When I was a boy, tipping in a restaurant was always a discretionary expense. As a general rule, one was expected to tip 15% of the pre-tax bill as long as good service and good food was delivered. I lived in a state with a 5% meals tax so calculating the tip for a good meal was easy: three times the meal tax. That said, if the food was below par or the service was poor, people regularly tipped less than the customary 15%.
Over time, I noticed that the standards for restaurant tipping were changing. Fifteen percent was no longer enough. The tip for a good meal had to be 20%. And then the tip just had to be 20% even if the meal was not particularly wonderful. As I joined the workforce and found myself eating in “finer” restaurants, I noticed that the server who gave my party mediocre service at an expensive restaurant always received a far greater tip than the server who gave me outstanding service at the diners my friends and I would visit at 4 in the morning after a night of club hopping.
I also began to notice that service providers everywhere began to expect a tip. Take out counters sprouted tip jars. Newspaper delivery people started including home mailing addresses in the December newspaper so that Christmas gifts could be mailed to them. It seemed that everywhere I looked, there was a service provider with a hand held out for more.
The expectation that I would need to tip every service provider that I encountered was disturbing. I felt that I had to choose between possibly paying out money that I did not feel I should have to pay, or being placed in an awkward situation where someone expected me to pay them money that I was not about to release. It made dealing with a lot of service providers rather unpleasant.
After a few years of erring on the side of tipping, I realized that I was being silly. I had to come up with a model for offering tips that made me feel good about my tipping decisions and that also provided appropriate compensation to the right service providers. After a year or two of working with various models, I came up with the following plan.
If you have never worked in the food service industry, you need to realize that first and foremost, being a server is not an easy job. Juggling the needs of multiple parties seated at your tables, staying on top of bartenders, kitchens and busboys so that your tables remain happy, carrying heavy trays, and generally dealing with the public – none of it can be described as fun. Moreover, restaurant servers are usually not subject to the same minimum wage laws that other workers enjoy because the laws anticipate that servers will receive supplemental pay from their customers.
Although I care about saving money, I never want to be cheap with servers, especially if I feel that I will visit their restaurant again. I view my tips both as goodwill generators and as an incentive to the staff not to spit in my food (which I have witnessed firsthand during my college years). Accordingly, I established 15% of the pretax bill as my usual minimum for tipping and 30% of the total bill as my maximum. The 30% is high, but if I spend $15 on breakfast for a friend and I, and I enjoy the experience, I am happy to pay out the extra dollar or two to compensate the server. At the same time, if dinner for two costs $100, and the service has been mediocre, I am much more likely to offer a tip on the lower side. Ultimately, I decide how much I appreciated the server’s service and I decide what tip will make me feel good.
Take Out Counters
I do not feel that it should be necessary to tip the counter help at a takeout counter. I do not tip people at a drive-through window or the staff in a kitchen so I do not see any reason to tip the counter help at a sandwich shop or elsewhere.
Hair Stylists and Barbers
Like restaurant servers, hair stylists and barbers rely on tips. If I am using the same barber or stylist repeatedly, I try to tip about 20% of the total bill. The difference between 10% and 20% is minimal for such a small charge but the goodwill I get from tipping well can result in preferential treatment later when the barber shop is crowded.
Visiting a hotel can be an exercise in handing out money. I avoid tipping at hotels by avoiding use of service providers who will expect a tip. I carry my own bags so that I do not need to tip the bell hop and I research my own restaurants and activities so that I do not have to tip the concierge. If I absolutely must tip the bell hop, I offer $1 per bag up to $5 and if I absolutely must tip the concierge, I offer $5 regardless of the service. I always tip the housekeeping staff $1 per day (as long as I have been neat) or $2 per day if I have asked them to do a lot of extras (extra towels or blankets, for example).
On the rare occasion when I check my airline baggage at curbside, I always tip $1 per bag with a minimum of $5. I have no idea whether that is customary but I always feel that there is a greater likelihood of my baggage being ready for me at my destination if I tip the Skycap!
I usually assume that if someone is performing a service for me in my home, they are paid appropriately by their employer. Accordingly, it would be rare for me to tip a service provider unless I really felt that they went above and beyond the call of duty.
At the same time, if I regularly use someone’s services, I always try to make sure that I give him or her a good Christmas bonus or tip. For example, Tony – my lawn guy for the past 10 years – gives me great, reliable service that would cost me more if I tried to do the work on my own. I do not know how he does it but he keeps my lawn and shrubs looking great and has never missed a week in the decade that he has worked for me. I would feel horrible if I did not remember him with a little extra something at the end of the year.
What do you customarily tip? What do you think about my tipping patterns? Am I too cheap or too generous? What service providers do you think deserve to be tipped? Are you a service provider who thinks tipping needs to be introduced to your services?