’s paid off, nor does it change the language at all to say “Paid” in the past tense. So at first glance it can appear as though you still owe something even if you told the app you’ve settled your debt.

SplitWise’s creator says the company is aware of this issue and is fixing the app to better reflect a completed payment.

OpnTab might sound like it’s for bar tabs, but it’s more like SplitWise in that it settles household bills. You can also log expense receipts through the app. I didn’t get to test OpnTab quite as much as I did the other two because I actually had some trouble signing up for the app through Facebook Connect — something the company says has happened before, and it’s working on fixing.

Once I did get it going, I created and shared tabs for cable bills, a fictitious Lake Tahoe cabin rental and “that crazy bar tab” (also not real, at least this time around).

While I didn’t find OpnTab on mobile to be particularly well designed, its interface is straightforward. You can see logged expenses, payments sent and payments received. And it has PayPal integration, so you can actually pay friends or housemates using the app.

OpnTab also smartly streamlines the payments process, so if you owe a person for more than one household utility, vacation bill or dinner, it will lump all of them into a single sum for a one-time payment.

Again, if you’re pretty organized and handy with a calculator, you might not need these. But at a low or no cost, apps like these could be the solution you need to focus your attention on your dinner companions or housemates — and not stress about splitting the bills.

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