Tipping in America: How To Do It and What To Expect If You Don’t

Waiting tables can be a balancing act! (Photo via AP)

Don’t want to be reviled by every waiter in town? Heed our tips on tipping, U.S. style.

1. Am I legally required to tip anywhere in the U.S.?
No. Service charge is always voluntary, even when it’s added to your bill. But if you deduct gratuity from the check, don’t expect it to go down well.

2. Why should I tip?
Each of the 50 states has a different minimum wage, usually around eight dollars an hour. But under federal law, the minimum wage for tipped employees like bartenders and waitresses is just $2.13 per hour. Your generous tips will help make up for their low pay.

3. How much should I tip in restaurants?
Fifteen to 25 percent of the total bill is normal. In high-end establishments, they hope you’ll leave nearer 25 – and possibly tip the maitre d’ five or ten bucks.

4. Do I need to leave an extra tip if my bill says, “gratuity included”?
No, although this only usually happens if you’re a party of eight or more. Some tourist joints also add on service charge, presumably because they know foreigners are shoddy tippers.

5. Why do waiters always ask, “Do you need change?”
If you pay in cash, your chirpy server will almost always deliver this line as they snatch up your check. You might feel affronted if you put down a fifty for your 15-dollar lunch but, in all likelihood, your waiter isn’t trying to squeeze you for a huge tip. He simply hasn’t registered the amount. That’s why servers tend not to growl or cry if your answer is, “Yes please.”

6. What should I tip in bars?
You’ll want to add a dollar a drink when you’re buying at the bar. Keep the tips flowing and you might well get your fifth or sixth drink free. Joints with table service will expect at least a 10 percent bonus at the end of the night.

7. What about tipping taxi drivers, hairdressers and porters?
If a driver helps with your bags and takes you a good route, 20 percent is reasonable. Likewise, you’ll want to tip your hairdresser 20 percent, and leave a few dollars for the person who washed your hair. Bellhops expect a dollar for every bag delivered, plus a few bucks for helping you in the room.

8. Do I have to tip when I queue to get my lunch or morning coffee?
No. Buying over the counter is gratuity free, although you will see cheeky tip jars nuzzled up against the cash register. And if the person in front of you drops in a dollar, you may feel obligated to do the same.

9. What’s likely to happen if I don’t tip?
This depends. Explain to the manager why you’re not tipping and, so long as your reason is their poor service and not your moral objection to tipping, you’ll probably get a gracious response. They may even take money off your bill. If, however, you skulk off without tipping, don’t be surprised if wait staff chase after you and demand an explanation.  

10. When shouldn’t I tip?
If the service is bad, you should never feel obliged to pay extra. But if you’re not brave enough to withhold the entire tip and trash your waiter to his superior, leaving 10 percent is code for, “The service was awful.”

What are your tips on tipping?

Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.
View all posts by Ruth Margolis.
  • Vp

    Very true, in all regards. Also, if you are on a business lunch or dinner, and you don’t tip well, it is often looked on as a large negative mark against you. This is almost always a personal mark, too, as everyone in business knows how to tip appropriately in return for good service.

  • Pauline

    Tips for valet parking?? Please tell us, if it’s free valet parking as a medical center but $5.00 per hour at a restaurant what should we tip??

  • Cassy

    10% is code for I am cheap not that the service sucked

    • madi

      it’s code for both. i’ll always tip but you’re not getting a freaking 20 or 25% tip for shitty service. i know some things aren’t in the waiters/waitresses control but there are some thing i can’t ignore. it’s my money that I earned. no one has a right to it.

  • cathy Tuttle

    I don’t like #2.. I have been in different states where wait staff makes 10 and 12$ an hour.. do we now ask our serviers what they make so we can decide to tip or not based on their pay?

    • http://www.facebook.com/wdwronnie Ronnie Heikkinen

      That is an outright lie! There is NO establishment that serves food to a table that pays that much!! You must be on drugs!

      • John Humphries

        Actually its true. By state law all severs have to be paid the current minimum wage in Washington state and I have known several who were paid much more. It’s part of the reason the cost of eating out is so ridiculous here.

        • Anna

          Care to inform the working public where a server in WA can earn as much as a Boeing mechanic? I’m sure job seekers would loveto know.

