Helping Our Kids Think Smart About College & the Future: Why Waiting Tables is a Good Option


Helping Our Kids Think Smart About College & the Future Why Waiting Tables is a Good Option

My husband and I met waiting tables in our college days. That’s what all the college kids do, you know, until they get a degree and get a high-paying job so they can pay off the degree. (Only 27% of college grads have a job related to their major and 38% of grads work in a field that doesn’t require a college degree. Washington Post)

I’ve told my husband for years that being a server is a decent way to earn a living. Here’s why I think so:

  • Less Hours. Waiters/Servers can make a full time income working part time hours. It’s common to make around $20/hour (more at high-end establishments) including the small hourly wage.
  • Flexibility. Employees are not usually hemmed in by a typical work-day schedule, and it is also easier to take off work if needed.

This is the biggest advantage, to me, for entrepreneurs or those who have other career goals. It allows more hours and flexibility to build a business or do investing.

  • Lessons. Frankly, serving is good for us. It makes us more patient and humble. Those aren’t bad traits to acquire as a by-product of your work.
  • Fun. For people-people, waiting tables can be lots of fun. Also, the uncertainty of your daily wage is actually an exciting challenge for some.
  • Financial Gain. The best part of this plan is the financial benefit compared to the typical, average college experience.

The disclaimer: I’m not villainizing college, especially for those who have a plan and college is the only route to accomplish it. But the percentage is high for those who simply go, with no premeditated intention, because that’s what they’ve been told they’re supposed to do. I’m simply opposed to the mass, social peer pressure of college accompanied by the silver-bullet facade.

Watch this:

If a high school graduate begins waiting tables at the age of 18, making an average of $18/hour, working approximately 3 days a week for 5 hours (very low numbers), at the end of 4 years he stands to earn $56,160. That does not account for any investing he may do which could potentially double or triple that number.

His (average) counterpart who chooses college will end his 4 years owing an average of $35,200 (CNN), not including housing. If he lives on campus or away from home, his expenses increase by $24,000, at the least. One survey revealed that half the students believe it will take them 9 years to pay back their student loans.

Meanwhile, if the first graduate waiting tables is tired of waiting tables, he has had 4 years to think and a lot of experience to give him insight on what he might want to do more permanently. And what’s more, he has money to move forward, invest, or start a business—or go to college.

I’m just sayin’, plan A makes sense to me.


How fun to find this video after I wrote the post. Not only do I love the message, and it sort of reiterates what I’m trying to say here, but I love Matt Walsh and if you look beside him, it’s our Heidi St. John! (Still looking for the clip to hear her speak.)

26 Responses to “Helping Our Kids Think Smart About College & the Future: Why Waiting Tables is a Good Option”

  1. Josie says:

    Kelly, Yes, serving is a great way to make a living. I used it for extra income while running my own flower shop/antique business. Food service is indeed a humbling experience. The only thing I would be concerned about is for young people say age 16- 20 picking up on worldly things while in this atmosphere. Although maybe by this age they would be firmly grounded in their beliefs if trained properly. I definitely agree that college is not for everyone and in fact for many it was a total waste of time and money. And of course lots of bad things can be picked up at college as well. I am 33 and never wanted to go away to college and was actually quite successful without it. Then I decided to stay home and be a wife and a mother and I still feel like I am successful with out all those student loans to pay off.
    By the way, it was so lovely to meet you in person. I hope your family is all doing well.

    • Josie,

      You are right about the atmosphere, and though that is present in many places, it does seem to be worse in food service. My husband remarked that a man needs to be rock-solid to withstand the kind of temptation that pervades the restaurant environment. But again, that is true for any environment. I enjoyed meeting you too! I only wish we had more time.

  2. Cate says:

    ” . . .at the end of 4 years he stands to earn $56,160″

    That’s $14,000 a year! You can’t support a family on that. After taxes, you can’t do much with that at all. Certainly you can’t live independently and be a self-supporting adult, which is my goal for my kids.

    I have friends who went through college, got engineering or accounting degrees, and ended up with jobs paying $65,000 a year, to start! That’s the future I want for my kids.

    And waitering may be good for younger people, who don’t mind standing on their feet all day. It’s harder to do that kind of job when you are 40. It’s also harder to get that kind of job, since employers want young, fresh faced servers. So it’s no plan for the future.

    I think your plan is short-sighted. It’s OK to accumulate debt to have a good future. Much better than working for a low wage for a short-term gain ($14,000 a year!).

    Have any of your older kids worked as waiters? If no, why not?

    • Cate,

      I wasn’t talking about adults with a family, necessarily, though I know some who do make a living that way. (The figure I gave was for 15 hours a week. One could do several other things with those hours, or work full time hours.) The comment about “a decent living” is an observation I have made, but not necessarily intended to be the point of my post.

