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The fine art of holiday tipping

<font face="Arial" size="2" color="#993300"><font face="Georgia" color="#000000">A little holiday green can spread cheer for the rest of the year. Here's a guide to tipping the right people the right amount. By Liz Pulliam Weston</font></font></p>
/ Source: CNBC on MSN Money

In most areas of the country, holiday tips are a voluntary custom, a way to show the service people you employ that you appreciate the work they do for you.

Everywhere, that is, but in New York City. I have it on pretty good authority (my New York friends) that a failure to tip the building superintendent can lead to mysterious problems the rest of the year: heat that doesn't work in winter, for example, but blasts nonstop in August.

Fortunately, most holiday tipping falls far short of protection money. End-of-the-year tips are more like the bonuses that Wall Street pays its players, only way, way, way, way smaller. The extra cash is meant to foster loyalty and offers thanks for assisting You & Co. in running smoothly.

How much you give, Emily Post and other etiquette authorities tell us, can depend on a number of factors, such as:

  • The quality of the service
  • The frequency of the service
  • How long you've used the service
  • Regional custom, and
  • Your budget

This does not, however, give you leave to stiff workers right and left under the guise that you "can't afford it." If you can afford their services, you most likely can afford to tip.

For those of you who are grumbling already about this custom, let me stop right here and remind you: This is America, Bub. Tipping is part of the culture. If you don't like tipping on principle, you should stop using the services where it normally is expected. If you cut your own hair, park your own car and stick to fast-food restaurants, you won't have to tip anybody. Otherwise, suck it up.

That's not to say holiday tips are a requirement. You get to use your own judgment, as indicated above. But you should be guided by the spirit of generosity, as well as common sense. The better you take care of the people who care for you, the better off everybody will be.

Now that we've got that settled, let's move on to who, and how much.

The "who's" break down into four basic categories:

People who provide you service regularly but briefly
These folks typically get $10 to $30. The list here can include:

  • Newspaper deliverers
  • Parking attendants
  • Trash collectors
  • Any regular delivery person (for food, laundry, overnight packages, whatever)

People you see less often but for longer periods
These are usually the ones who are working hard to tend you and yours. The holiday tip normally equals the cost of one visit, although you can reduce that to $20 or so if your patronage is sporadic.

  • Hairdresser or barber
  • Manicurist
  • Facialist
  • Personal trainer
  • Regular after-hours babysitter (not your nanny or day care worker)
  • House cleaner (unless he or she is full-time, then see below)
  • The lawn-care crew
  • Pool cleaner
  • Pet groomer

If you use a day care center, ask the director about appropriate tips for the child's primary caregiver. The accepted amounts can range from $10 to $70, plus a small gift from the child.

Your employees
Anyone you employ more than a couple days a week gets a bigger check, typically at least equal to one week's pay. Exceptional or long service might boost the amount to two week's pay or more. This list includes:

  • Nannies
  • Full-time housekeepers
  • Home-care attendants
  • Caretakers

If you're not planning to tip your full-time employees, you need to ask yourself why. If you're genuinely not happy with their services, you should have long ago detailed your concerns and given them a chance to improve. Otherwise, withholding a holiday tip is sandbagging. You wouldn't like it if your boss surprised you with a negative evaluation out of the blue, so don't do it to others.

People who can be strategically tipped
All tips can have an element of strategy in them, but these gratuities can make a real difference in the quality of your life. Here the range varies enormously:

  • Building superintendent: Ask around your building. The going rate can vary from as little as $20 to $200 or more.
  • Doorman: Ditto. Usually the range is $10 to $100.
  • The bartender, wait staff or maitre d' at a place you frequent regularly: Try $20 to $50 and see if your typical table location doesn't improve.

People who should not be tipped
You're probably relieved to read there is someone, somewhere, who's not expecting cash from you. That doesn't mean you can ignore them, though; it just means your gift shouldn't be green.

  • Teachers. Ask what classroom supplies they need, and supply them. Gifts of food or a well-deserved day at the spa (perhaps purchased jointly with other parents) can be thoughtful, as well.
  • Friends: Whatever the service they provided for you, a gift or even a gift certificate is a more appropriate thank-you than a check.
  • U.S. Postal Service employees: The Postal Service discourages tips, but your mail carrier is allowed to accept gifts worth less than $20.
  • Anyone who would be insulted: You'll have to feel your way on this one a bit, since some of the people you traditionally didn't tip -- a beauty salon owner, for example -- now often have no problem accepting your money. If you proffer the cash and it's returned to you promptly, you'll know you've found one of these elusive folks.