    • Jaleel Chandler

      how do you know how much they make? They were probably talking about tips. The highest minimum wage for a tipped employee is $9something and thats only in Washington state

      • Ben

        Just because there is a minimum wage doesn’t mean that servers/bar tenders aren’t ALLOWED to get paid more. I bar tend at a high end restaurant and get paid $8/hour plus tips, and the servers get paid $5/hour plus tips. It’s very possible that other restaurants could pay similar hourly wages.

    • Jamie

      Generally speaking, servers get paid peanuts, and need tips to live. It’s probably safer to assume this is the case, and tip according to the service and bill.

  • http://www.twitter.com/themeels Amelia Brown

    Here in Texas server pay is $2.13/hr. Period. And it’s surprisingly easy to predict <10% tippers demographically. Unfortunate, but true. Working in a high-end restaurant I could count the times I gave bad service on one hand, and it was never on purpose (just incidental). However, we'd get a lot of "amateurs" (people who aren't regulars at dining-out, especially in the high-end market), and they NEVER knew how to tip. Or would tip off a post-coupon amount. Sure, I'll take your $6 on a $60 ticket that would have been $100+ without your coupon. And my tip out was 50% on credit cards, so I just made $3 and you stayed two hours.

    This is why I quit the service industry. Too much stress.

  • Akuin

    Make sure you know where you are. There are some places (California it’s Base pay + tips so no worries there.) that subtract money from their paycheck for the tips they make so some waiters/waitresses depending on the state are paid in tips alone. At least that’s what I’ve read on job sites and stuff. Like I said I live in California it’s on the books you get minimum wage + tips.

  • RJ

    Point #1, tipping is mandatory if they add it to your bill here in Virginia, if the service was really bad and you object to paying it, have the manager take it off the bill, just leaving without paying it might get you in hot water here.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_R6ODYVHCB23JAQC33NPS5RLUN4 Kifre

    Yeah, that tip jar at Starbucks is not ‘cheeky’ at all. It would be one thing if everything were prepackaged and no service were actually being provided, but the staff actually prepare and deliver food and drink.

    You might also point out that frequently servers are required to ‘tip-out’ bar staff, bus-boys, etc. or share out their tips evenly. So the size/impact of the tip goes beyond the individual server.

  • RJ

    Point #1.. here in Virginia, you are required to pay your entire bill, including tip if an actual amount is added to the bill. If you think the service was bad enough to warrant less than what they added to the bill, have the manager take if off first, you could get into trouble if you leave without paying the entire bill.

  • Brainlock

    “Fifteen to 25 percent is normal.”

    WHAT?? LOL
    I’ve always heard 10-15%, for good service. But you can go ahead and pay more than that, Ms. Rockefeller-Trump.

    and yes, I have worked as a server before, including getting stiffed as well as getting a nice tip around 10%, the same as my co-workers. I’m just glad they didn’t have a “tip kitty” which was pooled and split evenly at the end of the night. Bad enough we were forced to get HALF minimum wage at $2.12/hour, as the tips were understood to make up the other half, which more often than not, they barely did. Barely.

    Then again, I always found it ironic that TIPS = To Insure Prompt Service, yet it’s always paid *after* the meal!

    • Val

      I NEVER give a server less than 20% unless you cause me not to enjoy my meal. 10% is my way of telling you that your services was sub par, and you’re manager is getting informed. I have left 25-30% on smaller bills for awesome service. I am not rich by any means, and do not eat out frequently, but you deserve the money for the service you give. I have actually left a larger tip for a server that got under tipped by their previous inhabitants.

    • K_L_Carten

      Leaving 10% was fine for the 70’s but that is pretty cheap for today. I tip at least 20% if its a good server. If I get really bad service I leave 10% unless I get a very rude server, which has happened a few times, I might not leave anything if the bill is a couple bucks. I know if the service is bad and it’s the first time I have been there, it will be my last I won’t be back.

  • Jennifer C.

    Since you asked, my tips on tipping:

    15 percent is the rule of thumb as I was taught. If the service was neither excellent nor sub-par, then 15 percent is a good amount to tip.

    If there were some problems that were within the server’s control (drinks were never refilled, empty plates were never cleared, server was unfriendly, etc.), I may drop down to 10 percent.

    If I want to leave a message that the service was awful but I don’t want to waste any more of my time to drag the manager into it, I will leave a 5 percent tip. That way they can’t just pass it off as “oh, she was cheap”.

