I’m sick and tired of tipping 20% every time I eat out. Is it ever OK to tip less? Or am I a cheapskate? 

Dear Quentin,

I’m afraid to bring this up with friends in case they call me a “Karen” or tell me I’m being selfish or a skinflint. Over the past 12 months, I have seen my rent go up by 25%. I’m paying $3,200 for a one-bedroom apartment. I will never be able to save for my own place. I struggle to pay off my credit cards every month. I wear dresses and, in some cases, shoes that I bought 10 years ago. I’m lucky enough to fit into the dresses, and I can’t afford to spend money on “luxury items” or “wants” anymore. My company is cutting back on staff, and I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. 

‘Not tipping 20% makes you look like some kind of fascist. I tipped 15% once on a date, and I never saw him again.’

I eat out twice a week, usually on weekends, and I am constantly put out by how much it costs for a glass of wine or a cocktail with dinner. As much as a starter, if you want to ask. I went to a famous pizza joint in my neighborhood last weekend, and we had two pizzas, a shared starter, a gin and tonic, a Negroni, and a glass of wine each, and it cost us $208. That’s $104. Plus, another $20 each for a tip. We started out going for pizza. How is this possible? My friend didn’t even eat her pizza and I told her, “You just spent $124 on a cocktail and a glass of wine.”

Given the increase in the cost of living, I’m hung up on the 20% rule. I live in a big city. You can pay $7 for a coffee. A coffee! Not tipping 20% makes you look like some kind of fascist. I tipped 15% once on a date, and the guy made some smart comment, “Oh, you’re only tipping 15%?” and I never saw him again. Cabs now cost $30 for a three-mile ride. Is it ever OK to tip less than 20%? Soon we will be tipping 25% or 30%, or more. I’m sorry for ranting, but I’m sick and tired of being guilted into tipping everywhere I go.

Am I right? Or am I a cheapskate? Please enlighten me.

Over Tipping

Dear Over Tipping,

Even if you wrote this in anger, you are correct about a lot: rents are increasing, many restaurants have upped their prices since the pandemic, many companies — more than 170,000 jobs lost in the technology sector since the start of 2023 — are cutting back on staff, and we don’t know if there is a recession around the corner. Economists generally recommend you spend no more than 30% of your gross income on rent, and yet many people are considered “severely rent burdened” and are spending far more than those guidelines.

And you are correct about tipping. People are encouraged to tip wait staff. They generally rely on tips in addition to their salary to make ends meet. How much you tip is entirely up to you, unless you are in one of those high-end restaurants where they add a tip of 20% or 25% to parties of six or more. That’s to help ensure that a table that may occupy a restaurant for several hours during an evening does not end up stiffing the wait staff. Polls regularly show a majority of people tip 20% or even 25% for good service, but that also depends on where you live.

‘If you can afford to eat out twice a week, and pay for a G&T and a glass of wine, you can afford to tip 20%.’

If you go to a restaurant in a city like New York, Seattle or San Francisco, expect to pay $16 or $18 for a glass of wine or a cocktail. You’re not just paying for the drink, you’re paying for rent, lighting, heating, chef, kitchen staff, cleaning staff, wait staff, in addition to the alcohol itself. Custom dictates that 20% suggests good service. If the staff is extra friendly and helpful, feel free to go higher, but budget tipping into your evening in the same way you budget your drinks. If you can afford to eat out twice a week, and pay for a G&T and a glass of wine, you can afford to tip 20%.

Digital tipping is trickier. It has spread from coffee shops to ice-cream parlors, and even self-checkout kiosks. I don’t always trust the company that the tip will find its way to the proper recipient. Machines use the “path of least resistance” model when they ask you to choose, 15%, 20%, 35% or custom your own tip. Most people choose a prepared choice, or choose the middle value so they don’t feel like a Scrooge. I don’t mind when pharmacies ask to round up my payment to donate to a charity. Every little helps. And together we can make a big difference.

But service workers have put their health and their lives on the line during the pandemic. One study published last year looked at 69,000 cases of adults aged between 25 and 64, and concluded that labor, service and retail workers accounted for 68% of deaths in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Restaurants went out of business, and those that remain have fought valiantly to regain their customers’ business. Less than a third of restaurants offer employer-sponsored health insurance, according to this research

I would only consider tipping less than 20% if the service was abominable. Why? If I am sitting pretty, waiting for someone to cook and serve me food, I can afford it.

Yocan email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions at qfottrell@marketwatch.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter.

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