- The Washington Times - Monday, November 23, 2009

NEW YORK | This holiday season, a leaner budget might clarify which people truly make a difference in your life. The challenge will be figuring out how much to tip them.

Determining what to give during the holidays, if anything, likely will be more complicated than in years past. Even if money is tight, it’s hard not to feel guilty about skimping on the usual year-end bonus. You also might worry that not tipping will create an awkward tension or result in shoddier service.

Still, you won’t be alone if you scale back. About a quarter of respondents to a recent Consumer Reports survey said they planned to tip less this holiday season than they did last year. Just 6 percent planned to give more. If you’re among those on a tighter budget, here’s how you can save without appearing cheap.

Before you start doling out money, you might be curious about what others are giving.

There are no hard-and-fast rules, but year-end tips generally are the cost of a single session. So if a haircut costs $40, that’s how much you could give as a tip.

In addition, holiday bonuses generally are reserved for people upon whom you’ve relied for at least six months, said Mary Mitchell, author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Business Etiquette.” Don’t feel obligated to tip a hairdresser you’ve only been to a few times.

For someone like a paper carrier who doesn’t charge per delivery, ask others what they’re giving if you’re at a loss. Practices usually vary by region, however, so don’t use your sister in Wyoming to gauge what you should pay in New York City. You also shouldn’t feel pressured to keep up with others.

Remember that some workers have guidelines on what they can accept. Mail carriers, for example, can only take non-cash gifts valued at $20 or less. That could include a gift card but not personal checks in any amount. Alcohol isn’t allowed, either, even if it’s worth less than $20.

Teachers generally can’t accept cash, either. The rules vary, however, so be sure to check with the school. There also could be guidelines on tipping other employees, such as bus drivers and teacher’s aides.

One way to save is to focus on those you feel must be tipped.

Last holiday season, for instance, the downturn didn’t affect how much housekeepers and teachers got, but fewer people tipped their barbers, garbage collectors, mail carriers and manicurists, according to Consumer Reports.

“The dollar amounts aren’t changing so much as who is getting tipped,” said Donato Vaccaro, who helps conduct the magazine’s annual holiday tipping survey.

Because the economy hasn’t improved, Mr. Vaccaro said more people likely will trim their lists this year.

If the strategy sits well with you, start by identifying those you feel absolutely should get tips. They’ll likely be people with whom you have frequent or intimate contact, such as child care or pet care providers.

You also might want to consider financial situations when drawing up your list. A yoga instructor might not need — or expect — a tip as much as a manicurist. Another reason you might leave someone off the list: You already tip that person generously throughout the year.

If cash tips aren’t in the budgetary stars, you still can give small gifts that don’t cost a lot.

Baked goods, jams and candles are perennial crowd pleasers, but use your knowledge about the person to be creative. For instance, someone who recently took up knitting might appreciate a subscription to a knitting magazine. Or, if you know someone who wants to start a side business, you could offer to teach him or her how to set up a Web page.

Another option is pooling resources to buy a nice gift. For example, tenants in an apartment building could team up to buy an iPod for the superintendent. With so many looking to save right now, it shouldn’t be hard to find people willing to participate.

If you feel you can’t afford a tip or gift, thank-you notes still make a difference. You could spruce up each with a Godiva chocolate; one box should be enough for all your envelopes.

Of course, you might feel sheepish about giving a card that doesn’t have any cash inside, but at the very least, a warm message can help ease any awkwardness that might come from avoiding the issue.

If you still can’t shake your guilt, consider lightly touching on your economic situation in the note. Business-etiquette author Ms. Mitchell suggests thanking the person for bearing with you during these tough times.

You don’t need to be explicit about why cash isn’t included. Everyone knows times are tough; they might be scaling back on their own holiday giving, too.

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