CHICAGO (TheStreet) — End-of-year bonuses seem like a relic of Christmas past. With companies large and small reining in costs, few employees expect rewards for their hard work this holiday season.

Now more than ever, it's critical for small-business owners to show their appreciation for their best workers. It's easy for companies to throw around perks during good times, but it's how a business treats employees during bad times that creates or destroys loyalty.

Workers who feel valued will go above and beyond to help your company survive. They will be more likely to stick around when the job market loosens up and other companies start hiring.

But how can you reward employees when every penny on your balance sheet counts? Raises may be out of the question, but there are affordable ways to show your appreciation.

Give the gift of time: Allowing your employees to take few extra days off is an easy morale booster, especially for those with families. Workers would be able to spend more time with their vacationing kids, a treat that won't cost you much upfront. If your workflow slows during the holidays, a few absent employees won't hurt productivity.

You can give employees staggered time off during the holidays, or close up shop entirely for a few extra days. If you're in a field that's busy post-Christmas, like retail, award high-performing employees with extra days they can take next year.

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Rethink the holiday party: The days of company-sponsored boozy bashes at snazzy hotels are long gone in most industries. Many businesses consider holiday parties unnecessary expenses that are easy to slash from their budgets.

But a party doesn't need to be pricey to serve its purpose. With everyone worried about the economy and their finances, workers will look forward to relaxing. Treating employees to a casual get-together outside the office gives them much-needed time off and builds camaraderie.

Depending on the size of your business, you can take everyone out for lunch at a local restaurant or organize a potluck dinner in which you pay for the main dish. Forget the cocktails and concentrate on creating a welcoming environment where everyone is encouraged to socialize.

Put your gratitude in writing: We've all gotten holiday cards that contain little more than a scrawled signature at the bottom, greetings so impersonal that we wonder why they were sent at all. This year, add some real meaning to the cards you send your employees. Write a personal message that tells them how much you appreciate their hard work, and give specific examples of how they helped the company. (If you can swing it, enclose a gift card from a local store or coffee shop for your top performers.)

Sure, some employees will still grumble about wage freezes or hour reductions. But if you show your star employees that you're doing your best to honor their contributions, they'll remember. And when higher-paying offers come their way a year or two down the road, they may choose to stick with the person who stepped up for them when times were hardest.

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