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."

In the United States, we’ve built a tipping system that is designed to replace employer-provided wages with customer-provided tips. This is in opposition to how tipping was originally intended: as a merit-based reward system for service above and beyond the norm. Under this tipping reality, the amount of your tip isn’t a whimsy, but a necessity to servers.

So if you don’t tip 20%, your server isn’t getting paid even close to a living wage. And if you can’t afford to tip 20%… then you sure as hell can’t afford to dine out.

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.” Well said, dog stars!

Tipping presents a lopsided power dynamic in which the customer has total power over the waitstaff. So you can learn a lot about a tipping person from watching how they interact with a tipped person.

Unconscious bias in tipping

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“).

All labor deserves compensation

Fundamentally speaking, labor deserves to be paid. Do you work for free? Neither do I! So why expect waitstaff at restaurants to do so?

“But surely restaurants pay them something!” you cry, all hopeful and ignorant. “Surely they don’t need a whole 20%!”

In the United States, servers are compensated a tiny fraction of minimum wage$2.13 an hour to be exact. Somehow, miraculously, this is legal because of the weird expectation that tipping will make up the rest of their payment to bring them at least to the minimum hourly wage.

In other words, if you don’t tip your server, they take home $2.13 an hour. That’s less than the cost of the latte they just steamed and poured for you.

The unfairness of it all!

This is, in our humble yet bitchy opinion, bullshit. Steamy, creamy bullshit.

For one thing, it’s unfair to servers to base their total compensation on

  1. whether and how many customers decide to patronize their restaurant in a given shift, and
  2. whether and how much those customers decide to tip.

Servers are trading the finite resource of their time for money. If they don’t receive money in return… then that time is forever wasted. They can’t get it back and spend it finding another way to earn money.

It’s also, I admit, unfair to customers to pass most of the expense of payroll from the employer to the customer. Math is the very last thing I want to do when I’m out enjoying a meal at a restaurant. I left my home to be waited upon! To have someone else do the labor of feeding and serving me! It’s a kick in the teeth to then be asked to wipe the cobwebs off my high school education until I remember how to calculate a percentage. And after I’ve downed half a bottle of wine? Rude.

Nothing goes according to plan

And yet this is the bizarre cultural system we’ve all settled upon for how to compensate servers. If everyone tips 20%—great! No harm, no foul. It’s a little annoying and complicated, but no one loses out.

But of course, nothing ever goes according to plan.

There’s this (understandable, given the historical intention of tipping) misunderstanding that tipping should be merit-based. I’ll be generous and guess that people who believe in merit-based tipping aren’t aware of the weird compensation laws in the United States that expect tipping to make up the majority of servers’ wages. Because if they are aware, and still choose to stiff their waitstaff…

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

Like I said, 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:

How (and why) we move away from tipping

We Bitches will encourage you to be cheap at every turn, but it has to be at your own expense, not your server’s.

If you read the title of this article and thought “How dare you! I can’t afford to tip 20%! Poor people deserve nice things too!” then good news: we agree with you. But remember the power dynamics of tipping. You are not the “poor person” in this scenario—your server is.

If you’re being budget-conscious about your meals, you can easily choose to buy a prepared meal at the grocery store instead of dining at a restaurant. When waitstaff are stiffed on a tip, they literally have no recourse.

So make it a habit to build a 20% tip into your budget when going out. Read and reread the title of this article, and write it upon your heart.

There’s a better way

I live near a big city, and we have a few spots where forward-thinking restaurant owners have instituted a fixed living wage for their employees. Make a point of giving 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!

Check please!

Speaking of how labor deserves compensation… toss a coin to your Bitches by joining our Patreon or making a one-time PayPal donation! We work hard on these articles, spending hours sourcing the most delectable gifs and serving them under a rich truth-bomb reduction with a garnish of sass and class. If you appreciate that level of care in your fine blogging, well then… pay us!

A version of this article was originally published August 15, 2016.

29 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!

