How Much Do Bartenders Make?

by Rob Doherty

Bartending can be a lot of things. For some it is exciting, for others exhausting. At times there is a lot of fun to be had, at others it is rather dull. But for the most part, bartending is almost always rewarding in the financial sense, as long as you stick with it.

When you first learn how to become a bartender, it may not seem all that lucrative. Generally speaking, high-end, busier establishments are looking to take on bartenders with a solid level of experience, so if you’re just entering the industry you will probably do so at a less-upscale location, or perhaps at a tavern where there is no need to mix cocktails, just pull beer-taps. You also usually start off working lazy Monday and Tuesday shifts before tackling the often frenzied weekends. However, as you gain more understanding of the work, learn the tricks of customer service, and attain better shifts at higher-paying bars, it is not uncommon to end up walking out the door each night with several hundred dollars in tips.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly wage for a bartender is $10.36, and the average yearly take-home is $21,550. These numbers, however, in no way reflect the reality of the situation. Generally speaking, a bartender earns much more than the government ever finds out about.

Tips are everything

A bartender’s income is comprised mostly of tips–55% to be exact. In some states, employers aren’t even required to pay their bartenders the minimum wage and can pay as low as $2.13 per hour, and they depend on their tips almost entirely. With the exception of those attached to credit cards, there is no way for the government to know how much a person is tipped, and it is an almost universal practice to declare only what is tipped on cards. This leads to a less-taxed check come payday.

A bartender’s salary also varies greatly from state to state. In states where a bartender receives a solid hourly wage alongside their tips, such as Hawaii, Washington, Massachusetts, and Oregon, a bartender’s average yearly (reported) earnings push up toward $30,000 per year.

It may be worth noting that the higher paying states generally house a more liberal-minded population, while in more traditionally conservative regions—Montana, Idaho, the Midwest, and the South—bartenders earn considerably less (see BLS map). This can be explained by two factors: the lower minimum wages (or in some cases a complete lack of a minimum for bartenders), and the lower population densities (which leads to less tips). So if you’re looking to earn hard cash in the bartending game, hit the coast. Some of the highest paying cities include Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, and Newark.

Another thing to take into consideration when looking at the salary numbers provided by the BLS, is that many bartenders do not work full time, instead taking on a couple of nights a week in order to supplement another occupation. A full-time, well-experienced bartender working the best shifts can count on taking in some serious scratch.

How to rake it in

Now that we’ve covered the basics of how a bartender is paid, let’s move on to something perhaps more important—how a bartender can get paid more.

There are a variety of ways to increase the amount of your tips. The first is obvious—be a well-liked bartender. Tell jokes and stories, listen to rambles and lamentations attentively, give compliments and advice, and above all make sure that you keep the booze coming at a steady pace, and plenty of it.

There is nothing that will reduce your tip faster than making a thirsty patron wait on their drink, especially if they receive it only to find out that it’s mostly mixer. Most people appreciate a stiff pour, and if it’s too stiff, they will almost always mention it politely, ask for a hit of more mix, then thank you for giving too much rather than too little. People like to think they’re getting a good deal, even if that good deal is just a few extra drops of booze.

Consider what music you play carefully. What is your audience? Wild and looking to dance? Quiet and relaxed? Become known for always playing just the right song. Make an extensive list of tunes we all know and love, and take requests. And remember—you can almost never go wrong with Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”, Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House”, or “Train in Vain” by the Clash.

Flirt—but not overly so. Oftentimes people are going to a bar for no other reason than to get a bit of attention from the opposite sex, and the occasional wink or double-entendre can go a long way. There may be no higher paid bartender than the younger girl who is willing to listen to an older man talk.

As you become an increasingly charming bartender, people will take notice and will mention it to your employer. Customer opinion is everything in the bar industry. If you are liked by your patrons, you will gain better and higher-paying shifts—as long as you can handle the pace. And if you can’t handle the pace, you won’t be liked by your patrons, so it goes hand in hand.

Moving up in the world

Let’s say that you’ve been working at your first bar job for some time, and that you’ve been learning the tricks of the trade and have started working the busy Friday and Saturday nights, and for all practical purposes you have mastered the position. You now have two choices: to stay there or to move on to a potentially more lucrative bar. There really is no wrong decision. If you stay, you have the benefits of an increasingly loyal customer base, the stability of a job where you are trusted, and you are probably making a fairly decent wage. If you go, you have the opportunity to learn new bartending skills, meet new people, and perhaps make more money.

If you decide to seek a better paying bar, you have a couple of options, depending on your personality. If you have a wild side and can work extremely fast, nightclubs can bring in an outstanding amount of tips. On the flip side, if you’re more apt at quiet conversation and a slower pace that provides more personalized service, fine-dining might be the way to go.

Be the life of the party

When working at a nightclub, it is rather easy to increase your tips. Be the fun bartender who won’t shy away from a bit of dancing, flirts without restriction, and shakes a lot of hands and gives a lot of hugs. Tell wild stories and sing along to the music and recommend elaborate drinks that use expensive ingredients. And if a customer can’t decide upon a drink, offer to make one up on the spot. It can be anything, even something that already exists. People like to think they’re receiving special attention.

Pay attention to details

If you end up in fine-dining or in a high class bar of some sorts, it is equally easy to push up your nightly intake. Learn the details about different liquors and beers, such as why they come in certain glasses, fun facts, or dinner pairings. Pay attention to your regular customers and learn their names, what they order, and about their day to day lives. Ask questions about their work, but not too many—they’ve come to the bar to relax.

Be knowledgeable about a wide-range of subjects and capable of discussing them. A lot of the time, a bartender at a higher-end establishment will work at a more relaxed pace and have a lot more time to converse with their customers. In these situations, if you come off as polished, insightful, attentive, and above all pleasant, your tip will reflect your performance.

When it comes right down to it, the ability to increase your tips comes down to your willingness to mirror each customer’s expectations. Whether they’ve come for fun, flirtation, consolation, or relaxation, if you can provide the atmosphere and experience they’re looking for, you will get off work each night with a healthy roll of bills.

The sky is the limit

In terms of top dollar, how much can a bartender make? According to those BLS stats, the highest earners work in bars at colleges, museums, as lessors of real estate, in hotels and on trains, but these make up a very small portion of all working bartenders.

Tending bar at a busy nightclub, I regularly pulled in upwards of three hundred dollars a night, and on many Fridays I took in more than $600. While working at the bar in an upscale mountain resort, I could easily make $50 on a single drink, simply for providing a bit of quality conversation.

The most I ever made was a little over $1,600 in a single day. I was working at a rural tavern where I would usually make around $100 per night, but one weekend there was a music festival held on the edge of town. That Thursday I made $600. Friday, $1,600. Saturday, more than $1,000. I certainly worked for it. Over the course of those three days I didn’t stop moving. It was constant noise and chaos and I was completely drenched in beer all day long. But it was fun and exhilarating, but most of all profitable.

There is plenty of money to be made in bartending, as long as you can learn the game, work fast, say the right things, and always play the perfect song.

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