Poll reveals who are the best, worst tippers

Think you tip better than the next guy at a restaurant? If you’re a baby boomer, live in the Northeast or vote Republican, you probably do.

A new CreditCards.com survey offers a rare look at who the big spenders really are when it comes to leaving gratuities for the wait staff at sit-down restaurants. Topping the list of best tippers:

  • Men.
  • Republicans.
  • Northeasterners.
  • Baby boomers.
  • Anyone who tips with a credit or debit card.

Those groups all leave a median tip of 20 percent of the total bill when they dine out, making them the best tippers among diners at U.S. restaurants. Women, by contrast, leave a median tip of 16 percent, and the median for Southerners and Democrats is 15 percent.

The scientific telephone poll of 1,002 adults conducted June 22-25, 2017, found that overall, 4 out of 5 Americans say they always give a restaurant tip, and the median tip is 18 percent. It also found that credit and debit card users were significantly more likely to tip than diners tipping with cash. See survey methodology.

University experts who study tipping, and waiters interviewed by CreditCards.com, say the results ring true. Michael Lynn, a Cornell University professor who studies gratuity practices, says many factors influence tipping habits. But in general, he says, the wealthier you are, the more you tend to plunk down at the end of the night. That observation is reflected in the survey, which shows those making $75,000 or more per year are indeed the most frequent and generous tippers.

Who we do, don’t tipThe poll also looked at how often Americans tip other types of service providers:

  • When getting a haircut, 67 percent always tip the stylist or barber; 12 percent never do.
  • In a coffee shop, 29 percent always tip the barista; 30 percent never do.
  • When staying at a hotel, 27 percent always tip the housekeeping staff; 31 percent never do.

The gender gapWhile men and women are equally likely to tip restaurant servers, men say they’re more generous, the survey shows. Fifty-nine percent of men say they leave a tip that exceeds 15 percent of the bill, versus just 47 percent of women.

A handful of servers interviewed by CreditCards.com say they, too, have noticed that men leave them more money.

“All of the really big tips I’ve gotten have been from men, and some of the really bad ones have been from groups of women,” says a server at an upscale restaurant in Henrico County, Virginia. “I think sometimes men tip more because they’re trying to impress someone.”

The results were a surprise to Lynn, the Cornell professor, who says other recent studies on tipping have shown no difference between men and women except in specific situations, such as when the waitress is attractive. Since the CreditCards.com survey is based on self-reported information (rather than actual tips left), Lynn says it is possible the men exaggerated how much they give.

The poll did find that women are better tippers in other situations. Women are significantly more likely than men to tip:

  • Hair stylists or barbers: 79 percent of women tip them always or most of the time, compared to 74 percent of men.
  • Baristas: 46 percent of women tip them always or most of the time, compared with 41 percent of men.
  • Hotel housekeepers: 47 percent of women tip them always or most of the time, compared to just 33 percent of men.

Lynn speculates that women may feel more empathy toward hair stylists and hotel maids, since those jobs are typically held by women. Women may also have a better appreciation for how much work it takes to tidy up a hotel room.

Do whites really tip more?The poll found that in the four potential tipping situations (restaurant servers, hair stylists, hotel housekeepers and baristas), whites were, on average, the most generous tippers, not only in the amount tipped but in the number who say they tip at all.

While 94 percent of whites say they tip their restaurant servers all or most of the time; 82 percent of Hispanics and 78 percent of blacks say the same. Whites were also twice as likely to say they typically leave a tip that exceeds 15 percent of the total bill.

The survey parallels other studies using different methodologies that have found that, on average, African-Americans tip less than whites. The gap can be partly explained by education and income differences, experts say.

But another factor is that many blacks and Hispanics are simply less familiar with the social expectation to tip 15 to 20 percent, says Richard Feinberg, a professor at Purdue University who has studied tipping. “A lot of tipping behavior is learned behavior; you learn from watching your parents, so if your parents don’t do it, how do you learn?” he says.

Lynn notes that when he conducted a study to test familiarity with tipping norms, two-thirds of blacks and only one-third of whites – didn’t know that the modern American norm is to tip between 15 to 20 percent in restaurants.

Regional differencesGeographically, people who live in the Northeast are most likely to open up their wallets for restaurant waiters, hotel housekeepers and hair stylists. But coffee shop baristas get the best treatment in the Midwest and West, where about half of all customers say they drop some cash in the jar always or most of the time.

Waiters and waitresses may want to avoid the South. It’s the only region where both the average and the median tip left for servers at sit-down restaurants is a sparse 15 percent. For comparison, the median in the West, Midwest and Northeast are 18, 20 and 20, respectively.

Southerners also are less likely to tip the people who do their hair. Seventeen percent never give their barber or hair stylist a gratuity, versus 11 percent of Midwesterners and 9 percent of those who live in the Northeast and West.

The Northeast dominates when it comes to the amount diners tend to tip in restaurants, with about 3 of every 5 (62 percent) leaving a tip that exceeds 15 percent of the bill. Next most generous is the Midwest (57 percent), followed by the West (51 percent) and the South (46 percent).

Much of the nation’s wealth is concentrated in the Northeast, so that likely explains some of the disparity, says Michael McCall, a professor at Michigan State University who specializes in consumer behavior.

