If tipping causes you some anxiety, you're far from alone. When your barista hands you a coffee in the morning, you're always faced with the same question: How much should I tip? Or depending on the order, is tipping even a thing? We've gathered some advice from professionals in the field who can help you navigate this confusing topic. Here's what they want you to know:
1. Tips are supplemental income for workers who usually earn less than minimum wage.
"The most important thing people need to know is how much service workers are getting paid," says Stephen Presley, bartender at Ike's Place in Abilene, K.S., and longtime service industry professional. "Tips are a huge part of our livelihood."
"Sixty-five percent of my income depends on tips," says Brittany Pellon, barista and bartender at Annex in Brooklyn. "I've painstakingly run the numbers. I could not survive two weeks without getting tipped—one week, and I'd be cutting normal things like groceries and metro rides."
In fact, federal law regulates that tipped workers must be paid a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour but allows for as much as $5.12 of that wage to be earned through tips. This means that in many states after the employer estimates tip earnings, they can pay as little as $2.13 an hour.
"For most people in the service industry, their tips are their paychecks," says Elizabeth Hurstell, barista at Nesbit's Poeyfarre Street Market in New Orleans. "Most of the time, after taxes, your paycheck is 0 dollars. I don't know many people that could live on 0 dollars each month."
2. Tips are often pooled and split with others working behind the scenes.
If a coffee shop offers breakfast or a bar has a menu, there's a good chance your tip is going to more than just the one person who hands you your drink. "Everything is split between the servers, wine people, and back waiters," explains Erik Britz, sommelier at Casa Mono in New York. Prep cooks, busboys, and bartenders are often in on the split as well. So if you order food that isn't already prepared or notice that there's an actual team of people serving your table, consider tipping a bit higher than usual.
3. Bartenders and baristas view tips as an exchange of respect.
Tips are obviously not required—as in, you won't go to jail if you don't tip—but they are expected. And while most industry professionals have seen it all and don't report feeling truly surprised when customers don't tip, they really appreciate it when you do.
"I see a tip as a sign that the people I'm serving appreciate my service and respect my expertise," Britz says. Presley compares the interaction to a ballet. "From ordering the drinks to serving them to tipping, if everyone makes their moves and steps properly, it can be a nice and courteous exchange," he says.
4. Build relationships if you're a regular.
If you want to generate an atmosphere where everybody knows your name at your local watering hole, be generous. And this doesn't necessarily just mean financial generosity. "I'm making your drink early in the morning with a smile on my face," Hurstell says. "So being friendly and humanizing—with a tip on top—is going to get you excellent service." Being pleasant and remembering names is a two-way street, so be sure to keep up your end of the bargain if you want to cultivate a real-life Cheers situation.
5. A dollar per drink is a good rule of thumb for espresso shots, beer, and wine. Tip higher if someone is performing more than a simple pour.
If you're popping in for a coffee on your way to work or dropping by for a quick beer after, you might feel like a tip isn't necessary. Sure, it only takes a minute to fill up a cup or pop a tab, but chances are, if you can afford to purchase a drink out, you can afford to tip.
If you're getting a drip coffee for $1.50, dropping your change in the jar is totally adequate. But for anything more complex, $1 per drink is a good base point. And if something takes longer than a minute to prepare, consider tipping more.
"You should tip based on time," Hurstell says. "Does your drink require shaking? Did you sit at a table for three hours? If you're taking up time that someone could be serving another customer, tip accordingly." Your complex drink order involves more specialized skill as well as more attention from whoever's making it. And even if you're just sipping something simple, when you're at a table, you should factor in how long you stay.
6. If you're somewhere nice, the new standard is 20 percent. Go higher for excellent service.
While prices don't seem to change much in dive bars and corner stores, higher-end coffee and cocktail prices are, much like the cost of living, steadily rising. And tip standards—if not wages—go right up along with them. The old 15 percent doesn't cut it today when the base level is 18 percent. It's still fine to throw down a buck for a beer or two for a basic gin and tonic, but if you've got a tab with more than two drinks on it at a nice place, pony up for 20 percent on the tip, according to those in the industry.
"Without hesitation, I will tip 20 percent when I go out," Britz says. "And I will tip more if I receive excellent service." In fact, every single person we interviewed said the same. Presley puts the "more" at 25-30 percent and says that's a good price point for when someone has truly gone above and beyond.
Many places today include tip in the bill. If this is the policy of the restaurant, then it isn't expected that you add anything on top. But if gratuity is included because you're in a large party, check to see the percentage included and add to it if it's less than 20 percent. It's a lot tougher to serve large numbers of people, after all.