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Tip or no holiday tip? Etiquette for letter carriers, dog walkers, and other VIPs

Every holiday season, in households across the region, families debate best gift-giving practices. The conversations center not only on how much to spend on relatives and friends, but also on what to give the garbage collectors, mail carriers, and countless other people who provide regular services.

Letter carrier Tom Tryon visits a home in Croydon on December 4, 2018.
Letter carrier Tom Tryon visits a home in Croydon on December 4, 2018.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Editor’s note: This article was published in 2018. If you decide to give tips in person, you should take precautions against contracting COVID-19.

Tom Beggs’ holiday tips have run the gamut.

A garbage collector in the King of Prussia area for the last decade, Beggs has received winter gloves, sweatshirts, homemade sweets, and Wawa gift cards.

Tons of Wawa gift cards, he said.

Beggs, 31, of Brookhaven, appreciates any and all tips, he said, and especially loves when customers come out to his big, blue Republic Services trash truck to give the gifts in person. His ideal tip comes in the form of cash, which he then uses to buy Christmas presents for his family and friends.

"I'll never turn down the cash," Beggs said with a laugh, "but Christmas cookies are good, too."

Every holiday season, in households across the region, families debate best gift-giving practices. The conversations center not only on how much to spend on relatives and friends, but also on what to give the garbage collectors, letter carriers, and countless other people who provide regular services.

So, how much should someone spend? And on whom? Should the tip be cash, a gift card, or something more personal?

Well, the answer depends on whom you ask.

More than 60 percent of Americans tipped at least one service provider during the 2017 holiday season, according to a recent Consumer Reports national survey. Overall, Americans gave out an average total of $45 in tips, a $5 increase from the previous year. Regionally, the Northeast spends the most money the most often on holiday tipping, according to Consumer Reports.

On suburban Facebook groups, posts pondering what and whom to tip receive dozens of responses and often lead to impassioned debate. Some users said they don’t tip anyone around the holidays. Others tip nominally or only for exceptional service (several complained that their garbage collectors throw trash cans around or that they don’t see the workers to tip them in person). Those who do tip said they show their appreciation in a variety of ways — with lottery tickets, local specialty foods, cases of beer, crafts handmade by their children, or something more personal.

“I’ve gotten everything from socks to T-shirts,” said Tom Tryon, who has worked as a letter carrier in Bucks and Montgomery Counties for the last 25 years. On his current route in Croydon, Tryon said about a third of the households give a holiday gift. Over the years, he said, that percentage has fluctuated with the economy.

Tryon loves interacting with residents and forming relationships with them. So to him, homemade cookies and a "Happy Holidays" or "Merry Christmas" greeting can mean as much as a small gift, he said.

"Don't feel obligated," Tryon said. "Times are hard. Not everybody is in the position to give."

Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Texas, said she advises folks to go by the standards laid out in her holiday tipping guide, if they choose to tip at all. For garbage collectors, she suggests $10 to $25 per person, if a tip is allowed by their employer. Philadelphia municipal workers, for example, are prohibited from accepting tips or gifts, and both employees and residents can be prosecuted for giving or receiving.

Ultimately, Gottsman said, holiday gifting and tipping is an individual decision, one that should be made based on the relationship with the recipient.

"Your budget is first priority when deciding who, and how much, you should tip this holiday season," Gottsman wrote in the guide. "Next, think about the service the person provides throughout the year and the frequency of your visits."

Jessica Daisey, 38, said she can attest to a regional discrepancy in holiday tipping practices. When she lived in Texas and Georgia, she said, holiday tipping did not seem to be as widespread. But when she moved several years ago to a home near the Art Museum with her husband and two children, that was a different story.

In Philadelphia, Daisey said she gave each of her four regular trash collectors a $5 Wawa gift card in December. Knowing the federal policy on cash gifts for postal workers (technically, cash tips are not allowed, but gifts up to $20 in value are permissible), Daisey bought her letter carrier a nice reusable water bottle, a present she could use when she worked during the warm months.

