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It's customary to thank service providers with holiday tips. But these aren't exactly customary times.

Giving less or not giving at all shouldn't be a source of guilt if you're having trouble making ends meet, says etiquette author Peter Post of the Emily Post Institute.

"If you're in real financial straits -- you've lost your job or whatever -- you may not be able to tip with a monetary expression of thanks," says Post, the author of "Essential Manners for Men" and four other etiquette books. "Nobody expects you to go into debt."

(A holiday tip, if you don't know, is a special voluntary payment made in December to people who have provided you good service. It's separate from, and in some cases in addition to, the tipping you're expected to do throughout the year. In other words, you don't get to stiff the waiter or the cabdriver because it's the holidays. If you can't afford to tip when it's expected, then you shouldn't use the service. Eat at home or take the bus.)

While the latest Consumer Reports holiday tipping poll finds that our largesse has stabilized after going south along with the economy three years ago, no more than 35% of us pony up for a monetary thank-you to our gardener, newspaper carrier or pet-care provider.

If you want to give but are too strapped to afford it, Post recommends one of the following:

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

A holiday card with a handwritten note. A warm thanks is appropriate, and you can touch on why your tip is smaller or nonexistent. "You don't want them to think the lack of a tip is a reflection on their service," Post says. "You can say: 'Thank you so much for all you've done. It's been a terribly difficult year, and we're looking forward to resuming our holiday tips when things improve.'"

Handmade gifts or treats. A plate full of holiday cookies or candy is a low-cost way to express your appreciation. "One evening of baking can produce a dozen or a dozen and a half cookies for each (recipient)," Post says.

Keys to tipping

If you can give, just not as much, here are some things to keep in mind as you triage your holiday tipping list:

Prioritize your most important service providers. If someone's work makes your life dramatically better, that person should be at the top of your holiday tipping list. The trusted housecleaner, the hairdresser who fits you in at the last minute and the baby sitter who always does a great job tending your kids should get more of your holiday tipping resources than service providers you use infrequently.

Don't skimp on your employees. If you have household workers, such as a nanny, a housekeeper or a caretaker for an elderly relative, Post cautions against forgoing holiday bonuses if at all possible. The holiday bonus is often considered part of the employee's compensation, Post notes. It all depends on your past practices, what's customary in your area and what you promised when you hired the person, of course, but withholding or shortchanging the bonus could be considered a cut in pay and you could wind up losing a valued worker because of it.

Tip strategically. If you live in a building with a doorman, superintendent or both, failing to tip can lead -- unfortunately -- to bad service. The higher the customary tip, the less likely a plate of cookies will cut it. Talk to your neighbors to see what the going rate is and try to come close to that figure to make sure your packages still get delivered and your friends can get into the building.

It's OK to consider need. The lower-paid the worker, the more holiday tips are likely to be appreciated -- and the bigger impact your gift can have. Your tip to a manicurist or gardener may be a bigger deal than the same-sized token to a package-delivery person.

If you tip generously all year, you can skimp a bit. A smaller tip or a modest gift at the holidays is fine.

A note should accompany any tip. Your message doesn't have to be elaborate, but should include a couple of sentences thanking the person for his or her good work and wishing a happy holiday.

Below are rough guidelines provided by the Emily Post Institute that you can adapt to your budget and local custom:

 
Holiday tipping suggestions
Recipient Guideline
Baby sitter One evening's pay, plus a gift from your child
Barber Cost of one haircut
Beauty salon staff Cost of one salon visit
Day care provider A gift from you, or $25 to $70, plus a gift from your child
Dog walker Up to one week's pay or a gift
Doorman $15 to $80 or a gift ($15 each for multiple doormen)
Garage attendants $10 to $30 or a small gift
Gardeners $20 to $50 each
Handyman $15 to $40
Housekeeper Up to one week's pay and/or a small gift
Live-in help One week to one month's pay, plus a gift from you
Mail carrier Gift worth less than $20; no cash, check or gift cards
Massage therapist Up to the cost of one session or a gift
Nanny or au pair One week's pay, plus a gift from your child
Newspaper deliverer $10 to $30 or a small gift
Package deliverer Small gift in the $20 range
Personal trainer Up to the cost of one session or a gift
Personal caregiver One week to one month's salary or a gift
Pet groomer Up to the cost of one session or a gift
Pool cleaner The cost of one cleaning, to be split among the crew
Superintendent $20 to $80 or a gift
Teachers A small gift or note from you, plus a small gift from your child
Trash collectors $10 to $30 each

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Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.