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Dining Out Frugally Without Stiffing On the Tip

We don’t eat out much, and when we do we often order the lower-priced entrees (unless it’s something we’ve really been wanting). However, I feel very strongly about tipping properly.

Some people don’t tip very much, but I see the tip as part of the cost of the food. Restaurants don’t have to pay their workers the average minimum wage (though there is a minimum wage for restaurants too) because we’re expected to pay part of the wage directly. While it started out as something voluntary, the minimum wage requirements make it an part of life, of being a decent person who pays for things.

When I read about frugal dining on blogs, I often see at least one ranting comment from a disgruntled server who’s angry with cheap people.

What I tip tends to depend on the service, but I don’t think I’ve ever tipped less than 15%. For me, that’s mediocre/bad service. Because the person still brought me my food, right? (if wrong, feel free to adjust that) And the food’s price doesn’t include their basic wages.

Anyway, I’ve come up with a strategy which lets me tip generously without spending more. It’s all in budgeting ahead of time.

When I go out, I come up with a specific number we’re going to spend. For the PF blogger get-togethers, for instance, I budget about $10. As a general rule, I order something that comes to $4-6. Sodas are free, since it’s happy hour. But I tip based on what I might otherwise have ordered…or what the soda would have cost.

So my tip is that remaining $4-6.

To figure it out ahead of time you need to have a good idea of the average price of whatever it is you’re ordering. And what you really will order. Then budget at least 20% of that for the tip. If the service is good, give the remainder of your budgeted amount…whether it comes to exactly 20% or 25% or even 40%.

If you can’t afford the 20%, then figure out what you can do to change it. Maybe plan to get something less expensive. Maybe put it off.

Now getting into my own philosophy: Beyond the basic 20%, I think that when you’re ordering something particularly cheap, you should tip based on the average price (if possible). Like getting water and the cheapest entree…then tip based on a slightly more expensive entree and perhaps a soda. They’re still putting in the same effort as they would with something more expensive.

This philosophy has some pitfalls…particularly if your server treats you poorly because they figure you’re cheap (less expensive meal) and therefore you’re not going to tip them. Still, you could always still tip them and challenge their assumptions.

Of course, this is just my philosophy. It’s more about creating some good in the world than strict economics. But what’s wrong with being a good human?

No matter how you handle eating out, just remember to plan for a 20% tip. If you can’t afford it, then you can’t afford to eat there. Pick someplace cheaper or get fast food instead. Or put it off until you can snowflake in a little more money.

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Vered - MomGrind May 12, 2008 at 11:45 am

I used to be a waitress, so obviously I agree – tipping SHOULD be viewed as part of the price of the food. Unless service is really bad.

K. May 12, 2008 at 12:14 pm

The only instance when it’s OK to tip poorly is when you never intend to come back to a restaurant. If you do dare return, the waitstaff WILL spit in your food.

j/k. But, if you’re a rude customer, than the business probably doesn’t want you as a customer.

deepali May 12, 2008 at 1:27 pm

I strongly dislike cheap tippers. Recently, I discovered that *I’m* a cheap tipper! Not at restaurants – I’m good about that (and have even converted my parents). But I tip cheaply for delivery! I never realized.

Anyway, I like your thought process here. I confess that I don’t budget for meals out, but I will never stint on the tip. I might just have to cut back elsewhere to make up for spending more than I expected.

My only exception is for poor service. But, I don’t stay mum and tip badly. I let them know at the time that service is bad, so they have an opportunity to change it (and earn the better tip). I find that if I’m nice about it, they are too. In the end, we all win.

This weekend, I went to DC’s most expensive restaurant. The service was beyond outstanding, and it occurs to me that sometimes, the problem isn’t the server, but the set up of the restaurant (ie, too many tables, etc). So you can’t blame the server for that! Instead, you tip the server based on his/her handling of circumstances and then speak to the manager.

And a tip to servers – a smile goes a long way in fixing any unintended bad stuff! 🙂

Jennifer May 12, 2008 at 3:19 pm

My kids do the book it program through Pizza Hut, which means the older 2 get free personal pan pizzas. So for the 6 of use to eat, we only pay for 1 large pizza, we drink water. I always feel that we sat there for 1 hour and the waitress worked just as hard for us as she would have if we had order drinks and 2 large pizzas. I always tip extra to account for this. I don’t want to punish the servers because I am using coupons.

