Is Tipping Really So Hard?

Here’s what I came across while browsing the finance section of the App Store on my new iPhone:

iTip, from palaware

iTip, from Uncouth Software

BigTipper, from PureBlend Software

TipCalc, from BAMsoft

Tiptap, from Made with Bananas

Tipulator, from tap tap tap

Tip Calc, from Charles Ying

Tip, from Carlos Perez

CheckPlease, from Catamount Software

Tips, from

mTip, from Pascal Mermoz

TipBuddy, from Justin Jeffress

Gratuity, from TapeShow

QuickTip, from Spare Change Software

Tippety Split, from Manta Ray Software

Out of 59 apps in the finance section, at least 15 of them help you calculate a restaurant tip. Some of them also help split a bill between diners and so on; some are free, others cost a dollar. I only glanced at a few of the apps but I can’t imagine there’s a huge difference among them. Which leads me to ask:

1. Is there such a weak demand for real estate in the iPhone App Store that it can afford to give 25 percent of its space to nearly duplicate products?

2. Is it really so hard — even while including certain variables — to calculate a tip?

3. I am all in favor of financial literacy, but isn’t the mastery of restaurant tipping too narrow a skill to demand such attention?

4. I understand that Apple has run into a bit of a buzzsaw with its $1,000 “I Am Rich” app, along with news of an iPhone kill switch, but neither of those cases involved junking up the new sleek worldvibe the iPhone has created — whereas this tip-calc overkill kind of does, no?

Now if someone wrote an app for tipping the flight attendant, I might consider it.

[ADDENDUM: To you long-tail commenters below, who write that “As a virtual store, Apple’s shelf space is essentially infinite,” and “There is no physical ‘space’ limit in the App Store,” let me respectfully disagree, at least a bit. Even when real estate is not physical, there are limitations. For instance, let’s say I’m willing to browse the first 10 or 20 apps in the finance section — and see that a bunch of them are tip calculators. Doesn’t that make me a lot less likely to wade through the next 30 or 40 apps that might not be tip calculators? Here’s a better argument in favor of the reality of virtual real estate: When a post on this blog is linked to from The Times‘s home page, traffic on that post spikes perhaps five- or ten-fold. But there’s only room for so many home-page links — which means that the vast majority of articles and blog posts on never appear there, and therefore get read far, far less widely than those that do. Also, ask publishers how hard they work — and how much money they are willing to pay — to be featured on an front page of some sort. The tail may be long but fat beats skinny any day of the week.]


Some of the responses to this crack me up... seriously people this is a satire, I don't think he's really all that worked up about there being that many tip calculators, this is simply much more interesting to read then "there are a lot of tip calculators on itunes, wonder why!", and its the difference between a paid writer and a blogger account.

And im not really upset about the comments, its just more interesting than "comon people give him a break".



This really irks me, Why is it that so many people believe that basic computation is math? Yay for you, you memorized an algorithm. Wonderful, if you're ever on a desert island and you need to calculate the amount of coconuts you'll need to survive till age 50, then you're set.

The rest of the world offloads simple chores like washing dishes/clothes to machines. But when it comes to making change, some how this is heresy.

Why does no one complain about peoples inability to understand what the normal modes are in the force equations of a suspension bridges that can cause catastrophic failure?


I round to the nearest dollar, then use the decimal point trick. The calculation is a ton faster, and the average error is less than 4 cents on a 15% tip. Worst case of a dime on a 20% tip.

Splitting the check is solved by three magic words: "Separate checks please." Yes, it's more work for the server, but they get new customers to their table without 10 minutes of the previous customers checking and rechecking the bill. Of course, that doesn't really work if you go out with your friends for pizza or something big you split, but I haven't really done that since high school. I was the math geek among math-impaired friends back then, and the bonus was sometimes I would end up with more "change" than the total amount I put in.

Most adults I know without a college degree requiring advanced math can do math at around a 5th grade level (That goes for other subjects too. Jeff Foxworthy is onto something). Calculating simple percentages is at the very boundaries of their ability and requires a fair amount of concentration. A slightly more complex question like what the most expensive item is that they can buy with a $20 bill, assuming 8% sales tax and a 15% tip, is beyond the ability of the average adult without using the guess and check method.

Marginal "real estate" cost on a computer system is so close to free as to be negligible for something the size of a tip calculator. The only problem with having too many tipping programs is that the cost of finding the best one for your own requirements may end up being more than it is worth to you, potentially leading to a suboptimal choice, because software usually has a very strict refund policy.

