Dear Penny: Is It Rude Not to Tip Servers Who Bring Food to Your Car?

A woman takes coffee from a person delivering it to her car.
Getty Images
Dear Penny,

My boyfriend and mother don’t tip for call-in-order carside meals. 

As someone who works in the food industry, I know how it feels to be snubbed, so I always try to tip generously when I feel our server has earned it. 

When I mention to them that it’s kind of rude not to tip, my boyfriend fires back with: “They’re not really doing anything. They’re just walking it out to our car. If we were being served at a table it would be different,” and my mother with “I can’t afford to,” which starts the argument of, “If you can’t afford to tip why are you eating out at all?” 

It always ends with a tension-filled meal. I know if someone else is footing my bill I should keep my mouth shut, but still. 

I know the kinds of conversations my co-workers have about people who don’t tip, and it hurts to think they might be talking about people I love that way. 

I offer to leave the tip but they shoot me down. Should I let it go? What’s the proper protocol on tipping the waitress in carside service? Is there one?


Dear C.,

I don’t think the “hey, everyone at Applebee’s thinks you’re a cheapskate when you don’t tip” approach will win over your mom or boyfriend.

Mostly I’m in your camp, though. Hand-delivering a meal to a customer in their car isn’t nothing. Sure, it’s a relatively small amount of work compared with what a server does when they wait on you for a sit-down meal, so it certainly doesn’t merit the standard 20% tip for dining out. A couple bucks seems appropriate. Plus, I think with restaurant meals, it’s best to err on the side of overtipping the hardworking people whose livelihood depends on tips. 

But that’s just my opinion: Tipping for takeout orders is very much a gray area, so I’m willing to give your boyfriend and mom the benefit of the doubt on this one. I don’t think they’re deliberately “snubbing” anyone. They’re just choosing to save money in a way that, like it or not, is socially acceptable.

They already know how you feel about the issue. If you haven’t explained things from the server’s side of things, I’ll give you one more chance to lay it out using your food industry insider knowledge. You might tell them, for example, that you’re compensating the server for the time they’re possibly taking away waiting on those (better-paying) dine-in customers.

If that doesn’t sway them, I think it’s time to stop arguing about the issue, particularly since they’re the ones who pay for these meals.

The good news is that there’s a pretty easy solution here  — and it doesn’t involve sentencing yourself to a lifetime of tension-fueled takeout meals.

Keep a few dollar bills on hand. Next time you roll up for a curbside order, don’t just offer to pay the tip. Wait until the server arrives at the car with your food in hand. As your boyfriend or mom pays for the bill, just say “I’ve got the tip.” Then reach out to the server directly to thank them with whatever amount you think is reasonable. Be sure to thank whomever is footing the bill for the meal, as well.

You can try this once and gauge their reactions. If they’re OK with you handing cash directly to the server, then voila. Easy fix. But if it this results in further arguments, it’s time to drop this. You give up much of your bargaining power when someone else is paying the tab. 

Regardless, you’re probably not going to inspire them to start tipping on all those takeout meals they order on their own. Yes, empty-handed servers may mutter ugly things as people you love drive away with their takeout food. But you’ll have to make peace with that.

If people got Yelp ratings, very few of us would always earn five stars. We all have to accept that people say some not-so-nice things about us behind our backs. 

Worrying about what people are saying about you is a big enough energy sucker. But worrying about what people are saying about other people in your life? Do that and you’ll have no energy left.

Take the emotion out of this issue. Then go forth and enjoy those takeout meals the way a proper takeout meal should be — with a Netflix binge and your beverage of choice, not a debate over tipping.

Robin Hartill is a senior editor at The Penny Hoarder and the voice behind Dear Penny. Send your questions about saving money to [email protected].