Why Are Some Diners Leaving Such Small Tips?

Illustration by Kimberly Elliot

Kadesh Swanson has a rule at sit-down restaurants: He tips 10%. It’s half the norm (at least 20% these days), but it’s what he’s always done. “If servers want more, then they should put the same effort in that I took to earn that money,” he says. Swanson, 34, makes tobacco pipes and hosts taco pop-ups in Olympia, Washington, and sees a gratuity as a reflection of the service he’s offered. He’ll tip more occasionally when the experience feels exceptional, but never on takeout or counter-service orders. “You just came, did your job, and you left,” Swanson says of workers at limited-service restaurants.

A 2023 Pew Research Center study showed that people who have worked for tips are more likely to leave a gratuity. But that’s not the case for Swanson. Even running his own taco pop-ups at local breweries hasn’t changed his views on tipping. He considers his business model comparable to that of a fast-food restaurant: “It comes off the grill and someone hands it to you,” he says. Swanson appreciates a gratuity but admits that “my own business is not one that I would personally tip.” He may not be the average customer, but Swanson is not alone. There are diners across the country who view gratuity in its most literal sense—as totally discretionary.

Tipping has been a controversial topic pretty much forever—but it’s only gotten more polarizing. Stories of people shaming bad tippers are commonplace now, and tipping on everything from takeout to counter service has become the industry norm. Still, there are people among us who are actively resisting this movement. They rarely—if ever—tip 20%, and some believe that by withholding tips, they’re actually protesting an antiquated and inequitable system.

There’s a lot of these people: 5% of Americans never tip and 12% only sometimes leave a gratuity on their meals, according to Bankrate data. In a new YouGov etiquette survey, half of the more than 1,000 respondents indicated they think it’s “acceptable” to leave no tip after receiving “bad service.” That Pew Research Center survey of almost 12,000 adults found that more than half would tip 15% or less on “average—but not exceptional—food and service” at a restaurant. (One quarter of respondents said they would still leave 20% or more, and 2% said they wouldn’t tip at all.)

“I believe the role of tipping should be to incentivize and reward excellent service,” says Anda Galffy, a 69-year-old travel blogger who was born in Europe but now lives in Southern California. “It has nothing to do with generosity.”

But etiquette around gratuity has changed: During the pandemic, many Americans started tipping higher and in more situations. Even as the desire to show support during the worst of the pandemic tapered off, though, the proliferation of tip screens never really went away. In fact, you may still be prompted to tip in nontraditional scenarios such as at the dermatologist, grocery store self-checkout, and even in my meditation app. (It’s framed as a “donation” and immediately reverts the good work I’ve done on my nervous system.)

While tipping has long been expected at restaurants, some customers bristle at the fact that the norms keep increasing—and now these people are intentionally subverting them. Galffy doesn’t view it as her responsibility to subsidize the wages of waitstaff. “Most people I know allow themselves to be guilted into tipping for poor wages,” she says. “But relying on tips to make a living is a choice. If a restaurant doesn’t pay its workers a decent wage, you should go work somewhere else.” She doesn’t leave a gratuity on take-out orders but tends to round up her coffee orders to the nearest dollar and typically tips 15% at a sit-down restaurant—toggling that figure up and down based on her experience. In some cases, she won’t leave a gratuity at all.

Income and age tend to play a role in how tipping is perceived. Roughly 39% of upper-income adults say tipping is more of an obligation—something they essentially feel required to do—compared with 30% of middle-income earners and 24% of people who make lower wages. The 2023 Bankrate survey found that only a quarter of Gen Z’ers tip at least 20% at sit-down restaurants, compared to more than half of Baby Boomers, who are generally more established in their careers, if not retired. It doesn’t help that inflation feels out of control right now; food costs are eating up more of our incomes today than they have in three decades. Some customers are choosing to save a few dollars by skimping on or skipping the tip.

Amanda Claypool, a 32-year-old freelance writer and strategy consultant from Austin, often works out of coffee shops, where she says the financial impacts of tipping are compounded. “If I order a latte and you’re asking me to tip 20%, it brings the cost to $9,” Claypool says. “There’s so much absurdity to that.” Now, she tips 50 cents or so on a specialty drink but doesn’t tip for black coffee. “That’s what they’re paid to do,” she says of the workers filling her cup. (One Grub Street story recommends tipping 20% at coffee shops and at least $1 on plain coffee.)

