A Guide to Holiday Tipping This Year

Tipping during the holidays is a time-honored tradition, but because there are no hard and fast rules, it can end up being one more stressful holiday chore. Here are some suggestions from etiquette and tipping experts to reduce some of the worry.

“There is no authority that sets the norms,” said Michael Lynn, a professor of consumer behavior and marketing at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration who has studied tipping.

Tipping service workers has centuries-old roots, and may have emerged as a way for tavern patrons to “forestall envy” while they imbibed, Professor Lynn said. Customers didn’t want the workers to resent their carousing, “so they said, ‘Here’s some money to have a drink later.’” (In many countries, he said, the word for a tip incorporates drinking. For instance, the French term for a gratuity, he noted, is “pourboire,” or roughly translated, “for drink.”)

Formal research on holiday tipping is scant, he said, but generally, seasonal tips are geared toward “people you don’t normally tip, but with whom you interact a lot.”

Your decision is personal, though. Even if you tip someone periodically, you may choose to give an extra gratuity around the holidays to show your appreciation.

“It really is discretionary,” said Daniel Post Senning, a great-great grandson of the manners maven Emily Post and a co-author of “Emily Post’s Etiquette,” 19th edition.

Nearly half of American adults say they give higher than usual tips during the holidays to service providers who normally receive tips throughout the year, particularly restaurant servers, according to an online survey conducted for in early November. Other providers who can expect larger-than-usual tips around the holidays, according to the survey, include hairstylists or barbers, food delivery workers, bartenders and coffee shop baristas.

Think of a tip not as a way to avoid poor service in the future, Mr. Senning said, but rather as a way of honoring those who “take good care of us.”

“Ultimately, what makes tipping successful is when it’s done with a spirit of generosity and graciousness,” he said. “It’s not a bribe for good service.”

Yet, said Leonard Green, a professor of psychological and brain sciences and economics at Washington University in St. Louis, once workers know that tipping is the norm, it may act as an incentive to provide excellent service to clients. “You want to make sure they continue to tip in the future.”

Workers eligible for holiday tips include those who help you in some way, whether at your home or elsewhere, Mr. Senning said. They can include a housekeeper, doorman, nanny, regular handyman (or woman), as well as your regular manicurist or (if you’re fortunate enough to have one) massage therapist.

Elaine Swann, an etiquette adviser in San Diego, advised thinking about someone who went beyond expectations — perhaps, a babysitter who repeatedly filled in on short notice or a meal delivery person who was always on time. “Put some thought into individuals who really helped make your life easier throughout the year,” she said.

Then, set a budget for tips that takes into account your own financial situation. If money is tight, you may need to rein in your generosity. “I encourage folks to not let it become a detriment to their own pocketbook,” Ms. Swann said.

That said, the pandemic made for difficult times for many service workers, so if your budget supports it, be generous. “If you are able, I’d recommend going above and beyond this year,” Ms. Swann said.

Vid Ponnapalli, a fee-only financial planner in Holmdel, N.J., said he had urged his clients to budget for tips and gifts as they would any other expense. “You have to determine your affordability and your budget,” he said.

If your finances don’t allow for extra cash this year, try and show gratitude another way, Mr. Senning said, perhaps with a thoughtful handwritten note. “Never underestimate the power of your words.”

Deciding how much to tip may require some informal research. “Ask your neighbors,” Professor Lynn said.

Or, consider these guidelines from etiquette and financial experts:

What’s a reasonable tip for my babysitter or housekeeper?

For a babysitter who cares for your child a few hours a week, consider the equivalent of a typical session’s pay. For a live-in nanny or a child care provider who comes to your home regularly, one week’s pay or more is suggested.

For caregivers in a day care setting outside of your home, check the company’s policy. If cash tips aren’t allowed, you may consider a small gift from you and your child, Ms. Swann said.

For house cleaners who come regularly, the equivalent of one session’s pay is common but by no means standard. Among people who tip, the median amount for a housekeeper is $50, according to the survey.

Can I tip my postal carrier or package delivery driver?

Some people like to thank their regular postal carrier or package courier, but most are restricted in what they may accept. United States Postal Service workers can’t accept cash or gift cards that may be used like cash, but may accept gifts worth $20 or less, including store, restaurant or mall gift cards, a spokeswoman said.

FedEx policy bars employees from accepting cash or gift cards, a company spokeswoman said. But, she said, drivers “do enjoy snacks” that are left for them.

UPS drivers are taught to “politely decline monetary offerings,” a company spokesman, Dan McMackin, said. They may, however, accept a tip if a customer is “insistent.” Drivers appreciate gestures of thanks, like snack bars or bottled water, and often receive homemade treats or gifts.

Should I tip my child’s teacher?

Many educators went above and beyond during the pandemic, but giving cash to your child’s teacher is best avoided, etiquette experts say. It could look like you are trying to curry favor. A small gift card or a handmade gift from your child is a better idea, or maybe a group gift purchased with contributions from the entire class.

What about service workers who arrive pre-dawn, like trash collectors or newspaper deliverers?

Mr. Ponnapalli suggested attaching a note to the trash bag the day before, alerting the crew that a tip will be delivered the next day — or getting up early to deliver it in person so it doesn’t go astray. (A tip of $20 is most common, according to the survey).

Typically, news carriers (yes, some people still get an actual newspaper delivered) send a holiday card with their address to your home so you can mail them a tip.

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