    If the service is excellent, I generally leave between 20-25 percent tips, and have been known to tip in excess of 50 percent for excellent service on small bills (a small meal for just me, for example).

    If you can’t afford to tip, then you should not go out to eat, because the majority of states still pay servers a fraction of minimum wage. Even if they are being paid minimum wage, minimum wage is just enough to keep one from starving and provides no real quality of life.

    Tipping at cafes and other counter establishments is the polite thing to do if you thought the service was good. It is a sign of appreciation for the way in which services have been rendered, and for the skill with which your food is prepared (in spite of coming from over a counter). Good lattes take skill.

  • Bob in Amherst MA

    “…presumably because they know foreigners are shoddy tippers.”

    Where I live (the Northeast U.S., which of course includes New York City), I believe that restaurateurs are afraid that foreign clients — especially those from countries where service is routinely embedded in the total to be paid — do not realize that the servers depend on tips in order to earn an adequate wage. In Massachusetts I normally tip 20% (you might subtract local tax before caluculating if you wish) and consider 15% the minimum. For anything below that, I believe that you should speak to the manager and communicate your dissatisfaction with the service.

    It is true that many establishments add service, often at 18%, to the bills of large parties (such as 8 or more).

  • Billie

    This might sound a bit simple but why is the minimum wage for servers etc not challenged legally in the various states? Why is it the status quo?

    • mist

      its a retainer, and not a whole wage. Those people dont HAVE to work their if they don’t like the wage, others are more than happy to take their place for that rate

    • Leah

      Because, in the US, the whole idea behind it is that a tipped employee should make up the difference (around 5 dollars an hour depending on the state) in tips. If this doesn’t happen then the employer must, by law, make up the difference, but for all the crap servers have to go through on a daily basis they’re still underpaid.

      And this article doesn’t even factor in the idea of a tip pool–where, in any given shift, a server ends up with enough tips to equal minimum wage and a bit extra that extra amount goes into the tip pool which then goes to other tipped employees like the bartender or the bus boy.

      • K_L_Carten

        Depends on the place, some servers keep the tips on their tables, some place divide the tips at the end of the night. When I was in school, I could make some serious money at our local high end restaurant. Slow weekend night a few hundred a busy night around over a thou. That was in the very early 90’s, I NEVER run after someone for a tip! I would get pissed and wouldn’t work so hard to make their meal as nice after getting stiffed on a tip the next time I was their server. All the staff knows who tipped and who made you work for a very measly tip, no matter how hard you tried to make their meal as friendly and as enjoyable as you possibly can. When a bill is a few hundred and they had you hopping for several hours, you usually expect a decent tip, and when there isn’t we remember. No one wants to deal with needy, nasty people that don’t tip, especially those old guys that thinks its cute that a slap on the rump is a good idea. Coffee pot has a tendency to slip a bit while I did a refill, nothing like hot coffee on the lap to settle someone down. That said, if I had a lousy night or didn’t provide my table with good service or the meal was a disaster, you know when your having a bad night. Sometimes it took a while for me to go from school work to work, and if I didn’t make their meal enjoyable, I didn’t deserve the tip. We just get mad when we do a good job and get stiffed.

    • Liz

      It is the status quo because our patrons technically pay our wages. On a good night I can make $21/hour in tips and nearly 3 times that amount an hour on holidays like Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day. Because we are receiving this kind of compensation, the company we work for is not required to pay us anything more than $2.13/hr. However, if there is a week where for some reason what I made in tips does not equal the general state minimum wage ($7.50/hr where I’m from) then the restaurant is required to make up the difference so that legally I did make at least minimum wage.

  • Lavina Lavina

    I have never been chased for not offering a tip or even asked for an explanation. I usually tip but if the service sucks I don’t in which case I get an ugly look which I give back and that is the end of it.

  • Jamie

    I have never heard of someone chasing down someone for not tipping. They may complain like crazy to their coworkers, though. If you skive off from the bill, however….that is different (It is, sadly, more common than you think).

    • LMJ

      I have heard of servers chasing down a non-tipper. Used to be a hostess. You hear all kinds of stories.

    • John Cowan

      I’ve had waiters chase after me twice; once because I forgot the tip and once because I hadn’t paid the bill. In the first case, I was having a heavy conversation with a co-worker and simply forgot it. I apologized profusely. The second time, after an hour wait for the food on a tight deadline and no servers in sight, I simply left the restaurant. I told the waiter who caught up with me several blocks away that I wasn’t paying for food I never received.

