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Who to Tip at the Holidays and How Much?

This end-of-year tipping guide can help you determine how to show your appreciation

spinner image Tip jar concept
CatLane/Getty Images

​It can be tricky any year to know how wide to open your wallet for end-of-year tipping.​

Add in the fact that COVID-19 is still lingering and inflation is rising — two factors causing economic challenges to remain significant for many — and figuring out how to put a monetary price on appreciation can be especially challenging.​

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Even so, service industry pros who often work late and schedule appointments when we’re in a bind deserve “just a little bit more good cheer” than usual, says etiquette expert Elaine Swann, 55, founder of The Swann School of Protocol in Carlsbad, California.​

“This is the time of year to share your gratitude in a tangible way [and] be more thoughtful about tipping a little more if you are able,” Swann adds. “It’s still an important gesture.”​

So who should be tipped, and how generous should those gifts be?​

“Tipping should be based on several factors — good service, personal reasons, length of business relationships, and economic downfalls — and not on obligation,” according to Maryanne Parker, founder of Manor of Manners, a company in San Diego, California, that specializes in international business, social and youth etiquette. ​

Rules of thumb for tipping

When it comes to restaurants, Parker notes that a 20-percent gratuity is the norm, although she advises tipping as much as possible, based on the cost of the bill, “without feeling highly obligated.” ​

Delivery drivers should get a tip equivalent to 15 percent to 20 percent of your total order. Ordering directly from restaurants supports local businesses much more than ordering through third-party delivery services, which may take a commission of between 10 percent and 30 percent for every order.​

What constitutes a standard end-of-year tip? Many experts recommend an amount equivalent to the cost of one service. For example, a $50 haircut would merit a $50 tip.​

The Emily Post Institute, the nation’s most well-known name in etiquette, also recommends keeping in mind location (tipping averages tend to be higher in larger cities).​

Aside from any nonmonetary gifts, the institute, based in Waterbury, Vermont, suggests tipping up to one week’s pay for a live-in childcare provider, dog walker or housekeeper, and the cost of one session for a personal trainer, pet groomer or massage therapist.​

A 2022 Zelle consumer research study found that 48 percent of consumers prefer to receive money as a gift via digital payment instead of by cash or check.​

But not everyone can accept a tip. Check with home health agencies, for example, before handing over any money to employees, since some have policies preventing tips or gifts.​

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A new phenomenon called ‘tipflation’

On the other end of the spectrum is a relatively new phenomenon known as “tipflation” — requests for tips in unorthodox places, such as clothing stores or fast food restaurants, in large part thanks to point-of-sale checkouts.​

“Tipping is discretionary, but this is putting consumers in an awkward and unfair position,” says nationally syndicated etiquette columnist Thomas P. Farley, also known as Mister Manners. “People feel confused, guilty and ashamed for hitting ‘No tip’ when they've got a line of people behind them staring over their shoulder, and a retail clerk who will see what they’ve done once they spin the screen back around.​

“It’s like the walk of shame. Everybody knows what you did or didn’t do.”​

According to a 2022 survey of America’s tipping habits by PlayUSA, nearly half of consumers — 45 percent — report tipping more than they’d like just because businesses are asking. Fifty-one percent say they tip even when they otherwise wouldn’t when prompted by a point-of-sale system.​

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Sharon Johannesen is making gifts instead of tipping some people this year.
Courtesy Elsa Johannesen

The prevalence of those point-of-sale systems irks Sharon Johannesen, 52, of Port Republic, Maryland.​

“I’m like, ‘You just handed me a pizza box over the counter. I’m supposed to give you $4.50?’” she says. “The other thing I worry about is if I don’t tip them and they still have to make the food. Are they going to be mad at me and do something sinister with my pad Thai?”​

It’s the thought that counts

If you’re having enough trouble making ends meet without worrying about an extra gratuity, remember this: You’re under no obligation to show your gratitude with cash.​

“Tipping is based on respect, gratitude and social circumstances, and not just rules and norms,” explains Parker.​

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United Parcel Service drivers are taught to respectfully decline monetary gratuities unless a customer is insistent, so as not to be rude, according to UPS Public Relations Manager Dan McMackin, 61. Over the years, however, heartfelt donations have included hand-knit socks and cookies, recalls McMackin, a former driver who’s based in Atlanta, Georgia. During the pandemic, that has also meant baskets of water, snacks and hand sanitizer.​

“It’s not a monetary amount that is important, but the thought that counts,” he says.​

That’s what Johannesen hopes. Recently retired after three decades as an art teacher, she finds money is a bit tighter than last year, so she is making trinket dishes of oyster shells for her mail carrier, hairdresser, regular delivery drivers and children’s teachers.​

“I think it’s important to thank the people who provide services in our daily lives, and you can do that in small, meaningful ways,” she says. “It’s about saying, ‘Hey, I see you working hard, and I appreciate you.’”​​​​

Editor's note: This article was originally published on December 17, 2020. It's been updated to reflect new information. 

Robin L. Flanigan is a contributing writer who writes about mental health, education and human-interest stories and her work has appeared in PeopleUSA Today and Education Week. She is the author of the children's book M is for Mindful.

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