For example, say there are 10 tip calculators each priced at $1. If you feel it is only worth $1, you can only try one out, and you have a 90% chance of making a suboptimal choice, barring external factors like a very good review system or free trial. If it is worth $2, you can try two out and reduce the chance of making a suboptimal choice to 80%, etc. If the provider raises their acceptance standards, you have a much higher chance of selecting a quality product at a better price.


Andrew M.

Here's a subject TIPPING - how about taking a look at the various tips WITHIN the waiter/barstaff industry. My buddy and I were wondering last night, while having a few beers with his co-workers at a Fort Lauderdale restaurant (likely a chain) called Blue Martini, whether the waitstaff increased their tips by having surgical enhancements (imagine).

In other words - did these women who were on staff see their augmentation surgeries as a proven way to land a better job as a waitress (among other things) ? The bar itself was packed, people seemed inclined to order continuously - so clearly it was a hot spot.

Is there a competition for waitress positions at these popular places? Is augmentation surgery the equivalent of a masters degree for bigger tips?


Automated tip calculators -- if ever there was a solution looking for a problem there it is.

15-20 percent of the total, before the tax. How hard can that be?

I can do that calc in my head -- and I was an ENGLISH major in college.


I always see those tip-calculators - my cell phone has one. I don't think I've ever seen anyone use them, and if I did, I'd mock the person without feeling bad in the slightest! If you don't know basic math you've got a big problem!


Useless. My five year-old Samsung phone has a built-in tip calculator that also lets you split the bill between diners.


It is just another reason to pull out your iphone in front of people and display how vastly superior you are for having a device that can calculate tip instead of making you use your brain.


@ 3 (discordian): Wait, you know engineers who can't calculate a tip in their heads? Be sure to post what bridges they built so that I can avoid them.


Clint, Do you really have many dates where the girl is paying?


Clearly you've never split lunch with a group of engineers who look for any opportunity to bust out their tech.

One former co-worker used to bring his HP Scientific RPN calculator to lunch.


It's not that it's hard to tip, it's that it's easy to write a tip calculator program. Your seeing the output of lots of enthusiastic geeks writing their first iPhone application.


Double the sales tax and round up to the next dollar.

Or always go in groups of at least 8 or 10 so they'll put the tip in for you.


You've all seen this Seinfeld episode, right? That's fantastic--a $2000 tip calculator.

Travis Ormsby

In response to question #1, there is no demand for space in the App Store. As a virtual store, Apple's shelf space is essentially infinite. Furthermore, I'm surprised to see someone at Freakonomics seemingly argue for a reduction in the amount of choices available to consumers.

The answers to questions #2 & #3 relate less to the difficulty or necessity or tipping correctly or splitting checks than it does to the issues of fairness that oftentimes crop up in restaurants.

Many people are worried either that they will accidentally pay too little of the bill (and be seen as freeloaders) or that they will be taken advantage of by their dinner companions. These apps provide a neutral arbiter of who pays what, confirming that the proposed payment arrangement is indeed fair to all parties. That way no one has hurt feelings.

I imagine there could be quite a demand for that.


What's worse is that people buy it:

Chris Brulak

Great points, but I think you are missing something important here.

Tip calculators are easy to program. They are a good application to play with when learning a new platform.

It is really the only simple non-trivial application one can easily develop. I think that the developers wrote all those apps for themselves to learn the platform instead of developing useful for you to use.


Gees I don't know if I could be friends with anyone who had a tip calculator. It means they either can't multiply by .10, .15, .18, and/or .20 or they're too dumb to put the money somewhere useful.


I actually assigned this tip program as the first problem to my introductory programming class. Only, I assigned the students to write out a good human algorithm, not to write the computer program.

Nearly all students can come up with the decimal trick.

But only good students take into account human memory limitations. I can't count the number of times I had this conversation with a student:

Me: Your program is too difficult for your normal human processor to do quickly.

Student: What do you mean? Doubling is easy.

Me: We don't have the memory to do the carrying reliably in our head.

Student: What do you mean.

Me: What's twice 18.78?

Student: Uncomfortably long pause, sometimes followed by an answer, sometimes not.

People who can tip quickly need not just the simple trick, but also basic number sense and approximation ability, as well as an appreciation of how much precision you need for the problem.

Since you rarely care about increments under 50 cents when tipping, for example, you don't need to care much about increments under $2.50, so a good algorithm would have you round $18.77 to $20 before generating a tip.



Easiest solution: Don't tip. At least on the West Coast, all employees — even in food service — are guaranteed a minimum wage regardless of tips.