Friday, December 4, 2009

Tipping: not just a place in China

One thing I've noticed here is that, aside from the cost of accommodation, the price of everyday items is generally either comparable or lower to the cost of things back home.

Clothes are cheaper, movies and entertainment are a similar price, and food is cheaper. Or so you would think.

Eating out at a restaurant is great fun, and New York has great restaurants every few metres. Mains (here they call them 'entrees') are generally cheaper back home; where you might pay $30 for a steak in Wellington, you could pay $20-$25 here for the same. This is especially impressive given that Manhattan generally has to import everything.

But New York (well actually the entire country) doesn't make it that simple. Why would you, when you can make it confusing and difficult to predict? You see sales tax (their version of GST) is never included in the menu price. Of anything. Food, clothes, goods and services all exclude tax until it's time to pay the bill, which just gets confusing. A $20 steak will now cost $23.

Why tax is excluded I'll never understand. McDonald's have a commercial over here which has a man wandering the streets with a $1 note, asking people 'what can I get for this?'. Of course when he gets to McD's he is answered wit a swagger of burgers and items that I would just as soon eat as I would run a marathon. But the point is, they lie.

I went into the offending restaurant my first week here, with all of $1.25 in my pocket to satisfy my craving for self destruction, and ordered a 'sweet tea' from there $1 menu.

"That will be $1.09"
"Excuse me?"
"Plus tax, sir"
"Then it's not really a dollar, is it?"
"Of course it is sir. The tea is a dollar, but the tax is nine cents"

I gave him my $1.25, took my sweet tea and change (which I didn't put in the charity box), and nearly lapsed into a diabetic coma from the sweetness of the tea. So I gave it to a homeless man. It's what Jesus would do.

So we have sales tax, to help compensate for the relatively low price of food and such. But then there's tipping. Here you tip anytime anybody does anything for you, outside of simple retail or deli service. This is particularly true of any place with table service.

Typically a tip should be at least 15% of the total bill: 18% is expected, anything more is to reward good service. So basically you tip for service, not good service (though you don't have to tip for bad service, a smaller tip is generally still expected). Also the nicer the restaurant, usually the higher the tip (thanks, peer pressure!). It's not unusual for a $400 bill to have a $100-150 tip.


What initially seems to be a good deal in this city will usually screw you with the fine print. Something I'm starting to become very familiar with, the longer I spend here.

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