Updated on 12.19.06

The Simple Dollar’s Detailed Tipping Strategy

Trent Hamm

Inspired by Personal Finance Advice’s discussion of tipping, I felt that it was appropriate to discuss my own strategy for tipping, which revolves around one simple tenet: good service is the reason for tipping. I also don’t like to multiply on the fly in restaurants, so I use a strategy that minimizes the need to multiply.

First of all, no matter what, I tip 10% as a baseline. There could be some challenge in the life of the server that you don’t know about or any number of things going on that you are unaware of. A tip less than that is rude, particularly if you are a regular customer at a particular restaurant. Calculating this is easy: just move the decimal place to the left once.

If I am a regular customer, I automatically tip 5% more than that. A regular customer often develops a reputation at that establishment, and I wish to have a positive reputation as a customer. I want the servers to give preferential service to me because I’m a solid-to-strong tipper. To do this, I tack on an extra 5% to my tip by default. This 5% is easy to approximate; just give $1 per $20 on your order.

If the server performs service that I notice as being good, I tip an extra 5%. This usually means that the waitress was very unintrusive, silently and automatically refilling drinks without interfering. If I can’t remember any issues and I can’t remember the server interrupting except to get orders or bring food, this means that the service was good. Again, I just approximate by adding an extra dollar for every $20 on the order.

If the server performs above and beyond the call of duty, I tip an extra 10%. This usually involves handling some sort of disaster with grace, like a recent restaurant visit in which I accidentally dropped a full glass of lemonade on the tiled floor. Not only did the waitress handle this all gracefully, she personally mopped it up while we continued a dinner conversation. She earned a nice tip that day. Again, just move the decimal place once to the right.

If the server is new and performs adequately, I tip an extra 5%. Being a server at a busy restaurant is quite challenging, so when a new server is just getting the hang of it but still manages an adequate job, I give a little more. Again, I just approximate by adding an extra dollar for every $20 on the order.

If something beyond the pale happens, the sky’s the limit. When I was three, I once threw up on a waitress. She laughed it off. My parents tipped her 100%. She deserved it. When something crazy happens, don’t be afraid to tip a lot, especially if you plan on returning to the restaurant in the future.

Once you have these numbers, just add them up rounded to the nearest dollar and call it an adequate tip. I find this strategy works very well, particularly if you visit a restaurant regularly. We visit a couple local family dining chains and have had regular repeat waitresses; when this happens, we always get great service.

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  1. Terry says:

    How about if you stay at home and have food delivered to your door?

    I delivered pizzas for several years and was amazed that people regularly tip in restaurants, even for poor service, while they rarely tipped for delivery.

    Food deliveries are often made under adverse driving conditions (bad weather = people stay home rather than dine out) such as rain, darkness, snow and ice, not to mention the higher proportion of drunks on the road at night).

    Most pizza drivers work hard to get you a good hot product in a timely manner.

    So why don’t people tip them?

    And how much would be an appropriate tip?

  2. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    I usually tell pizza delivery drivers to keep the change, for what it’s worth. It’s hard to judge the service (is the pizza still hot? etc.) with such a quick transaction, though very quick delivery usually merits a bonus from me.

  3. lofty says:

    So what about the cooks, who are the ones actually doing the work, creating the meal that you are about to eat? They study/apprentice for years, yet receive nothing extra, but someone occupying a job that requires little skill and zero education deserves a bonus for walking to your table, saying hello and then bringing your food back?

    Do you tip at retail stores? You know, when someone goes in to the stockroom for you, brings out the item you were looking for, in your size. Or what about the person who opens the change room door for you? The person who so gently and delicately places your items in the bag for you to carry out?

    Surely, these people are as deserving of a supplement to their equally meagre income as the waiter/waitress!

    Yes, waiting tables is stressful. I did it for about eight months while in school. The tip money was nice, surely, but that just meant that I could afford to sponsor some animals at the local Humane Society.

    Tipping, and the expectation of tipping, is complete BS.

    To those of you out there who will complain about how little you make per hour – get a better job! Or perhaps develop/learn some skills that are useful, so that you are compensated fairly by your employer, rather than expect your customers to bear the responsibility of paying you properly.

