You’re at an upscale French bistro with your fiancee. Your gut is full of brie, boeuf bourgingon, Bordeaux, and certainly lots of butter. You’re also, for some reason, watching your spending (though not closely enough to avoid expensive French food.) When the garçon brings l’addition, you plop down your prepaid card. It has $200 on it, the meal was just $190, and you plan on tipping in cash, or maybe you’re French and you don’t plan on tipping at all. Much to your horror, the garçon reappears just moments later: “Monsieur, there is a problem,” he tells you, snootily.

Elvert Barnes/flickr source

Prepaid cards, by their very nature, spell trouble for restaurants. So much so, according to The New York TimesBucks blog, that one Brooklyn restaurant, Pok Pok, has banned their use entirely. The reason: tips! Before you get mad at your humble garçon, consider that he makes a measly $4.65 an hour from his employer, and many of the hours he works do not involve the earning of tips. Tips are important to service workers, but what does that have to do with your prepaid card, and the humiliating situation your garçon put you in at the end of your delicious meal?

When your credit or debit card is swiped, there is an immediate hold put on your account, typically for the amount of purchase. In certain situations, however, the hold amount may be different from the amount you actually spend: gas stations and restaurants are the two most frequent offenders. Offenders might be strong language, however: they need to do this to protect themselves from scammers. If gas stations didn’t pre-authorize your credit card for $100 or so, it wouldn’t take a genius to get 100 $1 prepaid cards, and treat himself to 100 almost-free tanks of gas — the pump likely doesn’t sent mini-authorizations for every ounce of gas pumped, after all.

At a restaurant, your server’s POS terminal might be set up to pre-authorize your card for 20 percent more than the value of the bill, thereby ensuring that you will be able to cover the cost of the meal plus tip. This is not a practice that Visa recommends in its official literature, but its common practice, according to Bucks. They reason that vigilant customers might believe they have been ripped off by the restaurant, especially if they have tipped in cash, after seeing an authorization for more than they thought they had paid.

And now with prepaid cards, which have lower limits than most credit or debit cards (depending, of course, on the user). So when a prepaid card with $200 on it is swiped to pay for a $190 meal, it might very well be declined, because the restaurant asked for a $228 authorization. Pok Pok does not do this — instead, they avoid it entirely:

“There is no way to check how much credit is on the card so when it is processed, and accepted, and if a tip is then written in, there may not be enough money left on the card to cover the tip,” Mr. Ricker wrote. “Tips are often entered after the guest has left. Just protecting our service staff.”

But many restaurants do ask for a larger-than-the-bill authorization, which can potentially leave you looking silly if you attempt to pay for a meal with a prepaid card. And nothing puts a damper on a nice night out than trouble with the bill. That said, we have one simple tip that should keep you from having to wash the dishes at your favorite dinner spot: bring cash. Cash! So long as you give your waiter more cash than the bill asks for, they will likely be thrilled. A 15 percent cash tip is likely more welcome than a 20 percent credit tip with most service staff. Why? Because they take home substantially less after taxes on credit tips. For anyone curious about why and when 20 percent replaced 15 as the tip percentage du jour should look no further than the moment they became accustomed to paying with plastic anywhere and everywhere. Tips are taxed like regular income when paid in credit, but in cash most servers self-report their earnings to the IRS — and what would you do, if put in that position?

Don’t like the tyranny of the 20 percent tip? Tip cash. Don’t want your waiter to embarrass you in front of your date due to an ethically questionable practice in the restaurant industry? Bring cash — it’ll impress your waiter and your date much, much more than your cursory and trumped-up knowledge of French wine.

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