Here's a tip for this holiday season: Don't forget to give one to the baby sitters, trash collectors, housekeepers, hairstylists and other service providers in your life.
According to Consumer Reports research, holiday tipping has been on the decline since 2005 in the wake of the down economy, with garbage collectors the least likely to receive money or a small gift at the end of the year.
But there's a way to show gratitude without going broke. Prioritizing is key when tipping on a budget, says Lizzie Post, co-author of "Emily Post's Etiquette," 18th edition.
People should ask themselves: " 'Who could I not have lived without this year?' When you start thinking about it that way, you really narrow the list down quickly," she says.
Larger monetary amounts and/or a small gift should go to those who rank at or near the top of the must-have services list. One evening's pay and a moderately priced present from the family are appropriate for a regular baby sitter, the Emily Post Institute says. Up to one week's pay or a present is an option for a house cleaner or a dog walker. For those you rely on less frequently throughout the year, consider a tin of cookies, fudge or some other homemade token of appreciation.
An alternative to money is a gift card to a store or online retailer that offers something for almost anyone's taste, such as a department store chain, local mall or Amazon.com.
People used to look at gift cards and cash and checks as impersonal, Ms. Post says, but that's no longer the case.
Tips aren't unique to the holidays for barbers, beauticians, massage therapists and others who earn them year-round. In these cases, try giving something that is reflective of the person's personality in addition to the usual tip, maybe a necklace, scarf, wallet or coffee mug.
Whatever you decide to give, make sure the recipient is allowed to accept it. Mail carriers for the U.S. Postal Service are not permitted to receive cash, checks, gift cards or any other form of currency, Ms. Post says. So give something that's clearly less than $20 in value, such as a beverage, snack or hand warmers. Larger food assortments of fruit baskets or cookie platters should be given to the carrier to share with the rest of the post office branch. Some package delivery companies and garbage or recycling collectors that are part of a municipal service also discourage or prohibit employees from collecting gifts of money.
Another key to gifting: take care of it sooner than later, Ms. Post says. And, if finances really are too strapped to squeeze in an extra gift or tip this holiday, a hand-written note thanking the person for his or her service is acceptable.
"It's OK to say you're not able to do what you've done in years past, but [instead say] 'I appreciate you' and thank them with words," Ms. Post says. "Your words are always important."
Sara Bauknecht: email@example.com.