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Tradition makes this the time of year to show appreciation to the people whose services makes our lives more pleasant or easier. But money stress can put a serious crimp in your “Ho, ho, ho.”

What’s Proper?

When you think about tipping, you need to focus on three things: etiquette, your budget and your relationship with the person performing a service for you.

Etiquette is less about rules than about thoughtfulness. Etiquette maven Emily Post says, “First and foremost, you shouldn’t feel obligated to go beyond your personal budget.” (Emily, by the way, was an author and expert on social graces and behavior. She died in 1960 and today “Emily” is a family business.)

If your budget is seriously tight: You don’t have to give cash. Do, however, find ways to say thanks to the people who make your life easier and more pleasant.

A 6-Step Guide

Here’s how to approach holiday tipping sensibly:

  1. Draft a budget you can truly afford.
  2. Make a list of people you want to tip or gift.
  3. Arrange the list in descending order with the most important people at the top.
  4. Assign an amount for each person’s tip or gift.
  5. Stop when you’ve reached your budgeted limit.
  6. Decide how to thank the others without money.

Whom to Tip

Consumer Reports lists typical recipients of holiday gifts or tips: lawn-care folks, kids’ teachers, garbage collectors, mail carriers, newspaper delivery people, housecleaners and handy people, hairdressers and barbers, manicurists and pet-sitters and walkers.

When you’re deciding whom to tip, think about the quality of the relationship. Consider how often and for how long you’ve used the service. Also, holiday tips can reward exceptional service.

A tip should “primarily be based on your personal financial situation, as well as your emotional connection to your loyal and trusted employee, service provider or trusted family caretaker,” says manners expert Diane Gottsman.

When you give money, or anything else, always include a handwritten note saying thanks.

Local customs count too. Ask friends and co-workers their policies, especially if you’re relatively new to an area. One of my friends who lived briefly in Hawaii recalls, “In my Honolulu neighborhood, it was customary to leave a case of beer on top of the trash can for the garbage collectors on Christmas morning.”

How Much?

Consumer Reports’ yearly survey offers a peek at who gets tips and how much. The magazine is still getting around to this year’s survey but in 2012 it found that:

  • The median tip (half are more, half less) was $50.
  • The most-tipped workers – 64% – were house cleaners.
  • The least-tipped workers: garbage collectors.
  • Slightly more than half of people surveyed said they gave no holiday tips.

“Some non-tippers said they reward only exceptional service, and about one-fourth said they don’t tip at any time, period,” Consumer Reports says.

Workers in some jobs can’t accept cash (or booze). Those include schoolteachers and mail carriers. Mail carriers can accept a gift – or a gift certificate — worth no more than $20, says Emily Post.

Wondering what’s appropriate for a teacher? Call your school for guidance. A gift certificate under $20 is always a good bet.

You’ll find other tipping guides at CNNMoney, Real Simple and U.S. News & World Report. A word of caution on these, though. They may advise very large tips and offer advice on tipping the doorman, the elevator operator, your nanny and your personal trainer.

What My Friends Do

I asked a few friends about their customs. One wrote, “I’ve read these tipping articles before and always think they are written by someone who lives in a big highrise in NYC and most of it doesn’t apply to me.”

Most of my pals tip 20% or more all year long for personal services like haircuts and nails. Some tip slightly more at the holidays and are especially generous with babysitters and house cleaners. But others give cookies, homemade jam or a bottle of wine, especially when their budgets are tight.

The bottom line: Be generous by all means, but your financial health comes first.

Non-Cash Alternatives

If you’re not giving cash, do give:

  • A thoughtfully written thank you note.
  • A small gift of cookies, jam, pickles or some other treat from your kitchen.
  • A gift or card crafted by your kids.

Money isn’t everything, Consumer Reports concludes. Daniel Post Senning, great-great-grandson of Emily Post, told the magazine:

“We like to say that holiday tipping is really holiday thanking,” he points out. “Words mean a lot, so you can say something even if you’re not a crafty person or a baking person. A genuine and thoughtful thank-you goes a long way.”

This post originally appeared on Money Talks News.

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