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Holiday tipping: Who, what and how much

Back in 1916 a curmudgeonly book titled “The Itching Palm” predicted that the practice of tipping would one day come to a well-deserved end. The author, one William R. Scott, might be surprised to know that nearly a century later the practice he denounced as “un-American” not only lives on but thrives, especially come holiday time. Indeed, Americans might enjoy giving holiday tips almost as much as getting them.

A good thing, too, because the list seems to grow by the year. Traditional recipients, such as hairdressers, newspaper carriers and child care providers, have been joined by an ever-expanding cadre, including fitness trainers, spa attendants, dog walkers and elder-care workers. Last year, Americans tipped an estimated $26 billion, says Michael Lynn, an associate professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration.

The Consumer Reports National Research Center recently asked a representative U.S. sample of more than 1,800 people what they gave last holiday season (see the table at right). And good news for those on the receiving end: Compared with a similar survey we conducted last year, tips were up about $5 apiece in many instances.

Regional differences
Where you live can affect how much you tip. Lynn says people in the Northeast are the biggest tippers; Southerners tip the least. But tips in the South are often accompanied by or even replaced by a homemade gift, says Colleen Rickenbacher, an etiquette expert in Dallas and author of “Be On Your Best Business Behavior.”

Who gets tipped can also vary by region. “In New York, your child’s school-bus driver expects it,” Rickenbacher says, “whereas in Colorado, they might cry and say thank you. They don’t expect it.”

So if you have recently moved to a new place, ask your neighbors or co-workers what’s customary there.

When in doubt
Despite the regional variations, the experts we interviewed were fairly uniform in their tipping advice:
Match one week/session
. If the person is not on your list and provides service weekly, give the equivalent of one week’s pay. For instance, if your dog walker charges $75 a week, give her a $75 tip. If your guitar teacher charges $50 a lesson, consider $50 or a present of similar value.Use gift cards with care. The cards are popular as tips because they are widely available and are graceful proxies for cash, notes Kate Zabriskie, president of Business Training Works, a consulting firm in Washington, D.C. But stay away from the bank-issued variety, which often have fees and expiration dates.

Know the boss’s rules. Mail carriers aren’t supposed to accept cash or gift cards that can be exchanged for cash. They can accept noncash gifts worth $20 or less. For teachers, check with your school district’s office or parent-teacher association. Giving cash to a teacher might be seen as a bribe. Indeed, our survey found that while 59% of respondents tipped a child’s teacher, only 20% used cash. Instead, try movie-ticket coupons or join with other parents to buy a gift certificate for a local shop. Keep it crisp. If you’re giving cash, try to get to the bank for new bills. A thank-you note goes a long way, too.

For more practical advice, visit www.ConsumerReports.org.

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