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There's a perfect phrase to describe a person who tips low, or not at all: "garbage person."

If You Can’t Afford to Tip 20%, You Can’t Afford to Dine Out

The tipping system sucks. It should be eradicated. But it’s the system that servers are stuck with to pay their rent this month, so we are where we are.

"We don't have any."

The power dynamics of tipping

There’s a perfect phrase to describe someone who tips low, or not at all: “garbage person.”

The sometimes-wise Sirius Black tells always-garbage Ron Weasley, “If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.” Tipping presents a lopsided power dynamic. You can learn a lot about a tipping person from watching how they interact with a tipped person.

The tipping system also opens up opportunities for us to flex our unconscious biases. Racism, sexism, ageism, and ableism decimate the earning potential of many competent servers.

Not to be appropriative, but: you’re woke, aren’t you? A big part of being woke is admitting that you have unconscious biases. You cannot will yourself to be blind to physical differences. Remove those biases by deciding to tip 20% before ever laying eyes on your server. Don’t even bring the quality of your service into the equation. Studies show we lack objectivity in comparing quality of service, and are more likely to judge based on unrelated qualities such as conventional attractiveness (read: “big titties“).

The punitive stiff

I work a salaried job. I have bad days—days where I am grouchy, disorganized, and distracted. You know what my company doesn’t do in response? Send me a smaller paycheck that month.

A tip is neither a carrot nor a stick. It is not an opportunity to reward or punish a serviceperson. A low or nonexistent tip is never an appropriate response to a perceived slight, especially if you failed to use your words first. If there’s anything worse than being putatively cheap, it’s being passive-aggressively putatively cheap.

No one owes you enthusiasm. And you cannot buy mind-reading (especially by retroactive penalty).

She's so fun. She gets us.

Extenuating circumstances

Bad tippers may not know they’re bad tippers. There are some understandable situations, like being from outside of the United States. Or being raised by jackals.

I was a bad tipper for many years! In addition to jackal parents, I was from a really rural part of the country where 10% was still the norm. When I moved to a big city with a higher cost of living, I tipped badly for years before an embarrassed friend scolded me. I felt defensive at first, but I’d been shown the error of my ways.

So if you know a bad tipper, try educating first. If they persist: garbage status confirmed. (Seriously, don’t read that link unless you have a blanket handy for the douche chills.)

Here’s some more on how to defend your non-salaried self from getting stiffed:

Moving away from tips

First, make it a habit to build a 20% tip into your budget when going out. Read and re-read the title of this article, and write it upon your heart. We Bitches will encourage you to be cheap at every turn, but it has to be at your own expense, not your server’s.

I live near a big city, and we have a few spots where forward-thinking owners have instituted a fixed living wage for their employees. Make a point to give these places your business. And tell your server to pass your compliments on the system along to their boss. (And tell the owner or manager at your favorite neighborhood spots that you would enthusiastically pay more for the same food if it meant the people serving it were paid a living wage. A critical mass of willing customers is needed to change the system.)

I’ve heard concerns that service at such places must be worse, but I’ve found the opposite to be true. One offered a detailed rundown of where each of their local ingredients was sourced, along with a personalized recommendation based on the weather, our drinks, and what we were each in the mood for. Another knew the flavor profiles of each of the oysters we had the option to buy, and could sort them by size, flavor, and origin.

Because those servers didn’t have to waste mental and emotional energy stressing over their livelihoods, they were able to give me more attentive and enthusiastic service. Their passion for their restaurants’ food was evident in every interaction. The idea that someone needs a few extra coins jingled in front of them to do their job well is demeaning. It betrays a general cultural contempt for the people who serve us.

If you won’t tip 20%, consider going to Trader Joe’s, Kroger, Costco, Food Lion, Stop & Shop, Walmart, Whole Foods, Aldi, or hell instead.

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8 thoughts to “If You Can’t Afford to Tip 20%, You Can’t Afford to Dine Out”

  1. Tipping in the US is hard to get your head around! When I went a couple of years ago, my guide books said 10% minimum, 15% normal service, 20% good service, whereas I’m going again next month (or coming, from your perspective I guess) and guidebooks this time saying 15% minimum, but then there are the various levels for concierge, taxi drivers, maids, bar people, baristas, tour guides, etc. And being british, we like to be awkward about money.

