Tipping in tough times: Here's what you need to know

Dec. 15, 2011 at 7:57 AM ET

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According to a survey, 39 percent of childcare providers and 47 percent of housekeepers do not expect cash or a gift this year.

When my father died nearly a decade ago, one of the sanitation workers who served our Queens, N.Y., neighborhood cried when he heard about his death. 

For years, my dad had been a generous tipper around the holidays, especially when it came to the trash guys, spreading the joy with crisp $50 bills and bottles of Johnnie Walker Red Label. 

Showing appreciation for hard work is the reason many of us give when it comes to holiday gratuities for service that rarely gets a thank you any other time of year. But during tough economic times, the practice has come under increasing scrutiny. 

We all understand that certain employees need tips to survive financially, including waiters and waitresses who get paid less with the idea gratuities will more than make up the difference. But with so many people struggling to make ends meet given years of stagnant wage growth – if they have a job at all – the mentality has become, “hey, they’ve got a job, why do they need a holiday handout?” 

“You can tip yourself into the poor house,” said Carole Townsend, author of “Southern Fried White Trash,” who has noticed more and more people bypassing tips this holiday season because of budget constraints and wondering why cash tips are even necessary. 

“I’m hearing that people are going out of their way to make things, like a tin of cookies for the nail lady, or a box of fudge for the mailman,” she explained. “They can’t afford it. Everyone is holding everything so close now money wise, even people you’d think really don’t need to.” 

Indeed, even many of the typical tip beneficiaries, including everyone from baby sitters to maids, don’t expect that much holiday cheer this season. According to a survey by SitterCity 39 percent of childcare providers and 47 percent of housekeepers do not expect cash or a gift this year. 

But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t appreciate some cash. Among childcare providers polled 34 percent would like cash, if they get a gift at all, while only 4 percent would like a handmade gift. And 28 percent of housekeepers wouldn’t mind some dough, compared to 3 percent who want their bosses’ creations. 

Everyone realizes times are tough, but bypassing tips for those you really depend on throughout the year may not be a great idea. 

Even though Townsend doesn’t tip garbage collectors or postal workers that serve her area, there’s one person she suggested people never forget. “If you have a good hairdresser you have to do what ever you can to make them happy,” stressed Townsend. “Mine is a miracle worker.” 

Clearly, no one wants a bad haircut, but can holiday tips really guarantee good service in the future? 

Etiquette expert Mary Mitchell thinks so.

“Tip really means to ensure prompt payment,” said Mitchell, author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Etiquette.” “A tip is something that we do to both acknowledge we appreciate good service and to assure that it will continue.” 

That said, she’s not an advocate of holiday tipping everyone in sight. If you have a service done regularly, such as having your nails done or your shoes shined, and you typically tip after every visit, there’s no need to tip yet again at the end of the year, she advised.

Her general tipping guidance includes:

  • Not tipping the mailman or woman, or teachers, because in most cases they’re not supposed to take cash gifts
  • $20 for the trash collector
  • A week’s pay equivalent for people who do regular work for you such as your personal trainer, or a cleaning lady or gentleman

If you’ve always doled out the big bucks during the holiday and are embarrassed that you can’t be as generous this year, Mitchell recommends the honest approach. “Most of us can afford to take a few minutes and write a handwritten note,” she noted. She suggested something like this: “I hope you know how much all your good services have meant to me throughout the year. Just as soon as I get another job I will celebrate my prosperity with you.” 

Such genuine communications, she maintained, will go a long way in developing those strong relationships with the people that make our lives better every day. 

Growing up, I always thought it was strange that our trashcan was the only one on our block that the sanitation crew moved from off the curb to the side of our house, even during snowstorms. As it turns out, a little generosity, and some Scotch, does go a long way. 

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