The Horrors of Tipping: What No One Ever Told Me

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The Horrors of Tipping

Another tipping faux pas?

You’re taking an important potential client to dinner at a restaurant you’ve only read about: top class. And you know it’s going to impress the client, by its reputation alone. The maitre d’ greets you and walks you both to your table. He tells you your waiter will be right over to help you. After you’ve both selected your meals and you mention wanting a wine, the waiter says, “Here, let me bring the sommelier over to help you select the perfect wine.”

The script that’s running in the back of your mind is “Who do I tip what? How do I not look like a fool? Was I supposed to slip a $50 to the maitre d’? (You’ve seen them do that in the movies.) And when do I tip the sommelier?”

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Tipping has probably caused more discomfort, even if only for a few moments, than any other financial transaction we handle on a regular basis. The pregnant pause as the bell captain plays with the air conditioner knobs in the room he just brought your suitcases to. The pizza delivery guy who hesitates a few extra seconds to see if you really want the change from the $20 you handed him.

We grow up hearing some rules about how to tip, and figure we’re okay in those particular situations. But what about all the rest we didn’t learn? And are those rules even right?

My Tipping Screw-Ups

I was shocked recently to read an article that told me my whole philosophy of tipping was wrong! There are many people who I’ve regularly over-tipped—all my life. But far worse than that, there are whole categories who I haven’t tipped at all!

Tim Urban of “Wait But Why” wrote an article called Everything You Don’t Know About Tipping. He worked in the service industry, so had a basic understanding, but went on to survey “waiters, bartenders, baristas, manicurists, barbers, busboys, bellmen, valets, doormen, cab drivers, restaurant delivery people, and even some people who don’t get tipped …”

Tim also called upon the impressive knowledge of tipping expert Wm. Michael Lynn, especially regarding the different tipping practices by customer demographics: age, gender, race, religion, etc.

The most important lesson I learned was that tips are not moneys that supplement a limited, but reasonable, salary for service providers. To learn that waiters count on tips for 85-100% of their income makes me cringe at the times the service was bad enough for me to leave little or no tip.

Here’s more: for restaurant delivery people, tips make up 30-70% of their income. For bartenders, it’s 70-100%. For the hotel bellman, it’s 50-75%.

I’ve taken the liberty of condensing Tim Urban’s terrific “Tipping Statistics” table, but be sure to check his article out for more detail. Here I list: service provider, low-to-high tip range and what percent of income comes from tips.

  • Waiter: under 17% to over 20% of tab, makes up 85-100% of income.
  • Restaurant Delivery: under $2 to $4 or 20% of tab, makes up 30-70% of income.
  • Restaurant Takeout: $0 to 10-20% of tab, makes up negligible amount of income.
  • Bartender: per beer or drink, under 15% to over 20% of larger tabs, makes up 70-100% of income.
  • Barista: $0 to $1 or more, makes up 20-40% of income.
  • Cab Driver: under 10% to over 18%, makes up 15-30% of income.
  • Valet Guy: $1 to $5 or more, makes up 50-75% of income.
  • Hotel Bellman: $2-5 (total) to $4-5 per bag, makes up 50-75% of income.
  • Apartment Doorman: $20-50 to $100-500 at Christmas, makes up 10-20% of income.
  • Hair/Nail Salon or Barbershop: under 15% to over 25% of tab, makes up 25-50% of income.

By the way, tips are calculated on the pre-tax amount of the bill, in case taxes are charged.

What Determines How Well to Tip?

According to the service providers themselves, certain factors should be used in determining how well to tip a person. (And not the old guidelines we’ve been carrying around in our heads for generations.) Those factors are:

  • How much time the person spent assisting you. For example, for bartenders, snapping open a beer versus making complicated cocktails.
  • How much effort the person put out to serve you. For example, for food delivery, how far the person had to drive … and even whether it was raining or not!
  • If it’s a “tipped profession,” which U.S. employers have translated into transferring the payment burden from the employer to the customer. Waiters and bartenders make $2-5 an hour, closer to $2, so your tips are critical.
  • The service you actually received. Sounds logical, but those surveyed said the “set percentage in the mind” actually overrides quality of service all too often.

Tipping Abroad

For those of us who travel internationally, this is important enough to be the topic of a whole other article.  Magellan used to provide a World Tipping Guide that made clear that Americans are some of the most generous tippers. That’s probably because the U.S. service industry has created that expectation by paying lousy salaries to its service staff.  My most important tip?  Look and see if the tip is already on the bill, which is the case in many countries.  And go from there.

P.S. About the Maitre d’ and the Sommelier

As for the fine-dining restaurant situation we started with, the maitre d’ is usually only tipped if he provides some exceptional service, like finding a table when there are no tables available. Also, as the person in charge of the “front of house,” if the entire dining experience was exceptionally orchestrated, a tip can be appropriate. (But, of course, only after the meal.) Otherwise, he gets part of the waitstaff tips at the end of the night. As for the sommelier, she gets 15-20% of the wine bill if she was especially helpful in selection and serving. (If you tip the sommelier, you calculate the waiter’s tip on the food only.)

