The New Rules for Tipping

Get insider advice on how much you should really leave, and why it matters.

By Kelly Dobkin from Reader's Digest | February 2012

While most of us agree that 20 percent (or close to it) is the standard amount to leave on a restaurant check, other tipping-related matters leave us scratching our heads. To settle these debates once and for all, Steve Dublanica, former server and author of the blog Waiter Rant and recent book Keep the Change: A Clueless Tipper’s Quest to Become the Guru of the Gratuity, weighs in on some hot-button issues.

1. SHOULD YOU TIP ON THE TAX?

On one hand: There’s no reason to tip on the tax. The restaurant doesn’t get to keep tax money. When gratuity is automatically included on a check for a large party, it’s added pretax.

On the other: When most servers total their sales at the end of the night, they include the tax in the amount. This “cash-out” amount determines how much they tip out to busboys, runners, and other staff members. By not tipping on tax, you’re stiffing them out of their fair share.

Steve’s verdict: “I like it when you do, but you don’t have to tip on the tax.”

2. WHAT IS THE CORRECT AMOUNT TO TIP ON DRINKS?

On one hand: Twenty percent is way too much — it’s just a drink! The standard in most bars is $1 for each beverage or 10 percent, which generally adds up to $1. Bartenders are tipped out by other members of the staff, so they are walking away with plenty of money.

On the other: Bartenders do more work than servers because they’re the ones actually making the drinks, not the server. They deserve the full 20 percent.

Steve’s verdict: “[At the bar] you should leave 15 to 20 percent of the total cost of that drink, which may seem kind of ridiculous. But think of it this way: At the table, you’re paying 15 to 20 percent. Why does the bartender not get that money, but the waiter — who doesn’t make those drinks — does?”

3. DO YOU ALWAYS TIP YOUR BARISTA?

On one hand: Yes. They’re skilled workers and deserve tips just as much as other food-service employees.

On the other: Baristas make a decent hourly wage, unlike servers, and they don’t work for tips. Besides, what’s the point of tipping them if they don’t see you put the money in the jar?

Steve’s verdict: “I learned when I worked as a barista that if you get a cup of coffee and give us the change from buying that cup, we’re really grateful. But I’ve seen people order one of these frothy iced milk latte-type chemistry experiments — which can be more complicated to prepare than a martini — and then not tip. For baristas who make you one of these, tip a dollar.”

See also: 13 Things Your Barista Won’t Tell You

4. WHEN, IF EVER, IS IT ACCEPTABLE TO LEAVE A BAD TIP?

On one hand: Never. Even if your server really, really screws up, the tip money is being distributed to multiple employees of the restaurant. If you’re unhappy with your server, it’s not fair to penalize the busboy, bartender, food runners, and other employees who depend on this money to make their living.

On the other: It’s OK to leave a bad tip if you receive bad service. It’s your right as a customer, and it will send a message of displeasure to the restaurant.

Steve’s verdict: “I don’t suggest stiffing servers on the tip, because you are punishing all the other people connected to that food chain. I tell people to talk to the manager and say, ‘I had very poor service, but I’m leaving a tip anyway.’”

See also: 20 Secrets Your Waiter Won’t Tell You

5. SHOULD A SERVER BE ABLE TO AUTOMATICALLY INCLUDE GRATUITY IF IT’S NOT A LARGE GROUP?

On one hand: Yes, in certain cases. Many tourists from other countries don’t understand the tipping protocol in the United States. Servers have a right to protect themselves.

On the other: It’s outrageous for a server to include the tip unless it’s a large group. Legally, servers don’t have the right to make the customer pay any gratuity.

Steve’s verdict: “If you were to include a service charge automatically, you would have to tell everyone who walks in that you’re adding a 20 percent service charge. I don’t support waiters deciding who they’re going to attach a tip to. That’s not their job — that’s management’s job — and they need to have a very well thought-out policy about why they’re doing that.”

