Your Anxiety-Free Guide To Holiday Tipping

Holiday tips and gifts are a nice way of saying “thank you” to the people who make your life easier throughout the year. But it can be hard to decide whom you should tip and how much. Let this guide make it easy.

Holiday_tipping-MoneyUnder30As we approach the holiday season, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by how much there is to do: extensive meals to plan, elaborate gifts to buy, and holiday office-parties to dread. But there may be something else rattling around in the back of your mind, causing untold anxiety: holiday tipping.

Tipping, at any time of the year, is a fraught activity. It injects money into what often feels like a friendly social interaction, and lays bare its commercial foundation in a way that invites awkwardness. A New York restaurateur recently went so far as to ban the practice at his restaurants. In much of Europe, they simply don’t do it.

But if regular tipping is a controversial but relatively straightforward process, holiday tipping is something else. It’s shrouded, not so much in mystery, as in vagueness and uncertainty. Whom should you tip, and how much? What if you tip too little, and look like a miser? What if you tip too much, and set up an expectation you won’t be able to meet in the future? When are you supposed to tip, and in what way?


It doesn’t have to be this hard. As The Emily Post Institute reminds us, “holiday tipping is holiday thanking.” Another word for tip, after all, is “gratuity,” which comes from the same Latin root—gratus, meaning “pleasing, thankful”—as “grateful.”

Tipping is something to do out of appreciation, not obligation. It’s a way to say thank you to the people who make your life a little easier or a little richer throughout the year.

Start by making a list

Now, who might this include? Some of the standard guides, like this one at The Emily Post Institute, include categories of workers—like au pairs – that most of us don’t have the funds to hire, much less tip.

But there are probably people in your life who help you out regularly, and who would certainly love to hear that you appreciate all they do. Did your building’s super really come through for you this year, getting up in the wee hours of the morning to let you in when you were locked out? Put him on the list. Did your hair stylist help you gracefully grow out the ill-thought-out pixie cut (or that trendy fade) you had insisted she give you, and without even saying “I told you so”? Put her on the list. Did your mail carrier make sure the numerous packages from your eBay business selling collectible figurines were handled delicately? Put her on the list. Has little Emily’s preschool teacher been especially helpful in dealing with those pesky naptime terrors? On the list!

Thinking back on your year and who has helped you can also be a great way to approach the holiday season with gratitude, and fend off those all-too-common feelings of being overcommitted and stressed.

Be aware of whom you shouldn’t tip (with cash, anyway)

While your accountant might have done a bang-up job on your taxes, and your physician might have knocked that colonoscopy out of the park, you don’t need to tip them. In fact, they might be mildly offended if you do. (There are power and class dynamics to tipping that cannot be denied.)

In cases of people like CPAs, JDs, and MDs—i.e.”professionals”—Don Draper’s classic adage about workplace gratitude applies: that’s what the money (you already paid them) is for. But if you really want them to know how much you appreciated their work, then a nice card, a bottle of wine, or some candy is totally acceptable.

Other categories of people who often can’t accept cash, either for legal reasons or social custom:

  • Mail carriers (but they can accept gifts worth less than $20)
  • Nursing home workers (something like cookies that can be shared between the staff is better)
  • Home health aides (check with the agency to see what their policy is)
  • Teachers (a gift is better, and less likely to be construed as a bribe for more gold stars)

Start early and consider your budget

Ideally, you’d start thinking about holiday tipping in November. Try to incorporate it into your larger thinking about your holiday budget, or even your budget for the year. This’ll keep you from feeling unduly stretched, and also give you time to plan for any shopping or cookie-making that needs to be done.

How much can you give? Be honest with yourself about how much you can spend. As much as you may appreciate your dog groomer or doorman, you shouldn’t send yourself into unnecessary debt to express your gratitude. (However, if you consistently find yourself unable to offer tips, either during the year or at the holidays, you might consider if you’re able to afford their service at all, or if you need to do better budgeting throughout the year.)

Small cash gifts are nice, but, if you can’t afford that, a nice homemade treat or a hand-written note will also suffice. People, especially those you have a friendly relationship with, understand that times can be hard and money a little tight. And everyone likes cookies. If you’re particularly flush sometime later in the year, you can make up for any missed tips from the holiday season.

A cash tip should be roughly equivalent to what’d you pay for one session or one week’s service

For people who provide you a regular service, a good rule of thumb is to tip them roughly the amount of one session or up to a week’s pay. So, the cost of one haircut, one dog-grooming session, or a week’s worth of dog-walking or house-cleaning.

For others, like doormen or supers, an amount between $20 and $100 is usually appropriate. See the chart below for specific recommendations.

Make it look pretty

No matter how heartfelt, a slightly smoothed-out pile of formerly wadded-up bills doesn’t really convey the appropriate level of appreciation. Take a trip to the bank, and also to the paper store, where you can buy a box of nice cards to put those crisp new bills in. Write a short but sincere note (no more than 2–3 sentences). If you’re giving a baked good, wrap it up in some festive foil and a little bow.

Give your gifts and tips on the early side

While you might be tempted to wait until Christmas (or even New Year’s) to bestow your year-end gifts (they are holiday tips, aren’t they?), etiquette gurus strongly advise giving them to their recipients no later than the week after Thanksgiving, and ideally the week before. That way, your recipients can use the money they’ve received for their own holiday shopping.

Summary (and a handy chart!)

Holiday tipping shouldn’t stress you out. It’s a nice way to show the people in your life that you appreciate the work they do for you. Start early, and be honest with yourself about your means to avoid feeling pinched. And don’t worry if you aren’t able to give anything this year—it won’t affect the level of service you receive in the coming year.

Assistant A nice gift—but not too personal–in the $50 range. You don’t want things to get weird.
Babysitter One week’s pay (if they work for you on a regular basis), or the typical cost of a single babysitting session
Pet groomer The cost of one session
Dog walker One week’s pay
Doorman $20-$100, split if there is more than one.
FedEx or UPS delivery person FedEx allows gifts (but not cash) up to $75; UPS has no official policy, but discourages anything other than cookies and treats. If you have a particularly long-standing relationship with your driver, consider a small gift, probably not in excess of $25.
Hairdresser/Barber Cost of one haircut, or whatever service you regularly receive.
Home Health Aide A small gift under $25
Housekeeper A week’s pay
Mail carrier A gift worth no more than $20. USPS prohibits mail carriers from receiving cash or gift cards.
Nursing Home Staff A small gift, or cookies and candy to share between staff members.
Superintendent/Maintenance Man $20-$100, depending on level of responsiveness.
Teacher/Tutor A small gift worth no more than $25. Cash is ill-advised, as it may look like a bribe.

Published or updated on November 18, 2015

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About Lauren Barret

Lauren Barret is a staff writer at Money Under 30. She has an MFA in creative writing from The Ohio State University, and a BA from Kenyon College. She lives in Portland, Maine.

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