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Some tips for tipping during holidays

Some of the best money tips during the holidays are about tips themselves.

Proper gratuities for service people befuddle even the most etiquette-conscious among us. Who should get a holiday or year-end tip, and how much? It only complicates things that the answer often is, "It depends."

Tipping becomes an emotional and self-confidence issue when people ask themselves, "Will I appear foolish or cheap if I tip incorrectly?"

"It causes angst because it doesn't always pass the smell test for people," said Anna Post, an etiquette author and spokeswoman for the Emily Post Institute. "The place where it gets uncomfortable for people is when they're on a budget or the expected amount to tip is more than they're comfortable with, yet they don't want to risk offending or seem unappreciative. That's a slippery slope."

Here are answers to common questions about gratuities, so you can lessen your anxiety about holiday tipping this year.

Who should get a year-end tip? Generally, tip people who help you throughout the year and who you want to thank, but not necessarily people you tip regularly. "These are people who are a consistent part of your life," Post said. "Your personal feelings need to help guide you."

In a Consumer Reports survey, most people said they tipped or gave a holiday gift to a cleaning person, who usually gets cash, and a child's teacher, who should get a gift. Fewer than half gave a holiday tip to their hairdresser, newspaper carrier, manicurist, barber, pet-care provider, lawn crew, mail carrier or garbage collector, although they are all people whom it's reasonable to tip. In brainstorming a list of recipients, don't forget seasonal service people who aren't on the top of minds in December, such as regular pool cleaners and landscapers, Post said.

*How much should they get? In a perfect world, you would complete this elementary exercise: Come up with a dollar amount you can afford for holiday tips, list the people who should get tips and allocate the money among those people.

In the real world, you might be less structured, giving more to people who are in your home and with whom you have a more personal relationship. You often tip an amount equal to one week or one unit of service. So a house cleaner would get a tip equal to one cleaning, a baby sitter an amount equal to an evening of sitting.

You give less to people you rarely see or have momentary contact with, such as the mail carrier and doorman.

In the Consumer Reports survey, the median tip given was $35 for a cleaning person and $10 to $25 for everybody else. Tipping tends to be higher in regions with a higher cost of living.

A common exception to general rules seems to be hairdressers. But a year-end tip equal to a typical trip to the salon is excessive, Post said.

"That's a lot of extra money," Post said. "I understand how people balk at that."

So you might use the usual 20 percent rule there, like you would in a restaurant, tipping one-fifth the cost of a salon visit.

*What if I can't afford a tip? Substitutes for cash are crafts, baked goods and a note expressing thanks. "In a world where money speaks, a handwritten note can say a lot when it's genuine," Post said.

*Should I snub someone for poor service? "Skipping a holiday tip is not a way to send message for poor service," Post said. "It's not classy, and it's not effective."

Ideally, you would change service providers before tipping becomes an issue. On the flip side, don't believe that if you don't tip you won't get good service.

Year-end tipping isn't about buying an insurance policy against poor service; it's about giving thanks.

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