to tip or not to tip

If you’re careful with your money you probably face a frequent dilemma of how much to tip various people in service positions.  Tipping ranges from the $3 slipped to a doorman who hails a cab to a couple of hundred for some guys who move your stuff cross-country. 

Before I was married, I used to have a "local" in my neighborhood in Manhattan.  That means there was a bar where I could drop by after work with friends and the bartender would have my usual drink set up before I even took a seat.  The waitresses would stop by to chat, and I knew them by name.  I would get the best seat in the house ahead of tourists waiting in line if I came in a group.  The manager let me stay after hours, and invited me to special events.

If you have a situation like this, big tipping is tough to avoid.  You get to know people and they provide wonderful, careful service on a constant basis.  I never left less than a 15% tip even on rare occassions that I was dissatisfied.  I got so many free drinks that often I would just take the amount I was given gratis and just hand it right back over to the waitresses or bartender. 

Contrast this with stopping at a diner on an interstate trip.  You get ho-hum service, perhaps, and ho-hum food.  Do you leave a 15% or 20% tip like you would at a "local"?  And if not, why?  Would it make a difference if you knew that the cook got a fresh batch of salad out for your salad – and would it make a difference if it was just coincidence that he got it for you?

Tipping is an odd case of getting a service, then paying for it.  If you hired a plumber to work on your house and said "you know what?  I’ll pay you what I think it’s worth when you’re done" he would probably knock you over on the way out the door.  Restaurant workers (and maid services in hotels, etc.) do the best they can to provide good service, not knowing if you’ll be the one-in-a-million person who leaves 10 $100 bills tucked under your check or the jerk who asks for 15 martinis and a steak done JUST SO before leaving a 3% tip.  Imagine working at your job that way – if every payday you got a minimal base salary plus a "tip" depending on how happy your boss was with your work. 

It’s hard to balance tipping with being a frugal person. 
I don’t like tipping.  I wish everything was a flat fee.  I wish waiters and waitresses were paid minimum wage.  It’s easy if you’re a regular somewhere to be generous.  If you live in Manhattan and have a super or a doorman, it’s easy to realize that you need their help, and they’ll give it whether you pay or not, so you SHOULD reward them for their help.  It’s trickier when it’s the guy delivering the new couch.  You’ll never see him again.  He did his job.  But it’s hard work, and maybe – just maybe – he could have dinged a wall or tracked in mud, but he took a little care not to.

I don’t know the answer.  I generally tip generously at restaurants but not so generously when it’s "slipping cash" to someone, mainly because I’m embarrassed about it being too much (looking like a rube) or too little (looking cheap) so I often just pretend I "left my wallet upstairs."  What I do know is that in general in life you’ll be a lot happier if you mentally price your tip BEFORE getting the service and then pay it that way after you get it.  Think to yourself "I’ll tip the waiter 15% unless he ignores our table or gets an order wrong or forgets to bring us water," or "I’ll tip the housekeeping service $20 per day as long as the room is cleaned to a T," or "I’ll give that guy $50 to move the couch in unless he dings the wall or messes up the fabric," and so on.  Tipping is an uncomfortable activity for most, and even more uncomfortable for someone who relies on them for a living.

16 comments

  • This is a subject about which I feel VERY strongly. My parents were professionals and I had everything I wanted growing up. There was no need for me to do chores or work after school; however, when I turned 16, my father made me get a job–and I mean he went and got the job for me and told them I’d be there, starting the next day, all without my ever knowing it. And what job did he make me get?? I had to be a waitress in a “family” style restaurant, catering, at best, to the middle class. I resented the job and I resented my father, and it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Since that summer, over 40 years ago, I have never stiffed a waiter or waitress, never. Even if the service is inattentive and even if the food is mediocre, I realize that these people are struggling with personal and work-related problems that most of us never realize. I could go on and on, but please let me implore all of you out there: if you can’t afford to leave a tip, go to a fast food restaurant where at least the workers have a dependable hourly wage, a “luxury” which waiters and waitresses never enjoy.

  • Australia has it right – no tipping and the prices on the menu have the taxes included. If the dinner is listed at $20 then that’s what it costs you.

    Mike

  • I dislike the tipping mentality that we’ve built up. It’s gotten to a point where it’s expected. I even hear the argument that service staff don’t get paid much so its up to me to give them a fair wage… well, I don’t buy it.

    I do provide a gratuity when I have enjoyed good service (that is, I will show my gratitude). Generally that is in a restaurant where the server has done a good job to serve me; little things like asking how everything is, filling up my water, and generally makes sure that my visit does not suck. If I’m staying in a hotel for an extended period of time then I’ve likely made use of the concierge, again, I’ll leave a tip.

    But the guy who delivers my pizza? Our exchange is all of thirty seconds… why am I tipping him? So that he doesn’t come back to egg my house?

    I will tip when I am grateful for the service, but I do not feel obligated to tip.

