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Guide to Holiday Tipping in a Weak Economy

Managing who to tip during the holidays and how much to give can be an annoying chore. The annual ritual gets even trickier in a weak economy, when givers feel pressured to tip what they can’t afford, and receivers feel they’re owed a holiday tip — especially during tough times.

Chris Bartlett | Getty Images

“You have to look at both sides of this picture,” said Diane Gottsman, an etiquette and communications expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas, based in San Antonio. “We want to make sure we’re doing the right thing. But we don’t want to break the bank and we don’t want to put ourselves in debt.”

Here are some guidelines to help you get through the holiday-tipping season with your wallet and manners intact. (See a full list of people to tip and how much in our slideshowhere.)

It’s the Relationship, Stupid!

When compiling your holiday-tipping list, consider whether you have a relationship with that individual, usually someone you’ve had contact with regularly for at least six months. For example, a hair stylist you’ve seen maybe twice annually may not make the cut. But the nanny or a babysitter who you see frequently probably will make your holiday-tipping list.

And seniority doesn’t guarantee a holiday tip or a larger amount, said Gottsman, who has been in the etiquette business for 16 years. The junior building doorman you see on a daily basis, and who carries the bulk of your heavy packages, for example, may deserve a larger holiday tip than the senior staff member you rarely see. “It really is about that relationship,” she said.

Holiday Tipping Across the U.S.

With the national jobs report for October showing sluggish growth and unemployment at 9 percent, down a notch from 9.1 percent in September, holiday tipping across the country is likely to be flat to slightly higher, our experts said.

"I don't think it will be any worse than last year — perhaps even a bit better, as people continue to slowly get back on their feet,” said etiquette expert Gottsman.

Doormen and Building Staff

There can be regional differences, however. Building staff in New York City, for example, can pocket anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars during holiday-tipping season.

This year, building staff in the region are likely to see tips that are “flat to down 5 percent to 10 percent” compared with a year ago, said Teri Rogers, founder and editor of BrickUnderground, a website devoted to Manhattan apartments and real estate.

Rising building maintenance fees have pinched residents’ pocketbooks.

“Unemployment is not much better than a year ago and Wall Street is laying off again,” she said.

BrickUnderground’s forecast could be worse, but New Yorkers were already pinching their pennies. “One reason I don’t think it will be down more is that it’s really hard, psychologically, for people to give less than they did in the past,” said Rogers. “Nationally speaking, I would be surprised if anyone — besides maybe health-care executives and some folks in the technology sector — is feeling more generous this year than last.”

Cutting Back on Holiday Tipping With Class

So what do you do if you can’t afford as much as you’d like in a weak economy? Gottsman suggests adding a thoughtful note to your slim holiday tip. No need to offer a “blow-by-blow account” of your personal finances.


Instead, simply explain you can’t afford what you’d prefer to give. Then show your appreciation for your nanny or babysitter, for example, by augmenting the tip with a couple of days off. “Offer something to compensate,” Gottsman said.

Indeed, modern holiday tipping can be an etiquette minefield. The irony is Americans initially were hesitant to adopt the tradition, said Bethanne Patrick, author of “An Uncommon History of Common Courtesy: How Manners Shaped the World.”

Americans first shied away from following Europe’s lead on tipping because America’s ethos trumpets work on an even playing field, she said.

“Everybody was trying to keep this egalitarian tradition alive and not tip people,” said Patrick. Today, “Americans are the tippers of the world,” she said, with Europeans likely to tip less than more generous Americans.

Eventually, as the U.S. holidays matured into a commercial event in the 1920s and 1930s, holiday tipping became more prevalent. Adding to the trend was a shift in America’s population to urban areas away from self-sustaining rural farms. Urban dwellers needed, for example, meat and wine. Holiday tipping offered a way to thank deliverymen, who had gone out of their way into the city to deliver goods and services, Patrick said.

“You’re tipping for past loyalty and to maintain a future relationship with that person,” said etiquette expert Gottsman.