Should I tip 20% in a restaurant even if the service is mediocre?

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Dear Moneyist,

Around 99% of the time, I leave a cash tip for our server. I am the only one in our family who ever waited tables or even worked food service. Because of this, I tend to be generous with tipping, but if it’s really bad, I have left between 10% and 15%.

Hence, my question. Recently, we went to a hot spot for brunch, and they were not busy yet. Our 30-something waiter seemed distracted and confirmed it by his anticipation of a movie release later that day. He forgot our drink orders, never returned for refills and only checked back once before dropping off the check in front of our guest while we were still trying to enjoy our meals.

Also see: The $1 tip is dead

I was very embarrassed by all of this. I picked up the check and held it until we were ready to go. I was going to leave 16% but my wife insisted a larger tip was warranted. I disagreed, but not wishing to make a less than positive experience any worse, I left 30%. Even our guest later commented that our server needs to think about other employment choices.

Should the amount of tip left reflect the level of service one receives?

Disgruntled Diner

Dear Diner,

I’m just back from vacation and I was fortunate to eat in quite a few nice restaurants, and I would have given extra if the server had approached our table only once during my meal to ask, “How is everything?” Even the most helpful waiters and waitresses tend to interrupt multiple times during a meal. It can be hard to chew your food in peace or keep a conversation going. I much prefer servers who keep a respectful distance, but always keep their eyes and ears open.

We all have idiosyncrasies. Perhaps it’s the Irish man in me — too much pep and I feel overwhelmed. But the service in U.S. restaurants is by far the best I’ve experienced anywhere in the world. Americans really understand the value of customer service and rarely are you left sitting without a tall glass of ice water moments after you sit down. For me, it’s those little things that really matter. Also, there was no way for your server to know he was placing the bill next to your guest.

Don’t miss: Meet the most generous tipper in America

We all want to be treated like kings when we are eating out and spending money. But waiters are poorly paid and they’re on their feet all day. Their median pay last year was $21,780. I could forgive anyone for being shaken, stirred and shattered at those wages. They’re also dealing with the general public all day long. Think about that for a moment. Imagine what a collection of demanding, difficult and dastardly customers they deal with every day.

Given that you were unhappy with this man’s service, 30% seems excessive. But forgetting a drinks order and a refill don’t seem serious enough to me to reduce his tip. I agree with your wife: Tip 20% unless something truly egregious happens. But if the waiter/waitress has a nice, friendly demeanor and smiles, and makes me feel welcome, I will always tip 20%. That’s the hallmark of good service in my book. I can roll with honest mistakes and a forgetful moment or two.

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Hello there, MarketWatchers. Check out the Moneyist private Facebook group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas: inheritance, wills, divorce, tipping, gifting. I often talk to lawyers, accountants, financial advisers and other experts, in addition to offering my own thoughts. I receive more letters than I could ever answer, so I’ll be bringing all of that guidance — including some you might not see in these columns — to this group. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

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