There’s a Better Way to Save $400 When You Travel

PHOTO: Peter Kim - Dreamstime.com

Don't want to feel cheap when you’re tipping while traveling? Stop trying to tip less.

Who doesn’t love a good money saving trick? Especially when it comes to budgeting for a foodie-focused trip where you’ll be doing a lot of eating out? But a “simple” money-saving tip from CNBC that recently went viral on Twitter is causing massive controversy.  Why? Because “This Simple Tipping Trick Could Save You Over $400 a Year,” involves tipping service people less.

CNBC’s video begins with a caption that reads, in bold letters, “How to save $400 without looking cheap.” The strategy, the video goes on to explain, is for you to tip on the pre-tax total (i.e. the lower total) instead of the total at the bottom of your bill that has tax included. By doing this, you’ll save anywhere from a few cents to a few dollars on each meal. And, because tips can add up, most people who follow this tipping method can save around $400 per year “without looking cheap.”

“I’ve saved thousands of dollars eating out by simply robbing my waiter after their shift ends.” —Twitter user @jmckee

Or at least that’s CNBC’s position. Twitter disagreed. The original Tweet received nearly 6 thousand replies and just 353 retweets, anointing it with the dreaded “Twitter ratio.” (As Deadspin put it, “If a tweet manages to get thousands of responses and a few dozen lonely co-signs, you can safely assume that the tweet in question sucks a lot.”) The replies that it did get were overwhelmingly negative:

“You managed to steal that unearned $0.57 from your server, congrats! Yeah… you look cheap,” wrote user @MovieSilently.

“I’ve saved thousands of dollars eating out by simply robbing my waiter after their shift ends,” quipped user @jmckee.

“Your social media team has never done service work. Cool,” wrote @thesarahrose.

Why Twitter Is So Upset

“Now that I’m thinking about it,” says one woman in the video, “it feels a little dirty. It just feels like you’re going out of your way to look at the number that’s clearly going to give a person less money.” It’s a moment that sums up why CNBC’s advice has inspired such widespread derision: If something makes you feel dirty you’ve probably lost the moral high-ground.

And it’s the math that’s making some people feel dirty. Tipping 20% on the pre-tax total by following the pre-tax total still means that you’ll tip between 15 and 18 percent of the total, which is within the bounds of what’s generally considered an acceptable tip for sit down restaurant service. If you simply tip 18 or 15 percent of the post-tax total, most people won’t look at you sideways. What does make people look sideways and feel “a little dirty” is the effort and mental gymnastics that go into finding a way to tip less without making it look like you’re tipping less.

A Note on Tipping in the United States

If you’re traveling to the United States from another country (or don’t know much about tipping in general) you should know that the United States isn’t the only country with a tipping culture. However, it does have the unfortunate distinction of being one of the few places that has positioned tipping as an inviolable part of the social contract. Tipped employees in most states depend on tips to make a living wage. That’s because, without tips, they make less than the basic minimum wage. For reference, the federal basic minimum wage for employees that don’t depend on tips is $7.25. The minimum wage for tipped employees is $2.13. By the way, the Department of Labor defines a tipped employee as one who receives just $30 of tips per month.

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 Mariusz Szczawinski – Dreamstime.com

If you find it frustrating that restaurant owners are counting on customers to subsidize the income of their employees, imagine how frustrating it must be for your livelihood to depend on the whims of customers. Customers that tell you to smile more; customers that feel as if it’s their sacred duty to grade your performance by an arbitrary rubric; customers that see you take their order and bring their food but don’t see the endless list of (untipped) side work you have on a given night; customers who you not only have no recourse against, but your ability to pay rent depends on them.

How to Save Money Without Disrespecting Your Server

Here’s a tried and true tip worth going by so you don’t have to worry about feeling cheap, or worry that your trick to save $400 a year is cutting into someone’s ability to earn a living wage. When your bill comes at the end of the meal, simply move the decimal one space to the left on the post-tax amount. Then double that number to get 20 percent. Not a math person? No worries! That Instagram and group text machine in your pocket can also be used as a calculator.

“You managed to steal that unearned $0.57 from your server, congrats! Yeah… you look cheap.” —Twitter user @MovieSilently

Still worried that meals are cutting into your budget? It’s understandable. When you’re traveling, eating out’s a big part of the experience. And when you’re in a town that’s known for its food, it’s easy for restaurants to eat up a large slice of your travel budget. But you don’t need to subject yourself to ethically ambiguous mental gymnastics to save a little here and there.

You can save even more (and in a feel-good fashion) by following our own recommendations for traveling to the fullest without tanking your bank account: You can order appetizers, skip breakfast so you have more money for the dinner you really want, or go during lunch when prices are sometimes lower for similar dishes. Or, to expand your savings beyond the restaurant, check out our list of travel hacks for How to Be Bougie on a Budget. You’ll find plenty of ways to rearrange your travel budget so you’ll have plenty left over to feel good about your tip.