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Holiday survival guide

How much should you tip this holiday? Add to ...

Over the next week, Santa will come in many shapes, sizes and dollar amounts for people like Rebecca Mihailiuk. As the founder of seven-year-old Urban Pups, a dog-walking and pet-sitting service in Toronto, she has received a wide variety of gifts from clients, from Starbucks cards to a brand-new iPod. Some people thank her with cash; while $50 is typical, she once received $250, and that was from a student.

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"It really ranges," she says just before picking up dogs Maggie and Shady. "Sometimes the people with the least amount of money can be the most generous."

There are no hard-and-fast rules for acknowledging service people during the holiday season, and there's little way of knowing how your "thank you" stacks up against someone else's. For some people, the biggest question is whether to offer cash or a gift. For others, it's figuring out how not to go broke.

Indeed, as people incorporate more services into their lives, they are also dealing with increased end-of-year expenses that come from wanting to show their appreciation. Added to such urban mainstays as concierges, nannies and cleaners are life coaches, naturopaths, wardrobe consultants - and let's not forget psychics.

Anecdotally, service people say the gloom of last year's recession had little effect on tipping and gift-giving. But this year, a poll of more than 1,800 U.S. residents in the December issue of Consumer Reports magazine found that 26 per cent plan to spend less on gratuities.

Lizzie Post, the great-great-granddaughter of etiquette maven Emily Post, says the message should be about appreciation. Rather than calling it holiday tipping, "we'd love to try and change the title to holiday thanking," she says from Burlington, Vt. "Whether you're giving someone a $50 tip, baking them a batch of cookies or writing them a note, you're saying the same thing - thank you for your service."

People on the receiving end should be sensitive to economic realities, she says. "I don't think [service people]should look down on you if you give less. … I think it's the position of the giver to be the chooser of the gift."

But those who plan to be less generous should consider this: "If we can afford the service, we have to factor in the tip," says Patricia Lovett-Reid, senior vice-president with TD Waterhouse.

She hastens to add that the amount need not be a lot. "You give what you can and you feel good about it. I don't think you apologize for what you give; you simply give from an honest place."

Al Lee, the director of quantitative analysis at PayScale, a U.S.-based online provider of employee compensation data, says certain jobs are more dependent on monetary gifts than others.

"A job like newspaper delivery is not a highly paid job; even a fairly modest few hundred dollars [cumulatively]will be a significant boost in income," he says from Seattle.

He also distinguishes tipping from gift-giving. "You pay a healthy fee for a [personal]trainer, and that person is making a very good wage; you'd be hard-pressed to tip enough to make it interesting."

Toronto-born trainer Harley Pasternak, whose Hollywood clients include the likes of Kanye West, Alicia Keys, John Mayer and Jessica Simpson and who has just released a new book, The 5-Factor World Diet , says he never receives cash from clients. He's had some generous gifts, however, including a vintage Rolex from his birth year (1974) and Louis Vuitton luggage.

Which is not to say that people must pick one over the other. For his favourite doorman, JJ Thompson will give $100 and a batch of his wife Paula's shortbread cookies. "If they're good, they'll bend over backwards for you," says the founder of The Compendium Daily, a lifestyle and event blog. "They do way more than $100 worth of work in a year."

One concierge of a luxury residential building in Toronto says the most money he's ever received is $250. In his five years on the night shift, he's noticed that gift cards - to Zellers, Starbucks, Indigo, even Harry Rosen - have become more popular as holiday gifts.

Samantha Margolis, who works in public relations, goes the Starbucks-gift-card route when thanking her dog walkers. "Everyone drinks Starbucks, but it's more personal than cash," she says. She plans to give $25 cards to the four people who look after Kaya, her Portuguese water dog. But she stops short of treating everyone who's provided a service over the year, giving "only to people I have a personal relationship with."

Ms. Lovett-Reid says this is a good strategy. "It's about choice and giving of yourself to thank others who have given to you," she says. "No one would want you to go into debt to give, and that's where you hear the term 'holiday hangover.'"

For Patricia Hall, who works as a retail sales manager at House & Home Media but also teaches fitness classes at GoodLife, the Lululemon gift cards she received last year were an extra treat, but the letters had a lasting impact. "People wrote wonderful letters, those heartwarming notes like, 'You really changed my life,'" she says. She plans to give $50 to her doorman. "I don't think I'd go higher," she says. "For a lot of people, that's the same amount they'd spend on an aunt or uncle.

Do recipients - the trainers and waxers and nannies and nutritionists - have to write thank-you notes for their thank-you gifts? Absolutely, according to Ms. Post. "If it's just a card I wouldn't worry, but if it's money or a gift, either you open it right then and there and thank them or you break out the pen and paper; this is not the time for the e-mail thank you."

As for teachers, cash gifts are strongly discouraged. "No teacher would be comfortable with that," says Brian Marshall who teaches Grade 12 at Kipling Collegiate in Toronto. "I'm not really interested in receiving gifts from students."

A card, however, is a different story. "It is most satisfying to receive a note that is genuine; the written expression of gratitude that is very satisfying for a teacher. You don't go into teaching for money or the gifts."

WHAT TO GIVE

No matter how big or small the gift, always include a note expressing your appreciation.

Concierge/doorman: $50 to $100, depending on length of time in the building, services provided and number of other concierges.!

Building handyman: $15 to $50.!

Babysitter: One night's pay plus a small gift from child (handmade art, patterned socks).!

Cleaner: Typically one visit's pay. Gift options include cards for clothing retailers and music stores or packaged bath and body products.!

Dog walker/sitter: One or two days' pay. Bonus: homemade mixed spiced nuts or box of candies.

Hairstylist: $20 or more ($10 for barber). Know his or her music taste? Make a mix CD. Bottles of wine always make the cut.!

Lifestyle coach/teacher: Gift certificate to nearby spa or restaurant, small item for the home (picture frame, decorative bowl).!

Manicurist/aesthetician: $15 and up. Accessories (gloves, scarf) or gift card to major retailer.!

Nanny: One week's pay plus a small gift from child (handmade art, cozy slippers).!

Newspaper carrier: $15 to $30, $10 if you take weekends only.!

Personal trainer: $50 to $100 (especially upon reaching goal). Or gift card to a sports store, or for gas or coffee; photography book. Don't give: cookies. !

Schoolteacher: Gift cards to bookstores or coffee places are best bets. Card value can range from $5 to $50 for a very special teacher. Gloves get the thumbs up. And a picture frame for the desk is a fresher idea than a mug.

With files from www.consumerreports.org and www.tippingetiquette.org.

Follow on Twitter: @amyverner

 

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