Don’t Feel Guilty Tipping Your Server 15%

I guess my first foray into the mail bag last week actually inspired a few more of you to write in.   Most of the letters received were from President Obama fans who wanted to opine on my recent take on the $75B mortgage rescue bailout.     Judging from the insults regarding my physical appearance (I knew I shouldn’t have put my photo on my personal info page), let’s suffice it to say that many of you disagreed with my point of view.     Sorry folks, but I have an obligation to call ’em like I see ’em.

And bald is beautiful, folks.   Don’t knock it until you tried it.   As they say, sticks and stones…

Fortunately, this week I did have one positive letter in the mailbag that was not from my Mom or Dad.   Naturally, I thought it would be just and appropriate to highlight that letter.   Not to mention less embarrassing.   😉

And with that, today’s letter comes from Courtney, who writes:

I absolutely love your blog!   I’m hoping that you can help educate people regarding tipping.   I am a waitress who works in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at a restaurant with a full bar.   I know that the economy is really in the dump right now, but I just can’t understand why my customers seem to have trouble grasping the standard 20 percent tipping rate for decent service.   My average tip rate continually hovers around 15 percent or so, but it can range anywhere between 10 and 20 percent.   I think customers need to stop penalizing their servers, don’t you?   If you can’t afford to tip 20 percent, then you should stay at home!   Thanks for listening, Len, and spread the word!!!   Twenty percent, please!!   Your servers need to make a living too, you know!

Hi, Courtney, and thanks for taking the time to write.   Since you are a self-declared fan, allow me to issue you your very own official Len Penzo dot Com fan number!   Your number is 3.

For the record, my Mom is 1 and Dad is 2.

Unfortunately, I have to take issue with your assertion that the standard tipping rate for “decent” service is 20 percent.   I assume that by “decent” service you mean “expected” service.   If that assumption is true,   I think you are absolutely crazy to assume that any server should expect a 20 percent tip for expected service.

Sorry, but I am just not going to endorse this “tip your server 20 percent for average service” campaign that is being pushed on diners by restaurants with increasing aggression.   What is going on?

As long as I can remember, the standard tip for expected service has been 15 percent.   Lately, though, I have begun to notice that, because of tip inflation, the majority of dinner bills now have “suggested tip” ranges for 15, 20 and 25 percent.

Up until a couple years ago, listed ranges were 10, 15 and 20 percent on every dinner bill.   Nobody should feel guilty for leaving a 15 percent tip for expected service.

Personally, I tip 15 percent for par service.   If the service was excellent, then I tip 20 percent.   If the service was below average, it’s 10 percent.     There are exceptions.   For example:

1.   I usually tip closer to 20% on breakfast bills for average service because the overall bill tends to be significantly less.

2.   Whenever I have a coupon I always base my tip upon the undiscounted bill total.

3.   I have been known to tip as high as 35 percent for truly outstanding service.

4.   If the service is truly poor, I leave a single dollar on the table to ensure that the server knows I didn’t simply forget to leave a tip.

When properly administered, tips provide an accurate gauge of feedback to the server and help encourage superior performance. Folks that always leave a flat 20 percent tip regardless of the level of service received, however, end up doing everybody else a big disservice.

Finally, Courtney, I completely disagree with your statement that if people can’t afford to pay 20 percent tips then they should just stay home.     After all, 20 percent of zero is zero, isn’t it?     I know if I had to choose between 15 percent of something or 20 percent of nothing, I would gladly choose the former.

I’m sorry for the lack of love, Courtney.   Do you still want your number?

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  1. 1

    Tony says

    I totally agree with you on the tipping,if you don`t recieve the service, then they don`t recieve a good tip. You reap what you sowed.

  2. 2


    While I don’t agree with Courtney, I don’t agree with you either. First of all, you are making the assumption that a tip goes to your service provider. When I worked in a spa, they would say the gratuity was included in the “service charge” so the hotel could take 25% off the top. Restaurant employees often have to tip out certain amounts to the bussers and runners as well.

    In our country, we generally do not pay a living wage to service providers. Restaurant employees make minimum wage + tips, many massage therapists, estheticians, and hair stylists are commission only. Therefore, a tip is no longer a gauge of service, it is a necessity of life.

