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Sanity in holiday tipping

December 09, 2007|Kathy M. Kristof | Times Staff Writer

This time of year you may spend a lot of time figuring out what to buy for whom and making sure you don't forget any gift-worthy friends or relatives. But you may also have to wrestle with how much to give the service people in your life, such as your housekeeper, gardener, hairstylist or dog walker.

There are potentially dozens of people who would welcome -- or even expect -- a tip at this time of year, said Cathy McCarthy, a senior vice president of, a website for those seeking hourly work.

"From the perspective of an hourly worker, the tip at the holidays is a sign of appreciation for the job you've done all year and a welcome economic reward," she said. "For a lot of these folks, it can really make a difference."

Figuring out tips should be part of your holiday budgeting, said Stephen Semprevivo, president of, an online comparison shopping service. (This assumes, for the sake of argument, that you have a holiday budget.)

"During the holidays, you're doing all kinds of things that are raising your level of spending: buying presents, going to parties and tipping," Semprevivo said. "It's critical that you lay out who, when and how much."

It can be a budget-buster to be generous with everyone who provides you a service. The etiquette authorities at the Emily Post Institute, for example, list on the institute's website 27 kinds of service providers and a recommended holiday tip for each. Among the suggestions: a week's pay for your dog walker and as much as a month's salary for the live-in nanny.

The institute's Lizzie Post acknowledges that it would be foolish to give everyone on the list the recommended amount.

"If you look at all the people on this list and just multiply by $25 or $30, I would be spending more on tips than I did on my whole family," she said. "These are recommendations, not rules."

The real trick, Post said, is to think through each tip.

Holiday tips should be given as a thank-you to people who have provided exceptional service during the year, she said. For example, Post makes a point of giving a generous gift to her hairstylist, who is willing to make a late-night appointment to apply some needed hair color before Post has to make a TV appearance. But Post said she might not give tips at all to a variety of other service people who haven't gone above and beyond for her.

Nurturing nannies, au pairs and baby sitters not only should get a tip, but they also should get a gift from the child, said Sheila Marcelo, founder of, which helps families find nannies and tutors.

Children who are too young to help buy something can make a gift, Post said. This present is as much for the child as for the nanny, an illustration of how to treat someone who is important to them.

With schoolteachers and adult caregivers, you might need to check with the employer to see what's appropriate, Marcelo said. Many professional caregivers don't take tips, and some residential-care facilities forbid tipping.

It's probably inappropriate to give cash to a teacher. But a gift card or a gift certificate might be welcomed. If there are too many teachers on your child's list to give anything that significant, it might make sense to band together with other parents and give a gift as a group.

Assuming that you want to tip, how much is too much and how much too little? Experts vary on this point. Post said you should never give a tip for less than $10 -- and that minimum amount should go only to someone whose personal relationship with you is sketchy, such as the newspaper delivery person. But Marcelo said a tip under $30 probably wouldn't be seen as meaningful.

Marcelo generally recommends that weekly service providers get an amount equal to 10% to 15% of their monthly wages. For someone who goes to your home daily, 10% to 15% of a week's wages would be appropriate, she said.

McCarthy suggests that you give the nanny and the dog walker each a week's wages. And give your hairstylist an amount equal to the cost of a single visit.

For mail carriers, the Postal Service bars cash gifts. And any noncash items worth more than $20 have to be shared with the recipient's colleagues.

What if you want to give someone a tip but can't afford an amount that's meaningful or appropriate? The experts agree that you can give a very small gift -- a book, perhaps, or homemade cookies or candy -- with a note. Or even just the note.

"Money is not the only way to go here," Post said. "It is the traditional thing, the idea of a holiday bonus. But this isn't meant to break your budget. If you can't do more, at least give a holiday thank-you note."

It's not bad manners to forgo a monetary tip, Post said.

But will you get bad service in the coming year from people you don't tip? Maybe, but that would certainly be bad form, she said.

"Any service provider that would compromise their service because somebody is a bad holiday tipper," she said, "is not somebody you'd want to do business with."




Tipping points

How much should you tip at the holidays? Of course, it's really up to you. But here are some suggestions from etiquette experts at the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt.

Baby sitter (regular): One evening's pay, plus a small gift from your child

Barber: Cost of a haircut, or a gift

Day-care providers: $25 to $70 each

Fitness trainer: Up to the cost of a session

Gardener: $20 to $50

Housekeeper: Up to one week's pay

Live-in help: One week's to one month's pay, depending on tenure, plus a personal gift

Newspaper deliverer: $10 to $30

Personal caregiver: Up to a week's pay or a personal gift

Pool cleaner: Cost of one cleaning, to be shared by the crew

Source: Emily Post Institute

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