An illustration of envelopes with money in them

When the holidays roll around, Tina Fraynd of Crestline, Calif., has tips and gifts ready for the folks who help her family year-round. 

These include the newspaper delivery man, the clerks at her local post office, the garbage collectors, the counter person at the lumberyard her husband frequents, the workers who help maintain her home, and "our bank tellers, who always have a moment to chat," she says.

Some get cash and a gift card to See’s, the San Francisco-based chocolatier. Others get boxes of chocolates, cookies, or containers of pretzels or nuts.

More on Your Money & the Holidays

"We are grateful for their help," Fraynd explains. "Sharing a bit of what you have with people you interact with during the year is always accepted with a smile and gratitude."

A majority of Americans feel the same way. Sixty percent of us gave tips to one or more service providers during the holidays last year, according to a recent survey on holiday tipping conducted by Consumer Reports. 

The survey was conducted in the spring of this year to ensure consumers remembered what they gave in the prior holiday season.

Go to Consumer Reports' 2018 Holiday Central for updates on deals, expert product reviews, insider tips on shopping, and much more.

Cash Is King, Housekeepers Get the Most

Overall, Americans doled out a total average of $45 in tips, up $5 from the prior year. The majority of those tips were in cash. 

"Cash is going to be most prized," says Thomas P. Farley, a New York-based etiquette expert also known as Mister Manners. "Don't forget, the people we tip may have their own tips they have to give out."

Among those most likely to receive a tip were housekeepers, child-care providers, schoolteachers, hairdressers, and manicurists/pedicurists, our survey shows. Garbage collectors were least likely to get a tip.

Housekeepers received the largest gratuities. Their median holiday tip came to $65. Though just 30 percent of Americans who used a gardener tipped those service providers, the gardeners who did get tips raked in an average of $50. Hairdressers and garbage collectors were on the lower end of the spectrum, each receiving a median tip of $20.

How Much Do We Tip Workers?
Garbage collectors tend to be overlooked during the holiday tipping season.
Base: Percentages based on Americans who used these services in 2017.
Source: May 2018 Consumer Reports nationally representative survey of 2,013 U.S. adults.
How Much Do We Tip Workers?
Garbage collectors tend to be overlooked during the holiday tipping season.
Base: Percentages based on Americans who used these services in 2017.
Source: May 2018 Consumer Reports nationally representative survey of 2,013 U.S. adults.

Who, and How Much, to Tip

Deciding whom to tip doesn’t need to be complicated, says Daniel Post Senning, the great-great-grandson of etiquette maven Emily Post and a spokesman for the Emily Post Institute.

“To simplify the process, just consider tipping service providers in key areas of your personal life,” he says.

Such people may include those who take care of your family—say, a nanny or health aide—as well as those who take care of your home, like a housekeeper or handyman. You can also consider giving to those who help you look good and stay healthy, such as a stylist, barber, or personal trainer.

Where you live can also have an impact on whom you tip. Senning, who lives in rural Vermont, tips the person who plows his driveway when it snows. For someone in southern Florida, though, the tip may go the person cleaning the swimming pool.  

When considering how much to give, etiquette and tipping experts say a good place to start is to consider an amount equivalent to the cost of one service. If you feel you’ve received exemplary service throughout the year, you can then add to that base amount.

The Apartment Dweller's Dilemma

New Yorkers and other urbanites often grapple with how much to tip a doorman, apartment superintendent, or other building worker. There's no clear answer, but Farley suggests talking to other building residents to get an idea of what's appropriate.

The sum can vary a lot, depending on whether you live in a walk-up row house with a part-time super or in a full-service luxury flat.

"Couch it as, 'I don't want to be nosy, but I want to make sure I'm giving what's appropriate,'" Farley says. "People generally are not shy about sharing because they don't want to appear like the outlier."

Those You May Not Want to Tip

Senning points out that in some cases it’s inappropriate to tip. “Be careful when it comes to salaried professionals,” he says. “Nurses and doctors, for example, are professionals you shouldn’t tip.”

How about teachers? Consumer Reports’ survey found that 57 percent of Americans with school-aged children gave teachers a holiday gift. That, however, is not always such a good idea. “You don’t want to create the impression of any tit-for-tat, or that you’re paying someone who is grading your kids,” Senning says.

He advises that you check the gift-giving policy at your child’s school before giving teachers a present. If it’s okay with the school, Senning recommends collecting money for a gift that’s from the entire class. “Make sure it’s clear that the gift comes from everyone, whether they’ve contributed or not,” he says. “The same goes in the office if you’re planning to give a gift to the boss.” 

How to Avoid Awkwardness

The sense of obligation can feel stressful and awkward to many people, Senning says.

However, there are ways to ease your jangled nerves. “Rather than looking at tipping as an obligation, we should think of it as an opportunity to honor the people that make our lives better,” Senning says.

A gift or prepaid card, placed in a greeting card with a sincere message of thanks, can be a good alternative to the awkwardness of handing over cash. Farley says he prefers bank-based gift cards, like those from Visa or American Express, that aren't connected to a particular retailer. "I don’t want to presume that the person has a need to download more music on iTunes," he says.

Senning says that you also can consider sending a gift basket or a tin of cookies. Because those gifts can be shared, they’re especially useful in places where a number of workers provided you with service.

One way of giving to avoid is a peer-to-peer payment through a service such as Apple Pay, Venmo, or Zelle, Farley says. "The act of actually handing someone something, shaking their hand, and thanking them is lost in a P2P transaction," he notes. "If there were ever a time to give P2P a rest, it would be the holidays, when we’re really looking for the human connection."

More Tipping Advice

  • Be aware that the U.S. Postal Service restricts the gifts that mail carriers can accept. Presents worth up to $20 are fine, but carriers can’t accept cash.
  • Don’t give food unless you’re certain the recipient can eat it. With many people changing to more restrictive diets, your symbol of generosity might end up regifted or thrown out. Similarly, not every recipient would appreciate wine or spirits as a gift.
  • If you’re giving cash, go to your bank to get nice, crisp bills, which present better and show a bit more effort on your part.
  • If you really can’t afford to buy a gift or give cash—and don’t feel you have the talent or time to bake or make a gift—a heartfelt note of thanks is better than no recognition at all. As Senning points out, money isn’t everything. “We like to say that holiday tipping is really holiday thanking,” he says.