6 Ways to Make More Money as a Waiter or Waitress

Photo (cc) by erix!

An opinion piece in The New York Times last week started like this…

Help wanted: Salary: $19,000 (some may be withheld or stolen). No health insurance, paid sick days or paid vacation. Opportunity for advancement: nearly nil.

That describes the hardships faced by food-service workers – 20 million Americans, with half of them working in restaurants. According to a recent report called The Hands That Feed Us by the Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA), the food industry employs more workers than any other, including health care and retail.

Yet food-industry workers are so poorly paid, The Times reports, “The biggest workforce in America can’t put food on the table except when they go to work.”

I’ve been in restaurants for seven years, and I’ve learned to make a living with a combination of hard work and clever schemes. Here’s what you need to know to make it in this harsh world…

1. Focus on your tips

A little-known fact about servers is how little a restaurant pays them. Since they’re tipped employees, they fall under a special minimum wage. Federally, that minimum is set at $2.13 an hour – which hasn’t changed since 1991.

According to the FCWA report, that means that only 13.5 percent of those surveyed made a “livable wage” – giving them the ability to cover basic needs like housing, clothing, and nutrition.

I’ve made as little as the minimum when I worked in Texas five years ago and as much as $4.26 an hour in Florida last year. But neither would be enough to live on if you don’t…

  • Forget about the hourly peanuts you make. It’ll all be sucked into the taxes you pay anyway. Concentrate on finding restaurants that are known for big tippers, not hourly wages.
  • Keep track of your tips. If your tips don’t make up the difference between the tipped minimum wage and the regular minimum wage – last updated in 2009 to $7.25 – your employer is forced by law to pay you the difference. But there’s a caveat. The numbers are based on weekly totals. A bad shift today might be countered by a good shift tomorrow.
  • Be responsible with the cash you get every day. Just because there are bills in your wallet doesn’t mean you can spend them. If you’re going out to have a good time, set a chunk of cash aside in your sock drawer – and don’t touch it. This is a big problem with some servers who let that cash burn a hole in their pocket.

2. Work long hours the right way

According to the report, only 11 percent of those surveyed worked more than 60 hours, with two or more jobs. I expected the number to be higher — working two jobs is smart.

Since employers are forced by law to pay you at least 150 percent of your hourly when you work more than 40 hours a week, most of them keep you from doing so. In the restaurant business, this translates to keeping you from picking up too many shifts or just sending you home in the middle of your shift. (I’ve had both happen to me.)

So, if your boss is stringent, work two jobs that’ll give you 25 or 30 hours a week. This way, you work as much as you want, and your wallet will reflect your hours.

3. Get insured one way or the other

Turnover in restaurants is high, so most of them see little value in investing for benefits. One of my managers used to joke that it’s only when restaurants force you to wear a tie that they care about you sticking around.

At my last job, we got a few minutes of vacation pay for every week we worked more than 25 hours. After four years there, I had accrued just a few days. According to the FCWA report, of those surveyed…

  • 79 percent don’t have paid sick leave – or don’t know if they do
  • 83 percent don’t get health insurance from their employer
  • 58 percent don’t have health care at all
  • 53 percent worked while they were sick
  • 35 percent have used the emergency room as their primary care

Working for a chain of restaurants is more likely to get you health insurance – at the chain where I last worked, we had plans for both full-time and part-time employees. But don’t count on the job to give you benefits. Get health care on your own, if only to cover the basics. Check out our health care page to find discount rates in your state.

4. Move on up

If benefits are scarce, so is training and promotions. According to the report, of those surveyed…

  • 81 percent never received a promotion
  • 75 percent never had an opportunity to apply for a promotion
  • 74 percent had no ongoing training from their employer
  • 32 percent received no training at all after their first day

This doesn’t mean a salad prep can’t become a grill cook (which usually pays more). It just means that moving up is up to you. Like I told you in my guide to getting and keeping a restaurant job:

Don’t stop learning. Ask the bartender what good wine or drink goes with what dish. Memorize two or three suggestions a week. Within a month, you’ll know more than the others, meaning you’ll upsell more, getting guests to buy more than just what they wanted at first. Your wallet and your schedule will reflect this newfound knowledge.

This applies to cooks too. The kitchen manager at my last job started off as a busser and would stay late to help the cooks clean up – and in turn, they taught him how their equipment worked.

5. Take your breaks responsibly

Unfortunately, federal law doesn’t require an employer to give you a break. Thankfully, some state laws have this provision. In California, an employer has to give you at least a 30-minute break every five hours. In Florida, you get nothing unless you’re under 18. However, federal law says that if an employer does give you a break – five to 20 minutes – you get paid during that break.

