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Crafty waitress angling for a bigger tip?

A server's actions suggest she was trying to get a $5 or $10 tip for a $9.83 meal.

By Karen Datko Oct 18, 2010 6:16PM

This guest post comes from Squirrelers.


Most stories in the Squirreling Gone Wild series have centered on interesting measures people take to save money. Usually, the stories have been about people I know or strangers I've seen trying to save a few dollars or even pennies on food, gas and other purchases.

This story is a little bit different because it discusses how someone apparently tried to keep a few dollars at my expense.


For this story, let's rewind a few years, when I was doing more business travel. I recall eating a meal at a hotel restaurant by myself. Actually, the restaurant was a bar and grill, and I had been there on a previous trip. Decent atmosphere, several TVs with sports on and quick service -- about all you can hope for at a midrange airport hotel.


I don't remember exactly what I ordered that day, but it was probably a small order, since it came out to just under $10. I think it was $9.83, but it might have been a few cents more or less. That's the price it came to before the tip.


Once I got the check, I reached for my wallet, pulled out a $20 bill, and set it in the little black folder that restaurants provide with the check. I didn't use a credit card that day, probably because the total was relatively low.


Soon after I set it down at the edge of the table, the waitress shuffled over to pick it up. Then she proceeded to ask me the following question:


"Would you like any change?"


I remember sitting there thinking to myself, "Ummm, uh, YEAH! That's $20 I left with the check!"


Of course, what I actually said was a polite "Yes, please."


It seemed odd to me. Did she forget that my bill was less than $10? Clearly, my $20 was visible as it edged out of the little black folder. Maybe she didn't see it? Hard to believe, but who knows.


Smiley face

Then she quickly came back with the change and a big cheery smile, saying "Thank you!" I opened the folder and saw the bill with a smiley face and the same words written. Then I grabbed the bills and coins she gave me as change. I did a double take when I saw what she gave me, in addition to the loose change:


Two $5 bills.


On the occasions when I actually pay cash instead of charging, I usually look to the change I receive as the source for the tip I will leave for the server. I have to think many others view it the same way.


This got me thinking: "Why did she leave two $5 bills? Wouldn't that make it tough to leave an appropriate tip?"

There's no way I'm leaving a $5 tip for a meal that cost me less than $10. But that's what would have happened if I had counted on the change for the tip.


I smiled as I realized that the waitress might be playing games with me, to secure a bigger tip.


At that point, I waited until I made eye contact with her, and I motioned to have her come over.  She walked to the table, and I asked her if she could make change for one of the $5 bills.


She paused for a second or two before saying, "It might take awhile, since I have to get change from the bar. Do you want to wait?"


OK. Maybe I was being cynical, but that convinced me that she was probably trying to extract a big tip from me. Believe me, I have seen enough instances of extraction to know what this looks like.


I paused, then thought that maybe I had some change in my wallet. I checked and found a few singles.


I made the quick decision: Take out a $1 bill, leave it on the table along with the coins, and say, "No, thanks, there's no need to get that change."


I shared the story with someone, who chuckled while telling me that I didn't exactly teach the waitress a lesson. After all, I did leave a tip.


That's probably true. I said my tip was about 12%, which is lower than my usual 15% to 20% but not exactly a motivator for the waitress to play fair with the customers. I guess that in the split second when I made the decision, I just couldn't walk away leaving nothing.


Allow me to ask you: Do you agree with me that the waitress was playing games? What would you have done in this situation?


More from Squirrelers and MSN Money:

Oct 19, 2010 12:24PM
This is one of the main reasons why I hate the idea of "mandatory" tipping. We are expected to supplement an employer who pays a horrible wage, by tipping for mediocre or even bad service!

I don't think you were wrong in what you did. Since I pay with my debit card for everything, I would have just decreased my tip. When I have to ask for change, I usually specify what I want.
Oct 19, 2010 5:28AM
The whole tipping thing was new to me when I first went to North America (Canada first) so I was a bit taken off guard many times and a little screwed over. I tipped everyone from bus drivers to pharmacists because I didn't know how it all worked.

When someone brought me change like that I would have left the $5 thinking that was how it worked...... I am far more shrewd now though and 15%-20% is standard. If they screw me around they get nothing or a nominal amount. I have left a penny before to signal the service was terrible.

Oct 18, 2010 7:51PM
Yes she was playing the same game they all play .
Oct 18, 2010 6:54PM
You should have left just the coins, she knew what she was doing.  I experienced the exact same situation.  The bad thing was that as I exited the restaurant...the waitress came flying out the front door and threw the coins at me. 
Oct 18, 2010 6:34PM
I agree with you. I used to wait tables, and never did anything that stupid. Plus, I've never seen a waitress who couldn't change a five without going to the register or bar. That would be assuming that all of her clients for the day paid by credit card and no one else left a cash tip. You could have alternatively asked her for 2 or 3 dollars back from the five, and if she still said no, just say sorry, no tip, and leave.
Oct 20, 2010 10:20AM
That waitress had a  lot of nerve!  I almost always leave a generous tip, but if she was almost requesting it, I would have definitely decreased it.

I  recognize that a lot of waitresses are struggling.  However, so are a lot of patrons too. 

Oct 19, 2010 6:16PM

I worked as a waitress in college and would have never brought back two fives.  Always bring back a 5 and 5 ones.  Most people would feel bad about leaving $1 and leave $2 or $3 (which in this case would be well 20%+).  However, most people in that situation where the waitress was hesitant to get change wouldn't have left anything at all.  Not smart on her part. 


I also used to ALWAYS bring change, even small change,  unless the patron specifically said "no change, thank you". 

Oct 19, 2010 12:26PM
It depends how I feel at the time and what she looks like. If she looks like a new waitress, I would cut her some slack and wait for change. If I feel like I'm getting played, then I would just leave the change and walk out.
Oct 18, 2010 7:12PM

I agree that this waitress was probably trying to play you, but sometimes it's just inexperience.  When I first started waiting tables, I had a similar situation and brought some coins and a ten dollar bill as change.  I wasn't trying for a large tip; I was just counting out the change as one would at a cash register.  When I brought it back to the table, my customer smiled at me and said, "You're gambling on either a really big tip or a really small tip!" It took me just a few seconds to realize what she meant and the first thought that went through my head was that is would have been wrong to hint at a tip by breaking down the ten. She helped me see that it was really a service to my customer.

It sounds to me like the waitress you had knew what she was doing and I would have let her win the bet on a small tip by leaving just the change...or nothing at all. 

Oct 19, 2010 12:20PM

I had a similar situation with a young server asking if I wanted change from a $20 for a less than $10 bill. I did say, "Uh, yeah, that's a $20"... then when she returned, I explained as gently as I could that it's just bad form to ask this. You will never offend by bringing change, and that's better than possibly alienating those who are - in effect - paying your salary. She was extremely upset by my comments, but she needed to know the question was inappropriate.


I did talk to a manager because I felt so bad that SHE felt bad, and he just groaned (in agreement, that is). I honestly don't think she was manipulating, she just didn't think. The woman above does seem to have had an agenda. In that case, I would have left NO tip and on the way out, told the manager why I didn't.

Oct 19, 2010 2:35PM
I would have given the waitress the $5.00 since alot of them make under the hourly minimum wage and depend on tips for survival. If I was struggling for survival myself I would have left the loose change and felt bad that I couldn't do better for her. I would not have asked for  5 ones.
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