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The tip off

Marketplace Staff Dec 15, 2006

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: It’s that season when your normal tip just doesn’t go as far. Time to ante-up your holiday bonus. For many Americans, this seasonal gratuity is like a tradition. Meanwhile, the rest of us wonder – Who deserves something extra? And how much is appropriate? Marketplace’s Jeff Tyler shares some tips of his own.

Who knows tipping etiquette better than waiters and bartenders?

I dropped by the over-priced eateries at my local mall and asked the staff who they tip during the holidays.

LESLIE SCHILLING: I’ve never tipped a mailman.

TYLER: How much do you give the mail guy every year?

FEMALE TIPPER: I’ve never given him anything.

They DO describe themselves as generous tippers when they go out – ALWAYS adding upwards of 20 percent to the bill.

But outside the restaurant, nothing special — no holiday bonus.

So I asked the Salvation Army bell-ringer. He knows giving. This year, Arthur Spencer says, he’s put in 700 hours as a volunteer.

In terms of tipping others, he gave some cash to the custodian in his building. That’s because he knows the guy. He never sees his mail carrier.

ARTHUR SPENCER: The postman, this year — because it’s a large building and there is not a regular postal person that comes – will not receive a cash gift.

So, who gets the cash gift? And who doesn’t? These are “tough questions” of tipping etiquette.

But not too tough for the Emily Post Institute.

CINDY POST SENNING: The tip we’re talking about at the holidays really is a way of showing a little bit of appreciation.

That’s Cindy Post Senning — great-granddaughter of Emily. In her view, courtesy includes a rather expansive list of folks potentially deserving of your appreciation in cold, hard cash.

SENNING: So it can be anyone from your mailman to your child’s teacher, or perhaps if you go to a salon or a gym regularly – the people who provide those services. Even your pet groomer, if you take your beloved cat or dog to the groomer on a regular basis, you might want to tip that person.

But take it too far, and you could tip yourself right into the poor house. Forget what’s proper. How about what’s practical.

If you want to know what to get the mailman, ask an expert – at the post office.

Eric Wattree sets the example. He delivered mail for 19 years.

Now he gives as good as he got.

ERIC WATTREE: I tip my carrier. And I tip my gardener. I just give them 20 dollars.

Wattree says the best tip he ever got from a customer on his route wasn’t money.

WATTREE: She actually went out and bought me a vacuum cleaner. She overheard that my vacuum cleaner went berserk. So she took the time to go out and purch — a really nice vac — as a matter of fact, I still have it. And that was like, what? 15 years ago.

Outside Santa’s Workshop at my local mall, a guy who gave his name only as David says, like Wattree, he tips his gardeners.

DAVID: I used to give an extra week’s pay. Sometimes I would just buy a couple turkeys and give them a meal, you know, family-to-family.

But David had to weigh what’s best for him — the giver — versus what’s best for the recipient.

DAVID: I got the better feeling from the turkey than from the extra money. But I think they got the better feeling from the money.

At the same time, be careful not to give too much.

Schools, nursing homes, and yes, even post offices, have rules.

SENNING: Whether you do a gift certificate or cash, you want to be sure you’re staying within the limits of the organization.

Cindy Post Senning says there’s no etiquette rule that requires you to tip.

A thank you card is perfectly acceptable.

Save the extra cash for the next time you dine out.

Leslie Schilling, a bartender and waitress, says, despite all the good cheer, customers typically leave less on the table during the holidays.

SCHILLING: I expect to get lower tips because a lot of people are spending their money on other things and trying to save their money for gifts.

Like a vacuum cleaner – for the postman.

In Los Angeles, I’m Jeff Tyler for Marketplace Money.

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