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It’s a classic uncomfortable situation: At the end of a successful date or dinner out with family, you hand your credit card to your waiter, only for him to come back a few minutes later with a pained look on his face.

“I’m afraid your card’s been rejected,” he says. “Do you have another one?”

From a personal finance perspective, the main thing you’ll need to do is call the customer service number on the back of your card.

“Call your issuer, because until you talk to them you won’t know why it was rejected,” says Gerri Detweiler, Credit.com personal finance expert. “It could be that it was flagged for unusual activity, or you didn’t realize it was expired, or your spouse used it and you didn’t know it.”

Here’s the thing, though: Trying to conduct this business at the dinner table is going to make an uncomfortable situation even worse.

“The best thing to do is to excuse yourself from the table,” says Jodi R.R. Smith, president of Boston-based etiquette consultancy Mannersmith. “The most human reaction is to be embarrassed, but you don’t want to get upset and start yelling at the waiter.”

Once you’ve stepped outside, that will give you a moment to call your bank at the customer service number on the back of the card. If it is indeed a simple case of your account being flagged for unusual activity, Detweiler says the bank can probably fix the problem and reactivate the card on the spot, provided you’re able to answer the security questions associated with your account.

At that point, says Smith, you should return to your table and explain the problem to your companion “without a lot of detail” and then quickly move on to another topic of conversation. “You never want to end dinner on a downer,” she says.

If the problem can’t be resolved with a simple phone call — say, the card is damaged or the account is indeed overdrawn — then Smith says you should ask the waiter if there’s an ATM nearby that you can use to withdraw the necessary cash to cover the bill. And in the nightmare scenario of truly having no liquid assets to cover the bill on the spot, you might have to see if an IOU is possible.

“In nicer establishments you can say ‘Here, take my license, I’ll come back first thing tomorrow with the money,” says Smith. “It’s better than asking the people that you’re supposed to be taking out to dinner if they can lend you money.”

Of course, if the waitstaff and management aren’t keen on letting you leave without paying, you don’t have much of a choice but to ask your companion to cover the meal. That may be awkward, but not as awkward as having the restaurant call the police on you.

However the situation is resolved, you’ve hopefully learned your lesson: Next time you’re going out on a dinner date, bring some cash in case your plastic fails you.

Image: raymondgilford.com, via Flickr

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