A last-minute guide to holiday tipping

By Gerri Detweiler/Credit.com

Holiday tipping can cause some anxiety among those of us who checked our lists carefully and made sure we'd covered all the bases. Except for when we check the mailbox and discover we have holiday greetings from the mail carrier, trash pickup service and maybe the volunteer fire department. You know they are hoping you'll send something back, but what? Gift cards? Just how many boxes of candy or homemade cookies do they need? (Maybe the weight-loss centers should send you a tip in January.) Or are they expecting cash? And if so, how much?

Before we look at the typical scenarios, it's important to note that we shouldn't be giving special holiday tips if we can't afford to do so, and homemade gifts are perfectly acceptable. Also, tips or gifts need to be accompanied by a short, sincere note of appreciation, because holiday tipping is really holiday thanking, according to the Emily Post Institute. And if you regularly tip generously all year long, you shouldn't feel obligated to leave a supersized tip because it's December (although you may want to bring a small gift).

A Care.com survey revealed that nearly 70 percent of us give holiday tips, and the percentage of people who wonder if they were supposed to is probably much higher than that. Basically, if you have a lot of interaction with someone who provides a service (a housekeeper, your children's nanny, for example) or if it's a service provider who doesn't receive tips any other time of year for exemplary service (garbage collector, landscaper), you may want to consider a tip. In the case of a family worker like a nanny, a typical tip could be a small gift, along with a week's or a month's bonus salary. The other service providers receive smaller tips (some recommend about $15 per garbage collector, for example). But local customs and the amount of time the service has been provided play a big role. Ask around.

When you shouldn't tip

In some cases, tips are not allowed. For example, if you're thinking of tipping a school employee or a nursing home attendant who has been especially attentive, check with the administration about what's acceptable. Other factors worth considering are what regional customs are, and the length of the relationship with the person who is receiving the tip. But in general, if you're in a big city, the expected tips may be larger. And your relationship with the person counts. A barista you recognize but whose name you don't know isn't in the same category as the one who greets you by name and with a smile and knows what "the usual" means.

Also, if you're wondering how to tip your mail carrier, be aware that the U.S. Postal Service restricts what gifts can be accepted. They should be worth no more than $20 per occasion, and $50 a year. And you can't give cash, checks, gift cards or alcohol. (But a shareable gift -- think fruit basket or flowers -- that can be enjoyed by the whole team is just fine.)

You may be relieved to know there are certain people you don't need to tip (though you are still safe giving homemade treats): Business owners, doctors, lawyers and other professionals, for example.

Your best bet is to prioritize, and be sure you recognize the people you feel go the extra mile, whether with cash, gift cards or a heartfelt note. And don't discount the value of -- or worse, skip -- that last one.

This is a wonderful time of year to let people know how much you appreciate what they are doing all year long.

And if you came up short on the tips you wanted to give this year, write a note to yourself to budget a bit more for it next year. No one is suggesting you go into debt or further into debt to do this -- and you certainly don't want to be paying off those tips well into the next year (you can see how long it would take you to pay it off using this calculator). While tipping may feel obligatory (4 percent of tippers said they did so out of fear of poor service), it's truly not meant to be extortion. Don't put yourself in financial jeopardy to do it.