No matter how many times you’ve stepped foot in a salon, figuring out whom to tip, how frequently, and how much can feel like an ever-changing equation, and that’s especially true when it comes to nail services. In 2015, an explosive article from the New York Times revealed that nail technicians in New York City were making an average of $3 an hour, when in the same year, the nail industry was said to have raked in $8.51 billion. Since then, transparency around tipping and nail artist wages has gotten slightly better, but the topic still remains somewhat murky.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, nail techs should be paid at least the federal minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) and compensated for “all work performed, whether or not the employer approves the work in advance; this includes time spent in training, traveling from site to site during the day, and any work performed ‘off the clock.'” Although it’s worth noting that some states, like Massachusetts and Washington, require a much higher minimum wage ($11/hour and $11.50/hour, respectively), and employers are expected to follow those specific state directives.
In a recent survey by Nails Magazine, the average service income for nail technicians in 2017 was approximated to be $653 per week, which averages out to about $31,344 a year. But considering 74 percent of those polled said they provided all of their own supplies, tools, and equipment, with the majority spending between $100 and $400 a month to do so, many nail techs end up bringing home much less than what they’ve been estimated to earn.
What’s more, some nail techs rent their own booths from salons (similar to hair stylists), which costs a national average of $445.36 a month. These hidden costs can make it nearly impossible for some nail artists to make a livable wage, which means tipping your nail artist a proper amount is more critical than ever. (Many of them are relying on it!) But just how much is enough?
To figure out this and more, Glamour talked to nail artists and owners around the country to weed out the best practices for tipping at the nail salon, from where your hard-earned cash goes to what percentage of that money actually ends up in your technician’s bank account. Read on for their unfiltered opinions and advice.
What Nail Artists Are Actually Making
At Lacquer salon in Austin, TX, nail techs make between $13 to $15 an hour, depending on their experience and clientele, and while the nail artists make their own schedules, most are working an average of 30 to 40 hours a week. At Poppy & Monroe in Nashville, TN, nail techs work an average of 7 hours per day and also earn an hourly rate. “We start at $16 per hour, and then that goes up based on experience,” explains Karen Kops, a licensed nail technician and owner of the Nashville salon.
Before opening the business, Kops went to school to become a licensed nail tech, and during this time “realized how demanding and tough this job is.” For that reason she chooses to pay the salon’s techs hourly, rather than provide commission, as a way of encouraging a better working environment. And while the cost for services at Poppy & Monroe is higher than other salons in the area ($35 to $55 compared to $15 to $35), the nail technicians are guaranteed to take home above minimum wage. “It’s important that when [nail techs] step into a shop, they get paid for the time they’re there,” Kops says.
But many salons don’t pay their nail techs hourly. Instead, those salon owners pay their nail artists commission only, which means, since they’re receiving no base rate, their pay is dependent on the number of clients they have that day, rather than the number of hours they’ve worked. For some, this pay system may seem appealing, especially if their commission nets out to at-or-above minimum wage. But for others, this hasn’t always been the case, and it can lead to grueling work conditions, longer hours, a more competitive work environment (with nail techs vying for each other’s clients), and less-than-desirable pay.
Hourly Rate vs. Commission vs. Booth Rental: What’s the Difference?
Before opening her first location in downtown Austin in 2015, Lacquer salon owner Carla Hatler did extensive research on nail salon practices in the Austin area. Over the course of three years, she found that beauty service providers frequently worked long hours and made below-minimum-wage-commission. “I understand it’s a low-margin business, so [some salons] are trying to find ways to make money, but you’re supposed to be guaranteeing that your staff is being paid minimum wage,” explains Hatler. And this isn’t exclusive to cheaper salons; Hatler found that high-end salons were doing it, too: “They’re not following labor laws.” That’s why, since opening the doors of her salon, Hatler chose to pay her nail techs hourly. “That’s one of the reasons our prices are higher,” she says.
Even so, commission-based pay is still the most popular method for nail salons, and while in some cases, salons offer low commission percentages that force nail techs to become dependent on tips, in others, commission percentages are more substantial. At Base Coat in Denver, CO, for example, nail techs have the option to either earn an hourly rate, which starts at $13/hour (and is above minimum wage) or earn 35 to 50 percent commission per service. The techs work 8-hour days, but with a one-hour lunch break built into their schedules. Tran Wills, the salon’s owner, explains she “grew up in salons,” (her mother, also a nail tech, has worked in one all of her life) and so for this reason, Wills wanted to make sure her techs were taking home a fair amount. Before tips, Base Coat nail artists can make anywhere between $2,500 to $3,500 a month, Wills says.
At Olive and June in Los Angeles, a shop sign explains the reasoning behind a new 10 percent charge appearing on customers’ bills. “We are proud to announce that we’ve transitioned our manicurist team from freelancers to employees,” the sign reads, continuing: “In order to help support this, an employee benefits charge of 10 percent will be added to all services. This charge is not a tip.”
In other cases, nail techs have the option to rent a booth. Explains Wills: “[Some nail techs] rent a space within the salon, pay flat monthly rent to the studio owner and take no commission.” In those cases, Wills explains, nail techs would operate as their own business owners, providing their own clients and tools, and booking their own appointments. “It’s not really [as] common for nails technicians as it is for hair stylists,” Wills says. “Nail technicians who do this [typically] have a huge clientele and want to be their own boss.”
How Much to Tip
In the end, tipping is all about customer satisfaction, so a standard 15 to 20 percent per nail tech, per service is a fair amount, assuming you were happy with your experience. At Laquer salon in Austin, nail technicians receive an average 18 percent tip for each service, though some customers will tip as high as 30 percent. “It’s really based on the relationship that [our customers] have [with our nail techs] and how great they felt their service was,” concludes Hatler. At Poppy & Monroe in Nashville, the tips are closer to 20 percent. “If for any reason we don’t [provide great service], then I can understand a lower gratuity, but I would I say 95 to 98 percent of the time, gratuity is 20 percent and above,” Kops explains. Similarly, at Base Coat, 20 percent gratuity is encouraged for all services.
Had one nail artist do your mani, and one do your pedi? Tip both, and always do so in cash. While some salons allow tips to be put on credit card, you’ll never be entirely certain your nail tech will end up receiving it in the end, so cash is your safest bet. While the industry does seem to be improving slightly, thanks to the growing realization around the mistreatment of nail salon workers, tipping your nail tech a fair cash gratuity can only help.
This story is part of Glamour‘s guide to tipping. Tips are approximate and based on varying factors. Learn more about how much to give in this seven-part series.