    This sense of entitlement must stop.

    Tipping is keeping these people underemployed, and allowing the owners to get away with poorly paying their employees, and pocketing the difference.

    If an owner comes on to say that there is no other way for her/him to run their business, then it’s time for you to find another business.

  4. Michael says:

    Once I ordered sushi in for four, and I tipped the guy $3, which I thought was a pretty good tip for delivery service… and he had the nerve to ask me for 15%. Is it just me, or is that ludicrous?

    I wasn’t too rude back, but I asked him if he would like to come in and serve us.

  5. lazlo pink says:

    in response to lofty,

    i don’t know where you spent your few months in the hospitality industry but you didn’t learn very much from the experience. can you still wrap a quarter-pounder? i’ve worked in the food service business for more than twenty years. i’ve worked every job there is in a restaurant. in every place i’ve worked, servers are required to tip out the back of house. here in ontario, canada servers make about a dollar an hour less than minimum wage. tipping is a merit based income supplement and incentive.

    as for my “little skill and zero education”. well, when you choke on the freedom fries you stuff down your gullet, i’ll forget that silly first aid and cpr stuff. when you can’t pronounce the name of your wine, when choosing an astringent white to accompany your lemon and tarragon glazed roughy, i’ll forget to nudge you toward a complimentary sauvignon with a hint of fruit and rounder bouquet. when you don’t know where to find the local night life, fair trade coffee or directions to the theatre, well sorry, i just ain’t edjimacatered. please.

    you seem to have missed the real work that goes into service. my daily routine running front of house in a cafe, includes a full schedule of invisible (to you at least) work including cleaning, stocking, inventory, and prep for he next shift. we are responsible for cash, security and face to face public relations. we organize a frantic campaign to keep your fat ass happy, we do it fast and we work hard and smart. a busy server processes more information than most ceos do in a day. and we have to smile and remain pleasant while we do it.

    “get a better job” you say. well, i love my work. i don’t reap the material rewards and benefits that a cubicle monkey gets but i take part in the life of my community. my job also affords me other freedoms. my skills are totally portable. there is always work in my field. i network like crazy, as a working artist, a sideline my lowly role allows, i have access to hundreds of regular customers who take an interest in what i’m up to.

    your basic understanding of the economics of restaurants is false. food service is highly labour intensive. staff turnover is high, good staff is hard to find and harder to keep. profit margins are low and much of the inventory is volatile. there are very good reasons why the mojority of new restaurants don’t make it. increasing server wages to appease your peculiar notion of “entitlment” would be a cost passed directly back to you, the smug doofus at the corner table. your food would cost more, your drinks would cost more and you’d have nothing to bitch about. right? because you’d be free of the burden of gratuity, the loathesome bugbear of civility and culture.

  6. My problem is that I tend to undertip. So whenever we’re out, I just ask my wife to leave the tip. Everyone wins, the server gets what they’re due, I don’t fret over spending more money, and my wife get to practice her math :)

  7. Springs1 says:

    “automatically refilling drinks”

    I personally DON’T like that. I have switched soft drinks before, so I’d MUCH RATHER be ASKED. To me, it’s NOT “INTRUSIVE” to try to please “ME”, because quite honestly, they aren’t 100% SURE you want another refill. The server is just “ASSUMING” that. I ABSOLUTELY HATE ASSUMPTIONS, especially when they are wrong. When they are wrong, they’ve wasted time for me, because instead of either getting the drink I did want to order or to get the check instead of a refill, they wasted their time getting the drink for NOTHING. If you feel it’s “INTRUSIVE” to have a server “ASK” you than you need to get TAKE-OUT, because the server has a JOB TO DO. They have NO CLUE if you want another refill. There are SOME people out there that DECLINE refills or that maybe would like something else. My husband has even switched from coffee to diet coke. I can’t believe you think servers should possibly WASTE VALUABLE TIME bringing refills that are possibly UNWANTED. I know if I was a server, I’d NEVER just bring something to a table that was NEVER ordered. The customer orders ONE soft drink, NOT the next refill intially when they first order, so when a server just brings another refill without asking, that’s “ORDERING” for me. I HATE when people try to order for me. They have NO RIGHT to do that. I am the customer, I have EVERY RIGHT to order for MYSELF. When a server comes to find out first if I want a refill, to me that’s EXTRA POINTS in the tip for trying to PLEASE ME, instead of assuming, wasting time, and it also shows they aren’t so lazy they can’t come by my table first to find out. I personally don’t care for automatic refills. I find it to be RUDE that a “STRANGER” of all people is doing the ordering for me.

