Three Questions About Money and Ethics

Lady Kemma recently wrote with a question about money and ethics:

Last week I went out with my work department. After feeding 30 people, all with individual checks, I left the harried waitress a generous tip. My colleague said, “You’re leaving too much tip.” I said, “The poor lady earned it.” I left the money on the cash tray and got up to leave. My colleague proceeded to take some of the money off my cash tray and put it in her pocket. Since I only have to deal with this lady once a year, I let it go. Thoughts?

Dilemmas like this fascinate me. There are so many things going on at once, it’s difficult to make a smart decision on the spot. I like to think I would have challenged my colleague — I’ve waited tables, and if I leave a tip for someone, nobody had better touch it. On the other hand, I’m often afraid to make a scene, so maybe I would have kept my mouth shut. I don’t know. Just two hours after Lady Kemma sent her question, Kris and I faced a similar situation, but in reverse.

I took Kris to lunch at my favorite Chinese restaurant last Saturday. The bill was $10.25. I left a $1.75 tip. “That’s not enough,” Kris said. “Why not?” I asked. “There’s a certain minimum you need to leave, no matter what the bill,” she told me. “That’s crazy,” I said. “I usually leave $6 when I order a $4.50 lunch on my own. That’s 33%!” When we got up to leave, she put an extra $2 on the table. Is there a minimum tip amount? What is it? (I’m not asking about 10%, 15%, 20% — I’m asking about actual dollars and cents.)

Finally, from the September 2005 Boston Review, here’s one of my favorite money dilemmas:

Mike is supposed to be the best man at a friend’s wedding in Maine this afternoon. He is carrying the wedding rings with him in New Hampshire, where he has been staying on business. One bus a day goes directly to the coast. Mike is on his way to the bus station with 15 minutes to spare when he realizes that his wallet has been stolen, and with it his bus tickets, his credit cards, and all his forms of ID.

At the bus station Mike tries to persuade the officials, and then a couple of fellow travelers, to lend him the money to buy a new ticket, but no one will do it. He’s a stranger, and it’s a significant sum. With five minutes to go before the bus’s departure, he is sitting on a bench trying desperately to think of a plan. Just then, a well-dressed man gets up for a walk, leaving his jacket, with a bus ticket to Maine in the pocket, lying unattended on the bench. In a flash, Mike realizes that the only way he will make it to the wedding on time is if he takes that ticket. The man is clearly well off and could easily buy himself another one.

Should Mike take the ticket?

The “correct” answer to this final moral dilemma varies from culture-to-culture. In the U.S., most people would say, “No, Mike should not take the ticket.” But, as the article explains, in other parts of the world, an overwhelming majority of people believe the right thing to do is for Mike to take the ticket — personal relationships and contractual obligations are more important. (The Boston Review article isn’t about personal finance, but it’s absolutely fascinating — read it if you have a chance.)

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