Angst over tipping the service providers in your life — your housekeeper, the hairdresser, the newspaper carrier — ratchets up around the holidays. "Most people know to...

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Angst over tipping the service providers in your life — your housekeeper, the hairdresser, the newspaper carrier — ratchets up around the holidays.

“Most people know to leave a waitress a 15 to 20 percent gratuity,” says Michael Lynn, an associate professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. But, he adds, many people aren’t sure whether to give, to whom, or how much during this season of giving.

To help guide you, we interviewed etiquette experts and surveyed online about 3,100 subscribers to ConsumerReports .org to find out what they do. Many subscribers said they often don’t know whether to tip. Perhaps that’s why 42 percent told us that they refrained from giving any holiday gifts to their housekeepers, newspaper carriers and 11 other service providers.

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Three general principles emerged from our research:

• Reward those who make a difference: Start by “looking at people whose work has the greatest impact on you,” says Elizabeth Howell, a spokeswoman for the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt., which provides etiquette advice. Among the most important are people who take care of your home, and particularly your children. If you have in-home care, Howell says the appropriate tip is one week’s pay (or more), plus a gift from the child. If your kids are at a day-care center, Howell suggests $25 to $70 for each worker, plus a gift.

• Think about those whose services you use frequently: This may include a beautician, a barber or the newspaper carrier. If you regularly pamper yourself at the spa or the salon, you should give double your usual tip, according to a representative of the National Cosmetology Association. But, says Howell, “If you normally include a tip after the service, you don’t have to give extra money during the holidays.”

• Include those who go out of their way: There are probably some people in your life who go above and beyond the call of duty without ever being asked but aren’t usually tipped. Examples: the water-delivery person who always hefts the 5-gallon jug onto the cooler, or the building superintendent who installs light bulbs for you.

Here are some guidelines to tipping other providers:

• Occasional baby-sitter: One to two evenings’ pay, plus a small gift from your child.

• Gardener: $20 to $50.

• Housekeeper: One day’s pay.

• Manicurist: $10 to $20.

• Newspaper carrier: $15 to $25 for daily delivery; $5 to $15 for weekend only.

But you don’t always have to give money to show your appreciation. Sometimes it’s forbidden. U.S. Postal Service workers, for example, are not supposed to accept cash. (Still, 32 percent of our survey respondents said they gave mail carriers cash or gifts worth around $20.)

And handing your child’s teacher cash is “inappropriate,” says Howell. You don’t want to look like you’re trying to buy good grades for your kid. Instead, you can join with other parents to give a class gift. Or give something small, such as a bookstore gift card. According to our online subscribers, $10 is just fine.

For families who may be struggling financially this holiday season and can’t tip as much as they’d like, one expert suggests adding a note of thanks to what they can give. But scrimping on tips when your lifestyle hasn’t suffered is a no-no, says Hilka Klinkenberg, managing director of Etiquette International, a New York consulting company.

Copyright 2004, Consumers Union