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The prevalence of tipping is simply a fact of society. On several occasions, a friend of mine bemoaned the perceived necessity of tipping a specified amount to restaurant servers while dining out. He would ask the rest of our friends eating together at a restaurant, “When did the expected base tip go from 15 percent to 20 percent?” I’m not concerned so much as when cultural norms like these change, but how they change. Is it regional? Does a trend like this start among a wealthier subset and then trickle down to everyone else?

Most everyone who dines out understands that tipping is part of the unwritten agreement. If you can’t afford to pay and tip, you can’t afford to dine out. This social tradition has what I would expect to be practically full penetration throughout the United States. We’ve come to accept that restaurants do not pay their servers and bus staff a living wage on their own, and it’s the customers’ responsibility to bring that compensation more in line with a level necessary to prevent too much attrition in the industry.

With social media, the customers’ responsibility — or negligence — is clear. If you spend any time on Facebook or Twitter, or if you’ve seen any news programs covering entertainment, you’ve likely seen many incidents in the last year in which a disgruntled, undertipped server shames a celebrity by posting a copy of his or her meal receipt with a low tip. There’s two sides to every story; for every shamed, allegedly cheap celebrity or NFL professional, there is an allegedly disrespectful wait staff. It really doesn’t matter who is “right.” The point is that tipping in a restaurant, and tipping 15 percent to 20 percent for typical service, is a pervasive social expectation.

Hotel housekeepers may not benefit from the same, strong tradition of tipping as restaurant servers. An organization is trying to change that. A Woman’s Nation, an organization whose mission is to ensure that the value of women is recognizes and respected, is leading a program they call “The Envelope Please.” The purpose of the program is to encourage hotel guests to tip housekeepers one to five dollars a night, every night by placing an envelope for that purpose in every guest room.

Marriott is the first hotel brand to sign on.

And the hotel will certainly face significant criticism for doing so. If a hotel company blatantly encourages customers to tip, it is, in a way, admitting that it does not pay its staff a living wage. And if a large international corporation wants its employees to be paid a living wage, shouldn’t it be that corporation’s responsibility to do so? Shouldn’t it also perhaps be the industry’s responsibility to ensure it?

Of course, the idea of raising compensation faces the same old corporate obstacle: “If I raise the wages I pay, I have to raise my prices. I can’t raise my prices because I need to remain competitive.” There’s no doubt that it’s a difficult perspective to be in for a business. I have several friends who are not only small business owners like myself, but who also have a growing employee force, and they face these problems all the time.

I used to say that it’s the business owner’s problem to figure out, and if they can’t remain profitable while paying competitive wages, they have to come up with a different business plan. But I see that it’s often more complicated than that.

I’ll be honest. I haven’t always tipped housekeepers when I’ve stayed in hotels. That’s simply due to the fact that when I began staying hotels on my own, I had no idea at least a portion of hotel guests considered it normal to tip housekeepers. At the same time, I knew it was expected to tip hotel porters; maybe that’s because you see the “bell boy tip” in fictional entertainment so much, but never see the act of leaving a tip for the housekeeper in an envelope on the bed or nightstand.

This lack of understanding is the reason a non-profit organization focusing on the value of women would consider it important to provide some attention towards the option of tipping hotel housekeeping staff. But do housekeepers even need the tips in order to earn a living wage?

I checked Salary.com to put some numbers behind this movement.

In my zip code, a restaurant server gets paid a median hourly wage of $14, which was higher than I expected. A hotel housekeeper receives a rate of $13 an hour. In San Diego, California, both job types are paid a medium of $12 an hour. In Tampa, Florida, they both earn $11. From these figures alone, it seems that both job types require some additional compensation to make up for the industry’s low valuation.

Restaurants also know that customers will tip, so that is a justification for keeping pay low. As the idea of tipping hotel housekeepers becomes more pervasive, hotels may be just as willing to feel justified in the level of wage they pay because they know customers will make up for some of the deficiency.

According to one hotel insider, housekeepers are scheduled, at least in his institution, to clean 15 rooms a day. To a housekeeper, if everyone follows the expected guideline, she could walk away at the end of the day with between $15 and $75. If it costs very little to Marriott to put envelopes in every room every day, it could add up to a lot of extra compensation for housekeepers. If you assume the additional tips raise the effective hourly rate of a housekeeper by $4 a day, a hotel would not be able to match that through its own compensation plan. There’s no way a hotel could easily raise that pay of its housekeeping staff by that much.

