It's the season of giving, and that means thinking about tips for the service providers who make your life easier.
But considering we use services more than ever before, who gets an extra holiday tip? And how much?
Etiquette experts say the answer depends on your relationship with the service provider, and your budget. Tips are gifts, they say, and they're never mandatory. It's a way to show appreciation.
"I think, with all holiday tips, there has to be some emotion involved; you have to have that relationship with them," said Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert and founder of The Protocol School of Texas.
Tipping can get to be expensive, especially if you have a large number of service providers. Sharon Schweitzer, an international etiquette and modern manners expert, and founder of Access to Culture, said to start by setting a budget and making a list prioritizing those people who really helped you this year.
"Who makes a big difference in my life? That's who needs to get the tip. These are people who are loyal," Schweitzer said.
Informal guidelines for cash tips suggest giving the cost of a service for providers like hair stylists, dog walkers/groomers, baby sitters and such. For nannies, housekeepers, handymen or other home service providers with whom you have an established relationship, it's usually a week's pay, say Gottsman and Schweitzer.
If you're going to give a gift card in lieu of cash, optimally you'd put the same amount of money on a gift card as you would cash, Schweitzer said. Either way, make sure to put it in a holiday card with a nice note, so that the receiver knows it's a gift and separate from any routine tipping, Gottsman said.
However, they stressed again, it's not mandatory to give that full amount, and you may not be able to afford to give everyone a cash tip. If the relationship is new, you don't have to give the full cost, either, Gottsman said.
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"You have to make a list and say, at some point, I can't include all of these people. (You can) come up with creative alternatives," Schweitzer said.
That's where gifts come in, said Jacqueline Whitmore, founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach and an international etiquette expert. Gifts work well, especially, if you know the person likes a particular type of coffee or tea, or has a favorite restaurant, she said.
Whitmore says a friend of hers gives handmade ornaments and holiday cookies to people she knows will enjoy them.
"They come from the heart because they're handmade; there's some effort and love in them," Whitmore said.
Some service providers may include envelopes with their name on it, subtle hints that they're looking for a tip. Gottsman and Whitmore say you're not obligated to give.
Protocol on tipping and holiday gifts may be murkier when it comes to people like personal trainers, massage therapists, school teachers and others. In that case, ask, as some won't or cannot take tips and gifts, Schweitzer said.
What about the service providers you don't see often, say the mail carrier, garbage collector or package deliverers, but you'd like to do a little something for them? Both Gottsman and Whitmore say small tokens of appreciation are nice, but here again, ask or check the service provider's website. For instance, since mail carriers are federal employees, they can't take cash or gift cards, but can accept a gift valued up to $20. Neither UPS nor FedEx employees are allowed to accept cash or gift cards, Gottsman said. UPS workers are allowed to receive a small gift of "nominal gratitude," she said, while FedEx employees can accept a gift valued up to $75.
In smaller towns, some people like to give small gifts to garbage collectors as an appreciation, Gottsman and Whitmore said. Again, check with any municipality guidelines on gifting, but giving a small gift can go a long way.
"I've tipped the garbage man before. It doesn't have to be much. I gave them cookies and $5 or $10 each. Let me tell you, I got top-notch service. They always brought my garbage can up to my door instead of throwing it on the curb. Those people you don't ordinarily see sometimes can make your life easier," she said.
All three etiquette experts say you don't have to tip extra to everyone at this time of year. There's no need to give more than usual to service providers you'll only see once, like a cab driver.
"Not unless you're feeling particularly generous," Schweitzer said.