Serendipity May 12, 2008 at 4:28 pm

Agreed! I tip on the average price of dinner and drinks plus the amount of time spent at the table. If the place is packed and you’re lingering, you’re costing a server money, so pad the tip generously. I figure, if I can’t afford a few extra dollars to be civil and do the right thing, then I shouldn’t be eating out anyway.

If nothing else, tip generously for the sakes of all the spouses, children, and roommates of servers–they don’t want to have to hear about what a terrible tipper you are for 20 minutes that evening! Hmmm—can you tell my best friend is a server? 🙂

Aryn May 12, 2008 at 4:49 pm

I’m with you on tipping at least 15%, even though servers do receive the full minimum wage in California (not the server minimum in other states). I’ve never been a server, bu my best friend has, so I know what they go through.

I usually tip at least 15%. If someone goes out of their way to deal with my food intolerances, they get at least 20%.

Karen May 12, 2008 at 6:26 pm

I always tip really generously. I’ve been known to tip 50% if the service is really great. But most of the time, it’s not, especially if I’m eating alone. I don’t eat out enough to be a “regular” anywhere, but I try to eat at less busy times and I never hog the table. But if I go in alone and order a reasonably priced entree, but no appetizer, no alcohol, no soda, I will inevitably be treated terribly, i.e. cold food thrown in front of me, no refilled water even if I ask nicely, I have to ask over and over for the check, etc. I still tip decently, but it’s made me reluctant to go out at all. (I’ve tried complaining to the manager but they don’t seem to care much either.) Hey, it’s better for my wallet to only eat out once or twice a year.

Mark May 12, 2008 at 6:36 pm

We are regulars at a couple of different breakfast fare restaurants. We tip a mininum of 15% as the service and the food is always excellent.

The service or food would have to be pretty lousy for me not to tip at all. I think I’ve only ever done that one time in my life.

Andrea May 12, 2008 at 7:12 pm

The only time I don’t tip is when the waitstaff is terrible, which unfortunately has been happening at one of my group’s fave pubs more and more lately (they switched the regular Tuesday night staff who was always great, and knew us, to different people every week)

Last week, I joined the group a little later than usual along with a friend and the waiter walked by us at least 4 times before we finally had to flag him down to order drinks. He never came by the rest of the night unless we specifically stopped him, and then he would generally get the person’s oder and walk away again before checking to see if the rest of the table wanted anything. I WAS going to order food, but he never bothered to ask me or anyone else if we wanted anything despite the empty glasses all over the table.

And the few food orders he did take, were almost all incorrect. I don’t think anyone at the table gave him a tip that night.

hank May 12, 2008 at 7:30 pm

Additionally, if you’re visiting the place regularly and are tipping poorly, I’m sure it’ll be noticed and you’re going to get worse service each time. It’s just the nature of the beast. I agree that tipping well for GOOD service is needed. If the service is bad, that’s a different story and may backfire if I plan on coming back again to the restaurant. 😉

Susan May 12, 2008 at 8:21 pm

I like your strategy, especially having a plan. If you plan ahead of time, you can leave room for a decent tip.

(And avoid the waitstaff from spitting in your food!) 😉

Funny about Money May 12, 2008 at 9:46 pm

Right on! In our parts, restaurants are not required to pay minimum wage (and so don’t–far from it). The only way servers earn enough to pay the rent is from tips.

That said, people who work in decent restaurants and are good at their jobs can actually do fairly well. One of my RAs earns more than our week’s pay in four hours of waiting tables at a chain restaurant. And a good friend sent herself through the BA and through graduate school–no debt!–by waiting tables.

Another circumstance where you might want to leave an extra-generous tip is when you sit around and talk instead of getting out of the way for the next set of customers. If you occupy the person’s table through the equivalent of two sittings, you should pay her or him twice the standard tip for your meal.

fathersez May 12, 2008 at 11:13 pm

In our part of the world, tipping is quite optional. In the more expensive restaurants and hotels, this habit has crept in for quite some time. I think this is more of locals following Western practices.

But at the cheaper restaurants etc., no one tips, and when they do, it is seen as a habit of a rich guy.

Caro May 13, 2008 at 12:24 am

Also, I’ve heard that some restaurants report estimated tips to the IRS as part of taxes so if you don’t pay something, you might actually cost the person money.

I’ve actually stopped going out with people who tip poorly.