    Unfortunately, most servers don’t feel tips provides an accurate gauge of them, so much as it does the patron. Since you don’t know what goes on in a kitchen and what is the fault of the house or not, is it fair to take it out on a server’s paycheck? Probably not, but most people don’t care anyway.

    My rules:
    1. Always tip cash, and put it in the hands of the provider, if you want to make sure management doesn’t take a cut or it doesn’t get stolen (sad but true).
    2. I tip around 20% as a base, and I tip based on what I observe. If the server was rotten, and the busboy worked his arse off, I give it to him.
    3. I take into consideration the time spent at the establishment. If I spend a couple hours drinking coffee at a diner, I’m going to give the waitress more than a quarter.
    4. I can think of only twice where I haven’t tipped, and I’ve spoken with management each time. If it’s bad enough for you to withhold pay from a server, a complaint is good etiquette. Otherwise, it won’t get fixed.

    Service is an industry where your words are more powerful than your dollars.

    • 3

      AmyRC says

      First of all – what state do you live in that restaurant workers maker minimum wage plus tips? I live in Illinois and I make 4.65/hr plus tips. I am required by law to claim 10 percent of sales or all of my electronic tips. On many days, I do not even earn 10 percent of sales due to people who feel they’re doing me a favor by tipping $4 on a $90 bill. They’re NOT doing me a favor and actually stealing from me. By the way – I am a great server and always do an exceptional job. What I have to deal with on a daily basis is something that most people could not handle.

      • 4


        I find it interesting that you consider the customers who pay you voluntary tips to be the ones stealing from you and not the government – after all, it is the government that is forcing you to pay 10% of sales on all electronic tips, not the couple at table 5 who decided to go out for a bite to eat. It is your elected officials in Illinois who have decided to steal that money from you – not the customers of your establishment. If not for those customers, your employer would be out of business and you’d be out of a job. If I were you and things are that bad I would be looking for another line of work!

        Perhaps the good folks in Illinois need to start electing officials who believe in less government intrusion into their everyday lives – not more?

        • 5

          john philips says

          I think its nuts to think that you turn this argument to “you should be mad at he government”… Yeah, the servers have lobbyists to ensure that laws are written for them. It works both ways. If you wish to tip in line with how it used to be, then maybe you should stop voting for those who will push the minimum wage so low, and who also allow a $2.13/hr wage… Here’s an updated chart regarding wages for tipped employees. Few states pay minimum wage:

          • 6

            Len Penzo says

            I didn’t bring up government taxes first, john. Amy did.

            I don’t follow your argument regarding minimum wage laws. Nobody is being forced to work at gunpoint for a server’s wages. People are always free to find another employer who will pay them more money — assuming they can command them. And if they can’t, is that the customer’s fault? Or the servers? Does anybody take responsibility for their own lot in life anymore?

            Why on earth would I vote for politicians who believe in raising the minimum wage to ridiculous levels that end up distorting the law of supply and demand? They’re the same ones who believe government is the solution to all of our problems and pass the laws that tax us to death and lower everybody’s standard of living — especially the poor and middle class.

            Lower taxes would result in higher living standards for all of us, mainly through lower prices.

      • 8

        Liz says

        AmyRC, I’m with you. I’m from Ohio, and I make $3.65 plus tips. Maybe its the government’s fault for making it that way, but its the way things are and in this country it is custom to tip your server because that’s where they make all their money. If you can’t afford to tip them fairly, or disagree with the way this is done, then stay home. I know someone earlier said that “20% of 0 is 0 and its better to get 15% of something than nothing” but no, that server would have gotten another table that would have actually tipped them and not wasted their time. Servers expect 18-20% , you may not like it, but if they’re making under $4 per hour then they depend on it. Again, someone above said “for as long as I can remember tipping has been 10-15%”, and yes because you can probably remember back at least 10-15 years when standard tipping was that low. Standard tipping rates have risen. Obviously if your service was terrible, AND IT WAS THE SERVERS FAULT, (keep in mind your food taking a very long time is most likely a problem with the kitchen) then it would be acceptable to knock down the percentage. If the server did everything they were supposed to, smiled at you and did everything they could to make sure you enjoyed your experience, then you should tip them 18-20%. If they were very average, then maybe knock it down to 15%, but 10% is just insulting, and flat out not tipping should never happen unless they were awfully rude and terrible to you, in which case, they’re probably on their way to being fired anyway. Also keep in mind that at most restaurants, servers have to tip out the bussers, food runners, bar, and sometimes the host stand. Some places tip out a percentage of their tips and some tip out a percentage of their sales. So, if someone tips out a standard percentage of their sales, and they were tipped unfairly, then you are really hurting them. Everyone should have to work in a restaurant to see how things really work and how really unfair it can be, and to see how a 10% tip is just ridiculous.

