This is why I always tip servers 20% at restaurants

How much do you tip when you go out to eat?

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The summer after college, I decided to waitress to make some extra money before moving abroad for a job. It was as hard as I expected, and also much worse. The hours were long, the dinner rushes were grinding, the customers were not always kind—or even polite.

But I got through it because the tips were good. The tips were so good. And ever since that summer of waitressing, I tip 20 percent everywhere I go, no matter what.

Before I started waitressing, I still tipped well. But if service was a little slow or my server didn’t seem too enthused to be waiting on me, that was occasionally reflected in the tip. I have never dined without leaving a tip (which you see all over the internet today), and only once tipped under 15 percent—and that guy deserved it.

restaurant waiter photo
Getty Images | Justin Sullivan

Some Factors Are Out Of Their Control

But I have been left without tips, or with bad tips more times than I can count. And sometimes it was because the food was slow (or cold) or our kitchen was backed up. Once, our busboy walked out on us in the middle of dinner service, leaving me and three other servers scrambling to pick up his slack. Service was a mess as a result, and our tips suffered.

I’m not trying to complain and say “why me?” – the truth is, I made excellent money that summer, and every other time I’ve waitressed as well. But I worked hard at it. That first summer, I worked six days a week, racked up 20,000 steps a day and skipped dinner most nights because I was too exhausted to eat. Waking up with salsa in your hair after a particularly hairy dinner rush is not the nicest sensation, let me tell you.

There were cuts and burns and blisters and sore feet and an even sorer back. There were naps in my car between doubles and hastily gobbled kitchen scraps that the servers descended upon like wild dogs (pro tip: you never want to see a server eat. It’s not pretty). All of this for a few bucks after the meal – and I only waitressed in the summers.

restaurant waiter photo
Getty Images | Joe Raedle

There are plenty of career waiters and waitresses out there who love their job, are called to it, are fulfilled by it. There are also plenty of servers who are doing it to make ends meet or because there’s nothing else out there in the way of work. These people work nights and weekends and holidays. They keep excessively long hours because there’s always that one table that walks in 15 minutes before closing and orders a T-bone steak for two.

The Job Is Worth A Big Tip

And no matter how bad the service or what the restaurant is, I always tip 20 percent, and usually more.

Before I was a waitress, I knew the job was hard, but I could not fathom just how difficult it really was. Now that I know, now that I have the calluses and the horror stories to prove it, I know how much it’s worth.

restaurant waiter photo
Getty Images | Justin Sullivan

Even without a discussion of minimum wage (or the reduced minimum wage that servers make—at the time, I made $2.95 an hour), anyone can agree waitressing is a lot of work. And in my opinion, that work deserves the best tip I can afford to give.

In my first waitressing job, I had a repeat customer who would come in with his children or girlfriend and consistently tip between 40 and 50 percent of the bill. He was kind and thoughtful and funny and knew how hard we worked to make his dinner enjoyable. And because he could afford to show us how much he appreciated that, he did.

Now, I’m not liquid enough to drop $50 and $60 tips on a $20 tab, but I like to do what I can. It’s my little way of saying, “I know. I’ve been there.”

And hopefully, one of those 25 percent tips I leave makes up for someone with no manners (or no idea) who walks out of the restaurant without tipping. Oh and P.S. – 15 percent is a bad tip. Don’t be stingy—if you can’t afford it, eat at a fast casual restaurant without servers.

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