Throughout the year, there are key people who make our lives run more smoothly. For Jackie Martin that person is her hair dresser who will stay late at the salon to ensure the busy sales representative gets her hair colored before leaving on a business trip. Martin wants to show her hair dresser appreciation during the holidays. But she faces the same dilemma most of us encounter: What is an appropriate holiday tip?

Holiday tipping is much different than doling out appreciation for a one-time service. It represents appreciation for an ongoing service that we value. Make an etiquette blunder with holiday tipping and it could cause you embarrassment. Tip too much, and it could set you back financially for the new year.

"Holiday tipping can be incredibly confusing because there are so many unwritten rules," says business etiquette expert Barbara Pachter. "I think that if the person makes your job or life easier, you should tip. If you do, you are more apt to continue to get that service."

As my appointment to get my dog groomed nears, I'm thinking about whether I need to give the groomer an extra tip for the holidays. Deciding who to tip and how much has become one of the most stressful parts of the holidays for me.

Etiquette experts advise us to make a list of all the people who assist us throughout the year. How long have they worked with you? Has their service been outstanding? What kind of budget do you have this year? Jacqueline Whitmore, owner of the Protocol School of Palm Beach in Lake Worth, Fla., recommends taking your top three to five people and tipping them first. Then, decide who else you want to tip after that.

"There's nothing set in stone that says you have to give a certain amount," Whitmore convinced me long ago. "Everyone has a different budget and there are a lot of factors that go into it."

Pachter, author of The Essentials of Business Etiquette, suggests factoring three elements into how generous to be with a holiday tip: What's standard in your metropolitan area, your relationship with the service provider and how much you value that service in your life.

So, what's an appropriate holiday tip for a personal trainer in South Florida? Up to the cost of one session. And for the dog groomer who comes to your home? Up to the cost of one service. What about for your office custodian? Anywhere from $20 to $30 would be generous, according to etiquette experts.

Sometimes a gift might be the better route – two tickets to a sporting event just might be your ticket to a regularly empty garbage can. Joyce Hunter, president of the Florida Printing Group, says she prefers to give a gift card or homemade goodie over cash to year-round service providers such as her maintenance worker and handyman. "Cash is great but goes into the pot for groceries or cigarettes. I prefer to give them something special."

Bob Hale, the security/concierge at a condominium complex, says that even after 20 years on the job, he's thrilled when he gets a little something extra to pocket at Christmas time. For people who live or work in highrises, deciding how much to tip the front desk people, the maintenance people, the valet, the manager can become overwhelming. Some buildings ask all occupants for a lump sum to divvy among workers. Hale says the standard cash tip he receives ranges from $15 to $30, although gift cards, wine, even homemade baked goods also make his day. This is in excess of the money the building collects for a holiday fund that's divided among building personnel.

One reader pointed out to me, there are service providers who tend to get overlooked such as the counter lady at the dry cleaner. "All year we handle your smelly dirty clothes and hardly anyone tips even though we check your clothes for defects, stains, turn them right side out and make recommendations all the time with a smile even when you are too busy to be polite," says Bronwyn Perez. If you don't tip throughout the year (few people do), Perez says a $5 to $10 holiday tip would be respectable. One South Florida private tutor mentioned to me that piano teachers and academic tutors should be considered when holiday tipping. "Many times the holiday months are 'short' months for individual lessons," she said. "This cuts into our monthly budget by as much as half or more. A nice Christmas tip helps round out our budget and get through the holidays."

Walter Stein, a real estate professional, says he keeps a spread sheet to track who he tips annually and how much. "I adjust it based on how long they have worked for me, how much effort they gave me this year and whether I had a good year financially." His list includes his car washer, barber, housekeeper, handyman, lawn crew and vendors he employs for business.

Some people get stumped on whether to tip the exterminator, lawn worker, pool cleaner, mail carrier and the endless list of people who provide us services at home and the office. South Florida business consultant Shari Roth says she pondered how much to tip her mail deliverer and her trash collectors and came up with an idea: Last Christmas, she gave $10 in lottery tickets to all. She says she noticed she got great service in the year that followed.

For those with busy lives, it can be most critical to tip those who ease our work life balance – the daycare provider who extends hours when we run late at work or the dog walker who rushes to our home at the last minute when you're stuck at the office. For those providers, $25-$75 cash or a gift card is appropriate, according to etiquette guidelines.

Of course, you might find some people blatantly ask for tips: the holiday caterer who tacks gratuity onto the tab, the masseur who attaches a small envelope to the bill, the newspaper carrier who sends a holiday card just begging for a bonus. In those cases, tipping remains discretionary, a reflection of the service you received, say etiquette mavens.

While there are no hard and fast rules, there are strong feelings on both sides of the holiday tipping debate: Cindy Yelle of Toronto says she is put off by the thought of holiday tipping. "I'm generous throughout the year. I do not feel the need to over-tip at Christmas." Life coach Linda Baumel, of Miami Beach, takes the opposite approach to holiday tipping: "It's not burden or obligation but rather an opportunity to say thanks to people who accommodate you throughout the year."

Mark Brennen, author of Tipping for Success, advises letting go of stress over the size of a holiday tip: "You don't have to spend a lot of money to send the message to someone that they are important."

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC, a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life. She can be reached at balancegal@gmail.com. Read her columns and blog at http://worklifebalancingact.com/.

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