  3. 9


    @ a.b.: You don’t sound like a modern tightwad to me! lol

    Thanks so much for your comments.

    Just to be clear, my comments were based solely with respect to servers in bars/restaurants. :-)

    I respect where you are coming from and I completely agree with your first and third rules. Regarding rule 4, if the server is simply slow or inattentive, I think the poor tip is adequate feedback; I only talk to management if the server was rude or unprofessional. Regarding rule 2, I do agree with you that the busboy should never be penalized if the server was lame. I’ve made sure the busboy was taken care of on several occasions that I recall having a hard-working busboy and a lousy server.

    If it is true that most servers don’t feel tips provide an accurate gauge of their service, but rather reflects upon the patron, then the practice of tipping has lost all of its utility. In fact, if that assertion is true, it looks like the primary purpose of a customer’s tip is now to subsidize employee wages – but the problem is many people, myself included, do not feel it is the consumer’s responsibility to ensure employees’ wages are livable (a big problem is that “livable” is an extremely relative term).

    I would like to respectfully suggest that perhaps we need to change the whole restaurant/bar service paradigm. Everybody might be better served (no pun intended) if establishments:

    1. Prohibited all tipping of its employees.
    2. Increased menu and drink prices by 20 percent.
    3. Raised server wages to a point that makes them livable (of course, everyone will have to come to an agreement to what livable is).

    Then we play it out and see what happens. What do you think? :-)

    • 10


      It’s funny that I was rereading this post and realized I already commented! I think you may be right and that tipping has lost all of it’s utility. Like some of the other commenters have noted some states allow servers to make only the federal minimum wage, and no one can subsist on that, but who declares what a living wage is? It’s certainly not minimum wage. And who decides what makes a good server? Is someone who’s ridiculously efficient but terse better than someone who’s pleasant but a bit slower? And doesn’t the preference of the consumer depend on the night? This is where tipping comes in. It is your way of declaring your opinion. Servers that don’t make tips, don’t stay in the business.

      Maybe it should be viewed as a sales commission?

  4. 11

    James says

    Please define what “exceptional,” and “average” service means. For example, what does a server do that makes you think that service is worth a 20% tip. The answer to this question will clear things up for everyone. Thanks for your feedback, and I think I speak for all servers out there.

  5. 12


    Hi, James! Let me see if I can clear things up a bit. This is for a restaurant waiter/waitress…

    Exceptional service: Cheery disposition and great attitude. Comes to my table promptly after I’ve been seated. Quick and attentive service. Takes my order accurately. Delivers my meal and all accompanying sides and/or special requests (like extra ranch dressing, for example) without any errors. Comes back one time only after meal is served to ensure everything is okay. Always ensures my drink is never empty – either by bringing free refills without me having to ask, or by asking me if I would like another drink before I have reached the bottom of my current glass. Clears tables quickly. Gives me my check promptly and processes my payment with minimal delay. :-)

    Average service: Service that doesn’t fit within either exceptional or below average categories. Usually has to be reminded to bring fresh drinks. A server that meets some criteria in both above average and below average categories would be considered average in my book.

    Below average service: Poor disposition and/or rude. Long delay in getting to my table after I’ve been seated. Slow and/or inattentive service. Inaccurate order. Forgets special requests at time meal is served. Delivers food that is cold or has obviously been sitting at the pass for a long period of time. Doesn’t come back to ensure everything is okay. Fails to keep drinks filled. Long delay clearing table. Slow to deliver check and/or process payment. :-(

    • 13

      Shaelyn says


      I agree with everything you’ve said here, except one note. An inaccurate order could be the server’s fault, but it could just as easily be the cook’s fault for reading the order incorrectly or simply not paying attention to the server’s notes, and I don’t believe the server should be faulted for that. I usually gauge how well the service is by how well and how quickly the problem was resolved rather than whether or not the mistake is made in the first place.

