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Holiday tipping guide: Who gets gifts and how much should you give?

Nov. 8, 2018

When my daughter was small, I fretted for weeks about what to give her day care teachers as a holiday gift. As December wound down, I cluelessly (desperately?) scrolled through Pinterest before settling on what I thought was a cute idea. I put plain bathroom tiles and daubs of paint in a sealed bag, and then… just let my infant daughter go nuts. After a giggly series of hand-slapping and finger-poking, she created more than a dozen unique masterpieces that (if you squinted just so) were a little reminiscent of a Jackson Pollock — if, you know, Pollock was an 8-month-old with some mad paint-smearing skills. When the paint dried, I hot-glued some felt on the bottom of the tiles, and voila! Custom coasters for her teachers at day care.

I hoped our creation — along with handwritten notes — would help show the school’s staff how much we appreciated them. But when I handed over my baby girl to her teachers the next morning, my “cute” idea felt wholly inadequate. These amazing people were so important to my family. Would cash have been better? Should I have bought a bigger gift instead? What was the etiquette here?

So many of us struggle with questions about seasonal tipping, myself included, so I asked the experts. Here’s what I found out about tipping over the holidays, including whom to tip, how much to tip and when it’s OK to give a small gift instead.

The tradition of holiday tips

While end-of-year extras are expected in some professions (like nannies and doormen), tipping isn’t about a sense of obligation. It’s about acknowledgement.  

“Tipping is a form of gratitude shown during the holidays,” says Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert, author of “Modern Etiquette for a Better Life” and founder of the Protocol School of Texas. “It shows those who provide you with a loyal service that you appreciate their efforts.”

For Lydia Markoff, a mom in San Jose, California, it’s also about paying it forward. Growing up low-income, she says she knows people need a little extra help around the holidays. Which is why she tries to give something to everyone she regularly relies on for goods and services, from the gardening service to the school crossing guards.

“Now that I have the money to give, I’m glad to be able to do it,” she says.  

When a gift is better than cash — and vice versa   

Cash is often the preferred gift for many caregivers and service workers, but it’s not always appropriate, says Lizzie Post, co-president of the Emily Post Institute and co-host of the Awesome Etiquette podcast in Burlington, Vermont. It really comes down to the kind of relationship you have. If your family is particularly close to someone, giving a gift is fine, even if others might lean toward giving cash, Post says.

She encourages families to think of holiday giving not as “tipping,” but as a holiday “thank you” that is tailored to the relationship. There’s no magic formula to determine who gets cash and who gets a gift, Post says, but a good guideline to follow is: The closer you (or your child) is to them personally, the more a physical gift might be more appropriate than cash. And in some cases — such as with nannies and babysitters — the close bond formed between them and your family might mean giving both.

Another consideration is whether someone’s employer allows cash tips at all. The U.S. Postal Service, for example, says that its mail carriers shouldn’t take cash gifts of any amount (including checks and gift cards), and non-cash gifts have to be under $20. If you aren’t sure if someone is able to receive a cash gift, reach out to their employer to find out.

Gift ideas for caregivers

Nannies, dog walkers, senior caregivers and teachers, in particular, serve a special role in our lives and those of our loved ones. Regardless of whether you give a cash bonus to them during the holidays, many parents choose to give a special gift as an added “thank you.” Some examples include:

  • Gift cards, (i.e., restaurants, spa treatments or coffee shops)

  • Homemade sweets like cookies, fudge or bread

  • Cozy scarves, mittens or hats to use when they’re outside with their charges

  • Personalized gifts, such as monogrammed coffee cups

Flanders says it’s better to give something you know the caregiver will enjoy, and avoid gifting things that are often a matter of personal taste or size — like perfume or fitted clothing — unless you’re very familiar with their personal preferences. The gifts also don’t have to be large. Something in the $10-$30 range is a good ballpark, Post says.  

Carol Heffernan, a mom in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, likes to make personalized gift baskets with her kids for their teachers and school staff, filling them with baked goods, handwritten notes and gift cards to favorite restaurants.

“I like to give the teachers and staff gifts that are personal and that they'll actually use,” Heffernan says.

A personal touch can go a long way. For all the fretting I did about our handmade coasters, my daughter’s teachers said they loved them. As caretakers for infants, they told me they rarely received something that the children helped to create themselves and knowing that my daughter had a hand in making them made them extra special.

