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Dear Ms. Etiquette: How Much Am I Supposed to Tip During the Holidays Anyway?

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Dear Ms. Etiquette,

It’s the holiday season, which means I am trading in my Zoom meetings for Zoom parties and putting away enough cookies for an actual office party. It also means it’s tipping season for the people who were able to (safely) help me be less of a stressed-out wreck this past year. But I can never figure out holiday tips! How much is enough? How much is not enough? And how do I avoid going broke while passing around all of this holiday cheer?


Dumbfounded Tipper

Dear Dumbfounded,

Holidays (and pandemic) aside, tipping is a confusing and stressful adult obligation. Like sex, or getting your moles checked, we know we’re supposed to do it regularly but very few of us like to talk about how it works or what’s normal.

In my mind’s eye, there are people who know exactly how to tip. They look kind of like suave fedora-clad Don Draper types, and they’re always peeling just the right number of 20s from of their infinite tip-wad and passing them to all the valued members of the service economy. But I also know that if this all-knowing patriarchal character exists, he’s not most of us. Most of us normal people are just stressed out.

But thankfully there are money advice columns to help! And experts whom money advice columnists can interview, since this columnist never really understood the guidelines and standards of holiday tipping. Because all of us — existentially tortured ad men with money to burn or not – could use some tips… on holiday tipping. (Yes, that was my single, allotted tipping pun of the column.)

Now it goes without saying that this is not a typical (tip-ical? No no, I promised only one!) holiday, or a typical year. A lot of the people who normally rely heavily on holiday tips may not be getting any tips at all this this year. So remember that it's not just about tipping all the people who've helped you survive in the era of social distancing (hi, delivery workers) but also those who weren't able to work this year at all (we're looking at you, house cleaners) — if you can afford it, it’s a good idea to tip people who would have liked to have worked for you this year but couldn’t.

Why Do We Tip During the Holidays Anyway?

We’re sure you know this but we’ll say it anyway: when you regularly employ someone or pay for their services, a holiday bonus communicates that you’re aware of the fact that a human is spending his/her/their time tending to you – not a machine, not just any person. If a nanny takes care of your kids, you want to acknowledge that caring for and wrangling your little angels (who, let’s face it, are not always angels) is more than just a job you do for an hourly wage. And tipping is also often built into their expected compensation packages. Which is to say that people in the service industry are probably depending on holiday tips as part of their salary. And this year, those folks may not even be earning that salary. Like I said: think about them, too, if you can.

Joanna Feldman, a 35-year-old nanny, with more than a decade of experience in many jobs, said that a holiday bonus is “how we know our bosses value our position in their family. I have found that families that take parenting more seriously are the ones that tend to tip higher during the holidays.”

Make the List. And, OK, Fine, Check It Twice

Given that you may be on your eighth straight day of hangovers, and in the midst of an argument about an argument about when the last time you actually left the house was, you may not want to make a detailed list of who should get tips and how much. But do it anyway.

First, the who. It would be nice if we could tip everyone, but most of us aren’t Jeff Bezos (except for Jeff Bezos. Hi, Jeff!) In a normal year, we're talking about, personal trainers, apartment supers (if they are actually helpful), doormen, stylists, and gardeners should get tips. Elective tip-ees include: yoga teachers, acupuncturists, physical therapists, facialists, hair stylists, masseurs, mechanics, contractors, and your favorite bartender. If you are Kumal Nanjiani, you must give the required tip of one human soul to your nutritionist, trainer, and the devil. But that’s about where the buck stops in terms of tippable health professionals. No one should be tipping their gastroenterologist.

A good rule of thumb is, if you would have seen them weekly or monthly in a normal year and they’re in the service industry, a tip is a good idea.

And of course, if this person cares for your children or cleans your house, a tip is required. Teachers count, too. But that’s more gift than tip, and you should check school rules and coordinate gifts with other parents.

What’s the Going Rate?

Like income, the size of tips vary wildly from job to job and city to city. What’s normal for a babysitter in Winnipeg might be an absolute insult in Toronto and the story could be completely different in Montreal. It’s the same as in any profession — even a car mechanic gets paid differently depending on where, geographically, she works. “When I’m trying to figure out how much to tip, I actually ask around,” says Toronto-based etiquette expert, Lisa Orr.

