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With Christmas just a few days away, the time has come to face one of the most vexing fiscal issues of the holiday season -- tipping.

Who should you tip? How much should you give them? And should you give cash or a more personal token of your appreciation?

While most of us have established routines when it comes to tipping restaurant wait staff and hotel bellmen, that comfort level seems to drop off at holiday time. We know we should reward certain folks who provide us with various services throughout year -- everybody from teachers to hairdresser -- but it's difficult to draw up a precise list, and equally difficult to decide what to give.

"Every Christmas I struggle with it," said Barbara, a Buffalo resident who was spotted buying festive cash envelopes this past weekend. "I do cash, which I personally deliver, but I still have a tough time deciding how far to go."

Her current dilemma is whether to give a little something to the crossing guard who helps her first-grade son across the street each morning.

Susan Makai, owner of Personal Best, a local image consulting firm whose expertise includes etiquette, agrees that this aspect of holiday giving is confusing.

"It's an annual mystery I think," Makai said. "These people aren't in the same category as friends, but yet you feel friendly with them because they make a difference in your life with the service they provide. You don't want to disappoint them because you want that relationship to continue."

Michael Lynn, an associate professor of consumer behavior and marketing at Cornell University, has studied tipping practices around the world, and has found that Americans rank among the most tipping obsessed. According to Lynn, because we're a more extroverted population, tipping is often used to get special attention, establish dominance and show off.

"We also see it as an expected, but positive expression," Lynn said. "Even when in service transactions, we want to be liked."

When it comes to holiday tipping, those feelings are often exaggerated beyond the norm, because its a not just a one-time transaction, such as in a restaurant.

"I guess it feels a little awkward because you're giving gifts to people with whom your ongoing relationship is cash-based. While you like them, and respect them, they are in your life because you pay them to be there," he added.

But as a former paperboy, Lynn said he understands the importance of those annual tokens of appreciation.

"I remember getting little cash gifts from the people on my route and it was great. Every dollar was a big deal to me," he said. "I think of that feeling when it comes time to give something to my paperboy, baby sitter, and the rest."

In her book "The New Manners for '90s," etiquette expert Letitia Baldridge suggests setting some criteria for rewarding those whose services make our lives easier. She suggests giving holiday tips/gifts based on:

The kind of place the person works (whether it's an expensive salon/restaurant/health club).

How often you receive the service (weekly clients have an obligation infrequent customers do not).

The level of service (prompt, warm service, consistently performed above expectation probably merits a reward).

As far how much to give, Jean Chasky, editor-at-large of Money Magazine, suggests using a formula based on frequency and cost of service as the barometer.

Here are some of Chasky's suggestions:

Baby sitter -- one to two days' or nights' pay.

Nanny -- one weeks' salary is standard, but some families give two.

Hairdresser/barber -- the cost of a typical visit if you go frequently, $20 to $25 if you go only occasionally.

Housecleaner -- one week's pay.

Daycare workers -- $15 to $25, and/or a gift from child.

She suggests using similar guidelines for others who provide a regular service, such as pet groomers, gardeners, and (especially in Buffalo) snow plowers.

"In all these cases, make sure that you present your tip as if it were an actual present. Put it in a nice card and write a nice note. If possible, deliver it yourself," Chasky said.

Give cash, rather than checks, she advises.

Makai is less rigid on the question of what to give. In her view, Buffalo-area residents are generally less formal than some other large metropolitan areas, leaving the door open to non-cash rewards.

"I think for most people here it's the thought that counts. So you can give actual gifts, even handmade things, with confidence," she said.

Among her non-gift suggestions are homemade cookies or candy, in fancy wrappings, gift baskets of edibles or personal items, depending on how well you know the person, or gift certificates for local stores or supermarkets.

"The important thing is that it's heart-felt. It should be something that conveys your thanks for their good work, it doesn't have to cost a lot to express that message."

If your holiday "reward" list includes government workers, such at the mailman or the garbage removal crew, bear in mind that the federal governmment and most municipalities prohibit their employees from accepting cash gifts.

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