  • Your Comments

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/6S24NQF72JG7XEGHDG7E2H5THQ Kiera Freeman

      What is with all the judgemental people on this site!! I have a BA, graduated cum laude, and in the current economy, I cannot make a decent wage at a starting position offered by my degree. So here is my tip to you: shut your mouth and tip your server.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/6S24NQF72JG7XEGHDG7E2H5THQ Kiera Freeman

      Every establishment has rules, regulations and policies that as a server, we must follow. Guess what! Most often we are required to place your bill before you are finished. Specifically, my current employer requires that I place the check, “before the slowest diner is half-finished with his/her entree if no dessert is requested or place when delivering requested dessert.”

    • Xnixman

      I tip a set dollar amount.  $5 for lunch.  $10 for dinner.  $1/drink.  That is MORE than enough.
      If you can’t manage 4 tables an hour – you probably need a different job.  If you can manage 4 tables an hour – you get $20-$40/hour.  Seems excessive really…

    • GW

      Wow, these comments are all over the board. Bottom line is wait staff do expect and for the most part deserve tips and are paid a minimum minimum wage because of this. My wife and I round the bill up and always tip 20% plus. We are not wealthy but what does the extra dollar or two mean to us versus a kid in school or a single parent? Don’t eat out if you can’t afford to leave a well deserved tip. I agree with the commenter that talking to a manager is a better alternative than stiffing the waiter, but I would reduce the tip to 15%. We had a server at a family style restaurant and through a series of short conversations as he brought our food found he was a college student working his way thru school. He was a great waiter and could not say enough about how great the restaurant management was to allow him flexible hours to fit his schedule. The bill was $50ish, we left him a $100 bill and told him we hope it helped with his studies.

    • JGagosian

      This article is useless when it comes to how you should tip a bartender. You DO NOT tip a bartender based on a percentage. In places like New York or Los Angeles this might make some sense because the drink prices are much higher. I live in New Orleans where 2 and 3 dollar beers are common, and bartenders make about 5 dollars an hour. If you tip anything less than a dollar per drink, then you’re seriously screwing over your bartender and will be treated accordingly. 1 dollar per drink, minimum. If the drink is something more complicated and high maintenance like a specialty martini or anything that requires muddling or a blender, then 2 or more per drink is appropriate.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_IMX3QPQK7FT3ZIVT3TKKELS3IU Debbie s

      you go to a restaurant and the waitress brings you a burger and fries, the guy at the table next to you orders a steak with baked potato…….. your bill is under $10 but his bill is closer to $25….. the effort to bring both orders is about the same……. yet his tip should be twice that of mine…Why? there was no additional effort……that’s why this tipping on the value of your check is bull crap!

    • Grassey Knoll

      Who the hell is Steve?
      Bad service…you get no tip….this is not hurting the busboy, bartender, food runners, and other employees, trust me they WILL get rid of a bad server and get one that increases their  tips.  

    • Grassey Knoll

      Who the hell is Steve?
      Bad service…you get no tip….this is not hurting the busboy, bartender, food runners, and other employees, trust me they WILL get rid of a bad server and get one that increases their  tips.  

    • Aine Sexton

      I think the system needs to be changed.  I used to wait tables outside of Washington, D.C..  We were paid slave wages.  If we didn’t get at least 15% tips from all customers, we didn’t make a decent living.  In places like Berkley, CA, the waitors’ hourly wages are over 5 times as much as those in VA.  If they don’t get tipped fairly by every patron, it isn’t anything to cry about. The restaurants need to inform the customers in writing what situation exists or the tipping system needs to be banished.  Set a decent wage for food servers.  You could include an exception for the fancy restaurants.  Those patrons tend to view the waitors’ duties differently. 

    • Karen

      Guess what Steve, if I do not leave a tip because the server was rude or otherwise terrible, then the other staff can just deal with it.  If they want to gripe about anyone, they should take it out on the server who slammed my plate in front of me, treated me like an annoyance when I politely ask for more coffee, or was otherwise rude or obnoxious.  I used to work in restaurants and I value professionalism and courtesy, and  I’m a generous tipper when I receive such.  However, I refuse to reward ill mannered, grouchy, rude people, nor will I return to an establishment where I have be treated that way.  The person the other staff should blame when they lose out is the server with the poor people skills and bad attitude, not the customers who are the reason they have a job.