‘Enough tipping on the touchscreen! I’m done”: Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, should I tip coffee, ice cream and takeout? Am I cheap?

I recently bought an ice cream cone from a nearby parlor. It’s a big name joint and I won’t name it here, but suffice it to say you can pay up to $8 for a cone or takeout cup. The line is at the door, especially in the evening.

For lunch, I like to buy fish sandwiches with fries and iced tea at my local sandwich shop. (I’m a baby boomer and my doctor says I should avoid red meat, but that’s a story for another day.)

If you order online they usually make lunch for you when you get there. The online ordering service asks for a tip. Am I a bad person? Am I supposed to tip now before I get my own food? I already tip delivery people.

Enough tipping on the touch screen! I moved on. When is enough?

Feeling short-changed and nickel-and-dimed

Dear Short-Changed,

Tip fatigue is real, and it’s getting worse.

People want to show their appreciation for good service at restaurants that have been hit hard by the pandemic – many of which have closed and/or are still struggling to recover – and those people who have literally put their lives in your hands for those early months of COVID -19 before there were any vaccines. But we are now being asked to tip in the most unexpected places.

So why do people experience tipping fatigue? Because nobody likes to be taken by surprise. When this waiter twirls the touchscreen for us to pay – and we’re forced to choose between 10%, 15%, 20%, or “No tip!” — that puts us on the spot. Clients hate feeling offended and exposed. We can smile and coo at the flavors of the ice cream, but being surprised by a tip option leaves us with a bad taste.

The past two years have also helped many of us reassess our often privileged place in the world. We are a culture that has been pushed and bombarded with notifications for wanting everything now, or we will call your boss and give him a glimpse of our mind. Tipping was a way for us to show that we really care. And, no, it doesn’t need to include tipping before we pick up an online order.

We have all been guilt-ridden by technology. Do I choose “No tip” and risk looking cheap or “20%” and feel like I’ve been tricked? Consumers are tricked by technology into adding an extra $1 to an ice cream or a coffee, while the waiter pretends not to notice. They notice. (The Moneyist, for what it’s worth, is happy to pay $1.50 for a strong Bodega coffee at Starbucks any day.)

“Clients hate feeling offended and exposed.”

The end result: we walk away licking our honeycomb ice cream, not feeling the tingle of pleasure we originally intended. There is a bitter aftertaste. We can suspect we were quietly judged for not tipping $1 for $8 ice cream. Or we think we were tricked into paying more than we would have been comfortable with, had we been prepared for this digital shift in guilt.

Americans claim to have become more generous tippers. More than half of customers say they have increased the amount they donate during the pandemic, and they typically tip 20% or more, according to a survey conducted last fall by Popmenu, a restaurant software company. While most people (61%) said they tip delivery people 15%, nearly four in 10 said they tip 20% or more.

In recent months, a separate report from Square, a financial services and digital payments company, suggests magnanimity is on the wane. The highest tip at full-service restaurants in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, which topped 21%, has now fallen closer to 19%, the company said. Those hotter dumpsters, it seems, have returned to more foresighted pastures.

That’s a long way of saying you don’t have to tip when you’re queuing for coffee or ice cream. An extra dollar here and there has a significant impact for service personnel who often work close to minimum wage. In a bar, by the way, if you want the bartender’s attention, it’s $2 for a cocktail or a shot of liquor. (When it comes to coat check staff and bar staff, tipping $1 is dead.)

That said, if you choose to tip the friendly scooper at an ice cream parlor or the cool barista at a fancy coffee shop, make sure you’re doing it because you want to, not because you’re caught off guard. In cities like New York, where the cost of living is high, it is customary to tip waiters 20%. People from other towns tip 15%, and Europeans – I’m sorry to say, as I’m from across the Atlantic – only tip 10%.

My motto: In Rome, tip like a New Yorker.

Yoyou can email The Moneyist for any financial and ethical questions related to the coronavirus at [email protected], and follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter.

Discover Moneyist’s private Facebook group, where we seek answers to life’s trickiest money problems. Readers write to me with all sorts of dilemmas. Ask your questions, tell me what you want to know more or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

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More Quentin Fottrell:

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• “He was in love with her”: my brother had a drinking problem and committed suicide. He left $6 million to his ex-girlfriend who bought him booze
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