It can be tricky any year to know how wide to open your wallet for end-of-year tipping.
Add in the current pandemic — in which service workers have continued to show up despite stressful conditions and potential dangers — and it can feel challenging to put a price on appreciation.
So who should get that holiday tip and how generous should that appreciation be?
"Because of COVID, I believe we should be more thoughtful about tipping a little more if we are able,” says etiquette expert Elaine Swann, 54, founder of the Swann School of Protocol in Carlsbad, California. “If you can give 5 percent to 10 percent more than you normally do, that would be sufficient."
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If finances are strained, however — the reality for many people these days — give what you can. If you wish you could give more, say so, advises Swann. And don't forget to explain how thankful you are for a job well done. “That way the person understands it has more to do with your financial position” rather than whether they provided good service, she adds.
Rules of thumb for tipping
So 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.
According to the Emily Post Institute, the nation's most well-known name in etiquette, when deciding how much to spend, you should consider:
- The quality and frequency of the service you receive
- Your relationship with the service provider
- Location (tipping averages tend to be higher in larger cities)
- How long you've been using the service
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.
When in doubt, ask around. And perhaps think about tipping people you haven't in past years — such as the delivery driver who brings your food and supplies to help you avoid the grocery store.
As for restaurants, a decent tip is around 20 percent. Delivery drivers who work double time 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 Grubhub and other third-party delivery services, which may take a commission of between 10 percent and 30 percent for every order.
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.
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.
"Some people are on the verge of bankruptcy and trying to handle very difficult financial burdens right now,” explains Maryanne Parker, founder of the Manor of Manners, a company in San Diego, California, that specializes in international business, social and youth etiquette. “Tipping is based on respect, gratitude and social circumstances, and not just rules and norms."
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, 60. 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 Sharon Johannesen hopes. With money a bit tighter last year, the 51-year-old educator in Port Republic, Maryland, substituted handcrafted magnets and ornaments for the Dunkin’ gift cards she usually gave to her hairdresser and mail carrier at the end of the year.
Johannesen painted polar bears and wreaths on pieces of wood she gathers from the forest behind her house. Her husband helped by cutting the wood into round slices with a circular saw, and she added a handwritten note to each one when finished.
"We've been so distanced from each other because of the coronavirus,” she says, “and I thought it would be nice to give something really personal. We need as much human interaction as possible."
Robin L. Flanigan is a contributing writer who writes about mental health, education and human-interest stories and her work has appeared in People, USA Today and Education Week. She is the author of the children's book M is for Mindful.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on December 17, 2020. It's been updated to reflect new information.