Average Salary: $18,540
Expected Lifetime Earnings: $774,000
It's unlikely that you'll ever get rich working as a waiter, even at a shi shi restaurant located in the likes of Beverly Hills. But, if you work harder than you can even imagine, kiss tons of butt between both the people you work with and the guests that you serve, you can make a good living—though your paycheck won't reflect it. Remember, "officially" you'll be getting paid much less than minimum wage. Your real money is in the tips.
Many times, if you're lucky enough to work for a restaurant that is part of a company that offers benefits (not a foregone conclusion, unfortunately), your entire paycheck ends up being gobbled up in paying your portion for those benefits, which can leave you only with what you earn in tips.
Tips can be good on some days and just plain suck on others. It's up to you to learn how to manage your spending (as a waiter, do you really need an iPad?), and bank the money instead of letting the wad of cash you bring home each night burn a hole in your pocket.
Good days can mean a sizeable bankroll—upwards of $200 (translated annually, this would be equivalent to somebody working in an office for 40 hours a week earning $52k+). But only if all the days are good days, and they won't be. You could make only $40-$50 on one of the bad days. Now you're making only $13k a year. More likely, things will average out and you'll be taking home somewhere in the $25k-$30k range, depending on what type of restaurant you work at. If your restaurant has the word "Chez" or "Trattoria" in the name, you may make considerably more.
Don't forget that there are parties or banquets you may be able to work as well. Often, there are additional bonuses provided for working these. They can bring you more money than you had planned on, since you can usually work these on days you weren't already scheduled to work in the restaurant.
And you may want to pounce on such opportunities when they present themselves; otherwise, the lean times will getcha. Lots of things can contribute to a reduction in cash flow—weather, holidays, a poor economy, bad karma, whatever. These are the days that you wished you'd just stayed in bed. At work, you're busting your buns, and nobody wants to part with more than a couple of bucks over the entire table’s total tab. Plus, you've got to tip out the bar staff. Ugh. You think to yourself that you wish you had saved up at least half of what you made last week, especially since the rent's due and your car needs new brakes. You don't really want to run into any more stop signs this week.
At the high end, there's being a waiter at Ooh La La. The folks waiting tables here are all lifers—and happy to be so. They work from 5pm until 11pm—a whopping six hours for $12 an hour base salary. That's $72 for a whole evening's work. (But wait! There's oh so much more....) The reason waiters fight for gigs at Ooh La La is that in the course of an evening they will serve 25 tables with an average of six people per table or 150 customers—who generally order a lot of alcohol. And Ooh La La is famous for its French wine cellar. With booze, the average ticket is $100 per head, or $15,000 in orders that came in through the waiter that night. He makes higher-end tips (think: more like 20% than 15%), so on a good night in good times at Ooh La La, that waiter can take home $2,000 in tips for one night's work. That's usually just on a Friday or Saturday, but 4 grand for two night's work leaves a lot of room for quieter nights during the week.