Is the American tipping culture out of control?

Is the American Tipping Culture Out of Control?

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Have you noticed any changes in the American tipping culture in recent years? It appears that there’s been an influx of touchscreens prompting patrons to leave tips. Consumers are currently facing tip requests for retail purchases, self-service experiences, cashier interactions, and more.

Business owners typically configure tip prompts, with some even amounting to 40% of the transaction. During COVID-19, patrons often tipped higher amounts, especially during the economic shutdown. However, what was once a kind gesture of recognition and generosity during the pandemic has now become a more automated and impersonal expectation.

The Evolution of American Tipping Culture

Tipping wasn’t always customary in the United States. When it was first introduced in the mid-1800s, it was seen as classist and un-American, facing opposition from many. However, this opposition did not last. After slavery was abolished, the tipping system became a way to “employ” freed slaves without paying them wages. Instead, customers would contribute a voluntary tip for service. Although six states resisted tipping and even temporarily banned it, the practice had become normalized by the late 1920s.

Tipping as a Standard Practice

As part of The New Deal under former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the federal minimum wage was established through The Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. However, restaurant workers were excluded and were not guaranteed a sub-minimum wage until 1966. Today, the federal minimum wage for tipped employees is $2.13, with some states implementing a state-tipped minimum wage that employers must pay.

In the 1950s, the standard tip amount was 10%, which increased to 15% in the 1970s. Nowadays, patrons are tipping more than 21% of their bill.

Although tipping isn’t mandatory unless specified in print, it can often present itself as such. It no longer seems to be considered a gesture of appreciation for exceptional service but rather an implied expectation with a side of pressure.

The Value of American Tipping

The amount one decides to tip is ultimately determined by their financial situation and personal values. While tipping isn’t required unless printed otherwise, it’s widely practiced in many industries. The American tipping culture has expanded to services that previously did not involve tip requests. The most often tipped industry, however, continues to be that of restaurants.

The reality is that waitstaff depend on tips to help bridge the wage gap. With this in mind, it is my belief and practice to tip based on the quality of service I receive. Some people choose not to tip at all, while others feel pressured to tip up to 20% or more even if it was not merited.

Unfortunately, Brian and I have noticed a major disconnect between table service and value over the last few years. While the expectation and percentage of tipping have increased, the level of service we’ve received has absolutely decreased. Has anyone else experienced this?

Truly, the real question is: Why are customers expected to supplement server salaries?

How come restaurants aren’t operated like businesses with proper budgets to cover employee salaries? The argument for proper salaries typically suggests that restaurants would need to charge higher menu prices. Personally, I would rather pay higher prices for quality food with adequate service than pay for expensive meals with subpar service. Either way, dining out has become and continues to be much more expensive than eating at home.

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Rebel Against Out of Control Tipping

High inflation, in conjunction with excessive tip requests, has citizens struggling with tipping fatigue. Tipping fatigue occurs when consumers feel overwhelmed by the volume and extra expense of tip requests they encounter.

You are the best judge of yourself and what you value. If you’ve felt pressured or taken advantage of by pre-configured tipping prompts, start looking for the ‘custom’ or ‘no tip’ buttons. Sure, it might take you longer standing in line since these buttons can be much smaller and less noticeable than the other tip prompts, but at least you won’t be taken advantage of.

Vote with your dollar. Consider the services you purchase, how you would like to express patronage, and set your own limits. Tip what you wish, though keep in mind of those who rely on tips.

How We Avoid Tipping Fatigue

To cope with inflation, Brian and I have adjusted our lifestyles and budgets to better accommodate our values. For example, we dine out considerably less than before and are very intentional about the restaurants we visit. We’ve even eliminated a few of our favorite restaurants from our rotation due to disappointing experiences. Ultimately, we spend where we receive value.

To avoid tipping fatigue, we:

  • Rarely use any rideshare or delivery services
  • Prefer counter-service and take-out dining over table-service
  • Choose to spend more happy hours and dinners at home
  • Embrace the DIY route to minimize or eliminate service interactions (such as cutting my own hair)
  • Happily and consciously tip for great experiences
  • Visit more service-inclusive businesses

Brian and I have traveled to a few countries where tipping isn’t the customary. We appreciate the service-inclusive model and haven’t encountered any issues with poor service so far. Our experiences have encouraged us to seek this model in the US, particularly in the restaurant industry.

What’s your take on the American tipping culture? Have you recently experienced tipping fatigue?

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