Last week, the Christmas tree rolled into New York City's Rockefeller Center, as sure a sign as any that the holidays are, once again, upon us. And with them, of course, comes the annual debate: Who gets tipped? And how much do you give them?
I have, over the years, developed my own rules about this sort of thing, but every once in a while I like a little affirmation that I'm still on target. So I spoke with "The Ethics Guy," Bruce Weinstock, author of "Life Principles: Feeling Good by Doing Good" (Emmis Books, 2005). Here's how the conversation went:
Q: Why is there so much confusion about tipping? A: People feel they have an obligation to tip around the holidays. In fact, there is no ethical obligation to give cash. There is an ethical obligation to express our gratitude to people who clean our apartments, cut our hair, walk our animals. But we don't have to tip everyone who helps us. If we tipped everyone who helps us, we'd be broke.
Q: So how do you figure out who gets tipped and who doesn't? A: The hospitality industry — restaurants and hotels — is the only industry that counts on tips as an important part of employee compensation. If you don't tip, they don't make a living wage. In other cases, it's up to you, but you should really consider those people who provide you with a regular service.
Q: For example, housekeepers and babysitters, the parking attendant at your regular garage, your manicurist or massage therapist, the superintendent, doormen and porters in your apartment building, the newspaper delivery person?A: Right.
Q: Are there people who should not be tipped? A: It is illegal for postal employees to accept cash. (They are, however, allowed to accept non-cash gifts of up to $20 in value.) Schoolteachers, too, though they aren't often tipped, are sometimes restricted in how expensive a gift they're allowed to accept. Some schools impose rules like this to avoid favoritism in the classroom.
Q: Let's get down to the nitty-gritty. How much should you give them?A: I always try to adhere to what I call "the rule of one or two," meaning you give the equivalent of one or two visits (if you're talking about a hairdresser or personal trainer) or one or two weeks' pay (if you're talking about a babysitter or housekeeper).
It depends on so many variables, including the going rate in your community. What you'd give a doorman on the Upper East Side (of Manhattan) is different than what you'd give someone caring for your cat in the Midwest. The more someone has helped you, the more they deserve to be thanked.
Q: What if you're having a tough time financially this year. Should you explain it?A: No, you don't owe it to your doorman to explain that you just lost your job or filed bankruptcy. Instead, try to say thank you in a way that you can afford. Maybe you can offer to tutor a child in math or chess. Maybe you can offer babysitting services. If the person who went above and beyond to help you works for a company, write a letter to his or her employer explaining detailing their great effort. To some people, tips like these are even more meaningful than money because they show you took some extra care or thought.
Q: Finally, what's your take on regifting?A: It's the right thing to do.
Q: Really?!?A: Yes, for two reasons. It covers our ethical obligation to express our gratitude, and our ethical obligation not to be wasteful. If you give me a boxed set CD and I already have it, I should regift it. It's wasteful to stick it in a drawer. Trick is to make sure that the person who gave you the gift doesn't learn of it, because it may hurt their feelings — which taps into a third ethical obligation. Do no harm. If someone gives you a sweater and you don't like it but they expect to see you in it, you might have to take a deep breath and wear it every once in a while, just to avoid hurting their feelings.
Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today" show and is also a columnist for Life magazine. She is the author of four books, including 2004's "Pay it Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio). To find out more, visit her Web site, .