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Holiday tips may be a mixed bag this year

Ryan McVay | Photodisc | Getty Images

The holiday shopping season is off to a tepid start, but just because consumers are skimping on holiday gifts this year, it doesn't mean they will be less generous when it comes to that time-honored tradition: the holiday tip.

A few business owners who spoke to CNBC said many clients are still tipping generously.

Cash tips handed out by well-heeled clients of New York-based maid service Maid Marines range in size, but can be as high as 70 percent of the cost of a visit. The tips can be so good, workers actually ask for more jobs around the holidays.

(Read more: 'Tis the season: Annual tipping guide)

"Most other people are trying to work less around this time, and my people are trying to work more," said Mike Wills, Jr., co-owner of the New York-based housekeeping service.

Courtney DeDi, founder and owner of DiOGi Pet Services in Atlanta, is not worried either. Her clients range in income and wealth, and the gratuities she receives can be anywhere from $20 to $100, depending on the client.

"I'll kind of be interested to see how it is this year," DeDi said. "Even though the economy is down, people don't seem to skimp on their pets. They actually seem to spend more on them than anything else."

Not mandatory, but important

It is important to think of holiday tips as ways to thank the people who help you out throughout the year, rather than as a mandatory "quid pro quo obligation," according to Anna Post, an etiquette expert at the Emily Post Institute.

(Read more: Mystery diner leaves thousands in tips)

Such gestures—even if they are small—show appreciation and can encourage loyalty.

People often opt for a gift instead of cash, and in some cases that is the better road to travel. It also allows for some creativity. Gifts like a book by a favorite author, a bottle of wine you have been saving, or tickets to a football game might be better choices in certain situations.

Some of DiOGi Pet Services' clients have donated money to animal rescue causes—an issue very close to DeDi's heart—in lieu of a cash tip.

"Sometimes, people even get stuff for my dogs, which I love," she said. "I would so much rather they got something than me."

(Read more: Forget the selfie: Here's the 'unselfie')

Maid Marines has been in business for only about a year, but Wills has already seen some unusual gifts. A couple of clients invited cleaning teams to stay for dinner after finishing jobs on the Wednesday before this past Thanksgiving.

Once, someone even gave a Maid Marines team a freezer full of meat. That was not a holiday tip, however. The customer simply had to clear a freezer for an event she was holding the following day. She offered the meat it contained to the cleaning team, who then checked with Wills to ensure company policy permitted "meat gifting." He approved it, and they went home happy.

"It was actually a nice gift," Wills said. "It turned out to be high-quality, premium meat."

How do you decide?

Those who find themselves at a loss can always do what the experts do: plan ahead.

Post determines her total budget and then makes a list of all the people she wants to include. Then she prioritizes them according to the closeness of the relationship and the amount she wants to give. If she runs out of money toward the bottom of the list, she will find something else for the remaining names, like a bag of chocolates.

But you can also divide a single amount by the number of names on the list and award an equal amount to each person.

(Read more: Why the wealthy don't give more to charity)

"But you should not feel pressured to give a gift you cannot afford," said Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert and owner of the Protocol School of Texas. "It is what you can do comfortably, depending on your budget and depending on your relationship with that person."

If money is exceptionally tight, try offering something in trade or making something, if you have a skill.

If nothing else, a handwritten note showing your appreciation can still go a long way.

The important thing is that you remember this is a personal issue. Do what you can, but do not worry about it.

Likewise, service workers should manage their expectations around holiday gratuities. Receiving a smaller-than-expected tip is not necessarily a personal snub—it may just be a reflection of someone's financial situation.

"I think it is a bit dangerous to have such high expectations over something you can't control," she said.

—By Robert Ferris, Special to CNBC.com.

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