My husband, a frugal man, has a favorite saying: "A bargain is really a bargain when you don't buy it."
"If it's 50 percent off and you buy it," he explains, "you save 50 percent. But if you don't buy it, you save 100 percent."
Yet he sets aside his frugal ways when we dine out. Unlike his relatives who enter a restaurant armed with cents-off coupons and calculators to ensure they never overtip or overspend, my husband meticulously figures, without mechanical help, a generous tip for our server. If the service is terrible, he withholds only a few pennies. Only once did he refuse to tip, and that was the day our waitress quit her job and walked out halfway between taking our order and giving it to the kitchen.
But on all other occasions, my husband has inched the tip upward. When 10 percent was the going rate, he gave 15. Each time the accepted rate increased, he tacked on his own 5 percent. He hasn't analyzed why he tips so generously, but I think the proclivity stems from his high school years, when he worked as a busboy.
Our sons and I have come to accept his habit. Over the years, our growing boys would suggest that Dad let them order dessert rather than tip so much. Or they would ask him to give them tips instead of allowances. He stood firm against their assaults, allowing few desserts and even fewer increases in their allowances.
We recently treated our now-adult son and his girlfriend to a seafood feast. We chose a restaurant near Cocoa Beach, Fla., a colorful local establishment with a lifesize statue of a pirate in the lobby.
Our server, a grandmotherly woman skilled in the art of serving, flew around the restaurant juggling dishes and drinks while treating customers as individuals. She remembered their special tastes, likes, and dislikes - all of which she'd learned after only the briefest of conversations.
She didn't serve us food - she served us the best food. She made sure the kitchen gave her fresh produce. No soggy leaves or underripe tomatoes in our salads. The bread was hot from the oven, rather than dried out from sitting under a heat lamp.
She refilled our glasses before we knew they needed it. She acquainted us with local lore, rock shrimp, river tours to check out, and blueberry hush puppies sprinkled with powdered sugar. She provided this service with a smile, a genuine smile, and a sense of humor.
She picked up a clean napkin and dusted the powdered sugar from our son's mouth. Then she turned to his friend and congratulated her on her choice of entrees. The waitress sensed that this young woman needed a little bolstering as she got to know her boyfriend's parents better.
At the end of the meal, our waitress presented the bill, then went to attend to the growing crowd of other diners. My husband paid with a credit card, added her gratuity, and we were off.
After a quick stop in the washroom, I reentered the lobby in time to see our waitress running out of the dining room waving a receipt at us.
"Mr. Goldsmith!" she called. My husband turned. She waved the paper at him. "Thank you."
He looked at her as though he didn't understand. We've all seen that universal look of confusion - eyebrows drawn together and head cocked to one side.
She stepped closer, taking a moment from the chaos to say, "Your tip. Thank you. It was generous of you."
He shuffled his feet and looked at the floor. This man who refereed football and controlled 22 burly players with a wave of his hand actually blushed.
Then he looked her in the eye, nodded, and said, "You earned it."
We all gaped like fish for a moment, then snapped our mouths shut and followed him out the door.
"What did you give her?" I asked in a stage whisper, wondering if he had done something irrational or made a calculation error.
"She gave us great service. I just thought she deserved a little bump above what I usually give."
"Wow, Dad," our son said, sounding like an awestruck 10-year-old. "I've never seen a waitress follow anyone out of the restaurant to say thank you for the tip."
"Are you sure you didn't make a mistake?" I asked, wondering if we could still afford our mortgage payment.
"Will you just relax? She worked hard. It is no big deal."
It wasn't until later when I overheard our son retelling the story of the grateful waitress that I realized she had given my family something more than a thank you. She showed our son the importance of acknowledging hard work and the rewarding sound of "thank you." Her show of gratitude helped a dad earn a bit more respect from a loving son. And it reminded me just why I married this thoughtful, caring man.
She also erased a few titles from my husband's résumé. Gone were "penny-pincher," "tightwad," and "skinflint." Frugal he remains - but in a generous way.