Sunday, February 07, 2010

Is Tipping Really All that Important?

"Daddy, you left a dime on the table!" a little girl said to her father as the family walked through the restaurant to go home, causing her father to blush in embarrassment. He had not been pleased with the service. Leaving only a dime was his way of communicating that. I heard this story when I was a young child...back in the 1950's.

When I was growing up, I learned that tips were a way of rewarding someone for exceptional service, not for normal everyday service. The waitress isn't friendly? Don't tip...or leave only a small tip to make a point. Whether or not that philosophy was a good one sixty years ago will not be the topic of this post.

But is that a good philosophy for today? And, in a similar vein, since most people's finances are strained today, does that diminish our obligation to tip?

In the lunchroom at work the other day, I was reading a government poster about minimum wage. Below the list of minimum wages for different ages or occupations, it stated that for occupations where tips are a part of the compensation, the minimum wage is $2.13. $2.13? That's about $17 for an eight hour day, or about $375 for a month. Is that a fair wage? Only if the person really does receive a "fair" share of adequate tips. In some fields of business, tips are definitely an expectation, certainly not an "extra".

But what if the waitress is not friendly and upbeat? What if the waiter spills the soup? Do you know what they might be going through? Maybe a family member just lost his job. Maybe a close friend died, or a child is sick at home. Work ethic is strong. Sometimes a service person has done a lot just to get to work today.

What amount of tip is adequate? And what amount of tip is generous or rewards exceptional service? By the time I was in my teens, 10% was a standard tip for a waiter or waitress. It later climbed to 15%. From what I've heard, occasional patrons, often my age or older, still think that 10% or 15% are good tips...or maybe a five dollar bill, regardless of the cost of the service. But my understanding is that 20% is a standard tip now for a waiter or waitress, as well as for some other services. We can always give more, if we want to be generous or reward the extra mile.

But what if you don't have enough money to pay for a restaurant meal and a tip too? You know what I'm going to say, don't you? No, actually, I'm not going to tell you not to go out to eat. When I don't feel I can afford a meal and a tip, but we have enough for a meal - or we're traveling and we just need to keep the overall costs down - then we go to what I call a "deli-type restaurant". Think: Subway, Noodles and Company, Chipotles. I'm sure there are many more. It's a step beyond fast foods and you can sit down to eat, but tipping is not necessary. On our last trip, we ate most of our meals in deli-type restaurants and then had one nice meal at the Olive Garden.

Buffet restaurants are another option. Old Country Buffet, Ryan's Steak House, Golden Corral are some possibilities where you don't receive full service from a waitperson. Instead of thinking "no tip" here, we think "less tip". In some of these, you still have a host or hostess who brings you drinks, refills, and clean plates. That person still deserves a tip; it just doesn't have to be the same as for a full service restaurant.

To help with how much to tip, as well as who else, besides restaurant waiters and waitresses, should be tipped,I recommend doing online searches. But then, when you do, use your judgment. I've been surprised (and a little bit embarrassed) to find out about services I maybe should have tipped and have not in the past. We can always learn and grow.

I've also been surprised by some sites saying you need not tip this or that service person...or to tip only a little for this or that. I have family members who depend on tips as part of their income, so I get frustrated when someone suggests not tipping...and I have found counter suggestions to each these suggestions.

I've read that some customs have changed. For example, years ago, it wasn't customary to tip the owner of a beauty salon. Now, many sites say that it is. Maybe we've learned that small business owners are not always "rich", especially today...and that they, too, like to be rewarded for a job well done or for their effort in serving us.

Another suggestion I've questioned is related to massage therapists. I have a family member who does massage therapy and I recommend: Yes, tip 20%, just as you would a waitress (or more, if you wish). Someone said they want to be relaxed after massage therapy. So decide before you go in how you will pay the tip (cash or otherwise), and the minimum amount you will tip (you can always add more), and then: Relax.

Some sites also question tip jars at coffee shops. I believe that is optional, but I can just say that yes, the money is divided among the employees, who try very hard to get hundreds of different drinks just right.

With these caveats in mind, if you have a doubt about who or how much to tip, you can learn a lot from searching various tipping websites.

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