Here is my least favorite scenario…
A group of people go out to eat and at the end of the meal everyone throws in money for the meal. One person decides that it will be easier to pick up the check with their credit card (they need the cash, or for various other reasons). They take all the money and then look at the bill and decide how much to tip the wait staff based on the bill, not what people put in. Now, sometimes if people have done poor math the person doing this actually makes up for others in the group by paying more than their fair share. However, the times that drive me nutty are when said person decides to tip 15% (for example) when collectively the group has given more like 25-30%.

Drives me absolutely nutty. The person doing the credit card thing ends up shorting the wait staff and basically not paying very much for their own share. And they make it all sound so logical.

Anitra May 13, 2008 at 8:13 am

Caro: your friends sound better than mine – I or my husband usually end up as the person putting it all on plastic, and we ALWAYS end up paying more than our meal(s) cost. We always tip 20% for average service, though, and in the above situation, we leave the tip in cash rather than adding it to the CC bill – I know servers would rather get cold hard cash in their pocket.

mrsmicah May 13, 2008 at 8:47 am


I was recently the one who got to put it on plastic (at the last PF blogger meet up). And I spent some time figuring out a “good” tip and then figuring out how much everyone had put in and what they were collectively tipping. In the end, I was able to add my $10, as planned for a hearty tip (probably something like 60%) of my own. But it was a little stressful coming up with the numbers. I guess some people don’t want to do that.

Christine May 13, 2008 at 10:09 am

JJ is not a waiter but he does work for tips, selling food & drinks at a sports centre. One time, somebody tipped him ten cents. Ten cents!

He says he’d rather get no tip at all than an insultingly low tip.

Grey May 13, 2008 at 11:06 am

I think I tipped poorly for a while because I didn’t know what the standard tips were for certain jobs. These days, I try to do 20%.

I found a good list of standard tipping rates a

Momma @ Tales From The Road Less Traveled May 13, 2008 at 11:16 am

I used to waitress as well, so I know what it’s like to have cheapskates. I do my best to tip well if the service is good. I tip between 15% and 20% of the total, as a general rule. If we take up the table for longer than expected, I’ll tip more because we’re keeping the server from making more income off that table. I definitely feel strongly about tipping for service though, so if I get crappy service, I only tip 10%.

plonkee May 13, 2008 at 4:00 pm

In the UK, I’m a generous tipper – I always tip at least 10%. I appreciate that that’s not considered generous in the US (and do modify accordingly when I’m there). Tipping is *very* culture specific as fathersez said – in some places it’s actually insulting to leave a tip.

mrsmicah May 13, 2008 at 4:14 pm

@plonkee, good point. The evolution of tipping in America is very culturally specific. Some places I’ve eaten at in Europe had a “table fee” which apparently covered service as well (or so I was told by my hosts).

I can see, too, how offering to pay more than is required could seem like condescension.

Melissa May 13, 2008 at 5:05 pm

If I go someplace that’s cheap, like this really good Mexican restaurant near where I work, I make sure to never tip under $2 for my meal, even if that’s much more than 20%. Besides, the places I usually go like that have good service and having a few people at a table makes the ~$2 tip per person work out well.

Mrs Micah's Mom May 13, 2008 at 8:24 pm

I once tipped a taxi driver 10 cents because that was the last money I had. That was long ago, when 10 cents was worth more, but the driver was still insulted.

guinness416 May 13, 2008 at 10:10 pm

That’s the way to do it, it is absolutely part of the cost of eating/drinking out. And people other than the waiter will judge you if you cheap out on the tip – as I’ve commented before, I had a boss who did the “dumping a few pennies in an empty beer glass” thing when he took us out to lunch one time, and he lost the respect of a lot of his staff that day. He should have manned up and complained about the service (after all best case scenario is you have the meal comped and the next table gets better treatment), but many people inexplicably prefer the passive aggressive approach.

I’m from a no-tip culture and have a hard time imagining a (food/booze service) situation where it would be insulting to tip the person serving you. I bartended through college at home in Ireland, and the rare tippers – even the sleazy sales guys propping up the bar – literally made our night.

Megan May 13, 2008 at 10:57 pm

Stingy tippers drive me crazy! (And I have been in Caro’s situation before, which I think is just incredibly wrong.)

I have never been a waitress, but that’s because it’s something I know I would be horrible at. And I’m fairly impatient with rude people, so I’m pretty sure I’d end up getting fired as well. (I’ve done other, equally unpleasant jobs to make up for that, of course.) I think it’s because of the fact that it’s a job I wouldn’t want to have that I’m so content to tip and to tip well.

