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When the check comes for the meal you ate, think twice about that tip you may or may not want to leave to recognize the service you did, or didn't, receive.

“Take a minute to look around and see all they are really doing," said Katy Kassian, who has 30 years in the hospitality business. "It's not that we didn't want to give you our all, we simply couldn't. Especially at the holidays.”

She added the tip doesn't just go to the person clearing the tables.

“In most restaurants, when times are tight" and staff gets cut, Kassian said, "it is not unusual for your server to also be your greeter, cashier, busser, janitor and dishwasher.”

Tipping is something of a consumer’s no man’s land, governed by rules and standards that few people take the time to learn. Without that knowledge, you can come off as a hard-hearted cheapskate, or you fret that you’ve wasted money. Moreover, that quandary becomes all the more acute with the holidays approaching — who to tip and how much for a year’s work?

General rules

Tipping is designed to address two issues: First, it is a way of thanking — and evaluating — someone for serving you. The better the service, the bigger the tip. Secondly, for many professions, it’s a necessary source of income. For instance, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2014, the mean hourly wage for waiters and waitresses hovered in the vicinity of $10 an hour.

That wage doesn’t go very far. The Economic Policy Institute in 2014 reported that the $10 an hour average for waitstaff was well below the $16.48 average wage for other workers, placing many tipped workers in the bottom quarter of all American wage earners.

There are a growing number of restaurants that include the tip on the bill to boost employee wages, and many automatically tack on gratuities for large groups.

“Generally speaking, do tip. That includes food servers, food delivery people and bartenders,” said Benjamin Glaser, features editor with DealNews. “Exact percentages and amounts can be adjusted depending on difficulty of the task and quality of the result.”

He suggested using 15 to 20 percent as a guideline for people in the food service industry (usually calculated pre-taxes).

Other suggested tipping guidelines:

  • Service that’s less involved, such as airport skycaps, hotel staff and parking attendants: “A dollar or two per interaction will suffice,” said Glaser.
  • Hotel maids: Between $3 and $5 per night, depending on quality, according to the website TripAdvisor.
  • Barbers and cab drivers: The same 15-20 percent guideline used for food servers.
Consumer should also factor in quality of service — the wild card in tipping. Consumer finance expert Kevin Gallegos suggested the upper end of 20 percent for great service and 10-15 percent for mediocre attention.

“If it was really terrible, it is not necessary to leave a tip,” he added.

Not everyone agrees. Diane Gottsman of The Protocol School of Texas suggested “something pretty outrageous” would have to occur to warrant completely forgoing a tip.

“The standard correct course is to talk to the general manager and handle it that way,” she said. “When you skip a tip there are usually multiple people involved.”

Holiday tipping

In showing appreciation to others who provide regular services throughout the year, there is the customary holiday tip.

“When deciding who you will tip, take into consideration the frequency of your visit, the personal attention you receive and, most importantly, your budget,” Gottsman said.

The overall holiday tipping landscape can be broken down into those for whom a cash gift is appropriate and others whose service is best acknowledged in other ways. Starting with the cash crowd, here are some guidelines as recommended by Gottsman:

  • Apartment doorman — Up to $100, depending on service provided throughout the year. “More if you feel inclined,” said Gottsman.
  • Handyman — $20-$100.
  • Garage attendant — $10-$50.
  • Landlord or building manager — $50 and up.
  • Housekeeper — Up to to one week’s pay, depending on service.
  • Newspaper delivery — $10-$30.
  • Pool cleaner and lawn maintenance — Equivalent to one week’s service.
  • Trash collector — If there are no restrictions for public service workers, $10-$25 per person.
  • Babysitter — A cash gift equivalent to one night’s pay or gift card.
  • Nanny — One week’s pay.
  • Hair stylist, manicurist, personal trainer, massage therapist — A gift or cash equivalent to one visit.
  • Pet groomer — A cash gift equivalent to one service.
  • Dog walker — A cash gift equivalent of one day to one week’s service.
  • Private health care nurse — A cash gift equivalent to one week’s pay.
There are those who cannot accept a cash tip for a variety of reasons. Mail carriers, for example, can't accept cash tips. In lieu of money, carriers can accept food treats and gifts valued up to $20.

Federal Express and United Parcel Service employees have a bit more leeway. FedEx prohibits cash or cash equivalents, but gifts up to $75 in value are OK. At UPS, “When customers are insistent, so as not to be rude, (drivers) may accept something nominal, but in general we ask them to decline tips,” said company spokesman Dan McMackin.

Don’t offer your child’s teacher a cash tip, cautioned Gottsman (it may come off as a bribe). Instead, go with a small, personal gift or a “contribution” geared to a class project. A modest gift is also a nice touch for school secretaries and nurses.

“Holiday cookies, a gift bag of personal care items, a movie night gift package with popcorn and a video rental gift card and a gift certificate to a local restaurant are some ideas,” Gallegos added.

No matter if it’s cash or some sort of gift, don’t undercut a well-intentioned tip by simply handing it over. Instead, said Gottsman, include a personal holiday card or note expressing your appreciation. Whenever possible, deliver the gift in person.

Jeff Wuorio lives in southern Maine, where he covers personal finance and entrepreneurship. He may be reached at jwuorio@yahoo.com and his website is at jeffwuorio.com.