  • guinness416

    I always laugh at the “filling up my water” comments that appear in blog posts on this subject because they’re inevitably followed by one which says “I hate when they’re always hovering and filling up glasses!” The tough thing about being a waiter is trying to read people’s minds on things like that. I tip about 20% at restaurants, and have all of my adult life (except when I’m home in Ireland); as far as I’m concerned it’s part of the expense. I can think of all of two occasions when the service was so outlandishly awful that I considered leaving less, maybe I have great luck with restaurants. The other people I used to tip realtively big were the car cleaning teams you have in Queens in NY; those guys worked so hard, in all weathers, they deserved it.

    The tipping-people-in-the-building thing is definitely a uniquely Manhattanite stress; I don’t lived in NY any more, but it certainly seemed every damn Xmas everyone at work would be comparing notes as though we hadn’t done it the year previous!

    My tipping anecdote is about being brought out to a nice lunch by a boss a couple of years ago. The (perfectly adequate, to me and my colleagues, in a very busy place) service was deemed bad by him, so he threw some pennies into a dirty beer glass. We were mortified, and he lost a lot of respect among his team that day.

  • As a former waitress, I only leave 15% if the service was horrible. Most of the time I leave 20-30% and I just mentally add that into what I budget to spend for dinner or drinks. I agree with others and you, though, about tipping getting out of control. At Christmas time especially, I look at tipping guides and I’m floored. If I used all the services that some people do, I would spend $100s tipping!

  • the Frugal Canadian

    I hate tipping–and I hate feeling obligated to tip. In some cases I avoid businesses which encourage tipping in favour of other business which discourage it. I also worked in the service industry but as a result of that experience I am more critical about service not less. The only time I tip is for full-service restaurant meals. Mediocre service gets 10%, good service gets 15%, and exceptional service gets 20%. I don’t tip when I buy groceries, get a coffee, get a massage or manicure, or hair cut.

    Less Canadians get a bad name, there is a huge difference between Canada and the US. Everyone here makes at least minimum wage. period. No one works for free–or as I’ve heard tales of in the US–pays for the privilge of collecting tips. I’m also in western Canada and there’s a boom on at the moment, which means the minimum wage is pretty much irrelevant. The counter staff at McDonald’s are making $9 an hour plus full medical and dental benefits–which isn’t a fortune but is a living wage. A minimum level of fairness and equity is part of the social contract in this country. And, maybe tipping is a way to address social inequity in other countries. But, I’d be interested if my neighbours to the south agree.

  • Frugal Canadian: You make me want to move to Canada! I agree entirely that we don’t pay people a living wage and that we use tipping as a way to address that inequity. The U.S. seems, as a nation, to resent paying taxes for the public good and to resent slightly higher prices even if it meant that everyone could participate in a higher standard of living. It’s an endemic problem for the U.S. and one which, I fear, will not easily or soon be solved.

  • I thought I was going to be the odd one out, but it appears that every one shares the same views as I do. I tip about 20% at a restaurant . Even if the service was poor….I guess I just feel bad for the waitors being stretched too thin. I tip pizza delivery people (about 15-20%)….I tip hairdressers about 15-20%. However, in my recent frugal kick, I’ve started to get my hair cut at a school where tipping is prohibited ($15 and I’m out). I tip at valet too…but I rarely encounter a valet in my area. I also tip cab drivers (but I’ve ridden in a cab 2 times in the past two years)

    I don’t tip….at coffee places. I order tea. All they have to do is put hot water and a tea bag into a cup (I have had this screwed up before). I don’t tip at take-out restaurants….

  • I used to think that I was doing a huge service by tipping. That idea disappeared when chatting with my two nephews. They are college-aged waiters. One worked at a good restaurant, the other at a resort. They both were paid between $14-16 an hour- and then tips. Gone are the days of below minimum wage for the hired help at good places.
    It is really sad to report that both of them cleared more last year than I did- as a public school teacher in their city! Did they work more hours than I did? Not many.
    I only wish the entire nation of teachers would join the AFT so we could get paid like NYC school teachers! Ah- that is a different story, isn’t it?

  • @Janette – boy, I can’t tell you how irritated I am that waiters are getting paid more than teachers. Not that they aren’t working hard, I’m sure they are. But teachers are critical to our society, and they get treated terribly. My parents are both teachers and I originally planned to be a teacher (took the NTE, did some substitute teaching) before the big bucks of audit/finance sucked me in. I think it’s a shame that teachers don’t get tipped themselves, frankly. My mom (and her father, also a teacher) have always been heavily involved in the NEA and I was even a member for a couple of years while substitute teaching.