With that perspective, it makes sense for hotels to encourage customers to tip. The staff will get a much better deal than the hotel could possibly offer. The only drawback is the potential downstream effect; more reliance on tips in the future might prevent hotels from raising wages competitively.

I’ll be keeping this in mind when I head to Louisiana this week for a conference and stay at the New Orleans Marriott.

Do you tip your housekeeping staff when you stay in a hotel?

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An article on The Atlantic brought new research on the growth of income inequality to my attention. The article explains that the cause of today’s income disparity between the wealthy and the rest of the country is explained by the plot of the film When Harry Met Sally — or the increasingly common occurrence of marriages containing individuals well-matched on two specific factors: socio-economic status and education level.

The paper with the new research is available from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Over the past five decades, men and women are more likely to wed partners who are in the same socio-economic status group. As more couples fall into this kind of homogeneity, a feedback effect takes place. In fact, society today is more like it has been throughout most of history, where classes determine socialization and procreation, building generational wealth. The culture in twentieth century United States stands out as a contrast to most of Western history because the equal rights movement and other social causes temporarily shifted the country’s consciousness, and disenfranchised communities sought ways to improve their chances of becoming a part of the middle class machine from a societal perspective.

Europeans came to America before this country’s founding for a variety of reasons, but one of these was economic freedom. Although many European countries had made inroads towards economic mobility, Europeans with wealthy parents but no inheritance would get the opportunity to thrive in a new country. And for the most part, this worked out well for them. Many of the descendants of early settlers have held onto generational wealth obtained primarily by being the first Europeans to occupy land on this continent.

This particular American Dream hasn’t worked out as well for the subsequent immigrants to this country, which things getting progressively worse for each successive wave of immigration, but the earlier a family arrived in the United States, the better chance they have of being part of the wealthy class today.

Until this point, the availability of economically-compatible spouses were somewhat limited. People married their neighbors. Parents and community leaders arranged marriages (or just made suggestions) for their children based on compatibility factors that made sense for those families or communities. It was common in this country for a man with a good, upper middle-class job to marry a woman from a poorer family. Or his secretary.

Over the last fifty years, four specific societal changes affected the choices people had in a mate.

1. Socio-economic situations have become more complex.

Upward economic mobility became more of a reality not just for white European male immigrants, but for women and other non-white men. Men and women began working at the same companies, at the same levels. Today’s result of this advancement for women is that we have corporate Vice Presidents who marry other corporate Vice Presidents. We have managers marrying other managers.

And why not? People with similar roles have much in common, making a marriage more social than perhaps has been the traditional case. People with similar roles also have similar independent incomes.

2. Travel is easier and more affordable.

While historically, familial relationships were limited to the confines of a community, distant communities are now closer together. Cars are prevalent, so it doesn’t take long to get from one city to another. Travel by airplane, despite what seems to be an non-stop rise in airfares, is more affordable, and long-distance relationships are possible.

Also aiding long-distance relationships are advancements in communication technologies. While nothing is better than being with your loved one in person, a couple can now stay in virtual constant communication regardless of where in the world they might be.

3. Social acceptance of non-traditional unions is more common.

American society still has a long way to go before racism is no longer a major concern, but there used to be a time in many states during which racial intermarriages were illegal. The Supreme Court rules that no state could instate such a discriminatory law, and this, the eventual social acceptance of such relationships, and other changes in the workforce that gave more opportunities for non-white workers to succeed, increased the pool of potential mates.

And the eventual acceptance of same-sex marriage continues on that path; more and more, people will be able to (legally, with all the benefits thereto, and with societal acceptance) choose to spend their lives with partners with very similar backgrounds, instilling homogeneity for future generations.

4. Everyone has an opportunity to go to college.

For the most part of the last century, society in the United States has been promoting college. Through the GI Bill, easy access to loans for tuition, and employers who value a college degree, more and more citizens of the United States have been attending college. And an increasing proportion of these university students are women.

While it has always been the case that college graduates tend to marry other college graduates, these used to comprise just a small percentage of all relationships. Again, social trends over the past fifty years have changed the landscape. College degrees are much more common and men and women have an easier time finding compatible partners who are also college educated.

These four changes to society in the United States have widened the pool of available partners who are compatible in education and socio-economic status. This compatibility is not a bad thing. If I’m going to share my life with a partner, I would be expect to be able to communicate about issues that are important to me, and for her to be able to express her ideas intelligently — my hope is that she would challenge me intellectually.