Claypool has worked in restaurants and still tips for table service, but now does a “Taco Bell test” to decide whether or not to tip in other places. If she wouldn’t tip for the same service at a Taco Bell, she won’t tip at a local café. It’s partly financial and partly on principle. “There’s a socioeconomic divide that’s not being talked about,” Claypool says.

Like so many Americans, Swanson, the tobacco pipe maker in Washington, is also feeling the pinch. “The amount of money that I’m making right now would’ve bought me so much more in just 2016,” he says. He knows he could just avoid eating out—a common piece of advice directed at people willing to pay the cost of a meal but not the expected tip. But if everyone who’s struggling to tip 20% stopped eating out, he reasons, “restaurants will close down, and servers are going to lose their jobs.”

There’s a common conviction held by some diners, who believe that by not tipping or doing so conditionally, they’re actually protesting a broken system. And maybe even forcing employers to pay their staff more.

Allen, a 49-year-old tech executive in Salt Lake City, has pretty standard tipping practices for the most part. But something he’s “absolutely not okay with” is the idea that customers should tip on top of service charges—mandatory fees that some restaurants are increasingly adding to diners’ bills, in many cases to offset staff benefits, wages, or other operating costs. “It shouldn’t be legal, in my opinion,” says Allen, who spoke on the condition that his surname be withheld. When faced with a service charge, he subtracts the fee from the 20% he’d already tip. If a service charge is 20%, he won’t tip at all. “I’m not having it,” says Allen.

It’s true that some restaurants use service charges to cover part or all of a worker’s expected tips—in which case, you’ll usually be advised by your server and be prompted to tip only several percentage points. But when service fees are not going toward covering tips, restaurant etiquette suggests customers should still be tipping 20%. Allen believes his choice to opt out is for the greater good. “My hope is that I’m pushing back on owners trying to get greedy,” he says. “I don’t do it to be mean to the server, but so that maybe they just stop [adding service charges].” (Allen may soon get his wish, at least in California, where lawmakers are taking issue with opaque pricing. On July 1, a new law is set to go into effect requiring restaurants to fold any service fees into the prices on their menus.)

Restaurant economics, though deeply flawed, are just built differently in the US. The notion that owners can easily afford to pay a livable wage without customer tips—and without losing customers—is largely false. Yes, this works in much of Europe, Australia, the UK, and other regions with higher minimum wages, where tipping is truly voluntary. But Americans are used to paying far less for their food, and restaurants would have to raise prices an unpalatable amount to fully cover tipless wages. In many cases, the service fees being tacked on at the end of your meal are a restaurateur’s awkward attempt to make more money for their staff without the sticker shock of expensive dishes turning customers away entirely.

While some diners leave lower-than-average tips, a minority simply don’t see tipping as their problem at all. On Reddit, safe from the possibility of confrontation, anti-tippers anonymously vent their grievances. “Whenever I go to restaurants, order take out [sic] food from home, or just anywhere really, I don’t tip people,” posted one user last year, who in the same message acknowledges that service staff wouldn’t make enough money without tips. Another user started a subreddit titled: “I don’t tip because that’s not my job.” In an older am-I-the-asshole post, one Redditor wrote, “I save thousands of dollars per year by not tipping. I suffer no visible consequences.”

But it’s an invisible consequence some tippers are trying to avoid: being seen as bad people. One core reason customers leave a gratuity is to manage how others perceive them, says Shirley Bluvstein, PhD, a marketing professor at Yeshiva University who studies tipping behavior. “Everyone wants to feel good about themselves,” she says, “and so they tip to signal generosity.” On the flip side, people who convince themselves a lower tip is acceptable usually have a way of justifying their decision, helping them to sidestep guilt.

It’s not often that Galffy, the travel blogger in Southern California, won’t leave at least 15% on a sit-down order. But when she doesn’t tip at all, “it’s for a good reason, and I always make sure I explain it to the waiter,” she says. “So I’ve never felt shamed or ashamed for not leaving enough.”

Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit

More Restaurant Stories From Bon Appétit