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Most Americans Only Tip 15% at Sit-Down Restaurants. Should You?

Most Americans Only Tip 15% at Sit-Down Restaurants. Should You?

Americans tend to have a wide range of opinions when it comes to topics like politics and economic policies. But there’s one thing many people can agree on — tipping culture has gotten out of control.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a push toward generosity for restaurant workers and food service professionals, and understandably so. Many of these people were risking their health to keep the public fed while earning minimal wages.

But nowadays, it seems like pretty much any time you go to the store and swipe your credit card at checkout, there’s a message on the screen asking how much of a tip you wish to add to the transaction. And it doesn’t necessarily matter whether you’ve been served a sandwich you watched someone make or handed a can of soda from a fridge — you might still be pressured to give some sort of tip, even in a scenario where it normally wouldn’t cross your mind.

Compounding the problem of constantly being asked to tip is that many Americans have no idea how to navigate these situations. Recent Pew data finds that only about one-third of consumers say it’s easy to know whether to tip in a given situation, and how much to tip. And as a result, workers who have historically relied on tips to stay afloat may be getting shortchanged.

Americans believe in tipping restaurant workers, but they’re not all tipping 20%

Restaurant workers have long been reliant on tips to manage financially. These workers are commonly paid below minimum wage and depend on consumers who dine out to supplement their earnings. (Whether this is a reasonable and fair system is a whole other discussion.)

The good news is that 81% of Americans say they always leave a tip when they’re served at a sit-down restaurant. But 57% of U.S. consumers say that they only tip 15% or less for an average restaurant meal. Just 25% of people say they tip 20% or more.

Part of the reason more people may now be tipping 15% at restaurants is that they’re being asked to tip so frequently. Before the pandemic, it would’ve been unusual to walk up to a kiosk, buy a bag of chips, and be asked to tip at checkout. These days, it’s becoming the norm. And so it’s easy to see why consumers may be tipping less generously at restaurants — they’re simply tapped out.

Aim to reward great service

If you’ve been struggling with the “when to tip and how much” conundrum, you’re not alone. So a good rule of thumb may be to focus your tipping dollars on people who go above and beyond to offer you great service.

If you’re at a restaurant where the server only checks in on occasion and doesn’t seem particularly friendly or helpful, then you may decide to leave them a 15% tip when the check arrives. But if you have a restaurant server who goes out of their way to be accommodating, and who’s constantly running over to make sure you have everything you need, then that may be a person who deserves a 20% tip — even if you’re then forced to say no to a tip the next time you buy a premade sandwich at a local deli.

Also, in that latter situation, recognize that just because you’re asked to tip on a screen doesn’t mean you have to. And you’re not a bad person if you say no to a tip when all the person behind the counter has done is hand you a packaged muffin.

Of course, if your personal finances are in good shape and feel inclined to tip in those situations, go for it. But the pressure shouldn’t be there. And it shouldn’t drive you to spend money you can’t afford to part with.

Some people will make the argument that if you can’t afford to tip on a store-bought coffee or sandwich, then you shouldn’t be treating yourself to those things. But that frankly, is bogus.

So if you’re feeling guilty about not tipping in that type of situation, think about it this way. If it weren’t for consumers like you supporting local small businesses, the person behind the counter wouldn’t have a job to begin with. While you may not be inclined to tip them 15% on a $4 muffin, by purchasing that muffin, you’re helping to keep them employed.

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