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If you’ve ever been to a bar and thought the bartender didn’t seem like the bartending type, you won’t be surprised to learn that many bartenders have day jobs.  Some are software designers, others are teachers and the rest have the same jobs you and I work on Monday-Friday.  For many, free time means extra hours to earn extra money to pay off college loans or save for a house.  You see, bartending is shift-work, it can easily dovetail with a full-time job.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 492,480 bartenders in the U.S. last year.  The state with the most bartenders per capita is Montana, believe it or not. The average hourly wage for a bartender in this state was $8.54.  The states with the highest bartender wages are: Hawaii and Washington, tied at $13.84 per hour; Vermont, at $12.94 per hour; Massachusetts, at $12.60 per hour; and Utah, at $12.47 per hour.  Nothing to fall out of your chair over, but any bartender will tell you, you’re not working for an hourly salary.  Tips can bring in over $1,000 a night for some. On average, however, a good bartender can earn around $300 a night (If the bar is full of customers, of course).

Here’s what you need to know about mixing, shaking and stirring your way to up to $300 a night.

Requirements to Become a Bartender

Depending on your state, there are age requirements in becoming a bartender.  Even though the legal drinking age in the United States is 21, many states have a lower age requirement for serving alcohol.  According to the map below, Maine is the only state where 17-year old’s can bartend.

Classes can cost under fifty dollars for an online course that takes 40 hours. Add-on certifications, like a wine knowledge primer, can cost an additional $25-$50 and will certainly increase your chances of getting work. Enrolling in a brick-and-mortar bartending school can cost several hundred to several thousand dollars, and will take a few weeks to complete.  If you can find a highly respected site, stick with the online courses.

Chances are that your state requires restaurant and bar owners to carry liquor liability insurance. This means that you’ll need to comply with state regulations to get hired since employers are more eager to hire bartenders with Seller/Server Certification so they can receive discounts on this insurance.  The laws regarding certification to serve alcohol vary state to state (see map, below). For details about your state, visit: www.servercertificationcorp.com

In addition to the schooling and certifications, you’ll also need mad skills.  Bartending may look like a lot of fun but it’s also a lot of hard work.  At the bare-minimum, you’ll need to know:

  • Mathematics – Bartending deals with math almost every second of the job.  Complex drinks are made up of many ingredients and recipes and adding too much or too little of something could make your creation “un-drinkable”.  Plus, you’ll be handling bar tabs all night long, so your quick addition needs to be top notch.
  • Inventory – Another one of your responsibilities will be to keep track of your inventory, like the liquor supply, garnishes and glassware.  Some bartenders are lucky enough to have the help of “barbacks” but there’s no guarantee.
  • Carding – You’ll need to be an expert on identification because it’s the bartenders job to request ID on anyone they serve.  There are keys to spotting fake ID’s and if a bartender serves someone who they know is underage, they can be arrested.
  • Cleanliness – The bar needs to be organized and well kept at all times.  Spills are going to happen so make sure you have an ample amount of towels around for a quick clean-up.

The Pros of Bartending

When you think about why you should become a bartender, three immediate reasons come to mind.

  1. Money! – $1 here and $1 there adds up quickly and at the end of the night, you might need help carrying all of them to your car.  The more experienced you become as a bartender, the more you can expect to make.
  2. Flexibility – Bartending is usually a part-time job and the hours are extremely flexible.  Obviously the more time you put in, the more money you can make and unless you already have a full-time night job, you should be able to make bartending work.
  3. Socializing – There’s no better way to make friends then being the bartender that everyone loves.  If you’re a good listener, you’ll make friends even faster.

The Cons of Bartending

It’s not all fun and games if you choose a bartending career so here are a few reasons why you should second guess your decision.

  1. Dealing With Drunks – There comes a time in every bartenders career when the decision to stop serving customers needs to be made.  If you come across with an angry drunk, no online class can teach you what to do and no two drunks are the same so make sure to stay calm and keep an empty Grey Goose bottle close at hand if you need it!
  2. The Pressure – Sometimes, the strength of a bar depends on it’s bartenders so the pressure is on.  If you leave the bar during a peak hour because you’re overwhelmed, don’t plan on coming back.
  3. Limited Advancement Opportunities – Other than moving from a low-scale to up-scale club or bar, there is very little in advancement opportunities for bartenders.  The job is the job and that’s about as good as it gets.
  4. Safety – Considering that alcohol is being served and the time at which you will be working, safety can be a big issue.

Job Outlook

Again, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

“Average employment growth is expected, and job opportunities should be excellent for food and beverage serving and related workers as turnover is generally very high among these workers….

Overall employment of these workers is expected to increase by 10 percent over the 2008-18 decade, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations. Food and beverage serving and related workers are projected to have one of the largest numbers of new jobs arise, about 761,000, over this period. The growth in jobs is expected to increase as the population continues to expand. However, employment will grow more slowly than in the past as people change their dining habits. The growing popularity of take-out food and the growing number and variety of places that offer carryout options, including at many full-service restaurants, will slow the growth of waiters and waitresses and other serving workers.”

Final Tip

If you live in St. Louis or Philadelphia, chances are you’ll make more as a bartender than if you live in Honolulu or Seattle. The former cities average a 19.6% tip rate, while the latter average 18.4%.

Article comments


I was actually thinking about becoming a bartender a couple of months ago, but made the wise decision not to

Vicky says:

Why didnt you do it?

Jason says:

I have tended bar since 1997 and most of this information is useless. I use almost no math (it’s more like cooking than baking), and other people do the carding and inventory.

Tom says:

How’d you get started, exactly?

nadine goeft says:

looking to become a bartender…anyone have actual helpful tips other than these would be great.

Blaquer Jacque says:

These tips are great! If you follow along with this tips and do your homework, there is no way you won’t land a great gig! I haven’t done it, but I know it works!