    “First of all, no matter what, I tip 10% as a baseline. There could be some challenge in the life of the server that you don’t know about or any number of things going on that you are unaware of.”

    What if you knew 100% for sure they overcharged you intentionally to pad the bill let’s say $5? Would you tip them in a situation like that? I wouldn’t, I’d STEAL from them just as they STOLE from me. If it’s unintentional, but no apology, they would get nothing still for not be nice enough to at least say they are sorry. I’m sorry, but I 100% DISAGREE “NO MATTER WHAT” they should deserve a tip. If they steal from me, that’s not only ILLEGAL, but just MORALLY WRONG. NOT EVERY SERVER DESERVES A TIP. I’ve had 7 mistakes from a waitress one time about a year ago and she was even rude enough to kiss her boyfriend while I was telling my order which she got wrong OF COURSE, sorry, but she got STIFFED. TIPS SHOULD BE EARNED AND TIPS SHOULD BE GIVEN TO PEOPLE THAT DO RIGHT BY OTHERS, NOT PEOPLE THAT STEAL! I normally tip 20%-28% for great service, but when the service is horrible, you bet I have no problems with stiffing. I treat others the EXACT WAY they treat me. Treat me with RESPECT and I’ll TREAT YOU BACK WITH THE SAME RESPECT.

    “This usually means that the waitress was very unintrusive, silently.”

    I 100% agree with not being a chatty server. I do feel customers should be able to just tell your order or whatever request you want instead of having a conversation with them. I don’t feel it’s “GOOD” service to have a server chit-chat instead of getting what you ordered, because honestly, MOST “GOOD” servers don’t have much time to do that, because they are doing their JOB, NOT PLAYING AROUND. I just would rather be asked or me ask for things. My husband and I have been delivered the check when we weren’t ready for it, because the servers “ASSUMED” we were done. Just because we ordered a dessert doesn’t mean I don’t want a mixed drink from the bar after the dessert. I truly HATE when servers “ASSUME” things. I’ve had ordered 2 sides of extra bbq sauce with ribs at Bennigan’s and the waitress delivered my ribs DRY. Instead of asking me if she felt confused when I ordered, NO, she waited until the plate was in her hand to ask me. She “ASSUMED” I wanted the bbq sauce on the side. At Bennigan’s, they somehow cook the bbq sauce on it, so she took my ribs back to the kitchen so the cooks could make it with bbq sauce. Well, anyway, I NEVER said I didn’t want bbq sauce on the ribs. After that situation, it’s RIDICULOUS, but, I am having to tell the server I want bbq sauce on the ribs even though the menu has the description and possibly a picture of it with bbq sauce, because servers are “ASSUMING” things they shouldn’t be. I ordered it just like this “2 extra sides of bbq sauce.” Considering I NEVER said I wanted the ribs dry or the bbq sauce “ON THE SIDE”, it boggled me that my ribs came out dry when she delivered the plate to me. My point is, I HATE ANY TYPE OF ASSUMPTIONS, because 9 out of 10 times, the server is WRONG!

  8. Teni says:

    We have a large family, and we found that some servers add a 15% tip without writing it on the ticket. It is simply added at the register. So people unknowingly leave 15% on the table and are charged another 15% at the checkout.
    Last Sunday night we almost got suckered into leaving a $10 tip for $30 in food. Thankfully, I caught it at the last minute, but our friends that were with us were tricked into leaving 30% in tips. The service was okay, but nothing special. We also noticed several prices on the ticket were different from the menu, and we were charged $1.79 for a beverage we didn’t order or receive. (I always check my grocery receipts but didn’t think about it at restaurants before.)
    I had a little “discussion” with the manager at the checkout, but I don’t think I will ruin my Sunday by eating out again soon.
    For $40 I can buy steak and baked potatoes for 8-10 people.

