Holiday Tips Pay Off All Year Long

Being generous can bring better service.
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I'm still scrambling to dole out holiday tips to some of the people who contribute all year long to my family's well being.

I always seem to miss someone. That's probably because good service blends into the backdrop of our daily routines.

We may not think about the dry-cleaning deliveryman's job regularly when freshly laundered suits and shirts are hanging on the front door every Thursday afternoon. But we'll think of nothing else but his job -- and make a curt phone call to his boss -- if the clothes don't arrive.

Outstanding service providers spare innumerable interruptions, phone calls and stress. So between now and New Year's, I'm paying especially close attention to the list of whom to tip.

Knowing how much or what to give, however, can be confusing. I've read all sorts of advice, ranging from a small gift for my kids' music teacher, to up to $50 for the paper carrier.

My rule of thumb: Be generous while staying within my budget. If I'm considering a cash tip instead of a gift, I arrive at a gut figure, such as $25 for someone who services my home while on a route. Then I add another $10 to that amount for the people who provide the most exceptional service -- such as my dry cleaning deliveryman, who is not only reliable, but who went out of his way to learn our names and engages me in an enjoyable conversation on current affairs when possible.

I don't need a child-care provider anymore, since my kids have finally reached school age. But I'd be extremely generous to anyone who cared for my children either at home or at a daycare center. I'd give an at-home caregiver at least a week's pay and a small personal item, such as a manicure gift certificate -- something to acknowledge her existence as a human being with personal needs, in addition to being a great service provider.

Caring for young children is particularly hard work -- and I'd never be stingy about rewarding people for the job -- so I'd probably tip full-time day-care attendants at least $100.

Cash doesn't always seem appropriate, however.

Again, I follow my intuition rather than some rule of etiquette on whether to give cash or a gift. For example, three different bus drivers shuttle my children to and from school. Cash just didn't seem proper -- especially since my kids acted as the gift givers. We bought each a $10 gift card from Starbucks, since everyone could probably use a nice cup of coffee, and it's harder to indulge in a $3 latte while earning a school bus driver's pay.

My sons were reluctant to give anything to their bus driver. They say she's grouchy and yells. A little kindness may lift her spirits, I advise. Maybe I'm wrong. But at least the process elicited a discussion about why some jobs -- such as driving 40 kids to and from school with stops along the way -- are harder than others.

I never give cash to teachers -- again, it just doesn't seem fitting. But I certainly appreciate their role in my children's lives throughout the year and buy a small gift, or gift card, for about $20. This year, we bought my son's guitar teacher a nice bottle of wine from a local winery.

Some service providers send holiday cards that happen to include pre-addressed return envelopes.

What they're really saying is, "send me a tip, please." I don't take offense -- and you shouldn't either. It's no different than hoping for a nice little bonus or gift from your boss.

A water deliveryman, who had visited our home only twice this year, slipped a pre-addressed greeting card into my hand along with the invoice, on Dec. 5 -- his only stop at my home for the month. I gave him $10, but I'll increase that to $25 next year if he continues to be a regular.

I have another tool for assessing whether and how much I should tip. It's the "Would I ever want this job?" test.

This year, I asked myself that question every day for more than a week as a crew of painters made their way through my home. They performed back-breaking services that I'm grateful we didn't have to do ourselves -- including sanding walls and tearing down wallpaper. They always asked for a vacuum and broom, cleaning up the mess from that days' labor, and ensuring a semblance of order for my family at nighttime, even though they'd be at my doorstep again the following morning.

Yes, I was paying their boss for the work, and I won't see them again anytime soon, but some people are far more pleasant while working in our home than others. I gave each man an extra $25 in cash for the holidays -- and I wish I could have given even more. But even though that totaled an extra $100 that I did not anticipate spending in tips this year, I felt good about acknowledging their hard work, and it was obvious that my envelopes made everyone's day.

It's easy to focus on the poor service that makes life more challenging. Cold soup? Talk to the restaurant manager. An habitually late newspaper? Call the circulation department again and again. We don't think too hard about acknowledging the services that don't run smoothly.

The holiday season is a good time to recognize the services during the year that turn out right -- and parting with cash says "thank you" in a manner that words can't convey.

Suzanne Barlyn is a writer in Washington Crossing, Pa.