Service tips (as separate from, say, "stock tips" or "cow tipping") are small sums of money given to thank people for serving you. In the United States and most other Western countries it is customary to tip restaurant servers, cabdrivers, bartenders, hotel bellboys, pizza delivery guys, and anyone else who works in similar service industries. The standard rule of thumb for tipping is 15% of the overall bill, before any discounts are applied. (This is easier math than you think. Say your bill is $29.50. Scoot the decimal point one place to the left to get 10% -- that's $2.95. Divide that amount in half to get 5%, about $1.48. Add the two together and you end up with 15%, or $4.43.)
Why do we tip at all? It's hard to say. Tipping is a very old social custom in the West, dating back at least to ancient Rome. In the old days, it was a kind of noblesse oblige -- superiors sharing a smidgen of their bounty with their social inferiors -- but in an egalitarian society it's become a way of showing people that you notice and appreciate their efforts. Tipping is also a sign of good manners.
There are practical reasons to tip, which you already know if you've ever been a waiter. In some service industries -- particularly in restaurants and bars -- the owners deliberately pay the waitstaff close to slave wages, expecting them to make more than half their money from tips. This is supposed to encourage waitstaff to be friendly and attentive to customers, which in turn reflects well on the establishment. Welllll, SOMEtimes it works that way. Far too often, however, a hard-working waitress hustles her tail off for a big group of customers who finish their meal and leave her bupkis for her efforts. That's just not right. (Worse, I've heard horror stories of douchebags who return to the table after a meal to steal the cash tips left by other diners in their party. Hello, douchebag! My knee is delighted to meet your groin.)
Cash tips are accepted just about everywhere, but many services now allow you to pay (and add tips) with a debit or credit card instead, which is handy if, for instance, you're leaving New York City and you have no cash left on hand to tip the cabbie who just zoomed you to JFK in record time. (GO NEW YORK CABBIES!)
- Tip at the end of service. Since tipping is a reward for good service, you usually tip at the end of the service rendered (as you leave the restaurant, the cab, the bar, etc.).
- Tip discreetly. Don't flash around a massive wad of cash or make a big song and dance number out of the process; it makes you look like a complete goober. (Not to mention that if a thief is watching, he'll know exactly whose pocket to pick later.)
- If you're leaving a tip of more than $1, don't tip in change. It just looks cheap. If you need to, you can usually exchange coins for bills with the cashier.
- Be thoughtful of service people. They have tough jobs, often get yelled at, and many are on their feet all day long; it's a relief to come across someone who demonstrates a little patience.
- In the name of all that's holy, don't be a snob. Displaying genuine kindness and making sure the people around you are as comfortable as possible is the truest sign of good manners.
Restaurant, bar, and delivery service
As mentioned, 15% of the total bill is the most common tip for waiters, bartenders and pizza delivery people, though you can give more if the service was fantastic or if you're just feeling rich and whimsical. Although some people suggest leaving 10% for bad service, I don't recommend it; if your waiter was spectacularly rude or awful, don't tip at all. Instead, ask to speak to the manager and discreetly explain what happened. (That's right, TATTLE.)
If you tend to go to dinner with a huge mob of people, examine the bill before you leave a tip; some restaurants add a gratuity to the bill if there are six or more people in your group. Also, if you hate trying to figure out who pays for what at the end of a meal, ask the waiter for separate checks when you are first seated. Worried someone in your group might be a tip-stealing douchebag? Don't tip in cash. Pay for the meal with a debit or credit card and add the tip to the check at the end of the meal. (Make sure you write down the tip and total on your own receipt, so you don't forget later.)
You don't have to leave a tip if you're picking up take-out food. You also don't have to tip fast-food servers or baristas (though the baristas will sure try to convince you otherwise).
Holding and moving your stuff
Bellboys, porters, skycaps and other people who help you move your luggage around should receive $1 per bag ($2 if you're carrying lead soldiers or skiing paraphernalia), though some suggest a minimum of $5 for the service. Tip in cash, since most porters don't shlep a card reader around with them.
Professional movers and furniture delivery people do some back-breaking work -- especially if you own a grand piano and are moving into a fifth-floor walkup. Each person who helps you move should receive between $15 and $25. Most movers also appreciate clients who offer cold drinks and/or pizza at the end of the job (because, hey, nom).
Coat checkers should receive $2 when you get your coat back. I've never used valet parking in my life, but if you do, the standard tip is $5.
Generally you shouldn't tip grocery store baggers, unless they work for tips. (As a teenager, my husband bagged groceries for tips on an American military base, and consequently developed some unusually powerful forearm muscles. Now he is Popeye the Sailor Man!)
Grooming and hygiene
Hair cutters, manicurists, masseurs/masseuses, estheticians, spa attendants, and anybody else who makes ya look purty should receive about 15% of the total bill as a tip -- more if they've done amazing work. Shoe shiners should receive a $3 to $5 tip.
High-end restaurants and shopping centers sometimes hire restroom attendants. (Honestly, I wish they wouldn't, because a) I can wash my own hands just fine, thanks, b) I'd prefer some privacy, c) it feels like yet another attempt to squeeze cash from customers and d) I almost never have a tip handy since I'm more likely to encounter a unicorn than see a restroom attendant. But that's just me.) $1 in bills or change is an acceptable tip for such service, if you feel inclined.
You shouldn't tip sales clerks at cosmetics stores, as pushing beauty products is part of their job.
You can, if you choose, give a gift tip to people with whom you regularly do business. (Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, is a holiday set aside to do just this.) If you want to gift tip, the standard amount is approximately a week's salary. If it seems appropriate, you can offer a box of good chocolates (no, NOT the wax-covered crap you find in drugstores) or a bottle of quality wine as a gift tip instead.
What if you have no money?
Sometimes you know you should leave a tip, but you're out of cash and can't use a card. If this happens, get the service person's name and the address of his/her business (try asking for a business card), and mail that person a tip later. Think about it -- if you had this person's job, wouldn't you want someone to make the effort for you?
This is just a rough guide to get you started with tipping; it should cover most circumstances you're likely to encounter as a young adult. If you travel overseas or start living large, though, you're on your own. (I can't be expected to do all the legwork for you. Take some incentive and look it up!)