This holiday season, a leaner budget might clarify which people truly make a difference in your life. The challenge will be figuring out how much to tip them.
Determining what to give during the holidays, if anything, will likely be more complicated than in years past. Even if money is tight, it's hard not to feel guilty about skimping on the usual year-end bonus. You might also worry that not tipping will create an awkward tension or result in shoddier service.
Still, you won't be alone if you scale back. About a quarter of respondents to a recent Consumer Reports survey plan to tip less this holiday season than they did last year. Only 6 percent plan to give more. If you're among those on a tighter budget, here's how you can save without appearing cheap:
KNOW THE CUSTOMS
There are no hard-and-fast rules, but year-end tips are generally the cost of a single session. So if a haircut costs $40, that's how much you could give as a tip.
Holiday bonuses are generally reserved for people you've relied on for at least six months, said Mary Mitchell, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Etiquette. So don't feel obligated to tip a hairdresser you've been to only a few times.
For someone like a paperboy who doesn't charge per delivery, ask others what they're giving if you're at a total loss.
Remember that some workers have guidelines on what they can accept. Mail carriers, for example, can take only noncash gifts valued at $20 or less. That could include a gift card, but not personal checks in any amount. Alcohol isn't allowed, either, even if it's worth less than $20.
Teachers generally can't accept cash either. There could also be guidelines on tipping other employees, such as bus drivers and teachers' aides.
CONSIDER NONCASH GIFTS
If cash tips aren't in your budget, you can still give small gifts. Baked goods, jams and candles are perennial crowd pleasers. But use your knowledge about the person to be creative. Someone who recently took up knitting might appreciate a subscription to a knitting magazine.
Another option is pooling resources to buy a nice gift. Tenants in an apartment building could team up to buy an iPod for the superintendent.
If you feel you can't afford a tip or gift, thank-you notes can still make a difference. You could spruce them up with a Godiva chocolate.
If you still can't shake your guilt, consider lightly touching on your economic situation in the note. Business etiquette author Mitchell suggests thanking the person for bearing with you during these tough times. You don't need to be explicit about why cash isn't included. Everyone knows times are tough; they might be scaling back on their own holiday giving, too.
FOCUS ON KEY PEOPLE
One way to save is to focus on those you think must be tipped. Last holiday season, for instance, the downturn didn't affect how much housekeepers and teachers got. But fewer people tipped their barbers, garbage collectors, mail carriers and manicurists, according to Consumer Reports. "The dollar amounts aren't changing so much as who is getting tipped," said Donato Vaccaro, who helps conduct the magazine's annual holiday tipping survey.
Since the economy hasn't improved, Vaccaro said more people will likely trim their lists this year.
You might also want to consider financial situations when drawing up your list. A yoga instructor might not need, or expect, a tip as much as a manicurist. Another reason you might leave someone off the list: You already tip them generously throughout the year.