This post comes from J. Whiton.

I’m preparing a holiday gift budget for family and close friends and realize I should factor in year-end gifts and bonuses to myriad people who provide services to us throughout the year. I’ve gotten the memo that “it’s the thought that counts,” but I’m not sure my newspaper delivery person has. He continues to enclose a self-addressed envelope with our paper in early December, and I’m pretty sure he is interested in receiving more than a kind note expressing our appreciation for the times he managed to avoid tossing our paper in the sprinkler.

My goal is to limit holiday gift giving to $1,500 in total. As I begin assembling this list, I can see that the amount spent in the holiday gratuity category could potentially absorb the bulk of my budget:

14 teachers (middle and high school)

8 employees

4 coaches/tutors

3 landscaping/lawn mowing workers

2 garbage/recycling workers

2 house-cleaning people

2 sitters

1 boss

1 homeowners’ association fund

1 mail carrier

1 newspaper delivery person

1 Pilates instructor

1 hairstylist

1 nail person

There is no doubt that everyone above is deserving of some sort of gift or tip, but if I follow recommendations on holiday tipping, I would spend a minimum of $1,015 on holiday cheer for my main support team.

If money was no object, I might also consider:

2 doctors

2 dentists (pediatric and adult)

1 orthodontist

1 dog groomer

If I pare down my family and friend list to the bare minimum of 15 people, I would spend on average about $32 per close relative or friend. This amounts to approximately $8 more for each of my nearest and dearest than I’d average on all the others. Something feels wrong here.

My husband and I could agree not to exchange gifts, but it’s difficult to imagine how I might spend $40 on each of my three teenagers and provide a wonderful surprise on Christmas morning. It seems clear that I need to find a way to limit spending on the “others.”

Precedents boxing you in?

This will be especially challenging where we have set precedents in the past. For example, last year we gave each teacher a box of Sees chocolates, retailing for about $20. If we send our kids with holiday cards and $5 gift certificates to Starbucks, they may notice the downgrade and who knows what might happen as a result? Similarly, we’ve left cash for our trash collectors in prior years and they have made a mark on our garbage can that I suspect allows us to occasionally leave more debris than we should. Will they be upset and insulted if we leave less cash this year than we did last year and refuse to collect our excesses when they occur? Our newspaper delivery person avoids the sprinkler about 60 percent of the time now. Maybe I should increase the tip as a scientific experiment to see if our wet/dry ratio improves in the new year?

After making my list and checking it more than twice, I decide to create some homemade goods as gifts for many on my list. The plan is to prepare caramelized walnuts in simple glass jars trimmed with holiday ribbon and personalized notes. Estimated total cost for each jar is $7, to cover container, nuts, spices, ribbon, and note.

For those who have received purchased gifts from us in the past, I’ll assemble hot-chocolate gift packages. These will include inexpensive mugs from discount retailers, a small package of hot-chocolate marshmallows, piece of biscotti and a candy cane. I’ll fill the mug with the food items and wrap in clear sturdy cellophane, tied with holiday ribbon. Estimated cost for each mug gift: $10. For select recipients, a $5 coffee gift card will be added to the mug.

This is what my budget for service providers now looks like:

Service provider Qty Amt Total Gift
teachers 14 $10 $140 Hot-chocolate mugs and notes from kids
employees 8 $7 $56 Nuts and thank-you notes
coaches/tutors 4 $5 $20 Starbucks gift cards and thanks from kids
landscaping/lawn 3 $0 $0 Tip $15 each in spring
garbage/recycling 2 $15 $30 Cash, as before
house cleaners 2 $90 $180 Cash plus hot-chocolate mug gifts
sitters 2 $15 $30 Cash and thank-you notes from kids
boss 1 $15 $15 Hot-chocolate mug and $5 Starbucks certificate
homeowners assn 1 $25 $25 Down from $50 last year
mail 1 $15 $15 Cash, as before
newspaper 1 $20 $20 Cash, increased from $15 last year
Pilates 1 $7 $7 Nuts and thank-you notes
hair 1 $7 $7 Nuts and thank-you notes
nail 1 $7 $7 Nuts and thank-you notes
Total 42 $552

I’m so excited about saving $463 from the initial estimate that I plan to create ornaments for health care providers with photos of the kids and sincere thank-you notes. I’ll also tip the dog groomer $15. These gifts should total no more than $60, capping my spending on “all the others” at $612. My remaining budget for closest family and friends has nearly doubled from $485 to $888 with these adjustments.

Do you have ideas for bringing down holiday gratuity spending any further?

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