Tips on Tipping This Holiday Season
CR's advice on who to tip, how much to give, and how to offer thanks with sincerity and panache
Nick Leighton goes the extra mile at the holidays to thank workers in the high-rise Manhattan apartment building where he lives. Each year, he designs and prints a new holiday card, addresses an envelope to every worker, writes a personal message on the card, and stuffs those all-important bills inside.
More than a dozen service providers in the building—including doormen, porters, handymen, and managers—can expect a holiday tip this year from Leighton, an etiquette expert and host of the podcast "Were You Raised by Wolves?"
"It takes a village," he jokes about all those recipients. "And I tip generously because I appreciate how easy these people make my life."
Who—and How Much—to Tip
Deciding who to tip doesn’t need to be complicated, says Daniel Post Senning, the great-great-grandson of etiquette maven Emily Post and host of the Emily Post Institute podcast "Awesome Etiquette."
“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 to 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.
In national surveys Consumer Reports has done over the years on tipping behavior, housekeepers are the service providers who have most frequently been given holiday tips. They also have received the largest amounts.
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 other building residents can give you an idea of what’s appropriate, Leighton says.
"It’s totally fine to ask your neighbors," Leighton says.
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.
Follow Norms and Employer Rules
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? Not 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.”
With other workers, consider checking with the employer ahead of time to find out their policy. The U.S. Postal Service, for instance, restricts the gifts that mail carriers can accept; presents worth up to $20 are fine, but carriers can’t accept cash. FedEx workers aren’t supposed to accept gifts or cash—but can take away a snack or sweet treat. UPS drivers can’t take cash but can accept small gifts or food. Walmart doesn’t allow staffers who load customers’ cars at pickup stations to receive tips, either. "But you can still give a thank-you note," Senning says. "Never underestimate the power of your words."
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 who 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. Those from Visa or American Express, for instance, aren’t connected to a particular retailer; unlike retailer cards, however, they typically charge the buyer a fee.
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.
A peer-to-peer payment through a service such as Apple Pay, Venmo, or Zelle is another alternative. But, Leighton notes, you lose something in the translation. "If the only convenient way to give is electronic, have at it," he says. "But if you have choices, I’d rather lean toward cash. It comes across as a little more thoughtful."
More Tipping Advice
- 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.