Image: Santa Claus © John Lund,Jupiterimages

Regular, everyday tipping etiquette apparently wasn't baffling and awkward enough. So holiday tips have been added to the fray.

OK, maybe year-end tipping rules weren't invented just to confuse you. But that can be the result when you're not sure whom to tip and how much.

Holiday tips are cash bonuses or other presents customarily handed out in December. They're a way of saying "thank you" to the people who provide you with services year-round. But the rules for holiday tipping aren't set in stone, and they’re changing as society changes, said Peter Post, the managing director of the Emily Post Institute and the author of "Essential Manners for Men 2nd Edition: What to Do, When to Do It, and Why."

Here's what is important to know this year:

Holiday tips should fit within your budget. "You shouldn't put yourself in debt," cautions Post, the great-grandson of the legendary etiquette expert. If you can't come up with the recommended amount of cash for each person on your list, you can tip less, give a gift instead or, if your budget's really tight, consider something homemade, such as a plate of cookies.

Set your priorities. As you're making a list of people who might deserve a holiday tip, "identify the people who have really done something special for you" above and beyond the usual level of service, Post recommends. Those are the folks who should be at the top of your holiday tip list. Further down the list, add the people you tip generously (20% or more) throughout the year. If you can't scratch up the recommended cash for these service providers, you can leave a larger-than-usual tip in December, or give a card, small present or both. People who needn't be on your holiday tip list at all include schoolteachers (gifts or gift cards are more appropriate) and U.S. Postal Service workers, who are forbidden by USPS ethics rules from accepting cash (although a gift worth less than $20 is OK).

Consider pooling tips. Post especially likes this approach when dealing with holiday tips for building superintendents, doormen and building staff where unequal tips could lead to unequal service. "Is the person who gives $75 going to get faster attention than the person who gives $25?" Post wondered. If that might be the case, then a gift pool would allow each person to give what he or she can afford without fear of reprisal. (Pooling resources also can work well when buying holiday gifts for teachers or tipping daycare workers.)

Ask around. Holiday tipping customs can vary by region and by type of establishment. Bigger tips may be the norm in larger cities or deluxe buildings, for example. Ask other people what they give, or call the establishment to find out what the range of holiday tips generally is.

Don't forget the card. The tip or gift should be accompanied by a card with a handwritten note expressing your gratitude. A couple of sentences is all you need to squeak out.

Click here to become a fan of MSN Money on Facebook

More from Liz Weston:

The word "tip" is not an acronym. I throw in this fun fact for those who want to argue that tips shouldn't be expected. "Tip" does not stand for "to insure promptness," "to insure performance," "to insure prompt service" or any other combination of words. The word “tip” dates back several hundred years, long before acronyms became popular.

Holiday tip amounts typically reflect the frequency and duration of the service, along with your relationship to the service provider. Those who provide regular but brief service, for instance, often get $10 to $30. Examples include:

  • Newspaper deliverers.
  • Parking or garage attendants.
  • Trash collectors (if they still load your cans by hand; if they use a mechanized arm, no tip is expected).
  • Any regular delivery person, such as food, laundry, messages, etc. (Some package delivery services limit or forbid tips, so ask first.)

The range is wider for building supers ($20 to $80) and doormen ($15 to $80; if there are multiple doormen, $15 or more each is appropriate, according to the Emily Post Institute). For buildings that still employ elevator operators, a $15 to $40 tip is customary.

Holiday tips for people who provide more extended services normally equal the cost of one visit or session. If your visits are sporadic, you can tip less. If you've used the same people for years, going above the usual limit is a nice gesture, or you can consider adding a gift to the tip (since you probably know the service provider well enough to select an appropriate present). If a team of people provides the service, such as a lawn-care crew or beauty salon staff, the cash equivalent of one visit customarily is divided among them. Service providers include:

  • Hairdresser or barber
  • Manicurist
  • Personal trainer
  • Massage therapist
  • Regular after-hours babysitter (not your nanny or daycare worker)
  • Private tutor
  • Part-time house cleaner 
  • The lawn-care crew
  • Pool cleaner
  • Pet groomer
  • Dog walker
  • Housesitter

People who provide intensive personal services deserve special consideration. These folks include nannies, live-in or full-time help, nursing home employees, private nurses and home health workers. But tipping can be tricky.

Cash tips often aren't appropriate, and may even be forbidden, in many health care positions, the Emily Post Institute warns. A thoughtful gift may be a better fit for a private nurse; a present that can be shared, such as fruit or flowers, might be suitable for nursing home employees. If home health workers are employed by an agency, check there to find out if tips or gifts are allowed.

With other service providers, a generous tip is customary. Nannies and others employed more than a couple of days a week are usually tipped the equivalent of one week's pay, although the amount can grow larger the longer the employee's tenure. Nannies and baby sitters also typically receive a small gift from their charges.

If your children are tended by a daycare center, ask the director about appropriate tips; accepted amounts can range from $25 to $70, plus a small gift from each child.

Navigating the holidays without cratering your budget isn't easy. But acknowledging the people who make our lives function more smoothly is a worthy task. If you can't be as generous as you'd like to be with cash or gifts, you can still be generous with your praise and thanks.

Click here to become a fan of MSN Money on Facebook

More from Liz Weston:

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.