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Financial Feud: Tipping vs. Stiffing for bad service

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The Argument:


Once, while my husband and I were eating out, we had horrible service and got into an argument over whether to leave a tip. The bill came to $75. Ordinarily, we would have left $11.25. My husband pulled the "Good Christian" card on me and said our waiter probably needed the money more than we did. I said tips pay for service -- if a waiter doesn’t perform his job well, he shouldn’t get paid well. AM I RIGHT?

Expert Opinion:

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The Argument:

My husband and I rarely disagree about money. I manage the daily stuff, anything over $300 we discuss and agree on together, and we have compromised goals about investing, spending, saving and big purchases.

This tip, however, was a rare example of something we did not see eye-to-eye on.

In my point of view, tips are earned (and I’ve worked as a waitress myself). When you go to a restaurant, you pay for the food. Tips are additional, and they pay for service. We had eaten at this particular restaurant before, and the food was unchanged. But in the past, we’d had much better service.

My husband says tips are payment for service, regardless of whether you like the service. He thinks a tip reflects more on the person being served than the person doing service.

I agree that you and your husband should not leave a tip that’s greater than the value of service provided by the waiter. 

If people didn’t signal quality with the relative sizes of their tips, wait staffs would have no incentive to do a good job.  I think it’s probably less common to not tip with bad service than to tip generously with especially good service, even though the signal is probably more important at the low end. 

It’s hard to imagine that “bad” (sub-optimal) wait service literally means no service of value to the customer (you didn’t have to go back to the kitchen to fetch your own order, did you?), so I would have found a compromise position and left a low, but not no, tip.

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About the author

Diane Lim is a DC-area economist dedicated to wise, fiscally-responsible and socially-valuable public policies, and a mom dedicated to four great kids.


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