      I was talking about a good game plan as they figure out what they might want to do, instead of just jumping into college. OR, I was suggesting this would be a great job for someone who wants the extra time for other career pursuits–my son for example, who is an artist. And yes, I think this would be a great fit for him and I will recommend it when he’s old enough.

      You know going back, I realized I deleted one part that would have explained that better. I went back and added something that hopefully helps clarify.

    • Also, Cate, you’ll notice I didn’t say it was never OK to accumulate debt (though I think working through school or scholarships are far superior), or that following a clear course of action through college was a bad thing. You seem to have a reactionary tone and I’m not sure why. These are good things to discuss, and thinking outside the box doesn’t have to invoke tension. Frankly, yes, a 22 year old who was $56,000 richer is better off than a 22 year old who didn’t know what he wanted, went to school anyway (this is far more common than people think), ended up with a mountain of debt (living expenses alone can accumulate debt–I know, I lived it) ends up not graduating OR getting a degree that doesn’t really assist him in finding a career (notice how many don’t end up working in their field of study). Student A was much smarter and will be far ahead, especially if he works more than the hours I listed and/or invests wisely. Anyone who doubts this strategy should read Dave Ramsey’s millionaire plan and see what happens when young people start investing and saving, just a little, early on.

  3. Cate says:

    “Frankly, yes, a 22 year old who was $56,000 richer. . . ”

    But he wouldn’t be $56,000 richer. Won’t he have to pay taxes? Gas? Car Insurance? Clothes? . . . .not to mention food and shelter? His net is likely to be far less.

    When you compute the college student’s expenses, you build in food and shelter. It is only accurate to build in that figure for the waiter. If he is living at home for free, someone is still paying for it, and his expenses are artificially reduced (nothing wrong with that!)

    My point is, you are talking about his gross. HIs gross is very different from his net.

    I certainly don’t think every kid should go to college. But I also think you have to weigh the numbers accurately when you make a decision like that.

    By the way, if your son is 16+, he is more than old enough to get a job as a waiter, and begin to save his money young as Dave Ramsey recommends!.

    • True, there are expenses. I’m sorry I didn’t say it exactly right. “He would have earned $56,000.” And in the figure of college debt ($36,000), that also doesn’t include the living expenses you mention. So those numbers are pretty equal.

      He isn’t 16, but he is working and saving.

  4. Cate says:

    I’d love to know what investment will double or triple your money in 1-4 years. I’ve been to college and I haven’t been able to find an investment like that!

    • Well, there are moderate to high risk mutual funds, stock markets and gold etf’s. There are smaller, more practical strategies like buying and reselling things (cars, computers, property, etc.) You can buy and resell pallet stock (I have a friend with a family earning a living like this now). You can flip blogs. You can raise dogs. With some entrepreneurial spirit and a little knowledge, there are all sorts of ways a young person can double his money.

  5. laura says:

    I once talked to you about waiting tables. You said you use to wait tables and it was NOT the kind of atmosphere you wanted your children in. I remember this specifically, I wait tables and your tone was a bit hostile to me. If I was the sort to get offended I probably would have been. At the time I made 22K/y serving full time. Are your views changing?

    • It’s quite possible my views have changed. However, I wish you could find the comment I made to you. I have a hard time believing I was “hostile” to you by simply expressing my own experience about the environment. That part certainly hasn’t changed, as I still believe it’s one of the worst work-environments. But as my children approach adulthood, they will deal with lots of unpleasant environments and my job is to prepare them now for that. I searched the comments using your name, your email and your IP address and couldn’t find it.

      • laura says:

        It happened. I can’t find it either. I know you have deleted some posts. I mean, everyione is both in titled to their opinion and allowed to change their mind. Im not angery, just curious. It is something that has stayed in my mind. I can’t remember exactly remember what the orginal post was. In the comments we were debating something about teenage girls working outside the home. I asked why you were against waitress jobs that didn’t require college and were a good life experience. So I was shocked to see this post.

        • I don’t doubt the comment exists. And I’m not surprised that I said something about the atmosphere–I’m sure I did. I’m surprised that you would say it’s “hostile.” I’m not hostile. I can be firm, especially when provoked, but not hostile. If you asked me why I was against my daughters being waitresses, we may have been on a completely different topic. I’m still not in favor of my teenage girls being waitresses in a mainstream situation. Some jobs, maybe. Earning some extra money in an upscale diner where I know the staff (my daughter does this now on occasion), maybe. And I’ve never been against any job that doesn’t require a college experience. I may be more picky about my girls, though. 😉

          • laura says:

            Hostile is the wrong word. Maybe uppity? Like suggesting your children wouldn’t lower themselves to that? Yes, it seemed like you strongly disagreed. Perhaps because I was a waitress I took personal and took it the wrong way.

