Sometimes I'm really glad I'm not a man. No fewer than four (male) readers branded poor Jim, who wrote last week, an 'appalling wimp'. What had he done?

Merely agonised with unspoken rage, because, as a lowly-paid worker helping handicapped children, he had paid for part of a meal shared with four friends, and then found the bill snatched up by one, who worked for an advertising company, to put through on expenses.

To compound matters, poverty- stricken Jim had only had a starter and glass of water, but, because the the bill was quartered up, he found himself contributing to his friends' three-course meal with wine.

'Does Jim need petty fraudsters as friends?' asked Michael Abley, of Chester, who thought Jim an 'appalling wimp' for not speaking up. 'Are all of them such good company that Jim cannot bear to do without them?'

Ken Hedger, of York, went even further. 'Grin and pay up, Jim. Dammit, it's the least you can do for three mates who are prepared to be seen dining with such an insufferable wimp.'

Mr W McAlea, of Castleford, West Yorkshire, thought that Jim's two other colleagues were 'wimps' and asked why on earth he was friendly with the third, who was 'such an obvious arsehole'.

After this tirade from the wimp brigade, it was nice to read Sebastian Springbett, of Oxford. But then, to be quite honest, his answer was just a tad, well, wimpish. 'Jim can find a better-paid job, find some less well-off friends, or achieve a state of true grace by learning to be poor but happy,' he wrote.

But if only things were that easy. Find a better-paid job? Would that he could. Achieve a true state of grace . . . how glibly the good advice slips from the nib of your pen,

Sebastian.

Monks spend years sitting on snow-capped mountains trying to achieve this. It is not, I'm afraid, that simple. And Jim's got another lunch coming up soon. He needs practical advice. Now.

Like many others who advised Jim not to be so coy about talking about money and to speak up, Theresa Saxon, from the Isle of Man, suggested that Jim should try to drop his inhibitions and remember that 'there is a great deal of bluff and counter-bluff that goes on, so he should try not to be over-impressed by his friends'.

Nuala Pestana, of London E17, advised Jim to opt out altogether. 'Make an excuse and take yourself to McDonald's and have a milk- shake and a clear conscience.' But it wasn't Jim's conscience that was bothering him. It was the fact that his friend appeared to be ripping him off. He would not have cared less if his friend had put the whole thing on expenses, as long as he hadn't been asked to contribute.

Perhaps the best person to go to for advice, however, is someone who has been on the other side of the fence. Who better to consult than a trainee in a public relations firm? She pointed out that companies often work out their own morality about expenses.

'When I was earning a pittance, my boss said I couldn't possibly live on it. He said the expenses were the perks of the job, like a company car, and there to compensate for my measly salary. When I put in expenses he would sign them, even though he knew I wasn't spending them, and his boss would sign them, also knowing I wasn't spending them.

'Even when earning more, I have certainly been known to snatch up the bill after a meal everyone has contributed to. I usually say: 'Does anyone want this?' and no one does, so I take it and put it through. I see my expenses as part of my wage. Perhaps Jim's friend feels the same. And if the whole company is aware of this, then it is difficult to know how to play it.

'If I were Jim, however, I would ask before the beginning of the next meal: 'Is this on your expenses, because if so I'm going to order the lobster? But if not, I'm going to go for the poached egg on toast because I'm broke'.'

If he feels uncomfortable even doing this, and it would be understandable, Jim can take the pragmatic advice of Don Lafferty, from Horsham, West Sussex. He should 'tell the waiter that they all require separate bills, please.'

Good idea. And, as a PS, why not throw everyone into confusion by adding that he needs the bill to 'put through on expenses'. When Jim, with a slightly sour smile, explains that this is merely a joke, I think most of the people at his table would get the message. Maybe his friend from the world of advertising would even have the decency to blush.

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