3 Tips for Holiday Tipping

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What do bartenders, babysitters, and prostitutes have in common? Two things: Many of them receive holiday gratuities, and some of them have been interviewed by a woman named Holona Ochs.

Ochs is a political science professor and researcher at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. She studies the topic of tipping, and she takes her work seriously – she interviewed more than 425 tip-earners in 50 careers so she could co-author a 310-page book called Gratuity: A Contextual Understanding of Tipping Norms From The Perspective of Tipped Employees.

So what big lesson did Ochs learn? Not surprisingly …

“We found that tips are generally a weak signal of quality of service. People appear to tip rather for social and emotional reasons. In other words, we tip because we care about how others perceive us.”

And that’s why tipping is perhaps the most stressful way we spend small amounts of money. Think about it: Buying a house and a car are stressful because the sums are huge, but when have you ever spent more mental energy deciding how to spend $5? Answer: When you’re deciding how much to tip the waitress at your local Chili’s.

It’s even worse around the holidays, Ochs says, because we play mind games with ourselves: Does the nanny or dog walker or paperboy expect a tip? If so, how much is enough? What will they think of me if I give too much or too little? Psychology definitely comes into play, Ochs says.

Stacy recently did a news story about holiday tipping. Check it out, then meet me on the other side for more.

If you go to a site like Emily Post’s for tip guidance, you’ll find an astounding number of people you’re “supposed” to tip, along with equally jaw-dropping amounts. Simply peruse the list below from her website and you’ll quickly see how expensive it can be.

Service Provider Options Suggested Amount or Gift
Au pair or live-in nanny Cash or consider a gift. This person works closely with your family and you probably know them well. One week’s pay and a gift from your child(ren).
Regular babysitter Cash One evening’s pay and a small gift from your child(ren).
Day care provider Cash or a gift for each staff member who works with your child(ren). A gift from you or $25-$70 for each staff member and a small gift from your child(ren).
Live-in help (nanny, cook, butler, housekeeper) Cash and a personal gift One week to one month of pay as a cash tip, plus a gift from you.
Private nurse Gift A thoughtful gift from you.
Home health employees Check with agency first about gifts or tipping policies. If there is a no gifts/tipping policy, consider a donation to the agency. A thoughtful gift from you. (If gift-giving is not against company policy.)
Housekeeper/Cleaner Cash and/or a gift Up to the amount of one week’s pay and/or a small gift.
Nursing home employees A gift (not cash). Check company policy first. A gift that could be shared by the staff (flowers or food items).
Barber Cash or gift Cost of one haircut or a gift.
Beauty salon staff Cash or gift depending on whether you tip well after each service. The cost of one salon visit divided for each staff member who works with you. Give individual cards or a small gift each for those who work on you.
Personal trainer Cash or gift Up to the cost of one session or a gift.
Massage therapist Cash or gift Up to the cost of one session or a gift.
Pet groomer Cash or gift (if the same person grooms your pet all year). Up to the cost of one session or a gift.
Dog walker Cash or gift Up to one week’s pay or a gift.
Personal caregiver Cash or gift Between one week to one month’s salary or a gift.
Pool cleaner Cash or gift The cost of one cleaning to be split among the crew.
Garage attendants Cash or small gift $10-30 or a small gift
Newspaper delivery person Cash or small gift $10-30 or a small gift
Mail carrier Small gift only Please see below for a detailed description of the United States Postal Service’s gift regulations.*
Package deliverer Small gift only, no cash. (Only if you receive regular deliveries.) Small gift in the $20 range. Most delivery companies discourage or prohibit cash gifts.
Superintendent Cash or gift $20-80 or a gift
Doorman Cash or gift $15-80. $15 or more each for multiple doormen, or a gift.
Elevator operator Cash or gift $15-40 each
Handyman Cash or gift $15 to $40
Trash/Recycling collectors Cash or gift (for private) check city regulations if it is a municipal service. $10-30 each
Yard/Garden worker Cash or gift $20-50 each
Teachers Gift (not cash) A small gift or note from you as well as a small gift from your child.

To her credit, Ms. Post doesn’t claim the above amounts and those receiving them are all mandatory. Nor, obviously, would anyone have that many people on their “must tip” list. (Elevator operator? Who has an elevator operator?) Still, that’s a potentially staggering number of people to take care of. But as Stacy mentioned in the above story, there’s no reason to stress out about holiday tipping. Here are some simple ideas that can make the process easier.

1. Be greedy with your gratuities

Ochs estimates that 90 percent of Americans tip, but they have no clue what they’re doing. She calls it our biggest “unregulated form of commerce.”

So do yourself a favor and remember that you’re spending money for a service just as as if you were buying a gallon of milk. So save your best tips for those people you’ll see again and often.

That means being fair but frugal with wait staff at a holiday dinner out, but more generous when the paperboy leaves that envelope with the morning paper – because those extra bucks should mean your paper stays dry and near the front door.

2. Figure out who to tip – and how much

Ochs research shows, “Nannies, housekeepers, and dog walkers get few tips during the year other than the holidays, and even postal workers report receiving gifts. Sanitation workers and teachers say they are likely to also receive a holiday gift.”

How much? Here’s a good – and accepted – rule of thumb: A generous holiday tip should be no more than the cost of one service. So that means tip your regular babysitter the equivalent of one night’s pay. Or your favorite hair stylist gets the equivalent of one regular cut. As for that paperboy (or more likely these days, an adult who delivers multiple publications) a $10 or $20 bill is considered the low and high end of acceptability.

3. Set a budget

Hey, you set a budget for everything else. So if you can’t afford to tip everyone, don’t. For instance, if your hair stylist owns the salon, no need for a holiday gratuity. And if you’re a generous tipper the rest of the year, don’t feel pressured – just a few bucks extra gets the thought across and keeps the good service coming.

For the rest, get creative …

1. If you have friends who frequent the same salon, use the same babysitter, or have their kids enrolled in the same daycare, consider pooling your tips. Especially in this economy, the communal tip is understood and accepted.

2. If you can bake, make cookies. If you can’t, buy a card. If you have a gift card someone gave you, and you know you aren’t going to use it, pass it on and make it work for you.

3. Finally, once you exceed your budget, don’t ignore the people you appreciate. A simple holiday thank you can go a long way.

Finally, remember what Ochs’ research concluded: ” The standards for holiday tipping are especially discretionary and are transmitted primarily experientially.” Whatever that means.