            • I apologize. I assure you I was only meaning I wouldn’t want them to undergo the kind of temptation I know is there–having worked there myself. And as it relates to this post, there is a big difference in a young adult and a teen ager. So it doesn’t feel black and white to me, and would certainly depend on where, spiritual maturity, etc. Just to clarify.

              • Natalie says:

                Kelly, your grace filled reply speaks volumes. I am sorry that people feel they must attack your character when they disagree with something you say.

                • Natalie says:

                  You know, I realized it is foolish for me to insert myself into your personal disagreement. I apologize!
                  I feel defensive for Kelly as I appreciate that she is writing this blog to encourage us. I don’t ever get the feeling that Kelly is sitting on a high horse.

                • Natalie,

                  I appreciate this. In times like this, I can be perplexed. I don’t ever want to demonstrate pride in my replies. I am open to rebuke about that. But sometimes I think people read into things or maybe they can’t “hear” me through the screen, and assume things that aren’t even on my radar. I appreciate that someone else sees it differently, for what it is.

                  • Laura says:

                    I’m not attacking anyone’s character. Is there something I wrote that made you think that?

                    Other thoughts on waiting tables. Working for a family place can be better than a chain restaurant. But I don’t there is a difference between fine dining or casual. I encountered drug using waiting staff at both. (Never did it myself btw) So many places do NOT do background checks. I worked at Cracker Barrel as a server, there was a guy in the kitchen who had done time in prison for rape.

                    The good side of waiting tables is, as you described in your post, the money and flexibility. To me, working for minimum wage is a waste of time. You will put half your money back into gas money and your lunch break.

                    If someone values their own opinions and beliefs they won’t be as likely to accept invites to after work parties. Which usually occur nightly.

                    And have something going on besides work. So many people’s world was wrapped up in the restaurant. All their friends and all their enemies worked their.

                    • Bookish Jen says:

                      The restaurant industry can be brutal, and it doesn’t matter if the restaurants are fast food joints, chains like Applebee’s, mom and pop diners or high-end, pricey places. I worked for a company that catered to the restaurant industry and heard a lot of horror stories. My friend Kristine is a notable food and drink writer. I have friends who are chefs, wine experts, restaurant employees, etc. Oy, the stories they tell. Yikes!

                      And the book “Behind the Kitchen Door” was hugely enlightening. I’m happy the author is an activist who is trying to improve the lives of restaurant employees. Here is a review of the book:

                    • Jen,

                      These are certainly strong considerations. And I’ll say, basically the same could be said of all retail work.

  6. Rachel says:

    This is great! I would just add that there are parts of the country where degrees are so common that you need one to be hired to wait tables or do other “unskilled” work. For teens who live in those parts of the country, I heartily recommend moving somewhere else after you get your high school diploma. I was one of those teens/young adults once in Silicon Valley. So was my husband. We both went into debt to get our college degrees. I’m a SAHM now, and my husband has never had a job that used any of his college education. Going to university is probably the biggest mistake we ever made. Leaving Silicon Valley (and ultimately California) was the best financial decision we ever made.

  7. Carolina G.C. says:

    Kelly, when you say kids here, are meaning both sons and daughters?
    Some homeschool families would never want their children to work for someone else, not even in those years before they really know what they want. Not even for an extra income. Either entrepreneurs from the beginning or nothing. And some of them are suffering financially because of that.
    We need to be flexible and open.

    • Carolina,

      I personally would have a harder time with my daughters working in this environment, and would even be cautious with my sons. It would depend on family, circumstance, etc.

  8. Erin says:

    Interesting topic. My first “real” job at 16 was as a waitress. I loved it and continued through college. You are right about the skills you learn on that job as well as the income potential for teens and young adults.

    I have been ambivalent regarding our girls working in that atmosphere. We are very tight financially and I don’t see that changing in the next several years and they could use the money to buy things that teen girls do. On the other hand the cautions you give are accurate. My worldly education was increased exponentially my first year there! Do I want my kids, especially my daughters, to hear comments about themselves like I did? It was the only time in my life where I heard a dirty limerick with my name and sexual abilities (despite not having any at that age!)in it-you just didn’t ever challenge the cook if you wanted your tables to get their food on time. If that was the norm 25 years ago in a small town restaurant, I would imagine that it is worse now.

  9. Sue M. says:

    This is 3+ years after your post, so no one may ever read this, but…Matt Walsh may have dropped out of community college. I have nothing but respect for him. But community college is a time-tested way to get a decent-paying career in two years, or to pay for the first two years of a four-year degree at a fraction of the cost of a four-year college or university, especially if a young student lives at home. These days, many of their courses are also offered online. It’s not something that should be dismissed out of hand. And it’s also easily combined with working in a family or individual home-based business, or another part-time job. Classes are often offered in the evenings and on Saturdays. Many states have community colleges within a one-hour drive of most of their residents.

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