Holiday tips are one of the first expenses to fall by the wayside when times are tough, and they're sometimes the last to bounce back. Even though consumers say they plan to spend more on gifts, decorations and other purchases this year, experts say tipping will remain fairly flat.
Last year, 39 per cent of U.S. consumers didn't tip any of their service providers, up from 38 per cent in 2010, according to the Consumer Reports National Research Center. Average tip amounts have held steady, with $20 averages for providers including teachers, hairstylists, newspaper carriers and pet-care providers.
"Tips are pretty uniform," says Tobie Stanger, senior project editor for the Consumer Reports National Research Center, which tracks gifting for 10 different service providers. "We haven't seen much of a change."
There are some small signs that budget crunches are easing, if only slightly: 68 per cent of people gave a cash tip or gift to their housecleaner in 2011, up from 61 per cent the year before, according to the survey. While about the same number of people (34 per cent) tipped a pet-care provider, more gave a cheque or cash, versus a gift, which could be less valuable. Some consumers are also talking about giving a little more, says Jodi R.R. Smith, founder of etiquette consulting firm Mannersmith.
In the U.S., experts say tipping etiquette varies by region -- states on either coast tend to focus more on cash tips, for example, while Middle America favours gifts, Stanger says. And the appropriate amount to give can vary based on local pricing. A regular stylist is typically given a gift that's equivalent to the cost for one appointment, for instance, an amount that may be much more or less than the median $20.
Skipping the tip, however, is a bad idea no matter where you live, says Teri Rogers, the founder of real-estate guide BrickUndergound.com. You risk poor service going forward. More important, it's rude, says Smith.
Try these tips for giving without offending:
Include a thank-you note with any holiday tip. "Holiday giving is really a way of saying thank you," Stanger says. A grateful note is especially important if you're giving less than usual -- or can't afford to give at all, she says. That lets recipients know that they're not being snubbed.
The rule of thumb is to tip the cost of one session for a provider you see regularly, like a personal trainer, babysitter or lawn-care provider, says Smith. "If you're somebody who only gets your hair cut twice a year, you can scale it down appropriately," she says. Daily helpers like nannies, elder-care workers and dog walkers should get more: Give a week's pay, at least. Ask neighbours what they tip for service people you don't pay directly, such as a building superintendent or garage attendant, says Rogers. Those amounts tend to vary widely.
Cash is preferable for most recipients, but in a few cases, gifts are the better choice. "In a lot of school districts, they frown upon teachers getting cash. It could be looked on as a bribe," Stanger explains. Postal workers can't accept cash, or any gift valued at more than $25. Consider such restrictions when deciding whether cash or a gift is more appropriate. Gift-giving etiquette means putting thought into the item you pick. A generic gift card is better than one to a specific store if you don't know what the housekeeper likes, says Smith.