I’m a huge fan of borrowing the knowledge of your friends and colleagues. Debbie from accounting could very well have a whole tipping spreadsheet that self-populates and solves for inflation, stashed behind those framed photos of her Siamese cat for all you know, and you’d be none the wiser if you don’t ask. It’s also pretty smart to ask other nannies, doormen, fitness trainers, ye olde elevator operator, etc., what the going rate is.

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OK, But Really, Let’s Talk Dollar Amount

According to Joanna Feldman, the veteran nanny, the standard holiday tip for a nanny is one to two week’s pay, plus a personal gift. (Feldman has received everything from a personalized handbag to a pack of sessions with a psychic medium.) Where you fall on that one to two weeks usually depends on how long someone has worked for you. “If it’s a newer employee that you’ve known for just a couple of years, I would go to the one week of pay,” says Katie Provinziano, the managing director of Westside Nannies in Los Angeles. “If it’s a long-term employee, someone who’s been with your family for maybe five-plus years, I would go for the latter.” (Remember to check with an accountant — maybe office Debbie? — to make sure you’re above-board with the tax people.)

As far as the gift part goes, Provinziano suggests involving your kids in the gift-giving process. “Having the kids come up with the idea of a gift for their nanny, or making a card, is always nice,” she says.

If you have more of a regular Friday-night-babysitter situation, Provinziano recommends doubling the amount of a single session. You can usually do the same thing for dog walkers and cat sitters. But if your furry companion requires an inordinate amount of maintenance — I’m talking ear drops, cleaning up excrement and hairballs, forcing Fido to eat a pill — supplement accordingly.

The same general logic applies to cleaners. Grace Reynolds, who moderates a group of nearly 20,000 cleaning professionals on Facebook, and co-runs her own house cleaning service in Walla Walla, Washington, polled her community at Wealthsimple’s request. She found that they most prefer a tip equal to the cost of a single cleaning service. “House cleaners really do feel like a member of the family,” says Reynolds. “So you should treat them as such.” She’s also not opposed to baked goods, wine, fresh produce during the holidays, but recommends presenting it before a cleaning, rather than after. “That also helps boost their morale and their happiness for the day. It’ll make the job a little more fun.”

Chelsey Pickthorn, a hairstylist who services everyone from artists to stay-at-home moms, says that regulars should double or triple their usual tip toward the end of the year, depending on the time-intensiveness of their services. “When clients go above and beyond, it really does make you feel appreciated,“ Pickthorn says. She is also happy to receive personal gifts. But please, no food. "I don’t want a food bouquet," she says. "I don’t want a fruitcake."

Cash: Still King

Straight-up giving cash gets a bad rap. The Emily Posts of yore saw the gesture as a sign that you put very little thought into an exchange and were perhaps a bit coarse. And giving cash to a significant other is slightly weird, as illustrated by Seinfeld. But put yourself in the receiver’s shoes: if your boss handed you $500, would you not think it was freakin’ awesome?

Pretty much every service worker I spoke to for this column agrees. “Some people think cash is cold, or impersonal,” Orr, the etiquette expert, said. “But giving cash gives them the gift of choice. For example, the choice to pay down a credit card bill. When you empower people that way, I think there’s something pretty special about that.”

But how you give the cash is important. The best way is tucked into a card with a handwritten message. “A nice little note with some kind words that are genuine goes a long way,” says Lissa Renn, the owner of The Hive, a salon in Silver Lake, Los Angeles. Though you can also send a virtual gift card (along with some thoughtful words, of course).

Don’t Overdo It

The holidays are a crunch, especially this year. But skimping on a tip because you’re because you're buying your seventieth pandemic yoga outfit seems like a case of bad priorities. On the other hand, if you’re genuinely strapped for cash, remember that these are guidelines, not requirements. As Orr puts it: “You can’t be a good client if you can’t afford their services again because of what you tip.” But whatever you do, make it a real gesture. Don’t forget that even flowers go a long way.

“Sometimes people get focused on exact dollar amounts, but the reality is you’re focused on the relationship,” says Orr. “Tip what you can reasonably afford, but then you can do other things to make sure the person knows you appreciate them.”

– Chelsea, from The Financial Diet

This story was last updated December 17, 2020.

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