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At most restaurants, you will receive a bill that looks something like this:
Tax (8%) $0.80
At the top, each item you ordered will be listed with a price. After all items, a sub-total is given which is the base cost of all your items. Tax of 8-10% is added to the sub-total to give the final total. The bottom total is the amount you need to pay, though see below for rules about tipping.
If you walked up to a counter to order your food, the total at the bottom of your bill is all you need to pay. If you're feeling generous, or the person who took your order was really nice, there's usually a jar marked "tips" nearby and you can leave up to a dollar or two in the jar.
If a waiter came up to you to take your order, as is typical in most sit-down restaurants, tipping at least 15-20% is expected. This amount is calculated off of the pre-tax sub-total of your items. So in the example above, the pre-tax sub-total was almost $10, so you should be adding $1.50-$2.00 to your total. For the bill above, a safe bet would be to leave an even $13.
Tipping in the US is not really optional like it is in many other countries because at sit-down restaurants in the US, businesses are allowed to (and do) pay their servers less than the minmum wage. It is assumed that the servers will make up the difference in tips. Currently, businesses can pay servers as little as $2.13/hour, while the minimum wage is $5.85! In Colorado, things are a bit better, but servers can still earn as little as $3.83, while the minimum wage is $6.85. Thus if you don't leave a reasonable tip, it can really be a big deal!
When you go out to a sit-down restaurant with friends, you'll often receive only one bill for everyone. (You can sometimes ask for separate bills, but this can be a lot of extra work for your server, and a few places don't allow it.) If you do receive a single bill, here are some guidelines on how to split it:
- Each person should add up the base prices for the items they ordered.
- Remember that tax is only calculated on top of the sub-total, so tax has not been added to your individual item prices. That means you need to add an additional 8-10% to the prices of your items to cover tax.
- Add 15-20% to cover the tip.
A safe bet is to add up the base prices of all the items you ordered and then add 30%.
Using the 30% rule will cover both the tax and the tip for your food. As an example, consider two people that went out for dinner. one had a $6.99 burger, and one had $1.99 fries and a $0.99 soda. The burger person should add:
$7 * 3 / 10 = $2.10
The fries-and-drink person should add:
$3 * 3 / 10 = $0.90
That means the burger person should pay a total of $9.09 which most people would round to $9. The fries-and-drink person should pay a total of $3.88 which most people would round to $4. Note that this results in paying $13 on the bill, the same amount calculated for the bill in the single-person Tipping section above.
There are differences in tipping behavior in different social groups. If you spend time with regular CU International members, most people will follow the 30% rule above. In other social groups, people may tip more or less. If you're uncertain, just ask!