20%? 25%? 30%?! The Great Tipping Debate

Tipping is a minefield -- when we started talking about it this morning, pretty much everyone on the email thread had something to say about it.
Publish date:
September 21, 2012
tips, tipping

I went to my hairstylist yesterday to have her bring my puff levels under control before my friend’s wedding this weekend, and, at the end of my appointment, I had the usual epic internal debate:

How much should I tip? My stylist rents her station at the salon and works on her own as an independent contractor, which is something to factor in. She’s also always willing to fit me into her schedule at the last minute, sometimes coming in early or late, or on her days off. She often cuts me a deal; I got an amazing cut and color job from her last year for, uh, much less than her starting price. In other words, I want to stay on her good side.

I ended up tipping her about 50% because she tried a new cut, I liked it, and that seemed reasonable to me; all told, I spent $50 and I got a sweet head massage with hair oil, too! My tips for her vary depending on what she’s doing, exactly, but they generally reflect the time spent on my hair and the amount of complexity involved. At the holidays, I also usually give her something, because I like to let her know I appreciate her.

Tipping is a minefield -- when we started talking about it this morning, pretty much everyone on the email thread had something to say about it. While we may have been set off by this article on the restaurant trade, where apparently people are expecting tips of 25% to 30%, we branched out into stylists, tattoo artists, cabbies, bellhops and more.

In the US, where tipping culture is ubiquitous, it’s also incredibly loaded. It’s about a lot more than a note of appreciation for a job well done, at this point: for many people in the service industry, tips are a critical part of survival. Many states, for example, have a “wait wage,” allowing restaurants to pay well below minimum wage under the assumption that servers will make it up with tips.

I will never forget going into a short-lived local restaurant and noting that each table included a little card informing patrons that they should be sure to tip well because the owners paid the staff as little as they could. Enjoy your meal, and be sure to pay our staff for serving you, because we don’t!

While I understand that the price I pay for services indirectly also pays the wages of the staff, I don’t really appreciate being ordered to pay the staff directly. That’s the responsibility of their employers. Tips should be what they were originally intended for: gestures to indicate that you were really happy with the service. A treat for the person waiting on you, and an incentive to keep being good at whatever it is that person does, from deep tissue massage to waiting tables.

And when it comes to regular service providers, tips can become part of the relationship, the thing that you use to establish a connection and note that you appreciate the small perks of being a regular customer. When you get discounts and special privileges, you express thanks for that with a tip.

I tend to tip 20% as a baseline in restaurants, based on the bill total without any discounts or promotions. I’ll go higher than that if I’m really blown away by the service. If I’m less impressed, I’ll drop down to 15%, but you have to really piss me off to get there. I’ll also totally tip bussers and kitchen staff if we had a really large party or complicated food needs.

For other services, though, tipping can get more tricky; tattoos, for example, can vary widely in cost and a percentage-based tip isn’t really appropriate. I often bring not just cash tips but other things; one of my tattoo artists really likes rice crispy treats, so I'll make those for him and bring them in. Another adores really good fruit so I sometimes bring him back weird exotic fruit from the City. One complimented me on my skin, so I got her a sugar scrub at the local spa. We're going to be spending a lot of intimate time together, so I want to have a personal connection.

For something like massage and bodywork, there’s a direct correlation between the size of my tip and the level of relaxation I experience at the end; the more chill I am, the more money is going to fall out of my wallet when I eventually haul my ass off the table. Especially when I’m in a spa, where I know that many people get a low per-massage rate, I’ll tend to tip more to make sure they’re compensated fairly for their work, but it makes me uncomfortable that I have to do that.

People condemn expectations of tips as part of an entitlement culture, but something more complicated is going on here. Yes, people are expecting more in tips, but I’m not sure because they’re entitled jerks, so much. I suspect it has more to do with the fact that the minimum wage is not pacing inflation, and the cost of living is rising in many places. People aren’t making enough to survive in the service industry, and they’re scrabbling for tips to make a go of it. Is that their fault, or the fault of a larger system?

xoJane contributors on tipping hairstylists and beauticians:

Somer: Knowing what to tip hair stylists is tricky, because you don't always know if they are actual employees of a salon or contractors who are renting a station in the salon (here in LA it's usually the latter). Even with salon employees, it's not like servers, who are making less than minimum wage. Stylists make a living wage anyway, usually. My stylist rents her station and sets her own pricing. I pay $65 for a cut and I always tip $15. (I used to work in a salon, btw.) I guess my point is that there is no hard and fast percentage rule with stylists, partly because you are already paying them for their time and talent with the cost of the service itself. The tip is a nice "thank you" but doesn't have to be a set amount.

Alison: I buy mine an endless stream of gifts. I'd take her calls before my boyfriend, she's kind of WAY more useful.

Marianne: I also tip people who help -- I've had as many as four people working on my hair at once trying to get color on at something resembling a similar time frame -- I usually throw 5-10 bucks their way as well. Because I have a ton of hair.

Corynne: Yeah, like when a manicure is $10 I don't tip $2!! I tip $4 usually, which still seems small but is 40%.

On tipping waitstaff:

Marianne: There are definitely times when I overtip -- diners are a good example because the bill is so small that even 20% just seems ridiculous in relation to the effort expended on my server's part. Always tip on full meal cost, no matter what comp or discount applies. If the bill is 40 bucks, take the first digit and double it for 20%. Adjust accordingly. If the service sucks, talk to the manager. If the service is excellent, talk to the manager.

Daisy: If it's a restaurant I frequent often, or if there's any kind of discount (I go to a place with half price bottles of wine a lot and another place that lets you bring in your own), I always tip at least 30%.

Corynne: [For] exceptional awesome service 20-25% is great. I still tip 15% when the service is crap and I thought that was generous.

Alison: 30% at a dinner for the lazy, disinterested actors waiting on me here in LA would cause me to never go out again.


India Jewel-Jackson: I only give cab drivers more than $2 if they take me to/from the airport. Then they get $10.

Helena: Cab drivers almost always only get a dollar or two, especially in DC where they upcharge for everything.

How much do you tip? Folks in the service industry, what kinds of tips do you get for your work?

You can watch s.e. agonize over how much to tip on Twitter: @sesmithwrites