  9. Leslie M-B says:

    Servers have it rough, wage-wise and environmentally. If they underperform, they get 15% from me. Otherwise, the minimum is 20%.

  10. guinness416 says:

    Yeah 10% as a baseline is way too low for me. As with Leslie above, we’re a 20% family in general, more if it’s a very small (less than 12 bucks or so) bill. I cannot abide cheap tippers with the sense of entitlement – I once saw an ex-boss tip loose change on a decent lunch bill, and not just that, he dropped them in a dirty pint glass. All respect for the man was gone from that day forward, no matter what. (And I know it’s a few months old but Laszlo’s takedown above is a beautiful sight to behold – well done Laszlo!)

  11. Nick says:

    I have absolutely no problem stiffing a waiter on a tip in certain situations. If I walk into a car dealership to buy a car, I will refuse to buy from a salesman that is obnoxious, rude, or offensive. I don’t want them earning a commission from me; they’ll still get paid their low hourly wage while bothering me. A waiter is trying to sell himself/herself to me; if they are rude or offensive, they will get blanked. They’ll still get their normal salary, and don’t forgot (as most people do) that if a waiter doesn’t make the equivalent of minimum wage through tips+hourly, their employer is required by law to make up the difference.

    That being said, decent service will always get at least 15% from me. I’ve only run across two situations in which the waiter earned his zero.

  12. r says:

    What about alcohol?

    I was taught that alcohol should not be included in the total used for calculating a tip. Few people today seem to follow this rule, however, and I worry that doing so then makes me seem really cheap. It can make a huge difference, though, especially when there are a couple of $7 drinks per person… thoughts?

  13. MJane says:

    I enjoyed this article on tipping. I’ve been delivering pizza for the past 5 years while I earned my degree, and more people need to know about tipping.

    In response to a previous commenter about their disgust in the “entitlement” servers/delivery people have in regards to tipping, we ARE entitled. Companies pay their employees less than minimum wage because they EXPECT their customers to tip. If you don’t want to tip, don’t dine in and don’t order delivery. Pick it up and don’t waste the time of someone who earns a living from tips.

    Also, Springs1’s comment depicts he/she is the type of rude person that a server will recognize as a non-tipper and not bother wasting energy on when they can give better service to tipping customers.

    I, myself, have a few regular customers who have always been rude and have never tipped. I always deliver the pizzas to my other, possibly-tipping, customers first and deliver theirs last. I’m hoping the rude people will get a cold pizza, have a bad experience and not order anymore. On the other hand, the really nice, tipping customers get their food as fast as possible.

  14. DDUCT says:

    I disagree with you MJane. Places like Dominos already have a “delivery charge” of $2-3.

    Also in response to your statement:

    “Servers/delivery people have in regards to tipping, we ARE entitled. Companies pay their employees less than minimum wage because they EXPECT their customers to tip.”

    See thats exactly the problem. Companies expect the customer to tip. WHY?!?!? If a company cant pay their employee a decent wage and still make a profit then it shouldnt be in business. Companies should never expect their customers to cover the cost of payroll its simply rediculous.

    I have travelled to many countries and many of them have customs of tipping a minimal amount and they don’t seem to have any problems. For example, in Spain it is unusual to tip more than 1-3 Euros for a sitdown meal no matter what the bill is. Also you NEVER tip bartenders. Instead they buy you a drink every 2 drinks you buy.

    Im also tired of waiters complaining about working hard and not getting paid. I work 40 hours a week in an office with a decent level of pay and my friend who works 26 hours a week waiting at a lowscale restaurant makes a decent amount more than me. I even know of waiters who make 6 figures so don’t tell me you are entitled to it. People at McDonalds serve you food and don’t get much.

  15. Mar says:

    I usually tip about 20%, rounded up. Yes, I was a waitress much earlier in my life. If my daughter orders off the kids menu, I’ll make it higher since the total cost is lower but the server had to work just as much. I try to always tip in cash, even if I’m charging it, so the server doesn’t have to wait to be paid.

