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Four ways to navigate the holiday tipping vortex

EconomyDec 09, 2021 02:16AM ET
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2/2 © Reuters. A waiter serves steak at Peter Luger Steak House in Brooklyn, New York City, U.S., August 12, 2021. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/file photo 2/2

By Chris Taylor

NEW YORK (Reuters) - When it comes to holiday tipping, is America a nation of Scrooges?

That is what Ted Rossman wondered. When recently polled Americans about how much they planned to tip service workers this holiday season, the site’s senior industry analyst saw the numbers before anyone else – and was a little taken back.

“A lot of people could stand to be better tippers,” Rossman says. “Of the six jobs we asked about, the percentage receiving holiday tips was less than half in every single case.”

To wit: Trash collectors can expect a holiday tip in only 19% of cases, compared to 27% of mail carriers and 36% of landscapers. Teachers and childcare providers will be getting a tip 41% of the time while housekeepers find themselves atop the list, with 47% receiving a holiday tip.

There are a couple of reasons for societal stinginess. One is that the pandemic era has been financially trying for almost everyone. If your own finances have been impacted because of things like the loss of a job or rising prices on just about everything, it stands to reason that you cannot be as free with the holiday tips.

But another reason is that holiday tipping is a very murky area without generally accepted standards. It is much clearer if you are sitting down to a meal at a restaurant, where you know that a typical tip might be in the range of 15-20%. But if you are talking about an end-of-year gift for a sanitation worker or a mail carrier, most people just do not know what to do – and that is a problem.

“When people are uncertain, they generally either under-tip or over-tip -- and the former is worse than the latter," says Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas.

There are also indications that some of us are just cheap.

A financial etiquette survey by brokerage TD Ameritrade and The Harris Poll found some surprising numbers – that only 35% of respondents typically gave tips to hotel workers, 45% to taxi drivers, and 54% to food delivery drivers. And while 82% gave tips to restaurant wait staff, that means 18% do not – shocking for a profession which relies on tips for survival.

Perhaps it is time to pry open our wallets a bit more. Here are four factors to consider in the holiday tipping vortex:


The survey found that a housekeeper can expect $50 around the holidays, as can a childcare worker. A teacher might expect $25 (often in the form of a pooled gift from class parents) while trash collectors and mail carriers typically receive $20.

“If you have a service provider such as a hairstylist or massage therapist, a good rule of thumb is the cost of one service,” suggests Gottsman.


With so many Americans working from home now, you have likely come into more frequent contact with service workers in your life. Maybe you have a regular UPS guy, for instance, or someone who cuts your grass, or brings you groceries.

“When you were at the office you never used to see certain people, but now that you’re home you see what they do every day, and probably have been striking up relationships with them,” Rossman says.


In tipping surveys, there is a large gulf between what we say we are going to do and what actually happens.

    “Several months back, people told us they were going to be much better tippers during COVID,” Rossman says. “But other data has shown that it remains the same as before. It can be really hard to change behaviors.” 

    If your holiday goal is to recognize valuable service workers in your life, do your best to follow through on those good intentions.


It may just not be financially possible to come up with big holiday tips in 2021. Consider alternatives such as bottle of wine or a tray of store-bought cupcakes. (In this era of heightened health worries, try to avoid homemade goodies, though.) Or maybe some of your accumulated credit-card miles could be translated into store gift cards.

Whatever route you choose, accompany it with a personal note or card, because this year especially, people could use some appreciation and encouragement.

Says Gottsman: “Budgets may be tighter this year -- but it’s always nice to remember those who provide quality service and make your life easier and more enjoyable.”

Four ways to navigate the holiday tipping vortex

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