Big Tipper? Maybe Not So Much

It has taken a while for me to realize that my usual 20 percent tip no longer elicits the warm thanks it used to prompt from wait staff at restaurants. At least not in these United States.

And let me explain that my standard 20 percent tip, provided for anything but the most unacceptable service, is always a bit more than 20 percent. I tip on the total, including tax, and I round up. At inexpensive restaurants, I round up considerably. I also add on for truly exceptional service.

This has been a point of pride with me, regardless of my wildly fluctuating income over the years. If I can’t afford to tip well, then I can’t afford to eat out. And it was my understanding that 20 percent was tipping well, 15 percent was standard and 10 percent was pretty damned cheap or a sign of serious dissatisfaction.

My generosity, or so I considered it, was prompted by appreciation for the hard work that floor staff in restaurants put in. My first job was as a dishwasher. I wasn’t nearly quick enough on my feet to wait tables.

Further, I have been offended by the stereotype that women are poor tippers. It seemed to perpetuate a circle of inattentive service — a waiter who expects me to tip poorly won’t provide the best service. And then if I feel ignored by the waiter (or waitress), I won’t tip well, reinforcing the idea that women are cheap. Especially when I dine with one or more other women, I tend to overlook small problems with service so as to break the cycle, as it were.

Turns out, though, that I’ll have to up my game if I want to reclaim the idea that I’m particularly generous. A little online research turns up debate going back three or four years on whether the 20 percent standard is passe. According to some sources, 25 percent is becoming the new standard, especially in New York. Some restaurants supposedly suggest up to 30 percent.

Christopher Elliott, in a recent piece for USA Today, argued in favor of a 25 percent tip as long as restaurants are allowed to pay substandard wages, forcing wait staff to rely on tips. He suggests the tipping system should be abolished and meal prices adjusted to provide adequate wages to the wait staff.

I might be inclined to agree but I’m not quite sure how it would work out in practice.

It’s been my experience, admittedly highly anecdotal, that in places where servers don’t get tips, the quality of service falls below standard. Money is an excellent motivator.

When my husband and I were in Barcelona, we found a small neighborhood cafe near our hotel. The waitress was clearly unhappy to see us. She was curt and unfriendly but served us reasonably well, and so we left a tip that was, apparently, quite impressive by Spanish standards. She was thereafter delighted to see us.

As to whether 25 percent should be the new standard, I don’t know about that, either. As meal prices have increased, the size of the tips I leave has increased proportionately. Certainly both have increased more rapidly than my own salary has risen.

Yet I believe that restaurant workers deserve to earn a decent wage and I recognize that standards change.

For now, I guess I’ll stick pretty much to my established tipping guidelines, with some extra generosity at low-priced restaurants where the staff seem to struggle more. It might take a little more evidence for me to believe that the generally accepted standard really has changed decisively, and that a 20 percent tip makes me look like a stingy old crank.

Meanwhile, I’ll get used to less gratitude. And I’d sure like to hear what other people think about it.


4 thoughts on “Big Tipper? Maybe Not So Much

  1. Bill___

    I see many discussions about tipping, including the recommendation by Mr. Elliott of 25%.
    The United States is unique in the world with the practice of offloading employee pay to the customer when it comes to the service industries.
    When I was a kid, the standard was 10% of the then much lower prices. Although we have people suggesting 25% and in this article, even 30%, this is perhaps a lot of wishful thinking on the part of owners and managers.

    It is in the interest of the business owners to have their employees give good service, and it is therefore the best solution if they are required to pay their employees properly. Any gratuity can then be a bonus.

    I have a difficult time believing how good tipping gets great service and bad tipping gets bad service when you are in a restaurant and they do not find out what the tip even is until after the whole episode is done. Although this is likely largely dependent upon the tips given by previous diners. If one is staying or dining in one place repeatedly then of course one can reap the benefits of good tipping.

    I had gotten to the point of giving 20% but after reading many posts and discussions about tipping, I have since revised my tipping rates to:
    take out: Nothing
    buffet: 10%
    full service: 15%
    Bad service: 0%
    really bad service: discussion with the manager and derogatory post in social media.

    Tipping is meant to be a bonus and by increasing tipping rates to 25% and above, we are encouraging managers and owners to reduce the amounts of money that they pay their staffs even more.

    The need to be encouraged to pay people more and if they fail to do so, people will migrate to jobs that pay more money. Increasing rates of tipping may seem like something that helps in the short term, but it is harmful in the long run.

    Tipping already automatically goes up with food and drink prices. Furthermore, it is a percentage of the sale and not reflective of the amount of service supplied.

    Using this logic, tipping in an expensive restaurant of 25% would require tips of almost 100% to provide the worker with the same compensation in a budget restaurant.

    Therefore, the solution is in properly paying the employees in the first place.

    I get quite good service for my 15%

    1. James Van Zandt

      “Always over tip the breakfast waitress”, the famous quote that means more every time I leave a $5.00 tip for a $9.00 plate of eggs and coffee!

  2. CK

    Let me preface my post by saying I do not eat at fast food or chain restaurants, and I am fortunate to live in an area that has a fairly innovative food scene.
    Although I have always prided myself on being a generous tipper (I did a stint as a hostess & server), I find lately I am having a hard time justifying even a 20% tip on many of my meals out. The increase in the cost of menu items over the last few years is not usually reflective of an increase in the quality of food &/or service.
    A remarkable meal accompanied by remarkable service deserves a 20%+ tip and “kudos” to the entire staff. And my repeat business. Less than remarkable food and service will probably not receive 20% from me. Restaurant staff expecting customers to tip greater than 20% (especially when entrees are $20+ and a cocktail/glass of wine is $12+) better be prepared to provide flawless service. I have a hard time seeing the value added to my experience being worth more than 20%, and I don’t expect my feelings will change.

  3. John Kilbourne

    Servers are not well paid. Tip as you wish, but for places where you will return and be “known”, tip well. I agree about 25% being the new norm. But for really excellent service where you are known, my rule is to always hand SOMEBODY, it doesn’t matter who, an additional 20 on the way out. Since virtually no one does that, staff will remember. At two restaurants, I have made arrangements never to see the check, but to have the front office automatically charge a card and add 25 or 30 percent. That avoids the unpleasant hassle of guests trying to split the check, and the staff knows in advance that they will be well compensated. It transforms the restaurants into basically private clubs.


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