This reminds me of that old story about the kid who goes to the ice cream shop with a handful of change and asks how much a sundae is, and the waitress tells him it’s 50 cents, and then he asks how much plain ice cream is and she says 35 cents, and he looks at his money and says he’ll have the plain. And he eats his ice cream and leaves, and once he’s gone, the waitress finds her tip on the table – 15 cents.

Tipping is part of the bill – not an option.

Michael May 14, 2008 at 1:43 pm

I tip 12-15%, 20% for good service and a complaint to the manager for bad service. Restaurant prices and recommended (by waiters) tipping percentages are both up, while good service and meal length are both down. I am considered cheap by some friends, but those friends are financially incontinent and afraid for their reputation. I have asked them how much would be enough, and they thought it was selfish to define enough. Something is wrong with our tip culture (literally, since we seem to worship the high tip.)

Flaime May 15, 2008 at 9:28 am

I’ve heard that some restaurants report estimated tips to the IRS as part of taxes

Restaurants are supposed to track individual server sales and presume that 8% is tips to be reported to the IRS.

I usually tip 15-20%. However, bad service will net as low as 8%. Really bad service will result in no tip. The restaurant manager is always informed for bad service.

Bad food will not affect the servers tip unless the server is unwilling to try and do something about it (goes back to bad service).

Flaime May 15, 2008 at 9:34 am

Something is wrong with our tip culture (literally, since we seem to worship the high tip.)

Or maybe the problem with our culture is that we allow a law to not be applied to one entire sector of our people (minimum wage) necessitating that their living comes from the largess of strangers who, more often than not, do not value their labours but only provide the supplementary income they are expected to provide through peer pressure and threatened ostracization? Of course, any culture that thinks miserliness is frugality (as America’s does) has some problems in the first place.

Michael May 15, 2008 at 11:22 am

Flaime, I don’t understand. Americans tip more than almost anyone in the world and few waiters earn less than minimum wage after tips. If we think miserliness is frugality, we’re not frugal.

Kristen May 16, 2008 at 9:30 am

Great post! I agree, and I’m glad to see that you and so many others (based on the comments) feel the same way. I’ve never been a server, but I appreciate how hard their jobs can be.

My local paper recently had an article about how people are still treating themselves to luxuries like dining out, manicures, etc., but cutting back on tips since finances are tight. I think that is so wrong. If you can afford a manicure, you can afford to leave the proper tip, or you should stay home.

Jane May 17, 2008 at 11:11 am

I am a server and since the economy has been slowing, fewer people are going out and those that do, want to be served but don’t want to pay for it.

When you stiff your server, she still has to pay the bartender who made your drinks and sometimes the person who brought your food or the host that sat you, and taxes on the tip the state assumes she got on your meal.

Thus, these people are costing their server money, and I didn’t go to work to pay to service you.

Melissa May 17, 2008 at 3:19 pm

Great article. I’ve been delivering pizza all through college, and I loath the cheap-tippers.

@Michael: My advise for you…if you are above tipping your servers what is fair, order for pickup so they may get a different, more appreciative, customer.

General advise/opinions for people ordering delivery:
– If you are going to stiff a driver completely, don’t do it more than once. We remember you and we enjoy delivering your pizza last and as cold as possible.
– Don’t every say, “sorry I didn’t have enough for a tip,” while paying $50 for pizzas. We know you’re full of it. You could have ordered one less topping or side item and paid the poor driver who had to lug your food up four flights of stairs in the 90 degree heat after maneuvering their car around terrible drivers to get there.
– And lastly, the delivery charge is not a tip. I repeat, the delivery charge is not a tip. The drivers only get a small portion of this…as gas reimbursement for driving their own cars to deliver you food.

All that said, I would like to thank everyone who tips fairly. We appreciate you, and remember your face/address when you become a regular and offer wonderful service accordingly.

AndyS May 20, 2008 at 9:21 am

Great post. Inspired me to write one about this topic and my tipping philosphies. My views are a bit different :

1. Where a service is provided that meets expectations I will tip around 15% to the total bill amount.

2. If the service is excellent and above the norm, I will tip closer to 20% of the total bill.

3. If the service is really bad, yet they still expect a tip, my tip will be $0 (perhaps leave a penny to let them know I did not forget). That’s right – I will not tip for bad or well below par service. If this is automatically added to the bill I will ask them to remove it because of the poor service.

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