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Holiday Tipping Guide -- Who Gets How Much

Updated on October 21, 2010
Mighty Mom profile image

Mighty Mom is a keen observer of life. She shares her personal experiences and opinions in helpful and often amusing ways.


Ready or not, the holidays are coming. Looking at my business receivables, my checkbook balance, and the number of weeks between now and December 25, I'm doing some serious thinking. Not about my family. Not about shopping. About tipping.

Let me preface this by saying that I am a good tipper. Twenty percent is my average - and I never go below 15% unless the service is abysmal. So I am not coming from a place of extreme thrift of miserliness. But let me also say that I think Europeans have it all over the U.S. in this regard (and others -- but we won't go there today). If there is ever a movement to switch over to "service compris" (French for "service included," no need for an additional tip), sign me up.

When in doubt, hand it out

Recently I had my hair colored and styled by a salon owner because my regular stylist is on maternity leave. The owner charged $35 more than my regular stylist. Being the only client in the shop, I had no choice but to use my own judgment. Should I tip the owner, or is that an insult? I erred on the side of caution and tipped her 20%.

Turns out, this was the right thing to do. According to Peggy Post, head of the Emily Post Institute, not tipping the owner is an old tradition that's dying out (or in this instance, "dyeing" out). I'm so relieved... Now I can return to Bloom Salon with my processed head held high!

How does it insure promptness if you pay it after the meal?

This experience got me thinking about other tipping situations that are not cut and dried (at least for me). Tipping is generally understood to mean "To Insure Promptness" or ‘To Insure Proper Service." In the U.S. the accepted range for restaurant servers is 15% to 20%. Whether the tip is on the entire bill or the pre-tax bill is a matter of much debate. If you've ever dined out with a large group, you know that getting consensus can leave a bad taste in everyone's mouth.

Are they trying to trick me here?

A related issue is tipping for room service. Astute hotel diners will note that there is usually an 18% service charge plus a $2 to $3 delivery fee tacked onto your bill. But there is also a big old line on the bill labeled "TIP." If you don't read the fine print, you can end up double tipping up to 38%. Yikes! No WONDER that stay at the Hilton last month was so expensive! Even if you know about the 18% and you're only trying to make nice to the smiling, uniformed delivery guy, it's not easy to calculate 2% in your head (at least if you're me). This is why it's a really good idea to pack a calculator or have your laptop or Blackberry keyed and ready when you hear that knock, knock, knock.

I will stop short of claiming this is some vast hospitality industry conspiracy. However, don't you agree it would be so, so much easier if they charged a10% service charge instead of 18%? Then leaving a 20% tip would be a simple matter of doubling the amount shown.

Why I'm Getting Tipped Off

I don't know about you, but with the current economic climate, I'm scaling way back on spending, including my service consumption. Even so, I have ongoing relationships with several personal service providers. Skipping a session or two (e.g., sneaking past the holidays by not seeing them in December) does not relieve me of the "obligation" of year-end tipping.

So, exactly who is on Santa's list and how much are we talking? Here is what Emily Post, the grand dame of etiquette, suggests:

Hard to hide from the doorman

Emily Post's Tipping Guide

Au pair- A gift from your family (or one week's pay), plus a small gift from your child.

Babysitter - One evening's pay, plus a small gift from your child.

Child's teacher - Check your school's policy first, as gift giving may be prohibited. If allowed, then give a gift that is a token of appreciation from your child, not cash. Consider a homemade gift by your child, a book or a picture frame. Or, participate in a joint gift from the class as a whole. Possible ideas include a gift certificate to a restaurant or bookstore.

Day-care providers - $25 to $70 to each of the providers who give direct care to your child, plus a small gift from your child.

Dog walker- One week's pay or a gift.

Doorman- $15 to $80; $15 or more for each, for multiple doormen.

Elevator operator - $15 to $40

Fitness trainer - Up to the cost of one session.

Garage attendants - $10 to $30 each

Hair stylist - Cost of one haircut or a gift.

Manicurist - Cost of one service or a gift.

Handyman - $15 to $40

Home health employees - A gift, but check with the agency first, as most agencies have a no-gifts or no-tips policy. If this is the case, consider giving a donation to the agency.

Housekeeper/cleaner - Up to one week's pay or a gift.

Letter carriers - U.S. government regulations permit carriers to accept gifts worth up to $20 per occasion, not cash.