Let us know in the Comments section below if there are situations where you’re unsure about tipping service providers.

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Bio: Sharon O’Day fixes financial lives. She is a tell-it-like-it-is money expert with a successful career in global finance, plus an MBA from the Wharton School. Today she specializes in getting entrepreneurial women over 50 back on their game so they can have more money, less stress and more joy. With her “Over Fifty and Financially Free” strategies, they take actions that lead to their ultimate goal: financial peace of mind.

  • Regina Bright

    I was a server all through college – great post

    • Then you learned something I never did, Regina, because I never had that experience. My early jobs were all administrative …

  • Carmen M Perez ELO

    Thanks for the guidelines Sharon. Very helpful.

  • Rochefel

    wow! I never knew this at all. Thanks for posting this. I promise to give tips that they deserve 🙂

    • Most of us see little pieces of this information, Rochefel, but I figured it would be good to have it all in one place!

  • Roz

    Had to learn about this years ago when we started traveling, dining, cruising. My husband doesn’t like to leave cash tips on a table so he puts it in their hand. Sometimes he says”I don’t see a tip on that table”. I have a brother-in-law who doesnt believe in tipping a chamber gal. My sis goes back in and leaves something. Its useful to have a guide and often we do what feels ok in the moment.

    • There are so many other situations, such as hotel room staff, that I couldn’t cover as it was already getting long. But life IS indeed full of other potential tipping situations, Roz. I agree with your husband, especially when tables are turning quickly I’m concerned the tip won’t make it to the waiter or waitress …

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  • Diana Foree

    My youngest daughter worked PT as a housekeeper in a motel for a year while going to college. She told us all the horror stories of what customers left as tips. TMI not going there. We always leave a tip for the housemaids. Thanks for sharing this good article!

    • I can only imagine, Diana. I’m even horrified at the condition in which some people leave the rooms themselves. Much less the tips …

      • Diana Foree

        It was an eye opener to what they have to deal with sometimes. It was a good reminder to be kind to those who work hard at jobs we can take for granted. 🙂

  • Alexandra McAllister

    This is such a helpful article and an eye opener as well…especially for those who do not leave tips. In my younger days, I worked PT as a waitress and although some people left good tips, most didn’t. One “gentleman” left me 25 cents which I gave back and told him he likely needed it more than me! 😉 Thanks goodness he didn’t say anything to my boss but I was so upset!

    • It’s obvious the public hasn’t been educated to know that employers aren’t paying their staff and that the burden has landed fully on the customer! I can imagine your frustration to get the equivalent of an insulting tip … once too often! 😉

  • Nate Leung

    You know this is a very sensitive topic for many. I remember one time, I was at a fancy restaurant and I remember getting a long with the waitress was nice and I tipped her pretty well and she had the nerve afterwards to come out side, follow me to the next store and ask me why I didn’t tip enough. I couldn’t believe it! So that day I never looked a tipping ever the same again. Lol.

    • I hope you haven’t held that one waitress’s bad manners and lack of professionalism against all the other people who have served you, Nate! 😉

  • Carele Belanger

    wow thank you very much about all this info because it is not always easy to understand it. A big thank you

    • Happy to put it together, Carele. When I realized I misunderstood the topic, I figured there might be some other people who did also. And from the response, tipping was a good topic to write about! Hope you shared with anyone who could benefit from it …

  • Tina Ashburn

    Great guidelines for tipping. I had no idea there are so many rules! Once in a while one of our delivery drivers gets a tip and it’s a real bonus!!

    • The “rules” here were based on expectations of the servers themselves in each activity, based (I’m guessing) on how long it takes to serve someone, what it takes to serve enough people to make a reasonable living … and customers’ habits. (That’s what the low-to-high ranges represented.)

  • Pat Moon

    Great article on tipping. It seems as though you have more than covered any situation I might be involved in. You mentioned Magellan’s… our daughter-in-law is an independent contractor for them. She is in charge of their online marketing and does a fantastic job. She used to be in charge of their website but has moved on from that… just a side note.

    • Magellan’s is a great resource for those of us who travel a lot, Pat. Nice to know of someone who contributes to that effort!

  • Amanda James

    This is very interesting! Tipping is definitely important, especially tipping well because a lot of these workers rely fully on their tips.

    • It really changes your mindset when you realize the tip is not just a “supplement” to a base salary, Amanda. In many cases, it IS the salary!

  • Gina Stroud Binder

    It’s great to see such a comprehensive list. My son delivers pizza while in college and is appalled when he makes deliveries in pouring rain for $0 in tips.