        • 15

          Arvin says

          Wouldn’t the server at least have an idea though if the food was accurate? They could check it before they bring it out to the table.

          • 16


            Many places have food runners that take the meal to the table. In that scenario the server takes the order, a chef or line person generally “expedites” the order and is supposed to check it, and then a food runner takes it to the table. Kitchen staff’s wages are generally not dependent on tips at all.

  6. 17

    Pholloman says

    Excuse me but I am a busboy at a fancey rest. Called Paul’s Mont Inn. I get tipped by the server but we do practicully everything. We make the salads be4 opening. We take bread and water to the people. We sometimes take the soup to the people. We refill drinks nd all that. Plus we take every plate they get done with. Than we clean the table and reset it after they leave. Than when the whole place closes we stay nd clean up nd the servers go home. I only get paid 2.50hr plus tips. Now the server can give whatever he/she feels like the busboy. So in all honesty its bull. Cus one night we were slammed and i got 22.00$. That is it. When about 15 tables were tipping 20.00$. It bull!!!!!

    • 18

      Shaelyn says

      Pholloman, it sounds like your complaints are with your employer, and not the way people tip – which is what this article addresses.

  7. 19

    Nick says

    How many people that disagree with a 20% standard tip have ever had to live on tips alone? I think that if you were in that position you may change your opinion and quite quickly! Just think about it!

    • 20


      I have thought about it and I have come to the conclusion that if 15 percent was acceptable in the past, it is still acceptable now.

      By the way, that’s one reason why I never chose to be a waiter: unless you work in a high-end restaurant, it’s just too tough to make a decent living.

      That fact still does not justify tipping 20 percent for par service.

      • 21


        The one argument I have regarding “since it was okay in the past…” is many restaurants now have cut food prices to try and bring in customers or they offer a lot of loss leaders. So the cost of living has gone up, but the base of tips (amount spent per plate) has in many cases gone down. So if you find yourself consistently tipping less for the same food than you did a couple years ago, shouldn’t you consider bumping up a couple percentage points?

      • 22

        Kim says

        I really wish I was a server and you sat down at one of my tables because I would give you exceptional service but I would spit in your food right after I rubbed it on the side of a garbage can. Of course serving it to you with a smile.

        • 23

          Len Penzo says

          Heh. I’d expect nothing less from an entitlement-minded deep-thinker like yourself. Obviously, personal character isn’t your strong suit; is it, Kim?

          Ironically, you’re the very same person who asked in this related article whether those who leave a less-than-generous tip makes them “feel like a good human being.” That’s rich, coming from someone who apparently has no problem spitting in other people’s food.

          People like you seem to be completely oblivious to that little thing called karma.

          I sure hope you aren’t raising your kids to have the same animalistic behavior and entitlement mentality that you, unfortunately, possess.

          And we wonder why the world is so messed up today.

    • 24

      Shaelyn says

      the server people I know are either in school or are working multiple jobs, it’s true. however, my pay wage has not increased, and the cost of living for me is going up as well. I’m having a harder time making a living as a data entry clerk. having to tip more would mean eating out less.

      I’m not saying that I’m stingy because of the financial situation I’m in. I’m saying, if you’re going to argue that the financial situation you choose to be in is a valid reason that other people should tip more, you may want to look at the financial situations of the people that are doing the tipping. if their wages are staying the same, or if the cost of living is going up, they’re not going to be ABLE to give you more money than in previous years as the standard has stood at 15%. there’s no logic in this.

      I don’t think people’s personal choices of where they choose to work should go into it, though – either by the tipper or the server. everywhere I look, across the internet and in talking to people, the standard is 15% – the only ones who say otherwise are the servers themselves. I think the tipper should make a judgement call based on the standard.

      if people decide to tip a little more than that as their own personal standard, it’s their decision.

