You Don't Have to Be a Guilt Tipper

Does filling a coffee cup with plain coffee merit a tip?. (Photo: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

I tip my food delivery driver, but I don't put money in the tip jar or add a tip on my credit card receipt when I pick up food to-go.

At a chain coffee shop, I'll tip 10 percent if I order a special coffee, but I won't tip if I just get a black coffee. At many of the independent coffee shops in my area, the person taking my coffee order also makes the coffee and the food in addition to working the counter, so I'll frequently tip more generously there.

I think my guidelines for tipping are fair. I used to feel guilty if I didn't tip some counter servers, but I've become comfortable with drawing a line through that particular area on the credit card slip when I pick up my own pizza or walking away and saying "thank you" if I'm not putting money in a tip jar.

I think it's silly to give someone extra money for doing nothing more than handing me something I ordered and paid for. I'm not the only one. A recent Wall Street Journal asks the question, "You want 20 percent for handing me a muffin?" and discusses how it's getting more and more awkward to not tip on basic counter service because of the Square tablet tipping system.

At this distance, it feels personal

tablet payment
When the barista swings the tablet around and you're faced with a screen asking you to tip, how do you react?. (Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

I'm going to pick on coffee houses here because they're the places where I most often see the Square payment system, but there are many types of small businesses that use Square or similar devices. The payment technology began in 2009 with the Square Reader, a small device inserted into a smartphone that accepted credit card payments. The customer would be handed the smartphone for a signature. In 2013, Square unveiled the Square Stand, which turned an iPad into a payment system, and with the Square Stand came a new form of tipping pressure.

When the iPad is turned around for the customer's signature, what the customer usually sees first is not the screen for a signature, but a screen that asks if you'd like to add a tip. The tip screen can be customized, or even eliminated by the business owner, but Square offers a default tip screen. It's that default screen many of us see when the person behind a counter has done nothing more than pour hot coffee in a cup or hand us a muffin.

The default options for a sale of less than $10 are "no tip," $1, $2 or $3. For more expensive sales, the defaults are "no tip," 15 percent, 20 percent or 25 percent. There's also a customized option to put in a specific amount.

This screen, according to many people the Wall Street Journal spoke to, is guilting people into tipping when they otherwise wouldn't. When the iPad is turned around, and the person behind the counter looks you right in the eye at that pivotal moment, it's hard to not tip.

It's the more subtle equivalent of a server at a restaurant handing you the bill and saying, "How much are you going to tip me?" while standing there watching you count out your money or sign your credit card slip.

The pressure

It's been a couple of decades since I worked in a job where part of my income came from tips, but I remember we were never allowed to ask for a tip. When I waited tables in restaurants during my college years, even asking, "Do you need change?" when someone handed you cash to pay the bill wasn't allowed because that implied you were expecting a tip.

Although there's usually an option with Square for "no tip," it's harder to choose that option when the person is standing right there. The default amounts are higher than most people would tip a counter person. If a waiter or waitress who waits on you table side for two hours gets 20 percent for good service, it doesn't seem outrageous to think that 10 percent is what a counter person should get — and that's if you think a counter person should get anything.

If you spend less than $10, every default tip option is more than 10 percent. There's only one default option that is 10 percent, and that's choosing the $1 tip if you spend exactly $10. Every other default option is more than 10 percent. Of course, customizing is possible, but standing there doing the math can be just as awkward as choosing "no tip."

You're left with three awkward options: Not tipping someone who's watching you choose "no tip," doing math quickly while some is watching you decide on their tip — not to mention the person behind you, who just wants you to get on with it — or tipping more than you want.

Unless you're okay with tipping more than you think is appropriate, you need to take a different approach.

Embrace the awkward

tip jar
Throwing a few coins into a tip jar after getting a cup of coffee is one thing. Being asked to tip up to $3 on a cup of coffee is another. (Photo: nutcd32/Shutterstock)

As difficult as it may be, go ahead and choose "no tip" if that's what you want. If you want to leave 5 percent or 10 percent, take the time to do the math and customize your tip.

Think about the times you've paid cash for a cup of coffee. Did you tip? If you did, how much did you tip? Does it make any sense to tip more than you would if you paid cash just because a computer screen is suggesting it?

It may feel awkward the first few times you don't give in to technology's tipping nudge, but you shouldn't feel guilty. And, the more you choose "no tip" or "customize," the easier it will become.

Remember this, though: More often than not, the person swinging the tablet around for you to pay has no control over the tip screen. Make your tipping choices based on the service you received, not on what that irksome iPad is suggesting.