Commentary > Everyday Money
Tipping revisited: Readers respond
You said tipping despite bad service is a bad idea. And some defend the tip jar.
June 5, 2003: 5:11 PM EDT
By Jeanne Sahadi, CNN/Money Senior Staff Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - The column I wrote a few weeks ago on tipping was 655 words long. The total word count of reader responses was well over 26,000.

Some readers, thankfully, said they liked the column. Others simply wanted suggestions on how much to tip for services not listed on the tipping guide. A common question was how much to tip at an all-you-can-eat buffet, where the wait staff typically bring you drinks, not food, and clear your plate. According to, 5 to10 percent of the bill, excluding tax, is a fair amount, depending on how much work is done.

But a large number of readers thought I should have my head examined for suggesting that when an experience at a full-service restaurant is below par, customers should still leave the table server a 10 percent tip.

"You have to be crazy to tip someone 10 percent for bad service. No tip sends a message!" -- Margaret

"To tip a waiter or waitress who gives horrible service is not in line with the basic concept of capitalism. ... I think many people have come to believe that we 'owe' them a tip. ... We need to get back to basics and teach people they must WORK and EARN their money."-- Rick

I agree that one ought to earn one's pay. If a table server is hostile or makes no effort to correct serious mistakes (say, spilling a drink on you, not cleaning up the mess and then not refilling your glass, as happened to one reader) then there is no need to leave a tip and you ought to discuss that person with the restaurant's manager.

But barring such extreme cases, I still think the 10 percent suggestion is valid in most instances of disappointing service for three reasons.

Tipping guide
Tipping not optional

First, sometimes poor service is not the table server's fault. The kitchen might be slow, the place overcrowded, or management inept.

Second, often a portion of a table server's tips have to be given to other restaurant staffers, such as those who bus tables, and those folks may be doing their jobs well. So perhaps the solution is to make a point of tipping the bus person or bartender directly and bypassing the table server if you're truly miffed.

But in some restaurants, as one reader pointed out, the bussers, bartenders and hostesses are guaranteed the same cut of total sales every night, and table servers, regardless of how much they've been tipped, must pay their share.

"So when you don't tip a server you are actually forcing them to PAY 3 percent to 4 percent of your bill to serve you. It is one thing to stiff us, but it is a whole other thing to take money from us. Any decent human being should consider a 5 percent tip as stiffing ..." Jessica

Lastly, many table servers earn less than minimum wage and, whether you think it's fair or not, many depend on tips to make a basic living. It might be worth considering that your table server could be having an off-day. I don't know of anyone who hasn't had a bad moment at work, but in many jobs you're not going to get docked for being less than perfect on a Tuesday.

About that tip jar

When it comes to the increasingly ubiquitous tip jar, some readers took umbrage at my comments that but for the counter I could get my own coffee (or muffin or dry cleaning) and that I didn't consider it a convenience worth paying extra for.

"As a specialty coffee professional, I think you are off the mark. ... (G)reat effort goes into making espresso coffee. ... if you can jump behind the bar, calibrate an espresso machine for correct results, learn the art of cupping coffee (the first cousin of wine tasting and evaluation), learn machine maintenance, and then master the art of producing consistently excellent drinks in a high volume setting, then maybe I'll start to refuse the money offered to my tip jar." -- Hartwell

And, as one reader wrote, "Most Starbucks Coffee locations open their doors to the coffee-hungry world at 5:30 a.m. or earlier. I doubt you could be polite, prompt and perky at that hour, but I and my coworkers are, every day."

Fair enough. I can't make a good cup of espresso or, for that matter, a grande mocha-choca-chai-latte. (As for pleasant, I used to work at that hour and I thought I was pleasant enough. But ask Allen Wastler, who was overseeing my shift.) In any case, just because I or other customers don't possess the skills of the person behind the counter doesn't mean we should be obligated to tip every time those skills are employed.

I know that's not an entirely logical argument since that's exactly what we do for certain services (being served in a restaurant, getting a haircut, taking a cab, etc.). It would be tidy to say all jobs that get tips are low-paying without any benefits. While that's often true, it's not true across the board.

Tipping is not necessarily a fair system. If it were, then hotel housekeepers who clean up after you would be tipped more than the hotel doorman who hails your cab.

Perhaps the only explanation that justifies not tipping certain services -- and it's an unsatisfactory one -- is that American society has somewhat arbitrarily decided which jobs and situations are tip-worthy and which are not.

The fact is, there's still no social obligation to leave money in tip jars. Thank goodness. We have to draw the line, even a blurry one, somewhere.

If you disagree, then please feel free to send me a tip for writing this column.

Jeanne Sahadi writes about personal finance for CNN/Money. She also appears regularly on CNNfn's "Your Money," which airs weeknights at 5 p.m. ET. For comments on this column or suggestions for future ones, please e-mail her at  Top of page

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