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Thought for my Pennies

I don’t know why this came to mind today, but one of the most liberating moments of my middle age was the realization that I don’t have to give a shit about calculating tips in restaurants. At least, not at the restaurants I go to. I’m not sure when exactly it was, and it’s possible that I am forgetting a conversation that led to it, but at some point in my late thirties or early forties, I was doing arithmetic for a tip and judging the correct amount for service given, and then I just rounded up and added another dollar and realized that it made no difference to my budget.

I think of it as a fifty-dollar tab, but it was long enough ago that it was probably thirty-ish dollars, unless I suppose there were more than two of us. Anyway, if it was thirty, I might have been deciding between an 18% tip ($5.40) and a 20% tip ($6) and realized that it made no difference to me at all if I paid $35.40 or $36 or even $37 for dinner. It just wasn’t enough money for me to worry about—certainly not enough money to pay me for my time making judgments and doing arithmetic, and absolutely in no way enough money to hold over some sap of a waiter as a punishment or reward for correct service. At fifty dollars, the difference between 18% and 20% reaches a whole dollar. Adding another dollar on top of that isn’t going to make a difference in how often I can afford to go out to eat.

Now, a couple of things. First, sure, absolutely, the entire system of tips in restaurants is obviously terrible. It’s awful. It makes no sense. If you were inventing an economic system for a specfic world, there is no way you would ever invent one particular sub-industry in which once class of service workers is paid half-wages with the rest made up by voluntary-but-strongly-enforced-by-social-norms payment at the customer’s discretion. It’s bizarre. Of course, you couldn’t really imagine the economics of higher education, either, where much of the revenue comes from totally voluntary donations from former students. I dunno. Anyway, my discovery that I don’t have to be stressed about tipping doesn’t make me feel better about the system at all, only about my experience of it.

And second, of course, this is because in my middle-age I am lucky enough to be married to someone who makes a pretty good living, and I myself have a pretty reasonable job. We’re not poor, or struggling. We’re very nearly comfortable, by my standards. We can afford to eat at a restaurant when we feel like it, if not all the time. We can’t have all the imaginable luxuries, but we can choose a few. I’m aware that there are people for whom a couple of dollars is no negligible sum. That’s not something I have forgotten, even as I reach the point where it isn’t so, for me, anymore.

And really, that was why it was so liberating, I think. The knowledge that my money troubles (and they do exist) are in sufficiently large chunks that a few dollars here or there aren’t going to make any difference. Our family has graduated from taking care of the pennies, and the pounds will take care of themselves to penny wise, pound foolish. Or, rather, the reverse of that, I hope. We can be penny foolish, so long as we are pound wise. The mortgage is not put at risk by my being a good tipper. The budget for a second car is a question that will not be appreciably affected by whether I tip well or cheaply.

There are other aspects of this: realizing that a difference between the cheaper gas station on the left and the more expensive one on the right comes to less than fifty cents a tank. Noticing that making another stop to get the cheaper milk saves nor more than a few nickels. The savings between buying the cheap socks and the good socks is not, over the course of a year, more than about twenty-five dollars. And, of course, it goes the other way: bringing leftovers for lunch most days instead of buying really does save almost a hundred bucks a month. Buying a $2 cup of tea at the café when I want it is totally affordable—but going a couple of times a day would put a serious dent in the budget. There are restaurant choices that I cannot comfortably afford even if I tipped at 15%. One thing about being in comfortable circumstances, it seems to me, is that you have the capacity and the responsibility of figuring shit like that out: is delivery of a daily newspaper better thought of as a negligible fifty cents a day, or the whole annual $150 or so? If I decided to cut our expenses, should I stop eating potato chips? Or stop doing theater for a while? Would a raise of a dollar an hour be enough to start thinking about a trip to London next year, or should I get a Hulu subscription service so our family can watch a bunch of my old favorite TV shows together? Or maybe blow it all on a new iPhone?

Perhaps it should go without saying, but yeah, this is not how we think about healthcare.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

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