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How To Deal With Coffee Tip Jars

Updated on February 25, 2013

Saving Cents at the Coffee Bar

With lattes now so popular that you can get them at convenience stores and fast food restaurants, it's pretty likely that most of us have been a coffee bar worker at one time in our lives. For me, it was the year that I was living on my own for the first time, and I was working full time as a barista, trying to figure out how to live off of coffee alone because there was no way that I was going to be able to afford to support myself on the minimum wage I was earning at the coffee bar. At the end of each shift, we would eagerly gather together to count out the pennies in the tip jar, and the money I made from tips was often all that I ever had to use for groceries.

Because of that experience, which is an experience many of us have in some form or another during our early days of entering the working world, I have a great empathy now for the people who work at coffee bars. As a result, I have a tendency to over tip them, because the jar is sitting right there in front of me and I know how important that money is to the people who are working behind the counter. But I also know that I may have moved on from barista days but I'm hardly racking up a fortune in my savings account, so I have to be a bit wary about where I spend my cash. And with the frequency with which I pop into the coffee shop, those tip jars can take a lot of my money if not careful.

So how do you balance that desire to help out the coffee bar workers with the need to make sure that you're not cutting too much into your own pocketbook? Well, there's certainly a fine line between being stingy and being a saver, but changing a few small tip jar habits can definitely help you tread that line with relative ease.

The first thing you need to do is to take a look at where exactly you're dropping tips into jars. It's not just coffee shops that have them, but coffee shops are the biggest culprit in my life. Luckily, what I've found is that changing my coffee habits can affect how much I'm paying out in tips. Instead of getting every cup of coffee from the local tip-jar-friendly café, I intersperse my trips to my favorite cafes with trips to non-tip places that sell coffee. I happen to like convenience store coffee myself, but that's not everyone's cup of java. Still, there are to-go counters at diners and fast food places which offer coffee and you won't have to deal with the issue of whether or not to tip because the jar isn't even there.

When you do go to a place where a tip jar is on the counter, the first thing you should do is to hold on to your dollars. I, for one, got into a habit of always dropping a single dollar bill into the pile of dollar bills in the jar. I felt cheap giving anything else, especially since I wanted to save my quarters for doing laundry so if I wasn't giving dollars, I was giving dimes. Still, if you look at it from a budget perspective, it doesn't make sense to drop a dollar tip into a jar for a cup of coffee that cost you just barely more than that. And besides, if you get regular coffee, it only takes a minute for the server to grab it for you and ring it up; that's giving your server $60/hour if you put all of your coffee trips into one day. Sure, when you get a fancy coffee and you order scones to go and you need a carry out container and you send the cup back because the barista forgot to mix in your half packet of sweetener before adding the skim milk to your half caf cap ... okay, then you should be giving up the dollars. But if you're not being fussy, you don't have to pay as if you are. Carry a change purse filled with dimes (or quarters) and use them liberally at tip jars everywhere you go. As an ex-barista, I know that every dime counts, so you can be happy to be giving without being concerned about your own financial future.

Finally, consider whether you might replace your daily tips with a weekly or even seasonal gift. If you always go to the same café and your barista knows you by name, you can forego the daily tip and offer something else instead. Perhaps you work at a spa and have access to discounts on massage gift certificates. Your barista will appreciate a seasonal gift massage at least as much as she appreciates your change at the end of each transaction. I mean, after all, when you were slinging coffee, didn't you want a nice gift now and then?!


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  • Allen Davis profile image

    Allen Davis 8 years ago

    You can't eat a massage. If the barista is counting on tips for groceries, they may not be so appreciative. A supermarket gift card or Visa gift card might be more appropriate.

  • Whitepines profile image

    Whitepines 10 years ago

    Giving a gift instead of daily tips is a great idea and you can save up those daily dimes to do it so it doesn't break your piggy bank!