Holiday tipping in a lean year. Who? How much? And… do you have to?

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Leaner budget this year?  This is the time of year when you normally tip certain people in your life that you might not tip the rest of the year. But do you know what is customary?  If you habitually over-tip to keep from under-tipping, this might be the year to find out how much is enough.

Consumer Reports does a survey each year to find out what is expected and who gives what to whom. This year, they say, the focus has shifted somewhat.

"The dollar amounts aren't changing so much as who is getting tipped", said Donato Vaccaro, who helps conduct the Consumer Reports annual holiday tipping survey. They advise that if money is tight, you could limit your list to those you rely on most. Other considerations:  if you already tip an individual generously throughout the year, a holiday tip might not be necessary. And, think in terms of the recipient's financial situation.  Obviously some individuals are more dependent on your tips to make ends meet than others, so if you have to cut, cut out those who tend to earn more.

Consumer Reports also points out that noncash gifts are generally more affordable, and very welcome. Fruit baskets are gaining popularity as more of us are health conscious. But candy, cookies, jams and jellies, candles, even magazine subscriptions (especially if you can target an interest, like knitting or sports) are good ideas and often easier to manage on a tight budget.  One more idea from Consumer Reports… in a collective situation, like a gift for a building superintendent, tenants might pull together to contribute to a nice gift, like an iPOD.

Here are some fairly standard amounts for tips, collected from different sources. Keep in mind, these vary by geographic location.  If the amount shocks you, don't worry, you're not suffering from dyslexia. It's a regional thing.  A generous tip in Bozeman, Montana might be $15, but in New York City, flip that around and $51 might be skimpy. 

Who and how much:

Hairdresser/barber. Most people give some kind of tip to the person who cuts their hair. During the holiday season, the standard tip is the amount of one typical visit. Mary Mitchell, the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Etiquette says that you normally only tip people whom you've been patronizing for six months or more. So if you have just found a new hairdresser, use your discretion.

The paperboy. Mitchell says to ask others in your area what they give the paperboy, since this varies by where you live.

Mail carriers.  These individuals are not allowed to accept cash, but they can receive non-cash gifts worth $20 or less, not including alcohol. Gift cards might be a good idea for your mail carrier.

Other government employees. There's a good chance that other government workers you deal with may be subject to the same prohibition as mail carriers, if not more stringent. If you rely heavily on someone in such a job, you might be better off sticking to cookies, a fruit basket, or some other homemade treat.

Teachers, teacher's aides, school bus drivers. Check with the school, if possible. Chances are they cannot accept cash, but lower value non-cash gifts or homemade treats are probably okay.

Babysitter: One evening's pay and possibly a small gift directly from your child.

Daycare providers: $25-70, plus a small gift from your child.

Nanny/Au pair: One week's to one month's salary based on tenure, plus a small gift from your child.

Dog walker: One week's pay and/or a gift from your dog.

Doormen/Concierge: $10 to $80 each. Save the bigger tips for those who serve you most often (or give the best service).

Garage attendants: $10 to $30 each.

Housekeeper: One day's pay.

Handyman: $15 to $40.

Trash collector: $10 to $30 each (for private service); for municipal service, check local regulations.

Want to see what others are tipping?  Click here to enter the amount you would tip, and see how you measure up.

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