‘I respect every profession equally, but I feel like so many people look down on me for being a waitress’: Americans are tipping less. Should we step up to the plate?
I read your article about tipping. I’ve been serving and bartending for almost 16 years now, since I was 18. Waiting tables is so hard on your body, and a lot of people don’t appreciate all of the work that we do. I respect every profession equally, but I feel like so many people look down on me for being a waitress, even though I went to college and prefer working in a restaurant. Not having insurance is probably the worst part. I basically work for my dental bills. But I like what I do.
The issue with your tipping advice is it is a one-sided social contract. The customer was never asked or involved with the decision. In fact, the “contract” states that tips were given for doing a good job. We are stuck with cheap service-industry owners who would rather put the responsibility on the wait staff and the customer than themselves, like most employers. The initial reason for tipping — to improve service — is gone. It is now an expectation. I tip because other people are shiftless and self-centered and it is the only way the wait staff gets paid.
Dear Waitress and Customer,
You’re both right.
Wait staff do an amazing job, and they are under-appreciated. While many white-collar workers complain and join the Great Resistance in refusing to go back to the office, millions of service workers are turning up for work every day and standing on their feet every day — serving, smiling, and all but bowing to customers every day in order to keep them happy, prevent them from writing a stinging Yelp review, and earn tips in order to pay rent and put food on their own table. Frankly, I don’t know how they do it day after day.
And right again: Tipping is a social contract, and it goes back to Tudor England, where masters would tip their serfs for a job well done. It has an ignominious history and has been used by employers and restaurant owners to exploit workers and pay them less.
But customers do have a choice. They can choose to eat at home, pick a restaurant that does not allow tipping — usually because they pay their staff more than a living wage — or go to a restaurant where they know there is a social contract that expects a tip, as a mark of good service and respect.
Service workers deserve our respect. They have put their lives on the line during the COVID-19 pandemic while some other workers — journalists included — have had the privilege of working from home. We should be lining up to thank every teacher, supermarket cashier, kitchen porter, restaurant server and hospital worker. They kept this country going during the darkest days of the pandemic. They kept the shelves stocked, helped people who were sick, and smiled at customers who needed some human contact during a period of terrible isolation.
That’s why I am disappointed by this recent report that says despite Americans’ vows to tip more during the pandemic, they did not follow through. Although many Americans vowed to become better tippers because of the financial impact of COVID-19 on service-industry employees, a poll of more than 2,600 adults released this week by CreditCards.com showed that they failed to follow through on that promise. What’s more, they actually tip less now than they did before the pandemic: 73% of Americans in the latest survey said they always tip at a sit-down restaurant, compared to 75% in 2021 and 77% in 2019.
“Tipping was already a confusing topic and the pandemic has made it even more so,” said Ted Rossman, an industry analyst at CreditCards.com. “While more than a third of Americans pledged to become better tippers in 2020 and 2021, it seems that sentiment has worn off. Inflation is cutting into consumers’ purchasing power and a tight labor market has left many service industry businesses understaffed and struggling to provide top-notch customer experiences.”
People are struggling to keep up with the rising cost of living. But if you can afford to eat out, you can afford to tip. I understand that Americans are trying to keep up with high prices, and the digital guilt tipping that pops up everywhere from the local coffee shop to the ice cream parlor certainly doesn’t help. For service staff in restaurants who rely on tips to supplement their income, it’s important to honor the understanding — or “social contract” — that tipping is part of that experience.
As this paper in the Journal of Economic Psychology points out, tipping is “puzzling” from the perspective of traditional economic models. “The usual assumption in economics is that people are selfish and they maximize utility subject to a budget constraint by consuming the goods and services that give them the highest utility.”
In other words, we get to go against those instincts when we tip, and give something back above and beyond the price of our meal. When a waiter or waitress comes into work, they may not feel like dealing with difficult or indecisive members of the public, but they rally and — in a sense — perform in order to make the customer’s experience a happy and memorable one. If you tipped 15% or 20% before the pandemic, given everything service staff have been through and knowing that the cost of living has risen for customer and waitstaff, don’t tip less than that now.
Americans are prepared to tip less now than they did before the pandemic in all venues covered by the CreditCards.com survey, except one. The share of U.S. adults who say they always tip has declined when it comes to sit-down restaurants, food-delivery services, taxi/rideshare drivers, hotel housekeepers, coffeeshop baristas and even takeout food. However, roughly two-thirds of Americans (66%) say they always tip their hairstylist/barber, compared to 63% in both 2019 and 2021. Assuming there’s more than a kernel of truth to that nugget, what can we glean from it? Perhaps that we like to tip when we are being pampered. That’s not a pretty picture.
Some of us have rolled out of bed and opened our computers throughout the pandemic, while many others commuted to on-site work, despite the risks of contracting COVID-19. The risk of death from the virus was far greater before vaccines became widely available, and affected some workers more than others. During 2020, working-age Americans who died from COVID-19 were more likely to be “never remote” blue-collar essential workers in service and retail sales who were required to be on-site and work full days around other people, this recent study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found.
Remember who showed up during the pandemic. Keep tipping.
Check out the Moneyist private Facebook group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.
The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.
By emailing your questions, you agree to having them published anonymously on MarketWatch. By submitting your story to Dow Jones & Co., the publisher of MarketWatch, you understand and agree that we may use your story, or versions of it, in all media and platforms, including via third parties.
‘I’m really upset’: I borrowed $10,000 from my brother with a $200-a-month payment plan. We fell out, and now he wants the money back in full
‘I am a 53-year-old single man with very little savings’: I want to take out a 30-year mortgage, but pay it off in 7 years. Is that possible?
I received a $130,000 inheritance from my mother. My husband says it’s mine to spend. What should I do with it — and why do I feel so guilty?