      1. When I choose your restaurant to dine. That is your tip. If it weren’t for me and others like me that dine at your restaurant. You would not have a job. So when I walk in and order food. I’m giving everyone who works in that restaurant job security. And you return my act of kindness with great service.

    2. We I choose your restaurant to dine in THAT IS MY TIP TO YOU. By my business alone is offering everyone that works in that restaurant job security. Because of me. And others like me. The waiter/waitress HAS A JOB. So I’m helpin you keep you job. That’s the best TIP anyone can give you!!!!!!!!

  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.

    2. I thought I was the only one who did this. My friends never understood. I always tip 20% and then round up to the nearest whole number (I use YNAB for my budget and despise non-whole numbers when I eat out when checking my purchases). If I am doing super well with my budget and have extra disposable income, I round up to the nearest multiple of 5 after the previous steps.

      I can never understand those who tip horribly.

  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?

    1. Sorry to reply to an ancient post, but bathroom attendants usually aren’t paid at all. All the money they make is on tips and they usually buy the mints, cologne, etc themselves. Which makes everything so much worse.

    2. Based on my 10+ years as a server, I can say that the kitchen staff is generally paid slightly more than waitstaff; but they also depend on tips to make a living wage. I typically add 15-20% to a takeout order, to acknowledge that labor. (That said, I probably over-tip, especially after the last couple of years. IYKYK )

  4. Hell yeah. Tipping 20% all the time no matter what is great for your brain/decision making processes too as one less thing to think about or worry about every time you’re out. Been doing this for over 10 years now and never going back.

      1. Tip or no tip ALL business expenses fall on the customer. Higher wages mean higher prices. Lower wages w tips means higher prices. No big deal the customers always bear the burden bc customers make the business viable.

  5. Some states do require that servers are paid the standard minimum wage. (Seven states, per my quick search.) Oregon is one such state, and I tip 20% anyway since let’s be real, even minimum wage is not a lot of money.

    I’ve long speculated that one of the reasons our food scene in Portland is so excellent is that people can afford to be in the business long enough to work their way up and even launch their own businesses.

    One thing that helped me when I was mentally shifting to a standard of 20% tipping was actually realizing that that the difference between 15% and 20% is TINY almost all the time. If I’m spending $25 for dinner, it’s a whopping $1.25 jump between 15% and 20%. So…. yeah. Round up, friends, and then round up again.

  6. Auther and commenters do not live in California where, the minimum wage for restaurant servers is $14 / $15 per hour (depending on the size of the restaurant. Adding a 20% tip on top of that, and the server makes >$30/hr. This wage is higher than mine.

  7. 1. I tip 10% for takeout. I have heard that tipping for takeout is not even expected.

    2. That’s a good question. Probably just stick with 20%.

    3. I don’t know, either!

    4. I probably wouldn’t bother tipping a bathroom attendant. But if you really want to, you can leave $1.

    4.

  8. To the contrary, if you can’t afford to pay you employees a livable wage, then you can’t afford to run a business.

    Why is it that there are specific industries where you tip? Why not all service industries? Why won’t businesses pay their employees a livable wage? Why does the consumer have to make up the difference for the business? Why don’t you tip the chef, or host? Why don’t you tip the plumber? Why don’t you tip at McDonald’s or Burger King? Afterall, they’re making your food and if you dine in, they bring it to you just like in a restaurant.

    Is it in relation to the kind of service you receive? I can only imagine: Dangle the $100 bill over the edge of the table and say, “Come shine my shoes while I eat my expensive meal you can only hope to afford, and I may give you a $100 tip!”

    Tipping is all about classes. You tip the workers that are low wage, because they ‘need’ it. It’s so you don’t feel bad for supporting a business that refuses to pay its employees a livable wage. It’s so you feel good because you can help out the poor server. Meanwhile the businesses are maximizing their profits by ensuring tipping remains the status quo.

    If I go out by myself, I don’t tip. If I go out with others, I pay for the meal, and I let whoever I’m with tip them. I don’t feel bad. Quite the opposite, I feel good that I can afford the meal. But I prefer to cook for myself 90% of the time anyway.

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