Guilt tipping, or another way that a card makes you spend more


Last year, I spent an entire month spending only cash. My review at the time was that it was a giant pain in the neck, but it nevertheless (somehow) saved me hundreds of dollars.

Since then, I’ve gone back to using my debit card (yes yes, willingly giving up points and miles because I’m not using a credit card) though not exclusively.

But there are some times when it becomes clear to me just how using a card can induce you to spend more money.

And these days, it starts at the register, specifically those new tablet touch screen registers.


Have you noticed these registers and how they work? The register attendant will fill out your order and take your card and swipe it on the side. Once the order is processed, the attendant will rotate the screen to you. There the screen will typically show a tip option. There are three large buttons for tip options, followed by a small “No tip” button at the bottom.

Let’s think: which one are you going to pick? Are you going to be the miser who clicks “No tip” in front of the person running the register? No, of course not.

Now, I’m a fan of tipping, and have a vested interest in keeping my local coffee shop thriving. And the options there are certainly reasonable. For example, my checkout screen showed this today:

Reasonable options to keep the lights on.
Reasonable options to keep the lights on.

$1-$3 dollars in a coffee shop sounds right. But at other places, the options are 15%, 20%, and 25%. If you want to enter a custom tip, you need to go to a custom screen and key it in yourself. And who wants to do that?

Would you like a side of guilt with that?

According to Fast Company, this “guilt tipping” has been a huge boon for the industry, resulting in a 37% increase in tipped transactions.

Again, let me be clear, I fully support giving extra money to a business and its employees, especially one where the workers earn meager wages, and the owners are likely scraping to get by. Tip and tip well I say.

Instead, I object to the guilt. It changes the transaction from “I want to do this” to “I’ll feel bad if I don’t do this.” And that is the quickest way to torpedo any financial plan you yourself have, because you are no longer focused on what you yourself want to do.

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Guilt is a powerful feeling. It touches on our own self-worth and our desire to be seen in positive ways by others. And guilt works too, which is why people (and companies) employ it. (Advertising, especially where parents and children are involved, is especially terrible with this.)

How to overcome financial guilt

So how do I Square the circle (sorry) here and be reasonably generous while not wondering if I’m being coerced by my own human weaknesses?

Easy: use cash.

When you use cash, it returns tipping from a passive activity to an active one. You have to do more in order to make it happen, not less. And that way, you can be sure that it’s something you want to do. No digital coercion is possible.

So as I say, tip and tip well. Just be sure that it’s you who wants to do it.

But enough about me: Have you ever felt financial guilt? How did you handle it?

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