Daisey, who now lives in a Baltimore suburb with her husband and two children, said she draws the line at employees she sees only sporadically. For instance, she doesn't have a regular hairdresser or get her nails done often, she said, so she won't give those providers a special holiday gift.

But she makes a point to show appreciation for those who make day-to-day life easier for her family.

"I enjoy it. I feel like life is about giving when you can," Daisey said. But "if it doesn't make you feel good, I don't think you should do it."

In Lower Merion, Nancy Schultz, 63, also enjoys thanking the people who work hard to improve her quality of life.

"I like to give to people who are out in the weather every day, every week," Schultz said.

Schultz said she usually gives a $20 Acme gift card to her newspaper delivery people, a husband-and-wife team, and $5 in cash to each of her garbage collectors.

"I should think about raising that amount," Schultz said, recalling the few times she has forgotten to take her cans to the end of the driveway and chased after the trash trucks, which always stopped for her.

And as for her letter carrier, Schultz declined to comment, noting the postal service policy on tipping.

"That's between me and my mailman," she said with a laugh. "We do thank him, because he's a very nice guy."

Emily Hunter, 7, of Glenolden, said she shows appreciation for her letter carrier by leaving him cards throughout the year, sometimes on special occasions and sometimes for no reason at all. Her father, Jon Hunter, 32, said the holiday season brings a special effort from Emily.

On notebook paper, Emily uses crayons to draw a snowman, a Christmas tree, and snowflakes. Inside, she said, she leaves a heartfelt note, thanking him for delivering the mail and being kind as he goes about his job. Then, she stuffs it in an envelope, printing "to the mailman" on the outside and leaving it in the mailbox.

"I really like the mailman," said Emily, whose dad added that they will also likely give $5 gift cards to their letter carrier and other service providers.

Stephanie Vitali, 37, of West Chester, said she, too, likes to throw in a personal touch, giving her letter carrier a Christmas ornament and a homemade plate of cookies, and her kids' bus driver a tray of chocolate-covered pretzels.

When it comes to the garbage collectors, however, "I'm not sure how to even handle them," Vitali said. She doesn't like to tape an envelope to the lid of her trash can out of fear that someone might steal the gift, she said, and she often misses the pickup in the morning. (Gottsman, the etiquette expert, notes that tips and gifts can be dropped off at the corporate office of trash-collection companies if in-person giving isn't possible.)

For the most part, Vitali said she enjoys holiday giving "because most of the people we give to I have a personal relationship with."

Yet "it's tough," she added. "It does feel like there's a lot of pressure."

Beggs, of Republic Services, said folks shouldn't pile on any extra anxiety this time of year.

He put it simply: "If you have good service, then tip. Even $5, whatever you can afford."

Readers: Have you given a meaningful holiday gift or tip to a favorite service provider? Or are you a garbage collector, letter carrier, teacher, dog walker, or other employee who has received a heartwarming gift from a customer, client, or student? Email me your stories at I may share them in a future article.

Giving Guidelines

If you choose to tip service providers this holiday season, and the providers' company policy allows, the following are an expert's suggestions.

  1. Garbage collector: $10-$25 per person

  2. USPS letter carriers: gift valued at $20 or less (no cash, per policy)

  3. Teacher: gift certificate or contribution to class gift

  4. Bus driver: $25

  5. Babysitter: gift card or cash equivalent to a night's pay

  6. Regular handyman: $20-$100

  7. Newspaper delivery person: $10-$30

  8. Lawn or pool maintenance: tip/gift equivalent to one week's service

  9. Nanny: tip equivalent to one week's to one month's pay and a gift from your child

  10. Doorman: $20-$100, more if they help you often throughout the year

  11. Housekeeper: equivalent of one week's or day's pay

  12. After-school tutor, coach, dance instructor: $25 or gift card

  13. Dog walker or pet groomer: equivalent of one service

  14. Regular hair stylist, manicurist, personal trainer, or massage therapist: equivalent of one service

Source: Etiquette Expert Diane Gottsman’s 2018 Holiday Tipping Guide