After seven years as a New York City hotel concierge and 10 years running a concierge firm, Michael Fazio certainly has his opinions on how to appropriately tip during the holidays. But if you think he recommends playing Santa Claus with every service employee who crosses your path, guess again. Not that he espouses a Scrooge philosophy, either.
As you come to grips with how much to tip people for the holidays, your own finances should be the main consideration. To keep control of spending and give appropriate gifts to the right people in your life, you need to plan ahead.
Fazio suggests making a tipping budget, just as with any item in your finances: "Ask yourself if you have $500 or $5,000, and work backward from there."
He suggests applying a rule of thumb based on tipping tiers rather than throwing money around willy-nilly: $20 gets a smile, $100 gets somebody's attention, and $200 gets what he calls "insurance."
That last category is for people who interact with your most valuable assets. "I love the guys in my garage, and they park my car upstairs in a very good spot. I don't want anyone who has access to a $50,000 piece of my equipment to be angry at me," Fazio said.
Guilt or gratitude? The one thing Fazio's formula does not take into account is the quality of service he received over the past year. That is typical, says Holona Ochs, a political scientist at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.
As co-author on a book about gratuity giving, Ochs interviewed postal workers, bartenders, strippers -- more than 425 tip-earners in 50 occupational categories -- to get their views.
If the amount you tip is aligned with your emotions, you could end up spending out of control, especially on tips for personal service providers like nannies, housekeepers and dog walkers. Looking for a good amount? Tip them up to one week's salary, Ochs said.
Try not to be ruled by guilt, said Fazio. "We should all treat each other pretty nicely, so it's great the doorman is nice," he said. "But is he proud of his profession? Being nice is just one ingredient of many, and a tip is showing respect and appreciation financially for a job well done."
Don't try to keep up. Holiday tipping isn't a contest. "It is more important to maintain your financial security than to out-tip the Joneses or blindly follow a neighbor or relative's advice," said Kevin Gallegos, vice president of operations with the Freedom Financial Network, a consumer debt resolution service.
"Tips can add up, so if a cash tip is outside your budget, take the gift route or say thank you with a batch of cookies. The most important element is to let your caregivers know you appreciate their work all year round."
Some holiday tips work out better if you pool resources. Colleen Rickenbacher, an etiquette expert and author of "Be On Your Best Business Behavior," suggests that parents at a school organize to give one nice gift to a teacher at the holidays. Cold cash is out -- it could appear to be a bribe.