Add this into the new American Dream, which seems to be to pursue individual wealth regardless of others, and you have people who seek out partners along compatibility dimensions such as wealth and education. Because of equal opportunity across sex lines, those types of relationships are more available than they were during the period of this country’s history with the most economic mobility, 1960 through 1980.

The promise of equal opportunity in the workforce for women started in the 1960s, but wasn’t realized or culturally significant until the 1980s. The evidence may be in popular films from the 1980s, depicting more women in traditionally male working roles and with higher education, and of course, in When Harry Met Sally.

If you’re born to a poor family today, the biggest likelihood for your future is that you will stay poor. That’s more like most of Western history than it is like the United States that became the major world power in the twentieth century. Working hard, going to college, and entering the middle class is one way to escape the cycle of poverty or near-poverty, but most will fail. The biggest traditional chance of giving your future children a chance for success is to marry someone wealthy, but more and more, the wealthy are finding their own kind.

Do you and your partner have similar education and socieo-economic backgrounds?

If you’re not married and you are looking for a partner, is this part of your considerations?

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Talking openly and honestly about money, whether with friends or family, has its benefits. Starting a conversation can be difficult, particularly if one party to the discussion is at a different place financially than the other party. Sometimes, it’s even a better choice not to discuss money if doing so might stand in the way of cherished personal relationships, particularly if it’s not a relationship where money is a critical factor.

Before you open your mouth, consider a couple of questions first.

Why do you want to talk about money? As I wrote earlier this week, there are many great reasons for opening an honest discussion about money. If you’re planning to share your life with someone, you must have this discussion at some point. Potential roommates, even those not romantically involved, need to be aware of each other’s household responsibilities and how each other treats those responsibilities. Parents need to be honest about living in a world with financial realities so their children can have a chance to be financially capable on their own.

There are some situations where money discussions are less necessary. Here’s an example. Typically, you and your long-time friends gather for dinner at a restaurant once a month. As per tradition, you split the check; none of you are financially independent (yet) and are most comfortable with this payment arrangement, rather than rotating the check to a different participant each meeting, for example.

One particular friend in this hypothetical situation always comes up short or refuses to contribute in a manner congruent with the behavior of the rest of the group. When is the appropriate time to approach this particular friend about his behavior that doesn’t fit in with the group’s norm? Is it ever appropriate? Is one individual “allowed” in this particular social setting to play and pay by his or her own rules?

There are three socially appropriate options here. Either ask this friend to adjust the behavior, accept that the behavior won’t be adjusted and work around the attitude, or stop inviting the friend to dine at these gatherings. The second and third options may not be ideal, and although they appear to avoid confrontation, they might escalate emotions or create more problems in the future. At the same time, the first option isn’t too appealing.

Is talking about money more about selfish needs? Successful people often forget that those who are less successful don’t always see unsolicited advice as a blessing. Many people have an desire to help, whether the desire seems innate or whether it’s encouraged by the environment in which someone lives. Helping others is seen as a good deed in many cultures, but there are some situations where the desire to help results in damaged feelings and relationships.

On the receiving end, unsolicited advice is bothersome. At every step in my life, friends and strangers alike have wanted to share with me their opinions about my choices — whether those choices pertain to my money, my career, my business strategies, my personal relations, and so forth. Perhaps I give off an aura begging for people to tell me what I should do. But in reality, I’ve been self-aware, and I’ve purposefully sought out people to talk to about various issues. At the same time, I have trust in myself to make good decisions and seek help when it would be to my advantage.

For this same reason, I don’t tell people what to do with their money, at least not without being asked for my opinion. I may write about money every day or so here at Consumerism Commentary, but I don’t evaluate my friends’ financial situations and don’t help them solve their problems unless they ask — and they don’t.

This need to help that inspires people to begin doling out advice often comes from selfish interests, not selflessness. At the same time, not everyone who needs to talk about money will be strong enough to ask for that advice.

When is the appropriate time to bring up the subject of money? The appropriate time depends on the situation. For example, dealing with a roommate, even with a friend, is a business relationship. The appropriate time to talk about some of the financial issues surrounding cohabitation is before anyone signs the lease. Viewed purely as a business discussion, it’s easy to bring up the topic.

Dealing with your friends outside of a business-like relationship is much more difficult. In the earlier example about dining out, you have to be somewhat sensitive to emotions. Taking someone aside to talk about incompatible behavior could be interpreted as an insult or an attack on his or her philosophy.

