How Much Should You Tip Your Bartender? More Than You're Tipping NowS

A friend recently asked Twitter if she should tip the guy who painted a room in her house. I told her painters are creeps and criminals and hers could be counted upon to gratuitize himself via her sock and silverware drawers, because I resort to stereotyping when I'm scared and confused, and I don't have any goddamn idea if you have to tip painters.

Why would you? You contracted this human to do a certain job for a certain fee, not a certain fee plus a floating percentage based on his ability to keep his paint off your carpet and his hands off your family. You hired him, he painted, you paid him, and maybe even let him borrow the toilet on his way out. What more does he want from you? But then again, movers expect triple-digit tips after a paid day of scaring your pets and scarring your furniture, and I've heard some of you billionaires even tip your auto mechanics.

I don't have finer things like cars and furniture, but I'm a sucker for a tip jar, which means I routinely tax myself 50 percent on a cup of coffee. I have no problem with this system, but why do I tip the coffee kid and not the dental hygienist? Why the pizza guy and not the UPS guy? American tipping customs are capricious and intimidating.

The simplest course is to toss a couple extra bucks to the wind a few times a day to make sure I'm not stiffing anybody, but I don't expect you to do the same. There are valid arguments to make against tipping providers of various services, but I can offer one firm and fair rule: You should always tip your bartender—every drink, without exception—and probably more than you currently do.

You should tip bartenders because drinking in a bar is purely recreational. You get to choose when, where, and why to pay a 300 percent markup for poison. Contrast that to the circumstances of your last move. Was it really a choice at all? Or was your relocation forced by divorce, eviction, or the neighbors forming a Red Hot Chili Peppers cover band? And, even if you moved of your own volition, did you get your security deposit back? Nope, and you won't get the next one either, and you're going to pay double cable bills for the first three months in your new hovel because you're too proud to kill yourself or call Comcast again.

Even having a pizza delivered isn't a fully empowered decision. It indicates you lack some combination of the ingredients, skills, and ambition to prepare food for yourself, and it may also mean you can't get chicken wings delivered because, I dunno, man, maybe it's time to stop blaming a conspiracy of incompetence involving every chicken hauler in the city and accept that it's your fault you're banned from all of them.

You should tip house-movers and pizza-bringers, too, but I can understand why you'd have some reservations given the circumstances. The bartender thing is non-negotiable, though, and I don't say this to promote the obnoxious cult of personality currently sleazing up the profession; bartenders aren't any better or more important than any other service industrialist. A lot of my friends tend bar, and they represent a standard distribution of humanity's good and bad traits. Regardless, you have to tip bartenders because, as mentioned above, you only engage their services when you're feeling free and easy, and more important, because they don't get paid shit otherwise.

Local wage laws vary, but in Massachusetts, as an example, bartenders can make as little as $2.63 per hour. That's right: As you may already know, there's a special sub-minimum wage for workers who also receive tips. We may not like that the bar owner is allowed to shift the bulk of his payroll obligations onto us, but that's the deal to which we agree when we enter the bar.

When you go out drinking on Saturday night, the bartenders may seem to be getting rich a soggy dollar at a time—but what about the dozens of hours a week when you're not there and neither is anyone else? That's when they're chopping limes, cleaning bathrooms, and arguing with their bookies for $2.63 an hour. And most bartenders don't receive any health benefits or paid leave, and they have little job security. This lack of guaranteed income is why you need to tip bartenders even when you're not thrilled with their service. You still have to pay the dental hygienist even if he makes your gums bleed—hell, right now your boss is paying you, even though you're reading this post instead of doing your job at all. Most Americans get paid when they suck, and there's no ethical grounds to exclude bartenders from this beautiful racket.

And, you should tip more than a dollar a drink. That dollar-a-drink guideline has been in place for decades—but your bartender's rent hasn't remained fixed since 1991, so why should her wage? You could mess around with fractions and coins and percentages, or you could just leave two bucks a drink. Do that instead. (Unless you get some complicated 7-step, $13-dollar cocktail; then you gotta tip $3.)

I keep using words like "should" and "need to" and "don't be a fucking scumbag," but I suppose you can get by just fine without tipping bartenders. For the most part, they'll keep serving you, because for the most part, they're decent people who don't want to be lousy at their jobs. They'll hate you, sure, but that won't make your beer any warmer. Contrary to the prevailing myth, we don't really tip as an incentive for better service. We tip to be good people. Skipping the tip may seem like one more way the sociopaths win, but only if you define victory as being the asshole with the most singles left in his wallet at the end of the night.


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Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain.

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Image by Jim Cooke.