10 Unexpected Money & Career Lessons I Only Learned From Waiting Tables

Waiting tables is known for being a high-stress job with little reward. However, since I quit my server job five years ago, I can’t help but realize how well it prepared me for life in the corporate setting and the real world in general. Being a server teaches you a certain set of skills and provides you with a unique perspective.

I truly believe that everyone would benefit from spending a few months — or years — in the food service industry. Here are some of the top tips, lessons, and pieces of advice I’ve learned from my days as a server.

1. Always save your money. Waiting tables is weird because some nights you walk away with $300 cash, and sometimes you leave with $7.50. You just don’t know. It makes saving your money a necessity, because you can’t count on a certain income. You learn to spend wisely and make sure you have all your bases covered. This habit tends to stick around after you’ve broken free from your serving days, and stashing money away for a rainy day becomes second nature.

2. Don’t underestimate the value of sweat equity. This is hard, physical work, and most of us have the blisters to prove it. Serving taught me how to suck it up, bust my butt, and do the undignified work of scraping dried ketchup off a high chair. It sucked at the time, but it forced me to develop an appreciation for hard work. Now I’m willing to take on any task my boss throws my way, I’m not afraid to (literally) get my hands dirty, and I know that grunt work and sheer effort are key parts to succeeding at any job.

3. Networking doesn’t have to be awkward AF. I spent a majority of my waitressing hours chatting with customers, and I began to know some of them pretty well. I didn’t see it at the time, but this was actually my first introduction to networking. I didn’t wear a suit or clutch a stack of business cards, but I told anyone who would listen about my career goals and next steps. And lo and behold, someone had a friend of a friend who got me an interview that led to a job offer. It’s amazing how wonderful networking can be when it’s not forced or staged. Waiting tables taught me the value of genuine, authentic connection.

4. Treat everyone with respect. There’s a quote by Albert Einstein that states: “I speak to everyone in the same way, whether he is the garbage man or the president of the university.” I can say with sincerity that I try to live by those words. I might have “made it” to a cushy office job, but I’m no better than the hostess at Applebees, nor is the CEO of my organization any better than I am in my minuscule office. People are people, and we all deserve to be treated with respect. Just because someone is working a service or “blue collar” job doesn’t make them any less hardworking or intelligent than people who choose a more corporate path.

5. Math is actually useful. Real talk: I have the mathematical capabilities of a fourth grader. If it wasn’t for my waitressing days, I would still be using Google to solve every math problem I encountered. But now I know things like basic percentages! And discounts! And how to split a check! Also, I wouldn’t be a good server if I didn’t tell you that tipping is legitimately important — it’s how we make our money. And just so we’re clear: the standard restaurant tip is 20%. Please follow it, even if you have to break out your phone calculator to do so.

6. Multitasking is key. I think this is one of the reasons I’m able to juggle so many different projects at my day job. Serving forces you to multitask. You have to remember that the guy at Table 1 needs his Diet Pepsi, put in the food order for the family at Table 2, and find out whether or not the onion rings are made with gluten for the woman at Table 3. All at the same time. It’s exhausting, but I swear it expands your brain. Multitasking is a muscle, and waiting tables forces you to use it.

7. Write everything down — I mean it. Every server thinks they can remember an order without writing it down. And inevitably, every server makes a mistake. That only happened to me approximately three million times before I decided to suck it up and write it down. And in my current office job, I take a notepad with me everywhere I go. It’s saved my butt on numerous occasions.

8. Accept responsibility and apologize. You will screw up. You will order the wrong food, spill the drink, forget the discount. This is just part of the game. But having to deal with angry customers is a great lesson in humility. You learn to swallow your pride, apologize, and fix the issue at hand. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used this skill in the office. When I make a mistake, I own it, I apologize, and I offer a solution. It’s not fun, and it’s humbling every time, but I’ve had managers compliment me on my ability to apologize and handle a mistake efficiently.

9. Communicate as clearly as possible. Waiting tables forces you to communicate with a variety of different personality types. You have to negotiate time off with your boss, bribe lazy bus boys, handle angry chefs in the kitchen, not to mention deal with the strange medley of customers you get to serve. Waiting tables teaches you to communicate efficiently and effectively, all well keeping your “please tip me” smile on your face.

10. Don’t be a dick. The golden rule: if a person is nice to you but is not nice to the server, they are not a nice person. Don’t date that person, befriend that person, or work for that person. Most importantly, don’t be that person. It’s seriously the best litmus test there is.

Jillian wants to live in a world where the coffee is bottomless and the sweatpants are mandatory. As a professional writer, she enjoys crafting copy that cuts through the bullshit of the everyday media. When she’s not being a word wizard, Jillian can be found hiking the trails with her husband and her slightly neurotic German Shepherd named Penny. To learn more about her work and her love of sweatpants, visit her website or find her on Twitter.

Image via Unsplash

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  • Aims

    Good article, just one comment: Standard tip % is incredibly region dependent. 20% would be very high in Vancouver (Canada), and the ‘standard’ is 15%. Crappy service gets less, good-great service 15% and exceptionally ridiculously good service may get 20% if the patron feels like it. It’s a discussion I’ve had with many, and depending on where you live in Canada, USA, UK, Australia, etc, it can vary from ‘not tipping at all ever, because staff in this country are paid a proper hourly wage and tipping isn’t done here’ to ‘20% is normal’.

    • Miss Meg

      Good point – but overwhelmingly across the US, not tipping is the exception to the rule. Tipping (even 15%, not 20%, or whatever you feel is appropriate) is what keeps servers at a living wage in most of the US and beyond.

  • I completely agree. I don’t know how many times I’ve said that I wished everyone had to be a server at some point in their life but it has come up a lot! You really do learn a lot of valuable lessons from handling stressful situations to giving good customer service. I didn’t love the job and am glad I’m not doing it anymore, but for a part-time gig you can do while in school, serving beats a lot of others in terms of the money you can earn.

  • I’ve often said that everyone should be forced to work in the service industry for at least 6 months. It teaches you certain skills that are harder to get through other type of work-grace under pressure, creative problem solving, managing difficult personalities. Those are invaluable skills for any line of work. Thanks retail jobs. =>

  • Summer

    Waiting tables is funny in that it’s one of those jobs so many of us have had and didn’t really love at the time, but years later, we’re all able to look back and name specific things we took away from the experience. I have good and bad memories of all the jobs I’ve had across a variety of industries, but I don’t think anything has stuck with me more than serving. Definitely nothing else offered more real-world, everyday life lessons.