    • If the service industries wanted to do something productive, they could do a general educational campaign about how tipping works in their sector. (For example, pizza companies could put flyers on their delivery boxes saying “We do not add the cost of your driver to the price of your pizza, so we hope you’ll tip him for getting it to you as fast as traffic allowed.”) I’m sure “servers” (as your son is while in college) would be very grateful to be fairly compensated … especially when it rains! 😉

  • Pamela Bacha

    Was so surprised at how you were able to come up with such detailed information about “tipping”! Thank you for putting them all together for people to understand it better. 🙂

    • When I realized I had misunderstood the basis of tipping, I decided I needed to research the topic (something I love to do). I’m glad it was useful to you, Pamela!

  • Veronica Solomon

    There is a science to tipping that I just don’t get. Well your article has made it a lot easier to understand. I understand that is how most of the waiters get paid, but I think that is horrible on the employers’ part to leave that up to the discretion of their patrons. They need to be fully compensated and tips should be a bonus. I always tip whether I get good service or not, but if I am being honest, I do tip based on good or bad service. A waiter shouldn’t expect 20% from me if he didn’t provide good service. I have been to restaurants in London and Paris and it is very different there with the concept of tipping

    • Veronica, in many European cultures, being a waiter is a profession with training and high expectations, sometimes going from generation to generation. To be sure they are compensated, a tip is often stated on the tab, say 15-17%. (The Magellan link showed worldwide practices.) To that, people leave some coins, which could be a couple of Euros or pounds. At least they are being paid to do their job, and you pay a little more if they did it really well. As a “bonus,” as you said …

  • Having been in the Restaurant Industry for over 20 years I will tell you that Managers and Chefs normally never get tipped out because they are salaried. And I wouldn’t recommend starting this trend. But that is another topic altogether.

    As for servers and bartenders it is their entire lively hood. My best friend is a bartender and they only way she pays her bill is by tips. Same with my wait staff. It’s a service industry and service pay starts at $2.75 as stated by federal government for minimum wage. So tipping is how they live.

    Great post and very informative. As a side note… Housekeepers only make minimum wage… so if your room is kept clean throughout your stay you may think about leaving a tip on the nightstand for them. They really appreciate that. 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing that $2.75 Federal standard, Katrina. I wish I had known it when I wrote the article. It would have made it even more clear to readers that the burden lies squarely with the customer … something very few people realize. I figured they got minimum wage, which is bad enough, but had no idea how low it could be! And thanks for giving other readers the reminder on housekeeping in lodging. (That part I knew!)

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  • Yes it is amazing what goes into the tipping industry that for another great article…

    • I think I’d use the word “unconscionable” there, Carly. It’s a situation that certainly deserves to be more highly publicized.

  • robindavidman

    Excellent artcles by both you and Tim Urban! Thanks for the good information!

    • Thanks, Robin! The Tim Urban article really opened my eyes, and he had done such great research, even including his resources.

  • Norma Doiron

    Excellent information on tipping, something I’ve never really thought that much about. I know my hubby takes this very seriously and is a great tipper! 🙂

    • It’s a topic that is too easy to remain in that “never really thought that much about” realm, isn’t it, Norma? Except for those not being fairly compensated for how they earn their living! (Glad to hear your husband is one of the enlightened patrons!)

  • Ashley

    I really appreciate this information. I never know if I’m not tipping enough or tipping too much and I didn’t know how much some people relied on tips. Thanks for sharing.

    • Glad this information could make it easier to know if you’re in a “fair range,” Ashley. I know how many people walk away not knowing … each time they tip. Hope you shared this with anyone else you think it could help!

  • fredmcmurray

    When I waited tables in college I never received the same level of tips the female wat staff received.

    • That confirms what was said in one article I read on how to raise one’s tips: always wait on bill payers of the opposite sex! 😉

  • Great information Sharon. Tipping seems to be something that isn’t discussed much at all. I think good service always deserves a good tip!

    • I realized that it’s a topic seldom taken on, Carolyn. I know some of what I wrote doesn’t apply in the U.K. But the concept of knowing the local compensation structure so we can tip fairly does … 😉

  • Heather Cameron

    Great information, tipping is so confusing and varies so much. I lived in Australia for 2 years and loved it. It is a culture of no tipping, the tip is built into the wages and prices. So much easier not to worry about it. There you only tip for exceptional service and is only a small % of the bill.

    • It’s like that in many countries, Heather. And in others, nothing moves without a tip of some kind. (The key is knowing what’s what where you are.) What is the standard in Canada: does it share the U.S. “push-it-off-on-the-customer” premise? Or is it closer to Australia’s?

      • Heather Cameron

        Canada is more like the US but the percentage of wages isn’t the same due to minimum wages levels. The expectations of TIPS is getting higher as well. What use to be a 10% to 15% is now expected to be 15% to 20%.

  • Tipping really is confusing and I have had some heated discussions about this subject, it must touch some money G-point! In most European countries tips are included but are still most welcome as salaries in the hotel and restaurant business are quite low. I generally leave a 10 % tip in Switzerland for all services, unless it is really lousy.