Rambling Man: On Tipping At Counters & Kids As A Retirement Plan


Dear Rambling Man:

I want to know your thoughts about tipping. I see two things about it that trouble me.  First, I am seeing more and more restaurants give the amounts of certain recommended percentages of tipping for your bill. However, I am seeing more and more restaurants giving the correct amounts for 25% and the amounts for 15% less and less. Moreover, whenever I go to coffee shops that use Square, their default tip amounts start at $1 and rise to as much as $3 — even if I’m only buying a $2.50 cup of coffee. Seems to me that they’re trying to either take advantage of your obliviousness or shaming you into giving them more money. What do you think about this? Do you feel this is right?

The other thing I’m noticing is that there are more and more places that set out these tipping cups to collect change. I grew up seeing them at coffee houses, but for some time I’m seeing them at fast food places. Fast food places! I saw one at a local Orange Julius, for crissake! Are people who work there greedy, or is the economy and the minimum wage to blame?


Tipping in the face of low wages and unjust labor conditions is kind of like voting in the context of a two-party system with effectively unlimited campaign contributions: you recognize that what you want is revolution, but in the mean time, you do what you can.

Truly, there is little to be said in defense of a system that depends on tipping rather than living wages, universal free healthcare, and affordable childcare, but one thing I can say for it is this: it is the consumer’s sole opportunity to place money directly in the hands of labor, without the mediating influence of capital. And so we should feel happy for the opportunity to tip at Orange Julius or McDonald’s. It’s the only sure way to help get some simulacrum of just compensation to the folks who get the least out of the whole enterprise, but who bear our wrath as consumers most directly when things go wrong, whether they are at fault or not.

The other thing is that it’s nice to tip if you can afford it. It just is. It’s like bagging your own groceries: you don’t have to do it, because it is part of someone else’s job, but if that someone else is busy scanning your items and you’ve already run your debit card through the little machine, why stand there like a dope? With minimal effort (assuming you are physically able and aren’t busy repeatedly telling your children to stop trying to sneak candy bars onto the goddamn checkout belt because we already bought dessert, for the love of God), you could make that checkout person’s day a little bit easier. A tip at the fast food counter may have only a marginal effect on someone’s income, but it’s nice, and being nice is nice.

Are the fast food employees who put out tip jars greedy? Maybe! Maybe after their shift they go cheat at high-stakes poker games and give lousy treats at Halloween. Maybe they never choose to keep their winnings so far and always risk losing it all to try for the million dollars. But they definitely have bad wages in a fundamentally exploitative economy and they might also be the people who, later in the day through some bizarre twist of fate, have to choose between saving your life and the life of the CEO of McDonald’s.


Dear Rambling Man,

I suspect this question is too big for the advice column, but it’s something I’ve wondered about your take on — the idea of investing in social relationships (kids, larger community) as a retirement/insurance strategy, and the way American rugged individualism currently informs our ideas about a privatized, personal retirement.

On the one hand, it seems like trusting that other people will take care of you when you fall is a little grasshopper and the ant. On the other hand, it feels equally weird to say, “No, I can’t use this money to help you now because I might need it later,” or simply to assume that there will be workers later who you can buy with your money without having had to be kind on your way up. (The “I can yell at you because I pay you” strategy.)

This is something I think about sometimes because I have (still young) kids, and nobody else in my generation of my family does, or is likely to. And I look at my grandparents and my great-grandparents, who had a variety of levels of financial security and physical ability, and all of them have been cared for by their children, particularly when they were ill. Maybe my kids won’t do that for me, but I know they wouldn’t if they didn’t exist.

I see articles about how having kids is selfish, and I think, “Well, maybe it is, because I do think of it as an asset in which I’m investing that I will hopefully be able to draw upon later if I need to.” But I also think, “My kids (or somebody’s kids) will have to take care of you, too” — especially when somebody says that they should be “free” from having to see kids in the supermarket, or at the park, or on an airplane.

What do you think?

I like the idea of kids as a retirement plan, mostly because I currently have two children but no savings, which makes me a genius of fiscal prudence. The troubles with such a plan, though, are various. First of all, kids are a poor investment. The money you spend shepherding them to productive adulthood would almost certainly yield greater returns with less effort if you invested it in mutual funds or cocaine. Second, unlike some investment vehicles, kids are not at all recession-proof: they might well turn out to be layabouts, philosophers, or some other profession that fails to support you properly in your old age.

Third, and most importantly, your kids will, more likely than not, be of your same social class, which means they’ll probably have about the same access to resources that you have, and thus, the same relative ability to provide for an idle old person, whether it’s you sooner or themselves later. So if you depend on them to care for you, they’ll probably do it, but then be without resources to care for themselves when they are old and have to depend on their children, which seems OK except that the whole system gets thrown into disarray as soon as one generation has fertility problems or children who grow up to be poets.

So kids are not a great retirement plan. Ultimately, we need a system that provides for everyone and is broad enough to absorb periodic shocks, untrammeled by profit-taking. Since a system like that won’t come about in this country without massive change of a sort unlikely to be supported by elected officials beholden to moneyed interests, you have three retirement-related family planning options: (1) marry and make children with a rich person; (2) raise your children to be socialists who are charismatic and know how to shoot a gun; (3) raise your children to be professional athletes.


Rambling Man is the Billfold’s new advice column about trying to make a living and doing the best you can. Questions for Rambling Man? Email ester@thebillfold.com, subject line: Rambling Man.



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