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Holiday Tip Sheet

Blueprint, November/December 2007

The year-end tipping ritual bedevils us every December. So we prepared this who-what-when-and-how-much guide to gratuities -- complete with a reference wheel (our gift to you!).

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Wrong: Launch a one-woman campaign against the idea of holiday tips. Ain't nobody tipping you just for doing your job all year!

Right: Tip the people who provide indispensable support. Or move to Europe.
In the United States, many service professionals bank on this customary cash. "Historically, tips helped lower-paid workers meet the extra expenses of the holiday season," says Thomas Blaikie, author of "To the Manner Born: A Most Proper Guide to Modern Civility" ($18, Villard Books). The custom has endured as a way to acknowledge those whose efforts are often much grander than their hourly rates: from the doorman who signs for your packages to the house cleaner who saved your relationship. So beat back your inner Scrooge. "We must acknowledge that some jobs are inadequately compensated because of the expectation that the customer will make up the difference," says syndicated columnist Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners.

Wrong: Assume that you are exempt from the ritual because "it's just a city thing."

Right: Tip the snowplow guy who has never once bulldozed your prize-winning hedges.
You may live 106.2 miles off the beaten path, but that doesn't mean you're off the tipping grid. True, you needn't wince through the New York City Doorman Holiday Tiptacular ("You gave yours how much?!"), but what about the friendly FedEx guy who travels an extra half hour to pick up your eBay sales? Or the handyman who happily hunts down a replacement part for your busted circa-1973 appliance? "Talk to your friends and neighbors," suggests Lesley Carlin, coauthor of "More Things You Need to Be Told" ($12, Berkley). "There might be regional tipping customs you're not aware of. For example, if you live in a town that doesn't collect garbage and you hire a private collection service to take it to the dump, you should tip that private service." Try not to be the trashy exception.

Wrong: Spread your generosity thinly over 12 recipients.

Right: Check your list twice and pick a few to tip memorably.
There's no shortage of exhaustive lists of potential tippees and how much to give them (check out our own indispensable guide here). Admittedly, while helpful, they can also incite paranoia (the cashier at the corner bodega seems unusually cranky -- wait, is he expecting something?). "Be especially kind to a few people whose services you really want to retain," says Carlin, who is always sure to include a couple of super-hero babysitters known to swoop in at a moment's notice. The people you must tip are those regularly scheduled to appear at your home, like the nanny, the maid, and the dog walker. Doormen and building superintendents also belong in this high-priority group. (They also tend to be the folks who have the most material for blackmailing you -- coincidence?)

Wrong: You already tip for a haircut, and you refuse to double that just because there's spray snow on your stylist's mirror.

Right: Even if you tip at each one of your bimonthly trims, give more during the holidays.
Valued members of your personal-care entourage -- hairstylist, masseuse, pedicurist, waxer -- should be tipped the cost of one session. Again, concentrate on those you would not want to live without. If the shoe guru on Third Avenue regularly resoles your pavement-pounding Chloe boots, surprise him with a little something extra. When it comes to personal trainers, if yours is employed by a gym you pay dues to, feel free to skip the tip.

Wrong: Hand out a flurry of your macrame snowflake ornaments instead of tipping.

Right: Save the crafty gestures for friends and family.
Art projects and baked goods can accompany your tips, but they should not replace them. Jodi R.R. Smith of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting says that if you're really only one paycheck away from despair, you can get away with a personal and useful item, like a Dunkin' Donuts gift card for the doorman who always has a cup of coffee in his hand. "Give a small token now and a bigger tip at the Fourth of July to smooth out your budget," she recommends.

Wrong: Thrust two 10s, three fives, a one, and some quarters into the babysitter's hand.

Right: It's all about the Benjamins. Or the Jacksons.
For a $40 tip, use two 20s. If you're tipping 100 bucks, go with a $100 bill. Using the largest note possible indicates that you took time to prepare your gesture, rather than rooting around in your wallet (or between your couch cushions). Similarly, make like Grandma and request nice crisp cash at the bank. And don't suavely palm the money to people Ari Gold-style. "Nobody feels comfortable having bills shoved at them," says Stacie Krajchir, coauthor of "The Itty Bitty Guide to Tipping" ($7, Chronicle). "Make it personal by placing it in an envelope with a handwritten card." Give these out any time between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. And use checks only for amounts greater than $100 or for tips that you send by mail.

Wrong: Your accountant saved you a ton on taxes, so you redistribute some back to her.

Right: Send a thank-you note and hire her again in April.
There are some people you may want to tip but shouldn't. For example: Your mail carrier, who consistently braves snow, sleet, and your territorial puggle. Of course she deserves acknowledgment -- but U.S. Postal Service employees can't accept money (a gift valued at $20 or less is okay). Others who needn't be tipped are drop-off day-care providers, corporate assistants, and school teachers -- although you should thank them with a small token. "Not to give anything to your assistant is not only mean but stupid. Have you forgotten all the things she knows about you?" notes Francesca Beauman, author of "Everything but the Kitchen Sink: What Every Modern Woman Needs to Know" ($16, Simon Spotlight Entertainment). As for your accountant, dentist, and attorney -- professionals you see maybe once or twice a year -- it's actually more common for them to give something to you. Although, come to think of it, a tip would be even nicer, wouldn't it?

The Rest of the Year
Gratuitous advice for tipping beyond the holidays.

Do I really need to tip bathroom attendants?
No. Carlin says it's fine to simply use the towel and say thanks. But if the attendant has put effort into an amenities basket (nail files, Aqua Net), "then I'll leave a little something, and just think of it as part of the experience of going somewhere fancy."

Do I have to tip every salon employee who tends to me?
Yes. The one who washes, the one who cuts, the one who blows out -- even the one who hands you a smock and brings you tea. Rather than rapid-firing fives, Smith suggests tipping about 25 percent in total, and divvying it up at the end based on who expended the most time and effort.

Is it ever okay to tip with change?
No. Use it to make a restaurant tip into a round number, but otherwise, avoid it. "Today, everyone sees change as excess baggage," Krajchir says. Save it for the charity jar at the register.

Can I omit the tip for a job crappily done?
Yes, but better to speak with a manager. "The idea of using tips to reward or punish people is insulting -- as if they wouldn't do their jobs properly if they weren't bribed," says Martin.

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