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Have holiday gratuities reached a tipping point?

Holiday tips have been reduced to empty transactions, says hairstylist Allen Ruiz of Austin, Tex. "I truly believe a gift should come from the heart, rather than the pressure that I must tip this person."

Mr. Ruiz was so disenchanted with all tipping culture that he opened a gratuity-free salon in 1998. One of the reasons was to bust the myth that you have to tip to get good service. At his salon, he says, "You don't have that thing where, 'Here comes the big tipper, let's treat her special.' "

Ah, what a wonderful world that would be, if everyone thought like Allen Ruiz.

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Alas, the world has not turned to his way of thinking, yet. Especially at this time of year. After spending 15 to 20 per cent extra in addition to the regular fee for everything from a massage to personal training, you now have to gift your service people at holiday time … and some etiquette specialists insist you write a thank-you note as well.

In addition to personal care, we now outsource everything from laundry to child care, so our wallets take a major hit when we cave in to societal pressures to tip during the holidays. It used to be a nice gesture to tip your newspaper delivery guy or your mail carrier. Now, you might have 15 to 20 people to look after (in addition to your loved ones). At what point do you just say stop?

"There's an assumption that you have to tip everybody," says Jacqueline Whitmore, founder of, but she says many people are scaling back on their holiday tipping, especially because of the economy. "People are being more selective."

Amanda Mills, a Toronto financial therapist and founder of Loose Change Inc., adds: "Going into debt for this is not an act of integrity. You can go overboard by spending what you don't have."

Ms. Mills says that if you don't have the money, you can still offer some kind of gesture. "The problem with money is that it's the easiest gift to give. You don't have to go home and bake. But if you really don't have the money, you should go home and bake."

Julie Blais Comeau, an etiquette expert in Ottawa, suggests you shouldn't skip tips entirely - or cough up a measly $5 for the dozen people on your list. Instead, focus on the ones you see the most often and the ones who have the greatest impact on your life.

Some experts on financial advice sites (such as suggest prioritizing your list, with the most important people being those who care for your family members - nannies, babysitters, daycare supervisors - "because those people will take good care of your children, your most precious asset," Ms. Whitmore says. Elder-caregivers such as private nurses are equally important. Nursing home employees usually aren't allowed to receive cash, so consider a gift instead.

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Further down the line would be your pet carers, home carers, those who provide personal grooming, and all those delivery people (poor newspaper carrier - now last on the list).

However, in a self-interested world, you may want to consider expanding your list or rethinking it. Need the windows in your apartment replaced? Your tip might help soften the request you make to your landlord. Want to be at the top of your yard worker's list for spring planting? Send him a crisp $20 this year. Some even recommend ensuring you get good curb service with a $10 tip to your garbage collector. And don't forget the FedEx man.

Making the payment

When you're handing someone cash, look them in the eye and slip them the bill with a handshake, says Steve Dublanica of Rutherford, N.J., author of Keep the Change: A Clueless Tipper's Quest to Become the Guru of the Gratuity. Think Roger Moore's smooth moves in James Bond films.

Ms. Blais Comeau says that a few bills in an envelope won't cut it on their own for a year-end gratuity. "Always make sure you take the time to write a personal note that will show your gratitude for the service and for how they're making your life easier," she says.

Gift or cash?

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According to Consumer Reports, cleaning people got the most generous tips last year in the United States. The median tip was $50. Of the 1,800 people polled, 58 per cent tipped with cash, cheque or a gift card, 17 per cent with a gift and 29 per cent didn't tip at all.

How do you decide what kind of tip to give? Ms. Blais Comeau says it all comes down to the category of service.

A teacher or nursing home worker, whom you don't compensate directly, should be given gifts, she says. The people you pay each time they provide a service should be tipped in cash or with a gift card. Bump up your tip for your last haircut or manicure of the year or offer a $20 gift in addition to a cash tip, Ms. Blais Comeau says.

Some service providers (such as Canada Post employees) can't accept cash tips, so present them with a gift card.

Some schools have a no-gift policy, but if you want to recognize your child's teacher there are ways to get around that.

The most memorable gifts that Nancy Hawkins, a former elementary school teacher in Vancouver, received from students were ones that "give back": school supplies for students in a developing country, or canned food donated to a food bank in her name.

Consider co-ordinating with other parents to buy a group gift. One year, several of Ms. Hawkins's students pooled their money to buy her a pair of gloves for riding her bike since they knew she was a cyclist.

What not to give

Ms. Blais Comeau advises against giving booze over the holidays. "Some people may choose not to drink alcohol. It could be for personal reasons. It could be for other reasons. If you're certain the person appreciates wine or something like scotch, do go ahead, but when in doubt, it's best to avoid."

Timothy Day Howard, owner of Sound Salon/Spa in St. John's, lists a certain type of booze at the top of his "worst holiday tip" list. "One of the things that I cringe [about]that I get is homemade wine," he says. "Every year someone says, 'My uncle made it. It's really good - not like the other homemade stuff.' … That's one that we usually regift."

Gift cards from bookstores and coffee shops are also appreciated - unless they're from Tim Hortons - he says.

Mr. Day Howard does look forward to homemade treats his clients bring in, which usually accompany a larger-than-usual tip at the end of service or a card and some extra cash. Just be careful about any possible allergies.

The right time

Holiday tipping doesn't have to be done before Christmas, Keep the Change's Mr. Dublanica says. If your next appointment with your massage therapist isn't until January, it's fine to wait until then.

The mechanics and condo doormen in your life won't say no to a little something extra whenever you get around to coughing it up, he adds. "I knew a guy who was in a bad bind. He went up and said, 'You know what, guys? I can't get you this Christmas, I'm sorry ... I'll get you later.' And three months later, when he had the money, he went out and gave everyone their tips."

With files from Dave McGinn

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About the Author

Dakshana Bascaramurty is a national news reporter who writes about race and ethnicity. She won a 2013 National Newspaper Award in beat reporting for her coverage of changing demographics in the 905 region. Previously, she was a feature writer for Globe Life. More

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