    I have left a penny tip two times in the past 5-6 years. Once was for the waitress who said she’d be over to clean up the water spilled at our table and did come over – about 7 minutes AFTER I and the assistant manager took care of it. The waitress told me she had other work to do and her other customers were important, too. I tried to explain the difference between urgent and important, but it went over her head. The assistant manager gave us a gift certificate for a future visit.

    The second time was last December when every table near us that was served by a different waitress or waiter was getting food, drink refills, etc. Our twinky of a waitress couldn’t handle that, apparently. Some people got food, some not. I think she was spinning a roulette wheel on whose order to put in. It was NOT the kitchen’s fault. When I went over to ask when the food would be ready, she said she was getting the order together and I needed to learn to be patient. Uh, no, not really! It was a casual sit-down restaurant that normally delivered food about 15 minutes after it was ordered. We had ordered more than 30 minutes ago. The final straw was that after I turned and started back for the table, she ROLLED HER EYES AT ME! I put that in caps because my daughter and her two friends were laughing hysterically when I got back to the table. All three of them know how much I hate that! Yep, a penny tip for insubordination and general rudeness the entire evening.

  16. M.D.Weafer says:

    As a server at a semi-upscale restaurant, I’ve seen all types of customers come in, and can generally tell who’s a good tipper and who’s going to stiff me for putting too much ice in their glass or leaving a dirty spoon on the table.

    Bad tippers are generally easy to spot. They’re rude from the start, before I even have a chance to make an impression or screw up for that matter.

    What bugs me the most is when a customer considers the tip a commission on a sale. Yes, the tip is often based off of a percentage of the bill, but a server can do just as much work if not more for a table that splits a pizza.

    I’ve had groups of people come in and drink water and share a pizza or two, but run my ass off with minor requests. I always oblige and do so pleasantly. But at the end of the meal, since the bill was only $15 or $20, they leave me $3 or $4, when the table across the room ordered a bottle of wine and two steaks and left me $20, and I barely broke a sweat serving them.

    I’m not complaining about the hefty tip on the big bill, but I am saying the final amount due should not be the only judge of tip amount. I think Trent has a pretty good system, basing the tip off of performance.

  17. j&w says:

    I don’t believe for a single second you know “a lot of waiters who make 6 figures” DDUCT. I live in NYC, and have a number of inlaws who are skilled lifelong servers in high-end, pricy, Manhattan places who make nothing approaching that. As for using cultural differences as an excuse, this European has adapted happily to US customs in tipping and a million and one different areas. Hope you tip your cap to European superiority in the other areas too!

  18. JAS says:

    I waited tables for 9 years and made a decent living without a lot of time involved. But I could also tell the lunatics like spring1 that are just looking for the tiniest failure to stiff you. “I normally tip 20-28%…” I can almost guarantee that has never happened. Anyone so grossly offended by a refill is just looking for an excuse to leave that penny…which by the way I would have handed back to her…

  19. LIli says:

    Let me begin by saying Thanks to Trent for a great website!

    I have always had a problem contemplating tipping because it seems so unfair to tip for SERVICE based on the price of the FOOD. It makes absolutely NO sense to me. Let us consider this… “KissMyGrits” Flo, with three children to feed and no hubby, works at “Greasy Spoon Diner” near to her home so she can take the bus (public transportation). You can get the full course meal – soup, salad, entree, two side of veggies(which come in those tiny little bowls), limitless coffee and dessert for $10.99. Flo is neat and clean, polite, addresses me by name and is attentive. Off the top of her head, she knows all twenty pages of the diner menu. she can tell you about the ten specials, the fourteen desserts available and can describe how each food is prepared. Flo comes back and forth to the table more than 8 times, delivering all the individual courses, clearing plates and refilling coffee. I tip her 20% or about $2.50.

    “CollegeBoy” Curt works at the shi-shi bistro a block from his dorm. He wears black trousers and white shirt and does not know a Dom Perignon from a Perrier. He reads the four specials off a list in his binder. The appetizers are $10.99 and they charge to refill the coffee. I order a salad, entree and coffee for a total of $35. Curt has come to table exactly four times, he is reasonably pleasant and his clothes are clean. I tip Curt 20% or $7.