Massage therapist - Up to one session's fee or a gift.

Newspaper deliverer - $10 to $30

Nursing home employees/Private nurse - A gift, not cash, but check the company policy first. Consider a gift that could be enjoyed by or shared among the floor staff: flowers, chocolates or food items.

Package deliverer - A small gift if you receive deliveries regularly; most delivery companies discourage or prohibit cash gifts.

Pet groomer - If the same person grooms your pet all year, up to one session's fee or a gift.

Superintendent - Check with your building association first to see if the residents are contributing to a holiday fund for all the building's personnel. Otherwise, give them $20 to $80.

Trash/recycling collectors - $10 to $30 each for private service; for municipal service, check local regulations.

Yard and garden worker - $20 to $50

Source: Emily Post Institute

It really adds up!

As I said, I'm all for rewarding good service with a generous (but VOLUNTARY) tip. Some of these line items are enough to induce sticker shock!!

For example, I visit my hair stylist every seven weeks, or 7.4 times per year. I regularly give her a little over 22% tip each time. She has already earned $669 from me this year in service, plus and additional $223 in tips. If I follow EP's advice, when I go for my pre-Christmas preening, I'll come out with lovely highlights... but $180-$260 lower on cash (the spread is because it's unclear whether by "the amount of one haircut" they mean net (pre-tip) or gross (the amount she is accustomed to receiving from me for each haircut).

If I followed this table for every provider currently in my life, I'd be forking out well over $500 without even blinking.

That's $500 to people I already pay well to perform their job. Not to mention $500 less available for gifts for my family, friends, charity and clients -- and to pay the electric bill for all those holiday lights.

To tip or not to tip?

According to MSN Money, not everyone thinks you should drop an extra $1 in the jar for every $3.50 Starbucks latte. Judith Martin, author of "Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Freshly Updated " agrees that "tipping in general is a "silly system" that "grew up haphazardly" so that some workers -- like the bartender, the waiter, the taxi driver -- expect tips while others performing similar functions -- psychoanalyst, airline attendant, bus driver -- get their compensation from their paychecks. Ms. Manners feels it puts too much power in the hands of not-always-fair clients."

I might argue that in some cases it puts too much power in the expectant hands of the not-always-stellar service provider.

But wait! Come to think of it, I'm a service provider too! I've always been satisfied with a Harry & David tower of treats or bottle of wine. Who do I see to get on that "to tip" list? It sure would be swell to get my last-project-of-the-year fee doubled!

A tower of treats ... good enough for me!
A tower of treats ... good enough for me!

The true spirit of Christmas

is in sharing the joy of the season
is in sharing the joy of the season

Why I prefer personal gifts

I'm only half kidding about putting writers into the tipping class.

What I'm really in favor of is gifts. You'll note that in several of the categories above Ms. Post provides the option of "or a gift" or "and a gift." What a relief to the pocketbook that is!

Only you know your own "tip tolerance" and when it's safe (and appropriate) to substitute a gift. Do you think your manicurist is suddenly going to smear your polish because you give her a candle instead of $35? Will the gardener shear "cheapskate" into your lawn? I'm just grateful we don't have an au pair - I can only imagine the consequences of shortchanging her (or him)!

In my experience, I'd much prefer to hand-select something based on someone's interests than to write a check -- especially when there is no money in the account to back it up. No, seriously. To me, a thoughtful gift is much more personal and more memorable to the recipient. (Note that I did not say "valuable," I said "memorable." I'm quite aware that they are not the same thing).

Gift baskets for any taste

It's easy to personalize a gift basket
It's easy to personalize a gift basket

Giving that makes YOU feel good

Last year was our first Christmas in our new house. I knew our new mail carrier was a female carrier. I'd waved to her several times but we'd never actually spoken. For her gift I chose a beautifully decorated gingerbread house filled with cookies and candies. I attached a heartfelt note from our family and made sure I could hand it to her in person. Her reaction really touched me - she was thrilled to the gushing point. A few days later a card-sized envelope dropped through our mail slot. Through that hand-written thank-you note I discovered our mail carrier's name is Cheryl.

My point is, don't allow yourself to feel pressured by anyone. If you want to tip someone, it should be your choice. And in tipping, as in gift-giving, it's the thought(fulnes), not the amount, that counts.

Do you like giving holiday tips?

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