This Is the Absolute Minimum You Should Tip Anyone Who Is Bringing You Food or Groceries

published Jan 10, 2020
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A few years ago, I found myself sick in a hotel room in Brooklyn during what should’ve been a fun long weekend in New York. My husband and I were both struck in dramatic fashion with the norovirus and could barely leave bed, let alone the hotel. At the time, I kept thinking that I would pay any sum of money if someone could bring me Sprite and crackers. And then when I felt a little better, I’d have given my soul for a bagel delivery. 

That’s when I missed my chance to disrupt delivery as we knew it, because not long after along came Postmates, Seamless, Shipt, InstaCart, and all the other food delivery start-ups that now make it possible to stay home and have anything from your favorite store or restaurant brought to your door. 

Our world now is so much easier. When my dogs’ fresh food delivery was stuck in a recent shipping fiasco, they were hungry and I didn’t have time to make a trip to the store for emergency kibble, so I just hopped on InstaCart. A driver hit my favorite local pet store and in less than two hours a bag of food arrived and my dogs forgave me for their delayed dinner. 

There’s an elephant in the room when it comes to this convenience, though, and that’s tipping. Always a bit of an awkward (and sometimes touchy) topic, it gets even more sticky when we’re talking about a service that’s relatively new like restaurant and grocery delivery. We have long-established norms for tipping in other situations, but we’re sort of figuring things out as we go along on this front. It doesn’t help that the companies behind these fleets of gig delivery workers have been called out for some shady practices around pay and tips. 

Whether we’re ordering delivery because we’re sick, overworked, living with a disability, or hey, just looking for some convenience to allow for self-care, we want to do the right thing by the worker who’s facing long lines, traffic, and weather — not to mention the instabilities of the gig economy. 

But how much is enough? As much as I’m sure we’d all love to be wildly generous, we have to be mindful of our own expenses as well. Surely there’s a figure we can use as a rule of thumb so that we know whether the total cost, including tip, is within our budget at the moment. 

To settle the matter, I turned to national etiquette expert Diane Gottsman, author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life and founder of The Protocol School of Texas. She didn’t mince words. 

“Tipping is a mandatory part of the cost of any meal that is brought to your doorstep,” she said. “If you can’t afford to tip, you can’t afford to eat out or order in.” 

And in case you think a tip is built in, what we need to recognize right off the bat, she said, is the tip is not the same thing as a service charge. “The restaurant may add a flat delivery fee or service charge to your bill, but this doesn’t go to the driver,” she said. “Only the tip goes directly to the driver as a significant part of their overall compensation.”

Okay, got it. No matter how many extra fees are on the bill, we have to tip. So, drumroll please, how much?

Gottsman says to follow the 20 or 5 Rule. “Tip your delivery driver 20 percent of the total bill or $5 — whichever is higher,” she says. And if there were special challenges — the weather is awful, they have to climb a zillion stairs — bump up the tip even more to recognize that. Note that this goes for ANY KIND of food delivery — meals from restaurants and groceries from a store.

Please remember, she adds, that if you’re using a coupon, the tip should be based on the pre-discount amount. Yeah, it’s great you got 10 bucks off your first order with that app, but factor that back in when it’s time to come up with your 20 percent. 

If you’re not feeling it, consider this. According to, “A common misconception is that [InstaCart drivers] are paid hourly, which is not the case.” Instead, they’re paid a flat rate per delivery, plus a per-item fee. That might not add up to very much, especially if you’re just getting a handful of items. That’s where your tip comes in.

Things they also don’t get paid for include waiting in line, sitting in their car waiting for an order, getting stuck in traffic, or paying for gas and wear and tear on their cars. Again, your tip is going toward all that. 

So now you know: Go forth and tip with the 20 or 5 rule!

How much do you usually tip?