In addition, because many Northeasters live in urban areas, “They likely have more tipping encounters than people in other parts of the country, so they quickly learn what’s expected,” McCall  says. “Tipping behaviors are directly related to your knowledge of tipping customs and norms.”

Baby boomers tip for food service, not for hairThe survey shows that, in general, the older you are, the larger the tip you will leave in a restaurant. So young millennials (ages 18- 26) leave a median tip of 16 percent of the bill, Generation Xers report a median of 18 percent of the bill, and the number rises to 20 percent for baby boomers.

The exception is the silent generation (ages 72 and above), whose median tip is 15 percent. The drop could be related to the fact that money often gets tight for people of that age because medical expenses rise and they are on a fixed income, Lynn says. Or it may simply be because those seniors were raised during a time when the expected norm for tips was lower.

It’s not surprising that baby boomers lead the pack when it comes to how much they tip because they’re at their peak earning potential, Lynn says. In addition to wait staff tips, boomers are also most likely to tip coffee shop baristas, with 38 percent saying they always do. Only 31 percent of the silent generation and 25 percent of Generation X and millennials say the same.

Card tippers versus cash tippersThe survey also found that half of all Americans today are using a credit or debit card to tip their server in a restaurant, and they are leaving higher tips and tipping more often than those who pay in cash. Consider:

  • About 9 in 10 of those who pay with plastic say they always tip the wait staff, compared to only 76 percent of those who plunk down cash.
  • Sixty percent of those who pay with plastic say their tip usually exceeds 15 percent of the bill, versus 45 percent of cash payers.
  • In fact, almost a third of those who pay in cash admit that they typically leave a tip of 10 percent or less.

The survey results are in line with other research that has found that people spend more when they pay with plastic than with actual cash, no matter what they’re buying. “When you pay with a card, your brain doesn’t see it as real money, so it’s not as painful,” says Michael McCall, a professor at Michigan State University who specializes in consumer behavior.

Americans who make more than $75,000 a year are the most likely to use a credit card to pay a gratuity, with about 2 of every 5 tipping that way. Younger folks, on the other hand, rely more on debit cards. The groups who tend to tip in cash are those who make under $30,000 a year, live in rural areas or are over age 72.

The survey found no statistically significant difference in the gratuity habits of debit versus credit card tippers.

What servers sayRestaurant servers contacted by CreditCards.com say the poll results are in line with their personal experiences. People who pay with credit cards seem to leave more, and they tip more consistently.

“In my experience, white men are the best tippers,” says Darron Cardosa, who has waited tables at a neighborhood restaurant in Sunnyside Queens, New York, for more than 20 years. “Of course, that is a generalization, but I think most folks who wait tables would agree.”

Who does the wait staff dread? Big groups of young people. “When I see a bunch of college-age people or people in their 20s, I hope it’s not my table, because I know they’re not going to tip well,” says an 18-year-old waitress at an upscale pizza place in Charlotte, North Carolina. “People who are middle-aged who pay with credit cards are the best tippers.”

Other survey findingsThe poll data also revealed the following findings:

Income differences

  • The wait staff can count on a tip from anyone earning $75,000 a year or more: 99 percent of these earners always or usually tip at restaurants. Tips are iffier when the diner earns less than $30,000 a year, but still, they always or usually tip 76 percent of the time.
  • Anyone earning $50,000 or more is likely to leave a bigger tip when getting up from the table. Those at or above that income level have a median restaurant tip of 20 percent. Those making less than that leave a median tip of 15 percent.

Political party differences

  • Republicans and independents are the big tippers. The poll found that 57 percent of independents and 59 percent of Republicans typically leave an average restaurant tip that exceeds 15 percent of the bill. Only 46 percent of Democrats could say the same.
  • Republicans and independents are also more likely to tip hair stylists and coffee shop baristas compared to Democrats. All three tip hotel maids at about the same rate.

The best hair stylist tippers

  • The older you are, the less likely you are to tip the person who does your hair. Those 50 and older say they never tip their barber or hair stylist twice as often as those ages 18-29 (15 to 7 percent).
  • People who are married are the best hair stylist tippers, with 68 percent saying they always tip, in contrast to 57 percent of unmarried folks.

Why coffee shops are remarkable

  • Coffee shops are one of the few places where the affluent are actually less likely to leave a tip than those with lower annual salaries. Fifty-five percent of those with an annual salary of $30,000 to $49,900 say they tip their baristas all or most of the time, compared to 49 percent of those with a salary between $50,000 and $74,900 and just 41 percent of those who make more than $75,000 a year.
  • Coffee shop customers who don’t have children are significantly more likely to tip the barista. About 1 in 3 (32 percent) childless patrons always drop a few bucks in the jar, versus 1 in 4 who are parents.

Survey methodologyThe survey was created by CreditCards.com and conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. PSRAI obtained telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,002 adults living in the continental United States. Interviews were conducted by landline (500) and cellphone (502, including 329 without a landline phone) in English and Spanish by Princeton Data Source from June 22-25, 2017. Statistical results are weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies. The margin of sampling error for the complete set of weighted data is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

See related: How to regain control over automated tip amounts, Restaurants encourage double-tipping