The simple act of gift-giving not only at Christmas but throughout the year, has become extremely complicated. I blame that on the consumer credit industry.

Think about it: You can be completely broke but still spend thousands of dollars on Christmas gifts—and believe it is not only your right to do so, but that you are obligated to do it. We believe the message that we have to spend a lot for Christmas gifts to be socially acceptable.

Gift-giving is a Christmas custom that has pretty much run amok. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can choose to make wise and reasonable decisions about the gifts we give. 

How many of you cannot recall the gifts you gave last Christmas? How about the gifts you received? Come on, let’s see those hands. Okay, that’s just about everybody.

It’s not because we’re total ingrates that we have trouble remembering the gifts we gave or even the ones we received. It’s because when it’s all over, the gifts pale in comparison to the joy they deliver—the love and best wishes for the season. That’s what we carry with us from one year to the next.

Gifts are messengers. They are tokens of the esteem we hold for people we care about. They deliver our love and our best wishes. Gifts express the fondness we have for another person. Without the care, love, or concern—the gift is empty. Giving a gift just so you can mark a name off a list is a hollow effort that is likely to fall flat no matter how much money you spend.

Okay, so here’s another question: How many of you still have a sense of the joy and good feelings associated with gift-giving that took place in your home and your life last Christmas even if you cannot recall the specific gifts?

Look at that. Hands are going up all over the room! At least some of those gifts did their job. They delivered the joy and the love and then quietly slipped out of the spotlight.

Those of you who couldn’t raise your hands may be remembering the stress of finding the perfect gift, the hassle because you waited until the last minute. You might be recalling the guilt for spending money you didn’t have on things you don’t remember and haven’t been paid for yet.

If you struggle with the thought that gifts you give must fulfill the recipients’ deepest longing and fondest dreams, think of the gifts you will give in the same way you would think of a special meal you prepare. You want it to be delicious and for your guests to enjoy it thoroughly. But no matter how fluffy your mashed potatoes or delectable the prime rib, it’s still a meal and it will end. Your guests will not continue to eat the meal for months to come, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t delicious and they didn’t enjoy it. They will take away the memories of the meal and the love with which it was prepared and served. Your gifts should bring a momentary sense of joy, but it’s the memories of your expression that will live on.

If you don’t know what to give someone, ask this simple question: What matters to him or her? You have to know this person pretty well to know the answer to that question without inquiring. You almost have to be a detective. You have to pay attention, listen, and observe. Let’s say your grandmother really loves animals. In fact she volunteers at the shelter two days a week. She is passionate about animal rights. Donating $20 in her name to the Animal Shelter would probably make her break down and cry. She would be touched that you cared enough to figure out what really matters to her.

Not every occasion requires a gift. Sometimes a card that you buy or make yourself in which you write a really thoughtful sentiment is an excellent way to go. Caring enough to pick out the right card and then taking the time and effort to write in it sometimes says, “I care!” even better than a gift could.

Being a responsible gift-giver will help you to be an excellent recipient as well. Knowing that it’s the thought that went into the gift that counts—not the price tag—will help you to be genuinely grateful. You cannot be too grateful. But you can fail to express your gratitude, and that’s always a bad thing.

Give something you made. Whether it’s something from your kitchen, your craft room, woodworking shop or computer, there’s just nothing like a homemade gift. A tree ornament, plate of cookies, box of fudge, note cards—these are just some of the kinds of homemade gifts with universal appeal.

Give the gift of compassion. Do you want your gift to say how much you care? Then find a way to show you care about what matters most to that person. Is he or she passionate about medical research? Become a bone marrow donor. An environmentalist? Donate to an organization that reforests and plant a tree in his/her name. Do something that this person will find meaningful and then do it in their honor. Write a description of your experience and give it to your recipient.

Give what you do best. Often the most meaningful gifts and most difficult ones to give are those that cost no money at all. A gift from the heart is a gift of time and talent. What do you do well? Cook, clean, baby sit, garden, sew, drive, shop? Whatever it is, create a unique gift certificate and make what you do the gift that you give: A weekend of baby sitting, a day of housecleaning, six hours of errand running—you get the idea. Hint: Follow up within just a few days to set the exact time your certificate will be redeemed. Your recipient may be too embarrassed to remind you to make good on the gift.

Give it in writing. Worried that your gifts—homemade or otherwise—are too cheap or not just exactly right? All of your doubts will vanish when you include a short note with each of your gifts telling the recipients what they mean to you and the value they bring to your life.

The best gift is one that delivers a message of love and joy that remains with the recipient long after the gift has been consumed, used or put away.

Tipping points

It is a social custom in this country to give cash gifts—tips—at the holiday season. How this custom came to be I have no idea. Thankfully there are no rules and no tipping police.

