Smart Buying

Holiday Tipping When Money is Tight

How to mind your manners without busting your budget.

Here's a tip worth taking this holiday season: Even if you plan to cut back on spending, don't skip your tips.

End-of-the-year tipping is an important way to show your appreciation; ignoring the custom is not only bad manners, but it also sends the wrong message -- that you're dissatisfied with the service you've been getting throughout the year. "No matter what, you should make some gesture of appreciation," says Jodi Smith, president of Mannersmith, an etiquette-consulting firm.

That doesn't mean you need to compensate everyone who provides a service. Consider handing out year-end tips to one to three people who have given you exemplary service during the year. Some prime candidates: baby sitters, hairstylists, cleaning persons, mail carriers, newspaper deliverers and nursing-home workers. (For guidance on exactly how much to give, see our Holiday Tipping Tip Sheet).

If you haven't been pleased with the service you've received, don't feel compelled to give anything.

If money is tight, you can still show your appreciation without breaking the bank. "Sometimes you just have to cut back," says Cindy Post Senning, director of The Emily Post Institute, which offers etiquette advice. In that case, be upfront about it. Etiquette experts agree that it can be helpful to explain to your service providers that you're in a cash crunch. You don't have to disclose that you have lost your job or go into detail about your finances. But make sure they know you're not cutting back because you're dissatisfied with the work they've been doing. Include a holiday card with a handwritten note and perhaps a token gift.

Low-cost alternatives

Even if you can't afford your usual cash gift, there are polite ways to give appropriately and for less money.

Homemade goods are always acceptable (and thoughtful), says Senning. That includes anything from cookies and bread to a hand-knit scarf or your secret recipe for tomato sauce.

And don't forget holiday staples that you can buy for a reasonable price or put together yourself: fruit baskets, flower arrangements or houseplants, or assortments of tea or coffee.

Or consider gifts that are personalized but not too personal -- gloves for your dog-walker, for example.

Words of praise

Other gestures cost no money at all. For instance, you can send a glowing review to your service provider's supervisor (send the provider a copy, too), or submit a letter to your local newspaper to praise the service you've received.

And, says Smith, you can always make it up to those people with cash gifts later, when your finances have recovered.

SEE ALSO: Kiplinger's Smart Holiday Spending Guide

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