    I will say that whatever NYC teachers get paid probably seems really high, but when you consider a tiny fleabag studio apartment in Brooklyn probably costs more than the mortgage on a 3-bedroom elsewhere in the US it’s probably not that much, either. I don’t see people rushing in to teach in the inner city NYC schools for the fabulous salaries yet. I was looking into it and even in the most highly compensated areas (which are the absolute worst schools) salaries are awful…

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  • sfordinarygirl

    I really struggled with the tipping in Vegas. I handed my bags at the luggage center to hold until my room was ready. And I was in such a rush I forgot to tip the person storing my bags. I made the same mistake after I took the bags upstairs and came back down and forgot my wallet in the hotel room.

    I usually tip a dollar per bag for the shuttle driver even if they don’t drop me off at home and dump my bags in the middle of the street. It’s happened twice with the Super Shuttle. This time I used a different service and they dropped me off in front of the apt and carried my bags to the door. I gave him an extra $2 even though he carried one bag. The first time I used the shuttle service the driver was like “gee a buck thanks for the tip.” And he didn’t even carry my bags. He was on the phone and doing something else!

    I’ll remember to pre-price the tip mentally so it leaves less indecisiveness at the last minute when I’m about to get off the bus.

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  • Shawn@MoneyBrick

    I grew up in Toronto, Canada and now live in Taipei, Taiwan and I can tell you that there are huge differences between the tipping habits in Canada vs. those in Taiwan. According to what I’ve read in the comments, however, the tipping situation in Canada is much better than that in the US.

    I’d first like to say, however, that paying under minimum wage should be illegal! I know that it’s illegal in Canada, but lots of various restaurants, bars, etc. still carry on this practice. TIPS = to insure proper service, right? So basically, the service people should get their minimum and only receive a tip should they provide service excellence.

    In any case, Taiwan is great! In Taiwan, there is no tip. As with Australia, taxes and tip are included in the price you see on the menu. It’s so great and relaxed compared to Canada. Even delivery people and such don’t expect tips. Taxi drivers? No way!

    In Canada, however, Torontonians generally tip 15%. Chinese people, however, tip 10%. Haha… Chinese restaurants only expect a tip of 10%. There was even one restaurant where regular customers didn’t give tips, because they knew that the owner’s daughter would just come by and take all the tips away and leave nothing for the cooks and wait-staff (stealing).

    I also have an anecdote that I’ve never had the opportunity to tell anyone! Basically, a co-worker of mine was telling me how he tipped 10% at a posh restaurant one time, and he overheard the waitress call him a “cheap Chinese”. So, he vowed from then on to always make a point of tipping 20% no matter what. As for me, I don’t take racism lightly… and I wouldn’t let one person’s vulgar disposition make me do something against my will. If anything… I’d perpetuate the stereotype even more and go back to that restaurant and leave 5%!!!

    guiness416… I think your boss wasn’t wrong. I wouldn’t have lost respect for him at all. If he really thought the service was that bad, he’s entitled to leave a couple pennies as tip (maybe not in the dirty beer glass, however). And don’t you think that busy restaurants should hire more wait-staff? It’s their business and one should expect proper service at any time of the day.

    As for my own personal habits (in Canada), I don’t tip Starbucks employees. If Tim Hortons employees don’t get tips – why should I give Starbucks “Baristas” tips? Actually, Starbucks does have better service… but that’s built into the price of the coffee! As for people who come to your home to do stuff… I don’t tip them, either, and I’ve never met one who seemed like he expected a tip.

    As for restaurants, if the service was satisfactory, I give 15%. If it was really excellent, I would give 20% and upwards. If it was horrible, however… I would give 5%-0%. Really. I’ve given nothing in tip before, because the service was just that bad. REALLY bad. I also hate restaurants that include a 10%-15% “service charge” in the bill… I think that’s illegal. And it’s up to the customer to decide an appropriate tip.

    In terms of your own finances, I think it’s best to just give the minimum tip possible (or none at all). If you’re tight for money or are wanting to save it – you shouldn’t be going out that much, anyway! Everyone is only looking out for themself… and your extra-large tip can be put to more charitable use, such as lending on Kiva.org

  • @Shawn: yeah, paying less than minimum wage sortof makes a mockery of the concept of minimum wage, I think. And although your anecdote about your friend was based on a racist incident, I think a lot of people feel a twinge of guilt inspired by dirty looks thrown at them by waiters. At the end of the day, we do just all have to balance our own personal finance needs with our “obligation” – if there is one – to supplement the sub-minimum wage that the restaurants in the US pay their staff.

  • Is it ok to tip a UPS guy?
    We have this wonderful UPS guy who’s been delivering packages to us for the past 3 – 4 years, always so friendly and helpful. It never occured to me to give him a tip, until my brother-in-law said he tips his UPS guy. It made me think. So the other day when “our” UPS guy showed up I gave him a tip and he was taken aback. He asked what’s it for. I just said that it is a “thank you”. I felt awkward: I don’t want to offend him and also make him believe that I will be tipping him all the time as well. Maybe I should’ve waited till X-Mas.
    I know that US Postal Office workers are not allowed to accept tips, but UPS is not government owned.