Sure, you will see a plethora of tipping guidelines in newspapers and magazines during the holidays, but they are editorial suggestions. Some I’ve read are mind-boggling and include the garbage man, newspaper delivery person, mail carrier, the nanny, driver, and doorman; the housekeeper, butler, and maid (oh sure, don’t we all have one of those?), which begs the questions: What makes one service worthy of gratuities from its patrons while others—like grocery checkers—are not included?

Gratuities or tips, if you plan to give any, need to be part of your holiday spending plan and that means you need to start thinking about it right now. If you’re not sure, ask yourself: Can I afford to be without this person? And I do not mean afford as in a monetary sense. By “afford to be without” I mean, do you want to face the future without this person’s services? If you absolutely cannot bear the thought, then a tip is likely in order as an expression of the gratitude for the service provided throughout the year and the fact that you do depend on him or her.

For me the foregoing qualifiers eliminate the garbage man. I wouldn’t have a clue who he is, to be honest. Some big robotic truck comes down our street and plucks the containers with a big mechanical arm and dumps them. So if that guy quits his driving job I’m sure there are plenty of others willing to step up. His service is appreciated, but he personally is not essential in my life. No tip.

My hairdresser. This is a slightly different story. It does take a while to get in sync and after a couple of years, I’m about there with this one. Yes, I appreciate her, but if she told me she’s moving out of state I’d wish her well and find another quite easily. A $25 tip.

The yard guy. Yes, I have a landscape maintenance company that services our property. Being out of debt does have its luxuries. They do fine, but believe me if they go out of business I have my pick of about fifty others that will do the same thing. No tip.

The ant guy. We live on what must be the mother of all ant hills. We have had ant problems since we bought this house twenty years ago. They come routinely to spray and bait for ants. The company we have now is courteous and responsive, but so are other pest control services. I have this one because their price is about half of all others and the service is adequate. No tip.

My housekeeper. This is a luxury that has become a total necessity in my life. I find that my sanity is worth paying Raquel to clean my house twice a month. She is an angel. A gift from on-high. Raquel is punctual, immaculate, trustworthy, and reliable. She has a key to my house. I would trust her with my grandchild (I don’t have one, but if I did ...). If she were to leave me I would be devastated. I could not replace her in a million years. I give her raises when she least expects it. It is the best money I spend in any given month. I pray for her health, that she will live long and prosper. I want to be her favorite client so if a doctor somewhere ever says she can clean only one house—I want it to be mine! A huge tip. Gladly.

Okay, now that I have spouted off on my personal philosophy on holiday tipping, here is a more conventional tipping guide. Just make sure you take this information under advisement and then set your own guidelines that fit within your means and the desires of your heart.

Before we even get to dollar amounts, general guidelines suggest that you look to a number of factors such as quality of service, frequency of service, how long you’ve used the service, customs in your area, and your personal financial situation.

There are no laws or even social standards when it comes to tipping—only customs and traditions. As you determine what is right for you, keep in mind that you have already paid these people for services rendered. Ask yourself: Am I particularly grateful because this person made my life easier or did more than required? For those who rate a “Yes,” express your gratitude in a way that fits your ability, not according to what you think society expects or demands.

Following are a few commonly-accepted guidelines for your thoughtful consideration; however keep in mind that social custom does vary from one area to another.

Postal carrier. The U.S. Postal Service forbids carriers from accepting cash, however they may accept a nominal item with a value under $20, like cookies or chocolate, for example. If you are very pleased with your service, a letter of appreciation to the supervisor would be in order.

Baby sitter. For a regular sitter on whom you depend and who consistently gives excellent care, http://www.tipping.org/ suggests a tip equal to two nights pay and a small gift from the children.

Trash collector. If you actually know the person who collects your trash (many neighborhoods like mine have gone to robotic trucks with an equally robotic-like driver who never leaves the cab) I am told that a a tip of $15 to $20 is customary.

Newspaper delivery. If you have daily delivery and you know who your delivery person is, $15 to $25. Weekend only? $5 to $15.

Housekeeper. If you are happy with the service, the equivalent of up to one visit.

Hairdresser. If you are happy with the service—even if your hairdresser is the owner of the salon—15 to 20 percent of the total bill on a typical visit (in addition to the tip you would normally leave for your last visit before the holidays) and a small gift. If you aren’t happy, find a new hairdresser.

Door personnel. If you live in a building with a doorman a $25 to $100 tip is typical, more or less depending on how much this person assists you during the year.

Superintendent. If your building has a “super” on whom you depend, a tip is highly recommended—particularly if you are fond of heat in the winter and cooling in the summer.

A monetary gift in any amount is one way to say thanks to service providers, but it is not the only way. Never underestimate the value of a handwritten note on pretty holiday stationery.

A gift of special treats with a nice note is always appropriate. Any expression of gratitude that comes from your heart is never wrong.

Excerpted with permission from Chapter 7, Debt-Proof The Holidays, by Mary Hunt (DPL Press, 2007, $14.95).

© 2007 Debt-Proof Living. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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