Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Tipping Point

Via Julian, I find the Esquire guide for tipping in bars, which says (among other things) that you should tip “at the very least one dollar on a beer or highball and two dollars on a cocktail.” Asks Julian, “I'd been under the impression that $1 [per cocktail] was more or less standard; now I'm wondering whether I've been gradually accumulating the seething hatred of all the booze-slingers at my local bars.”

I share Julian’s impression that $1 is still standard, although I often tip more generously for better service. However, $1/drink seems to have been the norm for a rather long time, without any inflation adjustment. If $1 was the right tip in the year 1998 (and I definitely recall giving $1 tips back then), it should be $1.22 by now, according to the Inflation Calculator. Of course, I’m assuming otherwise constant conditions of supply and demand in the market for bartenders, as well as constant (inflation-adjusted) compensation by the bar owner.

The problem, of course, is that $1.22 is a rather inconvenient amount to tip. The inconvenience is exacerbated by the attitude that leaving change is chintzy (the Esquire guide also advises, “Don't pay or tip with change”). So the $1 tip remains in place.

I propose a simple solution: tip $2 for the first drink and every fifth drink thereafter, and $1 each for the four drinks in between. This will average out to $1.20 per drink. If you think the $1 tip has been stalled since before 1998 (without sufficient adjustment in regular wages), throw in the $2 tip more often. In case you’re wondering, to justify $2 for every drink, we’d need to assume the standard tip has been stalled since about 1983.

Or, if you think the whole tipping convention is unnecessary (except maybe for exceptional service), you could continue to insist on dropping $1/drink, and wait for the supply of willing bartenders to shrink enough to force bar owners to pay them more. But while you’re doing that, I’ll be tipping more and getting served before you.


Jason Wojciechowski said...

The whole "$1/$2" thing completely ignores the question of where people are drinking. $2 on a cocktail or $1 on a beer is far from outrageous in Manhattan, where your cocktail probably runs you $9 and your beer $5-$6.

Anonymous said...

But why should the amount of the per-drink tip be related to the price of the drink, rather than the complexity involved in serving it, which is the basis for the widespread and sensible distinction in tip between a beer and a cocktail? Your $6 beer in New York takes no more effort to serve than my $2.25 Budweiser in Alabama. Unless you're using drink prices as a proxy for general cost-of-living and income differences in the area, but that seems to open a whole 'nother can of worms.

Gil said...

I can't read a discussion of tipping without thinking of this scene:


Gil said...

So, Glen.

Do you tip only to get better service, or is it also because you think it's a good thing to do?

Would you tip at a restaurant where you never expected to return?

I ask because I use tipping as an example of behavior that people do because they think it's right, and it's encouraged by social pressure, even if it doesn't seem to have personal benefits in excess of its costs.

This comes up when people claim that the only way to finance the legitimate functions of government is through coercive taxation, rather than voluntary funding (because of free-rider problems, etc).

Frank McGahon said...

The problem with the $2, $1, $1, $1 policy is that the initial two bucks creates an expectation that the next tip will be equally generous and you might even find the bartender is more pissed off that you've "cut" his expected tip by a whole dollar than if you had only tipped him $1 in the first place.

Colin said...

I tend to be rather pragmatic when it comes to tipping. I look at where the bartender has the most discretion. For beers, he has none so I tip $1. For cocktails, he has very little discretion. If you want a quality martini you have to call out "Saphire martini" and you pay the premium in the form of the drink simply costing more. Therefore, I'll tip $1 for cocktails.

Mixed drinks are where you want to tip $2 or more because the bartender has a lot of discretion in the making of your mixed drink. He can make you a rum and coke that is almost all coke or he can fill it with so much rum that it is almost clear. Considering how much you pay, per ounce, for booze at a bar, it only makes sense to tip the extra dollar and get substantially more liquor in what is obstensively the same drink.