      • 25


        Well said, Shaelyn. I think you bring up a terrific point, which I will repeat because it is so important: those who are demanding 20 percent tips are completely ignoring the financial situation of those who are tipping.

        I suspect that won’t change the minds of those arguing that they are entitled to 20 percent for par service, however.

  8. 26

    brucelouis says

    I’m 64 years old and the standard wherever I’ve lived has been 15% until I moved to Arizona. I still tip according to my standard except for good(more) or horrible(less) service. When I was young, the bill at the restaurant was $2.00 and now it’s often $20.00. Yes we have experienced inflation. Remember, the tip formerly was 30 cents and now is $3.00. Same inflation on both ends. Do you see?

  9. 27

    Nicole says

    I work as a server and I just want to point out that I have come to the realization that most of the time, the tip I receive has nothing to do with the service I deliver. Say I have a table of two couples, who receive the exact same service and very similar bills. Rarely will they leave the same tip. Often, there is a large difference, such as one couple leaving 10% and the other leaving 20%. What can explain this besides differences in the people who are tipping? I suppose it could be that they are basing it off of how much the like their meals, but this is determined by the cooks, as again, they receive the exact same service.

    I have been told by a patron that I was “the nicest waitress he had had in years,” who then left me exactly 15%, to the penny. I have been left 10% for service that fits your description of excellent and 20% for times when I was simply too busy to do as well of a job as I would like to. I like to do everything that I do to the best of my ability, whether it be school or work, so it is pretty disheartening to see that people seem to have made up their minds on how much they will tip before they have even left the house. I am not only talking about rare occasions; there is truly not any strong correlation to the service I give and the tip I receive.

    As a sidenote, the service by the waitstaff is often related to the management or factors outside of our control. Under normal conditions, I give excellent service. But if we are understaffed and I have more tables than can be reasonably handled, it is impossible for me to do all of this, simply because I cannot be in more than one place at the same time. Also, we must tip 5% of our liquor/beer/wine sales to the bartenders and 2% of our total sales to the busser and foodrunner, even if we delivered our own food and bussed our own tables, so keep this in mind. We tip them in cash with our tip money, so they do not pay any tax on it, but we are paying tax on this tip money because 75-90% of the tips are given by credit card.

  10. 28

    Barb says

    In a server’s point of view, I noticed here that a busboy complained about the tipping process at his restaurant. What he probably doesn’t know is that he most likely makes $4-6.00 more an hour more than the server he works with.
    I personally make $2.18 an hour here in TX which is Federal minimum wage for a waitress. Most states is the same rate. Some better places pay a little more, but still under regular minimum wage. Imagine having to always smile, be polite (even when people are rude) and feel constantly rushed (thanks to the fast food service industry) and then be lucky if you make $50.00 a day after serving about 60-75 customers with no break all day. Some days I make $20.00 or less depending on who comes in and if I’m lucky enough to get someone who actually tips.

  11. 29

    Barb says

    Also, my customers always get 100% excellent service, all the time, no matter what they leave me. Even the repeat non tippers.

  12. 32

    Barb says

    I don’t think, I know. People have definitely gotten not only cheaper, but I have actually talked to several that just plain don’t understand that they should tip. To them, it’s an option, and they will pick things apart especially when a server is a good one, just to find a reason not to tip. I had a family the other day that ran up 2 $45.00 checks. They sat down, complained (the very fresh out of oven) rolls and cornbread were not fresh. I brought the man a flavored tea, he complained it didn’t taste flavored, even though I had put extra in it, asked me to go get him a plain one. I did and he tells me (not asks) now go put that flavoring in. This is after I had dumped the first one. Just a few of many incidents with these customers. They then finally left and hour after finishing eating and 1/2 hour after closing leaving behind a whopping $2.00 for each check. This being less than 10%.
    It’s an increasing problem, and we also now have to worry about customers stealing our tips (off the tables)on top of that.
    Noone that has not waited tables will ever undestand that our job is not just to wait on the tables. We roll the silver, do tons of sidework to ready the restaurant and to shut it down for the night and run our asses off. All of this for a whopping $3.18 hr. (Correction from my earlier post). I actually worked for a place in Ohio a few years ago, they had Valentine Coupons. I ended up having a (mild)heart attack during that mess, being pushed way beyond human limits to deliver food to ungrateful hoards that would come in in groups of 20 and leave a dollar for the group if that.
    I think people are not being taught by their parents to tip their servers. My Dad taught me 20% was the going rate back in the 60’s. Guess it also depends on how your parents gave.

