Basic Tipping Protocol: Do You Know How to Tip?

Jon and i just celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary, including the obligatory “nicer than usual dinner out.”

Jon chose Outback. Not only did he have a gift card, he’d also received a free appetizer certificate last time he donated blood.

As we packed our leftovers into boxes, we began discussing the tip.

J: What should we tip?

E: How much?


E Before or after the gift card?

J Before? I guess the bill was $52.

E: Okay, tip on $52? We should leave a tip of at least 20%. That means she should get $10.50.

J: Wait! You’re including the tax. You don’t include the tax to figure out the tip.

E: Of course you include the tax. Wait a minute…I forgot about the appetizer! That would have been $10. We should give her at least $12.50.

J: Huh? The appetizer was free!

E: Yeah, but you tip anyway on the value of the free item.

J What? I never heard that! And since did the standard tip become 20%? I was always taught 15%.

E: 20% is standard now. It’s not like the minimum wage for servers has gone up in decades. They only make $2.13 an hour.

(That’s the federal rate, which is used in NC. Other states and municipalities can be higher.)

J: WHAT?!? What about minimum wage!

E:(sigh) Tipped workers have their own minimum wage. The tips are supposed to make up the difference. That’s why the standard’ tip’s gone up from 15 to 20%.

J: Yeah, but I still don’t think you pay tips on the tax. (Pays tip on the tax anyway.)

Tipping Protocol is Confusing

You would think people would understand basic tipping protocol. After all, most of us have been going to restaurants and figuring out tips since our teenage years. Tipping shouldn’t confuse us, but it does.

Unfortunately, tipping protocols can be difficult to understand. Tipping standards change, the rules vary with circumstances, and plenty of businesses that seem like they shouldn’t have tip jars put them up. 

That’s leaving out entirely the question of Christmas tips. 

Even if you just limit the discussion to food and drink tips, people don’t fully understand the system. When do you tip? When don’t you tip? How much do you tip? What do you base the tip on? There seem to be hundreds of scenarios and opinions on something that comes up all the time.

Though I have noticed that those of us who have done at least a short stint waiting tables (Summer of ’91!) tend to be a bit more consistently generous in their tipping than those who haven’t.

So I was shocked, shocked I tell you, to see the Washington Post doing an article on “The Basic Rules of Tipping that Everyone Should Know About” on Friday.

I was even less surprised to not know some of their “basic rules.”

Basic Tipping Protocol: Do You Know How to Tip?

Tipping Protocol Basics

The Post interviewed “restaurant and bar insiders,” so their answers probably err on the side of generous. That said, there were some things I think are pretty basic.

First, figure your tip on the full value of your meal. That includes tax, comped items, discounted items, and any amount you pay for on a gift card. 15% would be okay for mediocre service, with 20% standard for good service.

(And don’t be a jerk. If you don’t like the tip system, don’t take it out on your poor server. Limit your restaurant trips to the growing number of establishments that pay their servers actual wages instead, and prepare to see higher prices on your bill.)

I was a little hazier on the bar protocol. I don’t think we’ve been to a bar in 6-7 years, so that’s hardly surprising. Still, things like “If you’re drinking water at the bar, tip like your drinking booze because you’re taking space” and “tip on full value if you are drinking at Happy Hour” make sense.

But then I had more questions and realized their “basics” were still confusing.

How much to tip the bartender? That seemed hazier. $1? $2? 20%? Pay by the drink or pay by the tab? Does it depend on the style of the drink or the degree of difficulty? Which rates higher on the points scale?

Why does this make me feel like someone’s just asked me to judge synchronized diving?

And what about tipping at fast casual? Staff at fast casual restaurants make at least regular minimum wage. The recommendation was that a small tip should be reasonable for standard service. My general inclination is to only tip if service was terrific or my child table was particularly messy, resulting in an extra burden on the staff.

That pretty much sums up my attitude for tipping baristas, frozen yogurt stands, food trucks, and everyone else who puts out a tip jar. Go above and beyond, and I’ll give you a tip. If I ask for extra, I owe you a tip. Standard service, including anything on the regular menu? Nah, it should be covered.

And 10-15% on takeout? Delivery, sure, but a couple of bucks should cover takeout.

Then again, I live in Raleigh, not DC. How much of tipping protocol is dependent on geography and cost of living?

Gah! Maybe I’m not as evolved a tipper as I thought.

Bottom Line

With all of this confusion, maybe I should just stay home.

Okay, just kidding. For most of the transactions where the person serving me expects a tip, I imagine we do just fine if we remember the following:

If someone brings food to your table, you need to leave a tip of at least 15%.

Even if the service is questionable, tipping is still part of the cost of going out (and if it is bad, speak to the manager and let them take care of the issue.) 

If you don’t know the rules for a more nuanced transaction, ask someone or google the proper tipping protocol. If in doubt, err on the side of paying for what you think the service is worth. 

Where there any of WaPo’s “basic rules” that made you go ‘What?!?” How confident do you feel about your tipping practices? Do you find it confusing or simple? 


25 Responses to “Basic Tipping Protocol: Do You Know How to Tip?”
  1. TJ 09/19/2016
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