Tipflation: When it comes to when, where and how much to tip, confusion and consternation now reign supreme

A recent survey found that Americans are being asked to tip more frequently.
A recent survey found that Americans are being asked to tip more frequently. | Adobe Stock

Is it 15%? Twenty percent? Does it only count when someone brings a meal to your table? What about a cab or Uber ride? If you’re handed a cup of Joe (or a sack of cheeseburgers) through a drive-through window, is a gratuity in order? How do you feel about adding a perk for no one in particular at a self-checkout stand?

The parameters for tipping may have never been definitive, in a history that purportedly dates back to the Roman Empire, but evidence is mounting that a U.S. service economy that looks remarkably different than the one of only five or 10 years ago has brought a slew of new expectations, and shameless prods, when it comes to adding a gratuity to your bill.

National survey results just published by Pew Research Center find that an overwhelming majority of American consumers report that they’re being asked to tip more frequently than ever before, but when it comes to the essential dilemma of tipping as an obligation versus a choice, the waters of sentiment are murky at best.


In a study that tapped the input of nearly 12,000 respondents, Pew found that 72% of participants said they’re being asked to leave a tip in more places compared with five years ago. But knowing which services to tip for divided respondents, with 34% reporting it is extremely or very easy to decide, 39% saying it was somewhat easy and 26% who find the decision of who to tip or who not too not at all easy.

When it comes to the question of tipping because you want to or because you ought to, 49% of those surveyed said it depended on the situation, 29% said they tip because it’s more of an obligation and 21% said it’s more about choice.

Pew also uncovered demographic variations on the tipping dilemma. Those with upper incomes and more education reported less confidence about tipping than those with lower incomes or less education. For example, Pew researchers found only about a quarter of upper-income people, 25%, and those with bachelor’s degrees, 26%, say it’s extremely or very easy to know whether to tip in a given situation.

While a clear majority of survey takers told Pew tip expectations were more prevalent now, researchers noted its not clear whether or not they are tipping more frequently.

There’s no official data on how many U.S. businesses rely on tips to compensate their workers or what share of workers are regularly tipped, according to the report, but there is a widely reported perception that more businesses are at least offering customers the opportunity to tip workers. Pew researchers note the adoption of point-of-sale tablets, apps and digital kiosks has made it easier for businesses to provide customers with prompts, and suggested levels, to tip.

In May, The Wall Street Journal reported that prompts to leave 20% gratuities at self-checkout machines at airports, stadiums, cookie shops and cafes across the country were rankling consumers already inundated by the proliferation of tip screens. Business owners say the automated cues can significantly increase gratuities and boost staff pay, per the Journal, but the unmanned prompts are leading more customers to question what, exactly, the tips are for.

“They’re cutting labor costs by doing self-checkout. So what’s the point of asking for a tip? And where is it going?” Ishita Jamar, a senior at American University in Washington, D.C., who has noticed more self-serve tip cues at restaurants she frequents, told The Wall Street Journal.

In April, the Deseret News, in partnership with the Hinckley Institute of Politics, tested Utahns’ tipping sentiments in a statewide poll of registered voters.

In that survey, 89% of respondents said that tipping had become somewhat more or much more of an expectation for services and purchases. In another poll question, 31% of participants said they had felt “pressured” to tip in the past year but 20% said they had “happy” feelings about their past year of tipping habits.

“That social pressure is just a killer,” Andrea Archuleta of Clearfield, who was one of 800 Utahns who responded to a recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, told the Deseret News for a May story.

The Pew report notes that an increasing number of restaurants are assessing service charges or automatic tips on customers’ bills. While the move may seem like a potential solution to tipping quandaries, survey participants were solidly against the idea, with 72% saying they opposed businesses including an automatic service charge or tip on their bills.

Pew respondents were also lukewarm about businesses that provide tip prompts and suggestions, with 40% saying they somewhat or strongly oppose tip suggestions and 24% weighing in as somewhat or strongly favoring the practice. Indifference was a factor in this question as well, with 32% saying they neither favored or opposed tip suggestions.

When it comes to what the general public does and does not tip for, Pew and Deseret News survey takers had very similar responses. Sit-down restaurants were the top response in both surveys when it comes to services that get tips. Food delivery, haircuts, buying drinks at a bar and using a taxi or ride-share service were in the top tier as tip-worthy services in both surveys as well.

When Pew asked survey takers how much they tip for a meal in a sit-down restaurant, a plurality, 31%, said they leave a 15% tip, 22% said they typically leave a 20% tip, 18% said they leave less than 15% as a tip and 2% said they leave nothing.

And while a Restaurant Business Online report from March tracked the origin of the word “tip” to the 17th century and the practice of London tavern and coffee house owners to post signs saying “To Insure Promptitude” alongside boxes or bowls where customers could leave an extra coin for faster service, Pew survey takers gave a longer list of reasons for deciding whether or not to pad their payment with a gratuity.

Quality of service was listed as a major factor in deciding a tip by 77% of respondents, while 23% said social pressure was a major factor, 31% said how much the worker earns before tips was a major factor and 23% listed how much the tip would cost them as a major factor for tipping decisions.

Pew researchers wrote that while service quality was by far the most cited factor across all age groups, younger Americans were more likely than older people to consider certain other factors. For example, survey data showed that adults under 30 were more likely than those 65 and older to point to workers’ pre-tip wages, social pressure and cost as major factors when deciding whether to leave a tip.