  13. 35

    Tip Inflation says

    15% should always be the standard. Inflation of food prices will cover inflation. “Tip Inflation” is a concept invented by restaurants and servers.

    Tips are now being used to subsidize server wages, because of the restaurants being greedy.

    If you can not live on the wage, do not have that occupation.

    Tips should be eliminated and a standard wage implemented. Put the responsibility of server wages on the restaurant not the patron.

  14. 36

    GP says

    Change your government then.. Thats what you say right?! “America is a free country.” I don’t really care if it is correlated with the difference between my culture and the American culture, but you have to realize people, that when someone goes to a restaurant, is going there for the food not the service. Secondly, what I SHOULD PAY is the food and NOT your wages (thats the responsibility of your employee). When someone goes out once a month with his family, while struggling the whole month to save some money to eat out, I don’t really understand WHY he/she should share the portion with you. But once again the CAPITALISM, has made stupidity in this country a base rate while you try to interpret reality. The HEAD (employer) is taking all the income and you the employees and the workers are socking the blood (money>=sweat) off of others people lives. This is insane. I do realize, (for all those waiters that are going to attack me) that you work and therefore you have to be paid. I agree with that.. But think about your boss next time that is taking the whole portion of the “pie” and he ask from the customer to make you another cut because of your service. Nevertheless I believe that the American work force (and this includes everyone- even those of you that you think that you are middle class) that your American dream has been killed by the realization of being awake in an absurd money made society. And even if the dream of yours has not be killed, then the dream of your children or grandchildren has been sacrificed to the altar of a dollar sign. Now shoot me.. With hate please.

  15. 37

    Not so fast says

    It’s not okay for the restaurant owner to attempt to shift the cost of his wages on to me. If you’re expected to tip a flat rate for any service, period, then why should you get any tip, period? If you’re so concerned about your employees wages that you’re going to try to mandate tips or force higher amounts, then maybe you should pay your employees better and fire the ones who don’t perform. It’s not like there isn’t a glut of available workforce.

    The cost of my food has gone up, and with it your tip. And now you’re trying to make me feel guilty for not tipping more, regardless of your service?
    Why are you special? My wages haven’t gone up. If I don’t work, if I don’t do my job, I don’t get paid. Why can you stand at the counter and ignore me, not doing your job, and expect me to still pay you for a job not or poorly done?

    That said, 15% is plenty fair for decent service. If you provide exceptional service, I’ll pay more. I’d rather have a good experience and pay more for it. But my time is your money, poor and slow service reduces your tip. I very seldom don’t tip, but if your service is exceptionally bad, I am simply not obligated to pay you.

    If you don’t like this, too bad. Find another job, or provide better service.

    I’m not even going to get into the socialist entitlement mentality that thinks it’s okay to steal from somebody else because you think they can afford it and you are owed.

  16. 38

    tammy says

    First of all I work in the food industry and have for 25 years experience and over these years things have changed considerably. Servers are tipped but servers are also tipping out a considerable amount to other staff because employers with the help of state government have decided that everyone in the front of the house is a tipped employee and should receive a tipped salary. Bartenders are no longer paid for their knowledge by the house but instead rely on tips. The base pay is only given to accommodate taxes so majority of the time our checks are zeroed out and in many cases we owe the state or feds. The last place I worked only allowed you 3 tables but had no bussers or food runners. Now if a table sits, which people think they are entitled to do after spending $20, tip $3 and then sit for 4 hours, you are totally screwed for the night. The place I work now gives you 6 to 8 tables and you tip out 45% of what you make. There is so much more to this equation than just tipping out a server and how much. Wouldn’t life be grand if everything were so black and white. It’s a very tough and competitive business and people think it’s just making food and bringing it to the table. I live in Illinois by the way and this state has increasingly made laws that affect the little guy so the big guy won’t go anywhere. The little guys would threaten to leave too but we can’t afford to so our rights keep getting thrown under the bus for the big guy.

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