    I think one of the mental barriers is you prepare to pay a tip, then a tax gets slapped on at the end, increasing your overall bill, whereas in the UK tax is included upfront. We were spoilt on our first visit, which started in Portland as we had only the tip to factor in. San Francisco and Napa were a bit of a shock though. Should you pay a tip on the tax as well, or just on the net amount?

    It sucks that restaurants can get away with paying only $2 hour and have wages made up in tips. Are there any guides that list restaurants that pay a fair wage? We have the opposite in the UK, where companies are named and shamed for paying below the national minimum wage. Personally, I’d rather eat somewhere more expensive that respects it’s workers and pays a fair wage but it’s just finding them!

    Last question- if that’s ok!- I would normally tip in cash if I have to pay the meal by card as in the UK it means the tips do go to the staff, rather than being creamed off the top. Is this better in the States too?

    Almost as difficult as tipping in the US is tipping in Iceland, where a tip is considered offensive!? Its pretty disconcerting to receive amazing service and just be expected to say thankyou an be on your merry way. That feels like it should be more offensive to me. Always worth researching customs before you go anywhere!

    1. Hi Sarah! First of all: I am so sorry you are stuck trying to tip in America. Even *Americans* don’t understand how to tip in America!

      Let me start by assuring you that people in the service industry don’t expect perfect tipping etiquette from international visitors, at all. My husband spent many years as a tour guide in a major American city, and he absolutely knew that the rules were confusing and never took it personally when an international guest innocently stiffed him. It sounds corny, but he didn’t mind as long as he knew they’d had a good time.

      You can ALWAYS grab someone and say “pardon my ignorance, but is it customary to tip your position?” People will be charmed by your accent and appreciate the fact that you asked.

      The 10-15-20% rule was once solid gold, but 20% has become the norm now, especially in urban areas. The cost of housing and transportation have risen out-of-step with wages. So that’s why you may have seen this old rule-of-thumb floating around. The thinking has also shifted about whether it’s appropriate to express dissatisfaction with service by paying someone less. I work an office job, and no one deducts pay from me when I’m in a bad mood, or forget to reply to an email. Increasingly, Americans feel it’s wrong to make it harder for someone to pay their electricity bill just because their burger was medium-well instead of medium.

      There is no firm rule about tipping post- or pre-tax, mainly because the tax amount varies from place to place. Receipts should list the tax owed on a separate line, along with the percentage. If you’re in an area with a 10% tax (which is a very common rate), just look for that tax line and double it. That’s roughly the amount you should leave for a tip.

      I am positive that wherever you go, the light of your good intentions will shine through!

  2. I tip at least 20%, and usually more because I round up. We dine out (a lot) and another thing we’ve started doing is anonymously picking up the check of a table near us (especially if they’ve got kids). We’ve dined out plenty of times with our 4 kids in tow and let me tell you, it’s neither easy or cheap to do so. So now that we’re in a better place financially I try to pick up a check now and then. Hopefully it makes someone’s night out a bit better but if not then no big deal because it always makes me feel good.

    1. Ty, I think you just gave me a new standard for financial freedom: when I can comfortably buy the next table’s dinner when I eat out, I will know I have arrived.

  3. I always tip 20% at restaurants unless I had a really horrific experience (in which case, I talk to the manager first). And I typically tip $1 per alcoholic beverage at a bar. However, there are some places that throw me for a loop:
    1. Getting take out – do you tip at the counter when you’re picking up from a deli or a Chinese take-out restaurant? What about when you’re at a restaurant that also does dine in, but you’re picking up a to-go order? Halp?
    2. Hair salons – how the hell much are you supposed to tip your hairdresser?
    3. Taxis – I have taken a taxi exactly twice in my life, and both times, I had no idea what an appropriate tip amount was.
    4. Bathroom attendants – errrgh, I really can rip off my own paper towel, thanks. Do bars and restaurants pay them a living wage to keep the bathroom clean, or are they relying on tips?

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