Related: How to handle the Santa question like a pro

Deciding who to tip and how much

How much you give and who you give it to is entirely your call, but there are some things that experts say to keep in mind.

  • The relationship: How close you are with the recipient is an important consideration, says Holly Flanders, a child care coach in New York City. When nannies or babysitters have been caring for your kids for years, they can feel like family. For those special relationships, it’s common to give a little more than you would have given if they were new to the job. Likewise, if you’ve seen the same hairdresser every eight weeks for the better part of a decade, you might want to give him or her a larger year-end tip than someone who’s cutting your hair for the very first time.

  • Your budget: Families often have a lot of financial obligations during the holidays. What you give and to how many people should fall within your financial means, Gottsman says. If money is tight, prioritize who to tip based on the relationship you have with them or value of the service they provide to your family. And if you can’t give cash, consider a homemade gift or thoughtful note instead.

  • Your personal preferences: When it comes down to it, giving a tip is a lot like giving a present. If you want to give someone something to show your appreciation, go for it, Gottsman says.   

Suggestions for who you should tip and how much during the holidays

PERSON

SUGGESTED TIP OR GIFT VALUE

Animal Trainer

Cost of 1 session

Au Pair

1-2 week's pay and a small gift from your kids

Babysitter

Average day/evening pay for regular sitters and a small gift from your kids

Barber

Cost of 1 session

Bartender

$20-$40 for someone you see regularly

Building Porter/Janitor

$25-$100 depending on involvement

Building Superintendent

$25-$100 depending on involvement

Cleaning Company

Cost of 1 session or a small gift, if you see the same people regularly

Cobbler

Don't tip

Coffee Shop Barista

$10-$20 for someone you see regularly

Contractor

Don't tip

Country Club Staff

$50 for someone you see regularly

Day Care Staff

Small gifts from your kids in the $10-$30 range

Dentist

Don't tip

Doctor

Don't tip

Dog Walker

Cost of 1 session or 1 week's pay

Doorman

$25-$100 depending on involvement

Driver / Limo Service

$20-$50 or more if it's a regular driver

Dry Cleaning Delivery

$10-$20

Elevator Operator

$10-$40 depending on involvement

Errand Runner

$10-$40 for someone you hire regularly

Food Delivery Person

$10-$30 for someone you see regularly

Garbage Collector

$20-$30

Gas Station Attendant

$10-$20 for someone you see regularly

Groomer

Cost of 1 session

Hairdresser or Colorist

Cost of 1 session

Handyman

$15-$50

Housekeeper

Cost of 1 session or a small gift for infrequent service

Kennel Staff

$10-$20 for each staff member or food for the group

Kids' Activities Instructor

Small gift from your kids

Kids' Coach (Athletics)

Small gift from your kids

Landscaper

Cost of 1 session or $20-$50 for infrequent service

Live-in Help (housekeeper, senior care aide, nanny, chef, etc.)

1-2 week's pay

Massage Therapist

Cost of 1 session

Mother's Helper

Average day's pay for regular helper and a small gift from your kids

Nail Salon

Cost of 1 session

Nanny

1-2 week's pay and a gift from your kids

Newspaper Carrier

$10-$20

Nurse (in-home nurse, private nurse)

$25-$100 depending on involvement

Nursing Home or Assisted Living Community Staff

$10-$20 for each staff member or food for the group

Package Delivery Person

Small, non-cash gift

Parking Garage Attendant

$10-$20 for someone you see regularly

Personal Assistant

Small gift and a holiday bonus based on performance

Personal Chef

1-2 week's pay or cost of one session, depending on frequency

Personal Trainer

Cost of 1 session

Pet Day Care Staff

$10-$20 for each staff member or food for the group

Pet Sitter

Cost of 1 session

Physical Therapist

Don't tip

Pool Cleaner

Cost of 1 session

Postal Worker

Food, perishable group gifts or a non-cash gift worth less than $20

School Bus Driver

$10-$20

Senior Care Aide

$25-$100, depending on frequency

Snow Remover/Shoveler

Cost of 1 session

Tailor

Don't tip

Teacher

Small gift from your kids

Teacher's Aide/Assistant

Small gift from your kids

Tutor

Cost of 1 session and small gift from your child, depending on frequency

Veterinarian

Don't tip

Waiter / Waitress

$20-$40 for someone you see regularly

Zumba/Fitness Instructor

Cost of 1 session or a small gift

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