Tipping Point

Richard Quinn

ON MY FIRST VISIT to Europe, I discovered a different approach to tipping—don’t. I left a euro for a bartender in Ireland and was gently admonished by our guide. I left it anyway. Just couldn’t help myself.

On the Italian island of Capri, to tip or not resulted in a confrontation with a waiter. We were told not to tip. In addition, the bill had a service charge. Was it for the waiter? Apparently not, as the waiter went on a mini-tirade looking for more, at least that’s what the interpreter said. We complained and the tour guide talked to the owner, who said he fired the waiter. I doubt it, and I hope not.

In Morocco, I checked off a bucket list item by riding a camel. When I got off—on an almost involuntary basis thanks to an ornery animal—the handler had his hand out for an additional tip. Having no idea what he was saying and faced with a rather scary face, I just reached into my pocket and gave him all the coins I had from different countries.

They do tip in some European countries, but it’s much less than in the U.S. When deciding whether or not to tip, keep an eye out for service charges either built into the prices or already added to the bill.

Back in the U.S., tipping is controversial. Some people think servers earn only a $2.13 minimum hourly wage. But federal law requires that, unless tips make up the difference, the server must be paid the standard federal minimum of $7.25. In addition, many states have a significantly higher minimum wage for tipped workers than that required by federal law.

No matter how you slice it, most servers don’t make much money. On the other hand, the IRS estimates that 40% of tip income goes unreported. Before new tracking systems were put in place, it was estimated to be 84%.

I’ve asked several servers who are the worst tippers. The most common answer is, I regret to say, seniors. A study, however, says it’s younger generations—those ages 18 to 40—who are the worst tippers.

The income of the diner seems to make a difference, too. Only 77% of middle-income households, those with an annual income between $40,000 to $80,000, were found to tip. Hey, if you can afford to eat out, you can afford to tip.

I go out to eat with a small group of friends once a month. We just divide the bill equally, but there’s always a debate about the tip. I try to add 20%, but others object. I often have to argue just to get up to 15% to 18%. These are seniors with incomes well above average. Go figure. I’m embarrassed, so—when I can—I slip a few extra bucks into the collective cash paying the bill.

In the past two years or so, I’ve upped my tip, often to 25% and, on occasion, to 30%. Statistically, I know I’m in a much better financial place than those taking my order, helping with repairs, delivering my food and so on. I just think it’s fair to share.

What matters when deciding how much to tip? I often hear it’s the server’s attitude and efficiency. That’s fair. What I don’t think is fair is penalizing servers for what may be beyond their control, like the quality of food or a delay in receiving it. Blame the kitchen for those miscues.

I always tip in cash rather than adding it to the credit card, out of concern that the server may not receive it. I also try to hand the tip to the server to avoid light-fingered Louies helping themselves from the table.

Do you have any tips on tipping? What’s your tipping philosophy?

Richard Quinn blogs at Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. Follow him on Twitter @QuinnsComments and check out his earlier articles.

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