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Keeping up holiday tipping in tough times

Who gets a holiday tip and how much? If you're hurting for cash, how do you handle tipping without going broke or looking like a cheapskate?

Besides making small-talk with relatives, the most uncomfortable holiday ritual for many people is tipping.

Who gets a holiday tip and how much? If you're hurting for cash, how do you handle tipping without going broke or looking like a cheapskate?

A Consumer Reports survey found people are being more choosy this year about who they tip and how much. It found 26 percent of Americans who usually tip or give a gift to a service provider will spend less this holiday season than last. Just 6 percent planned to spend more.

Here are some tips on tips, with help from Mary Mitchell, manners expert and author of the "Complete Idiot's Guide to Etiquette."

- Rule of thumb: Tip people during the holidays who serve you regularly but whom you don't tip regularly during the year, Mitchell said, such as your housekeeper and regular baby sitter. Consider the quality and frequency of the service, your relationship with the person and how thankful you are for this person's service.

- How much? Generally, tip an amount equal to one unit of service, Mitchell said. If you pay your housekeeper $100 for coming every other week the tip is $100.

- Other services: Consumer Reports found some people tip newspaper deliverers: 31 percent of people gave a tip in the median amount of $15; for mail carriers, 19 percent gave a median of $20; and for trash collectors, 8 percent gave a median of $20.

- Time-shift: If you're cash-strapped, consider tipping at another time. "There are ways to leverage the calendar," Mitchell said. "You can stagger your efforts." Mitchell switches some holiday tips to Thanksgiving because she's turned off by the commercialism of Christmas. Spreading your tips all year relieves the cash crunch around the holidays. Besides, your tip will be noticed more at another time.

- Think 'Thanks': "What this economy provides is a real opportunity to go on record and actually thank people," Mitchell said. That might be a thank-you note instead of a gift or to supplement a small present. A note might say, "I hope you know how much you have helped me. Let's hope next year will be better for all of us," Mitchell said.

- Trade services: Express gratitude by doing. Mitchell knows a 24-year-old who didn't have much money but wanted to thank her. Instead of a purchased gift, he is giving Mitchell lessons on social networking tool Twitter, which had befuddled her.

- Homemade gifts: Handmade wreaths, ornaments or baked goods make cheaper gifts. They might even be more appreciated than cash.

- Rethink optional services: If you pay for a service all year long but think you can't afford a tip, perhaps you can't afford the service, either. "Don't cry poverty in one moment and fail to acknowledge the people who have helped you all year long and then go out and buy yourself a new Gucci tote. That's not OK," Mitchell said.

- A final thought: "Our only true gift to give is our time and our attention," Mitchell said. "If that can translate into a cash gift, wonderful. But the challenge is to make a special effort to acknowledge the people who have helped us. Let people know what they mean to you. That makes a huge difference."

Gregory Karp is a personal finance writer for The Morning Call newspaper in Allentown, Pa. Readers may send him e-mail at

(c) 2009, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

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