According to the report, 40 percent of those surveyed never got even a 10-minute break. And 30 percent didn’t break for lunch.

I’ve never seen a manager object to someone taking a short bathroom break (which can translate to a cigarette or a quick phone call). But don’t be stupid about it. No matter what, never take even a five-minute break without your section (whether in the kitchen or out on the floor) being taken care of by a co-worker. That’s a quick recipe to get fired.

6. Be safe

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 4,960 workers died on the job in 2010. While serving food is a low-risk job, you can get hurt.

I once had a guest back into me and knock over a cocktail tray I was holding with four hot tea cups on it. I worked through my shift – but later found out I suffered third-degree burns on my neck and shoulder. Since this happened on the job, my restaurant paid for it all.

Back to the survey…

  • 57.2 percent suffered injury or a health problem on the job
  • 52 percent did not receive health and safety training from their employer
  • 32.7 percent did not receive proper equipment to do the job
  • 11.7 percent did something that put their own safety at risk

Most restaurants force you to wear slip-resistant shoes, or shoes that are specially made to stick to a wet floor. It’s not that they care for your well-being, it’s that they don’t want to be sued. If you slip and fall, and aren’t wearing the right shoes, they don’t owe you zilch.

For example, the first thing my manager did the night I spilled tea was…check my shoes. Only then did he authorize me to go to the hospital.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

Read Next
15 Purchases That Make Life Easier As You Age

There are many products that can make getting older — or any time of life — a little easier.

10 Common Expenses That Have Skyrocketed for Seniors

Retirees must stretch their dollars further and further these days — no thanks to these costs.

15 Great Amazon Finds You Can Buy for Less Than $5

These products offer big value at a small price.

How to Achieve Your Financial Goals in 2020

New year, new you. Get your finances on track with the help of these tools for investing, saving, budgeting and earning.

7 Things You Should Buy at Estate Sales

Here’s what an experienced estate sale shopper considers a great find.

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Most Popular
7 Kirkland Signature Items to Avoid at Costco

Even if it seems you save a bundle buying Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand products, they may not be the bargain they appear to be.

8 Tips for Retiring Comfortably on Social Security Alone

It’s never too early to start learning how to live well while living on less.

Am I Eligible for My Mother’s Social Security Benefit?

Can an adult daughter tap into her late mother’s benefit?

11 Generic Products You Should Buy at Costco

Not all generics are worthwhile, but these are among the best from Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand.

9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again

The warehouse store offers an enormous selection, but these products aren’t coming back.

This Surprise Factor Can Raise Your Risk of Dementia

Nearly half of U.S. residents may face this threat.

3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free

With a little ingenuity, you can cut Office costs to zero.

This Gas Station Scam Is Victimizing More Drivers

For the second straight year, a growing number of Americans believe they’ve fallen prey to this scam.

Organize Your Home With These 10 Thrift Store Finds

Resolve to be clutter-free in 2021 with these secondhand purchases.

11 Laws You Could Be Breaking Without Knowing It

Seriously? Fibbing about the weather is a crime? This and other little-known legal traps await the unwary.

15 Free Streaming Services to Watch While Stuck at Home

These free movie streaming sites offer thousands of movies and TV shows, including recent releases and beloved classics. If you love free movies, online sites are where you need to look for the best list of features that are just one easy click away.

6 Legal Documents Retirees Need — but Don’t Have

Few retirees have all of these documents that are crucial to their golden years — especially during a pandemic.

These Are the 3 Best Used Cars You Can Buy

These vehicles boast reliability, safety and long-lasting value.

Can a Divorced Widow Claim Her First Husband’s Social Security Benefits?

The rules are complicated when it comes to eligibility for survivors benefits.

27 Things You Should Never Pay For — and How to Get Them for Free

When you know the tricks, you can save big on all kinds of useful things that others pay for.

15 Amazon Purchases That We Are Loving Right Now

These practical products make everyday life a little easier.

10 Things I Always Buy at Trader Joe’s

From snacks to sweets to side dishes, stock your cart with these time-tested favorites on your next TJ’s run.

9 Small Expenses That Are Bleeding Your Budget Dry

Keep more of future paychecks by eliminating these budget-busting unnecessary expenses.

Internet Providers Can’t Charge You for This Anymore

Starting this month, your ISP no longer can bill you for this fee.

View More Articles

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Add a Comment

Our Policy: We welcome relevant and respectful comments in order to foster healthy and informative discussions. All other comments may be removed. Comments with links are automatically held for moderation.