To Tip or Not to Tip?
During the season of giving, it’s ironic that holiday tipping creates such consternation. What should I give? How much? To whom? What if I mess up by giving cash when I should’ve given cookies, or vice versa? Oy.
“Holiday tipping is fraught with peril because there’s a lot of secrecy surrounding it,” says Jodi R. R. Smith, etiquette expert and founder of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. “Unless you ask, you don’t know. You’re fearful of upsetting or disappointing someone.”
Back when I lived in the suburbs of Boston and got regular highlights and bang trims, I gave a little extra to my hairstylist each year, and that was about it. But then I moved to Manhattan, where so many people make my life possible that, come December, my holiday tipping list has grown exponentially.
And while some people have a natural sense of what’s right and appropriate, the rest of us have to ask the pros — which is exactly what I did. Customs vary from city to city, and micro-culture to micro-culture (depending on where you live, where your kids go to school and so on), but there are some good rules of thumb to follow. So don’t freak out. Here’s everything you need to know about who to tip and how much.
Make Your List, Check It Twice
It’s not enough to hand out twenties willy nilly; to make the most of your holiday tipping, you’re going to need to write it down. “Start with an inclusive list,” says Smith. “If you have even the smallest inkling you should tip a person, add him or her, create a spreadsheet or whatever works for you. Include everyone whom you have used in a professional service capacity.”
Here are the basic categories for tipping:
Child and pet care. The people to whom you entrust the well-being of your children and animals are definitely at the top of that list: nannies, sitters, teachers, tutors, pet sitters and dog walkers.
Home care. Any providers who keep your home and property in tip-top shape: housecleaners, landscapers, sanitation workers, mail carriers, doormen and supers (if you live in an apartment building).
Personal appearance and monthly maintenance. Anyone you see regularly to look your best: hair stylist, colorist, wax, nail salon workers, massage therapy, dry cleaner and tailor.
Tipping Rule of Thumb
While there are established and acceptable ranges for tipping, Smith recommends going beyond the one-size-fits-all approach and considering the relationship you have with this service provider: How long have you used them? How often do you seem them? (Weekly, monthly, only in emergencies? While you may not call on your building’s super much, this year when your toilet overflowed, he drove in from Jersey on Thanksgiving to fix it. That counts for something, and a year-end tip should reflect that.)
Here’s the basic rule of thumb, says Smith: For people you see and tip regularly, such as a hair stylist, double your usual tip or pay 10 percent of whatever you’ve paid them over the past year — whichever is higher. So if you normally pay $100 for a cut a few times a year plus a $20 tip, on your last visit of the year, double the tip and give her $40 for that visit.
For fee-based providers, like babysitters and pet sitters, pay the cost of a visit. If you pay them $50 per visit a few times a month, your holiday tip should be between $25 and $50. If that person went above and beyond, err on the higher side.
For a nanny, who gets paid weekly, it’s a good idea to give a gift of one week’s pay. “If you normally pay your nanny $500 a week, then consider a gift of $500 at the end of the year,” says Smith. If she’s been with you for five years (and several kids), maybe a little more (say, $600).
Gift or Cash?
Now that you’ve identified who to tip, the question is whether a thoughtful gift or cash is most acceptable (and desired). Is cash cold? Is a homemade gift preferable? Will the recipient of your homemade peach preserves wish you’d just given them the money? The answer is that it depends on whom it’s for.
Smith says to give skilled professionals (teachers, tutors, tailors and so on) whom you do not normally tip a thoughtful gift and a card — whether that’s a batch of homemade cookies, a candle or candy from Williams Sonoma. Or something else if you’re very imaginative or very artsy-crafty.
How Much Should You Give?
When in doubt, ask, says Mister Manners expert Thomas Farley. “People are generally open to discussing tips. So if you're a mom and your kids are at a new school, ask another parent what’s customary,” he says.
Here’s a breakdown of tip ranges, which vary from region to region. So while you can expect to pay high-end tips for white-glove doorman service in big cities like New York, the ranges will typically be lower in smaller or more rural places. “Remember, these numbers are guidelines, and you shouldn’t feel beholden to them,” says Farley.
Nannies and sitters: One week's pay for a live-in and one night's pay for a regular babysitter. A nice gift picked out by the child(ren), along with cards, is a must.
Teachers and tutors: Opt for a nice gift (ideally one pooled with funds from the whole class) and a card. Guideline amount: $15 to $30 (though Smith says with a group give, as little as $5 to $10 per child will be plenty).
Doormen and/or superintendent: If you live in an apartment building with a doorman, porter or concierge, consider the city you’re in and how often you use their services. If you tip throughout the year, take that into consideration for your end-of-year gift. And don’t forget the graveyard shift workers! Too often, says Farley, the workers you may not encounter as often get short shrift at the holidays.
- Porters: $30 to $100
- Doormen: $30 to $100
- Superintendent: $100 to $200 (again, more for those who have really gone the extra mile for you)
- Building concierge: $50 to $150
House cleaners: One week's pay (or one month if they come monthly). A small gift, too, or a not-so-small gift, depending on their level of service.
Garden and landscape folks: $20 to $50 apiece
Trash pickup: $10 to $30 apiece (But check your city’s rules and regulations. Some cities, like New York, will slap trash collectors with hefty fines for accepting tips. Check out this story in the Daily News about how a $10 tip got two New York City sanitation workers in hot water.)
Mail carriers: The USPS forbids carriers from accepting cash and anything over $20 value. Consider a small gift of chocolate or an iTunes gift card.
Hair stylist/colorist: If you go every few weeks without fail, consider gifting the cost of one visit. If you go just a few times a year, double the tip on your last visit of the year. And don’t forget the shampooers or front-desk worker, especially when she gets you in last minute.
Dry cleaner/tailor: Cash tips are not required. If you use them often, a card and small gift is appreciated.
Give from the Heart
It’s important to recognize that tipping is not an “extra.” Instead, Smith says, “It’s a meaningful acknowledgement of the past year of service and ensures a smooth relationship for the next year.”
“This person helped you look better, your lawn look better, kept your kids under control,” says Farley. “What value would you put on that at the end of the year if you really think about it?” Sure, it can add up, but this is when giving counts most. The worst thing you can do, says Smith, is skimp on holiday tipping as a way to save money.
“If you live lavishly, you should tip lavishly,” says Smith. “If I’m getting nails and hair done regularly, and so on, then I need to tip for the lifestyle to which I’ve become accustomed.” In other words, if you can’t afford the tips, then you should seriously reconsider some of the services you’re using.
If you can’t connect with one of your service providers in December, be sure to make it a point to do so after the New Year. It’s never too early to tip — and it’s never too late.