  • Ellie

    For anyone who is confused by why it’s like that–history. Servers were always paid poorly, but to show your appreciation for someone who is particularly good at what they do, people would tip. Because it became so prominent, we structured our minimum wage to accommodate that. Restaurant owners like it because it makes prices seem better when it’s not included in the initial bill and takes some added financial stress off them since owning a restaurant is so difficult these days anyway, and customers like it because you can pay based on your service (or what you have in your wallet, if you’re a cheapskate).To be fair though, I’ve never been chased down for a bad tip. They aren’t mandatory and it’s poor etiquette to question what you’ve received in tips. Really though, while people balk at the idea of only making that much, at a mid-level restaurant you’ll often make more than people who work for minimum wage in untipped industries.

  • randi.

    If a server depends on me that much for their living, they can provide good service and get a better tip. I have worked in the service industry for seven years and do not accept sub-par service. If I receive it and it is something the server had power over, I leave no tip and make sure to speak with a manager. If I can provide stellar service at my job, where I am not allowed to accept tips, they can provide me the same service.

  • mist

    Tipping in (some parts of the) US is different to much of the rest of the word.
    Most of the world it’s “To Insure Preferred Service” or as a gratuity for above average (read excellent) service.

    In the US, many places the business provides the product, the equipment and the materials. Service is provided by staff who are paid what should be considered a retainer fee. Staff who compete to work there, do so as separate contractors (sometimes on that retainer). Your tip is the pay for their service. Some even have to split their tips with the establishment as a cost of being able to operate out a the premises/with the company name.

    rule of thumb from what I can gather is any time you get personalised service, you should pay the service person for their work.

  • louise

    Tipping is an anacronous minefield and ought to be abolished.

  • Liz

    If you don’t tip and you come in again, be sure that we will remember you and let whoever your current server is know that you don’t tip so don’t do anything too over the top when it comes to serving you. However, if the service was absolutely horrid, as in some of the worst service that you have ever received, leave a nickel. In the service industry this is an insult and will let your server know that the service the provided was less than subpar.

  • nolson

    Tip your movers. Seriously. Average is around $7/man/hour.

  • Guinnesses

    If you can’t afford to tip, then don’t go out to eat at a dine in restaurant. End of story. By not tipping, or thinking that 5 – 10 percent is an adequate gratuity, you’re wasting your server’s time that he or she could be spending on someone else that appreciates and understands the hard work they’re putting in to make sure that you have a good dining experience.

    Of course I cannot justify tipping someone if the service was truly horrible, as not every server is going to be the best server you’ve ever had or even good for that matter. But if drinks are always full, there were no mistakes with the food and they managed to keep a smile on the whole time or even engage in conversation, then there isn’t any real reason for you to leave less than 20 percent of the bill. It’s atrocious that some people are taught that $5 is a reasonable tip no matter what the check amount is. I’ve seen servers left $5 on $200 when absolutely nothing was wrong and that table needed something different brought to them very frequently.

    As a server I will warn you all of this: We remember the good tippers, but we remember the bad ones just a little bit better. If you notoriously go into the same restaurant leaving sub-par or zero tip, we will give you sub-par or zero service. And if you just do that at every restaurant you go to, I hope you can live with the fact that you’re a scumbag and every waiter you stiff wishes many bad things upon you.

    On topic: I understand that it’s a different situation for many foreigners. I can forgive ignorance of American tipping customs but also recommend you ask prior to paying your bill, or look over the bill to see if the tip is included in payment.

  • willy

    Tipping should not be a percentage of the meal rather a fixed amount based on number of people in your party.
    I don’t pay a percentage if I order expensive food, the waiter does the same amount of work regardless of what I eat. The restaurants are required to pay minimum wage if the waiter doesn’t earn enough in tips.
    I think about the fact that the farmers that grew the food the servers carry to a table work a million times harder for less income. They don’t get rewarded for shoveling shit with a happy face they do their job.

  • Daemon

    What I learned is if they bring you your meal, drinks, etc. you tip 15% plus or minus depending on service. If it is one of those serve yourself but we will take care of your dishes never tip. Anywhere else dependiing on service given and amount of effort tip something.