    So here is my problem… Flo has worked MUCH harder than Curt. She has walked three times more, carried three time more plates. Why should Curt get more money for delivering less, working less, just because the restaurant he works in is upscale? He did not pay for the ambiance. He does not pay the rent. He does not create the menus. He delivers food service. Just like Flo.

    One might say, “Well if you want to eat at a diner, great. Pay cheaper prices, but THAT is a red herring in this discussion. The issue is about service and work. One could say, “Well, Flo should go to college so she can work at the shi-shi restaurant.” THAT is simply ridiculous.

    I am at the point where I want to give a blanket rate for tipping. Every time you come to my table, I give you “x” amount. Period. No matter where I am, no matter what the price of food is…

    Please comment and tell me what you think…and answer why you think tipping based on the price of the food makes any sense.

  20. pam says:

    I wonder if every server hopes on my freedom fries while they scurry to keep my fat ass happy.

    As a cubicle monkey, I think I’ll keep my hard-earned wages to myself and dine out less often.

    I know, I know, that comment was directed at someone else. But it’s reality that many servers look at their customers that way. Check out tipping.org for a real eye-opener.

  21. Margaret says:

    I’m from a small town, and when I was growing up, there wasn’t much tipping. My family didn’t tip, and when I worked at the local restaurant at age 16, probably only 1 in 5 customers tipped, and certainly not 20%.

    Anyway, the way I used to tip was pretty much $2 per person served at the table (sounds cheap, but when I was growing up, spending more than $5 on your restaurant meal was extravagant). I might add or take away a buck or two, but that was my standard. Now, I tend to tip in the 15% range (roughly double the GST), and then I add a buck or two if something stands out. If we didn’t spend much on the meal but the server was good (e.g. brought crayons or remembered all the stuff that is supposed to be included in the kids meal or offered to clean up the toddler’s mess — I always pick up all the food off the floor or whatever, but I appreciate the offer — or did more than just take order, bring drink, bring food) I will make it a minimum of $5, even if the bill comes in under twenty bucks.

  22. Jim says:

    I’m betting that all these people who don’t believe in tipping properly don’t have the courtesy (or balls) to let their servers know of their intentions beforehand.

  23. Karen says:

    Nope, an employer is absolutely not required to make up the difference if a server is not making minimum wage. I’ve walked out of 6 hour shifts with $20 because it was slow and we have $1.99 breakfast specials that people think its ok to tip 50cents on, no matter how good the service. My wage was still $2.83 an hour before taxes were taken out. Needless to say, I got a second job to make up for these slow times…

  24. Sarah says:

    I’ve heard that tipping 10% in Des Moines was standard, but I found it hard to believe. In Chicago and the suburbs, tipping anything less than 15-20% is considered extremely rude.

  25. rodgerlvu says:

    Servers have it rough, wage-wise and environmentally. If they underperform, they get 15% from me. Otherwise, the minimum is 20%.

  26. tentaculistic says:

    “#22 I’m betting that all these people who don’t believe in tipping properly don’t have the courtesy (or balls) to let their servers know of their intentions beforehand.” Bwahahaha! That is so true! That mental image just makes my day. You’re right – the very worst tippers I experienced *always* were the rudest and most demanding customers.

    “#23 – Nope, an employer is absolutely not required to make up the difference if a server is not making minimum wage.” WRONG!

    Department of Labor website: “Question: Is it legal for waiters and waitresses to be paid below the minimum wage?
    Answer: According to the Fair Labor Standards Act… An employer must pay at least $2.13 per hour. However, if an employee’s tips combined with the employer’s wage of $2.13 per hour do not equal the hourly minimum wage, the employer is required to make up the difference.”

    Of course, anyone who’s worked tables would be very cautious about actually asking for that :) Right, like restaurant owners have never done *anything* illegal or unethical or downright douchey before! And like you’d still have a job afterward. And like you could afford the lawyer the lawsuit would require…

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