For new couples, money may not be an appropriate topic until the relationship seems to both people like it might have a future. By that time, each might have an idea about the other’s approach to financial issues, but there may be monsters lurking underneath. With family, if the financial situation is dire, like an adult child who cannot seem to figure out how to live on his or her own, a frank discussion is necessary as soon as possible, but it can be framed as an opening for them to ask for help, without embarrassment or an admission of defeat, with life beyond parental monetary assistance.

Those “interventions” often depicted on television, where the entire family sits down to confront a problem as a surprise, are almost never good ideas.

Tips for starting that conversation about money

Know the person. In what situations would they most likely be open to a non-confrontational talk about money? If you can’t answer this question, you may not be the best person to bring up the topic. Sometimes it helps to appeal to someone who has a closer relationship, someone who he or she respects and views as a role model, and work with that individual.

Check your own ego. Don’t approach the topic as if you have all the answers to life’s most tantalizing questions. Don’t give into your desire to be a hero or savior. Assume that you are not aware of the entire situation, assume that there is some logical reason for whatever financial behavior you feel needs addressing.

Appeal to his or her ego. Start off with a positive observation, then ask questions, particularly about his or her successes and thinking processes. It might help you better understand the philosophy behind financial choices, as well as allow them to open up to you. Follow the “PSP” framework: praise, suggestion, praise. I’ve also hear that framework called a “compliment sandwich.” Always look for something positive discuss. Even though this is a popular technique that doesn’t fully disguise intent, the praises still make it effective.

If you are a couple, talk about your shared goals. This may not be appropriate in all situations, but it can be helpful to frame discussions about money into much larger concepts, like life together in the present and in the future. Within a close, loving relationship, you might be able to delve deeper into past issues that may have framed today’s approach towards money. Remind him or her often that this is a team.

Be non-judgmental. One of the reasons people don’t talk about money is that they don’t want to be judged, particularly by people they like and respect. This makes starting a conversation more difficult. Subtly assure someone you’re speaking with that financial behavior has no bearing on what you think of him or her.

What tips do you have? How do you start a conversation about money with someone who needs help with something pertaining to money, and may need to be told that they need help? How did you begin your first conversation about money with your spouse? How did you help a son or daughter become financially responsible on his or her own?

Photo: Flickr

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I can’t completely fault companies like Amway, Mary Kay, and Lia Sophia. They know that friendship results in two important qualities: trust and guilt. These two qualities are important to companies because they make the process of selling products much easier. I find it relatively easy to politely decline — and hang up on if necessary — a salesperson who calls me uninvited in order to get me to upgrade my phone service or subscribe to a theater. Although I usually don’t have a problem, it can be more difficult to say no to a friend.

In most cases, people join these multi-level marketing (MLM) programs not because they believe in the product but because there is a system designed to allow them to earn significant amounts of money if they play the game right. If you are an influencer in your social circle, you will be able to convince your friends to sell products and host their own parties increasing your income. “Party” is just a code word for “sales pitch.” You can’t achieve success as a multi-level marketer without burning some relationships.

MLM isn’t the only issue. Everyone knows someone who is a social seller. From my observations, the products involved are almost always low quality, too expensive, or both. For example, someone in my office was trying to sell Girl Scout cookies to co-workers the other day for $4 a box. When asked, she had to explain that $4 was the real price and she was not artificially marking the price up. That’s a difficult sell when another co-worker was offering boxes of Girl Scout cookies for $3.50 a piece a few months ago.

I like these cookies, so I usually buy a box each year. Although I’m driven partly by my enjoyment, I’m also driven by guilt. One box of Girl Scout cookies is as far as I’ll go, however.

Dealing with co-workers trying to sell you products you don’t want is easier that dealing with friends who try the same tactics. When a friend is the seller, pressuring you to come to a party (a code word for sales pitch), you have to be strong.

  • First, you can consider going to the party. Don’t bring any money and don’t bring your credit cards. If you see something you truly like and is a good deal, it will be available from your friend later.
  • Politely decline. If you buy from your friend and there is a problem with the product, your friendship could be ruined. If the seller is a co-worker, you could be making your work environment uncomfortable. There are many stories about friends disappearing or not answering calls once they take their money, and the sale could go bad no matter how close you are with your friend.
  • If sales pressure continues, make it clear you are not interested. Sometimes you have to say more than, “No.” Just explain that you’re not interested in the products and you’d prefer to keep the relationship away from business.

Unfortunately, just by denying a friend, you might lose your connection. That may be the fear that prevents people from saying no more often. Saying no is fine, because a good friend won’t use you for their own financial benefit, and a good friend won’t pressure you into something in which you’re not interested.

How do you deal with friends who want to sell you products?

Photo: Pictures from Heather

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