Americans Are Tipping More Now Than Before the Recession

What factors are playing a role in the spike in tip values.

A mint sitting on a guest check bill
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Despite lingering unemployment and other economic hardships in many parts of the country, studies show Americans are actually leaving higher tips. According to Zagat, the average restaurant tip has increased from 18 percent in 2000 to 19.2 percent in 2011. However, Americans are also dining out less since the recession (3.3 meals per week in 2006 compared to 3.1 in 2011).

Sherry Jarrell, a professor of finance and economics at the Wake Forest School of Business, says better tips may be partly a function of fewer—and cheaper—restaurant meals. "People may choose a cheaper option just because of the state of the economy, but they feel for the waitress or waiter and will go ahead and tip the usual amount even though the total bill has gone down," she explains. "People are going out less often, so the few times they do go out, they feel more comfortable being generous."

Jarrell speculates that as more women pick up the tab, they may be more inclined to leave a higher tip. She says this is especially true if they've waitressed in the past and can empathize with the server.

For example, Alisa Bowman, a writer in Emmaus, Pa., sometimes tips more than 20 percent because she used to wait tables herself and because she believes it's gotten her more attentive service. "My hairdresser does backflips to get me in when it's convenient for me, and the pedicure person occasionally gives me a freebie," Bowman says. "I get a lot of freebies, actually. People appreciate appreciation." She also recalls a cabbie whom she used several times during a conference in Sacramento and the driver insisted on giving her a free ride after she'd tipped him well a few times.

[Read: Your Guide to Holiday Tipping Etiquette.]

Tipping practices vary by geography and context. The Zagat survey data from 2011 found that the average tip in New Orleans was 19.7 percent, compared to 18.6 percent in San Francisco and Seattle.

While tipping is common practice in restaurants throughout the United States, the standard is less clear in other settings like sports stadiums, casinos, taxis, and spas. Richard Seltzer, a professor of political science at Howard University and coauthor of Gratuity: A Contextual Understanding of Tipping Norms from the Perspective of Tipped Employees, conducted interviews with hundreds of tipped employees and found that tipping depends on the context of the service. "You'll get a tip if a massage was to help [the person] relax, but if they're getting a massage for a medical condition, you won't get a tip," he says.

Seltzer also found tipping practices differ by economic class. More affluent customers tipped less for pizza delivery but gave higher tips to personal-care providers such as hair stylists. "Perhaps wealthier people felt more of a need to tip people they would see on a regular basis," Seltzer speculates. "A number of respondents did say they thought wealthier people did not tip well because they did not understand what it was like to live on tips."

[Read: Questions to Ask Before You Shop.]

Moreover, tip jars are popping up in previously unseen places. Steve Dublanica, a former waiter and author of Keep the Change: A Clueless Tipper's Quest to Become the Guru of the Gratuity, describes the phenomenon of such newfound tipping as "tip creep." Tip jars are becoming more common fixtures in coffee shops, newsstands, pizza parlors, and hot-dog stands. Some blogs and websites even have online tip jars. However, Dublanica points out that online tip jars lack the social pressure of tipping in a coffee shop or other public place where someone actually sees you drop change into the jar. His website had a tip jar at one point, but he found that it barely brought in enough money to cover his website hosting fees.

Meanwhile, brick-and-mortar store employers allow tip jars on the counter because they allow workers to earn more money without employers having to boost hourly rates. A large number of baristas, valet drivers, waiters, and others in the service industry rely on tips as part of their income. But the rise in tipping expectations rubs some consumers the wrong way.