NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
If you like things black-and-white, there's nothing more aggravating than the tradition of holiday tipping.
There are no hard-and-fast rules. So much depends on your means, the quality of the service you receive, the frequency with which you use it, and other considerations.
Not least of which is the "what's everyone else doing?" factor. Because, let's face it, not everyone tips just to say "thanks." They tip because they worry about the fallout if they don't.
For the straight dope, I set out to talk to real tipping experts -- the folks who actually receive tips.
(For some suggested guidelines on what to tip everyone from the babysitter to the UPS guy, click here.)
Bear market in tipping?
Remember that sucking sound that came from people tightening their financial belts as the bear market took hold?
I wondered what effect that had on holiday tips.
Tamara, a hair colorist in Greenbay, Wis., said that a typical holiday tip is one session's fee. But in the past few years, more clients have begun to give gifts in lieu of cash.
She said she doesn't mind, and appreciates the recognition and personal effort made by her clients. "Money is always nice, but we receive tips all year," Tamara said.
Lisa, a hair colorist in Manhattan who works not far from Wall Street, also has noticed an increase in gifts. And those clients who do give cash have scaled back. At the height of the Internet boom, she got tips up to $150. Now, she said, it's more likely to be $20 to $40.
"Over the past three years, thing have been so tough, I just appreciate it a lot when someone goes out of their way to tip," Lisa said.
Robin, a nanny who has worked for very high-net-worth clients, said her best holiday tips were in the late 1990s. One example: A very large down payment on a BMW.
But it's not as if her tips since have been chicken feed. This year, she was told she'd get two to three times the typical bonus of two weeks' pay.
Meanwhile, a doorman on Manhattan's Upper West Side said his average tip per tenant has gone up to $110. That may reflect what one tenant told me about him: that he's much loved by the building's residents.
Could be because he helps tenants in ways far beyond his job description and rarely gets tipped during the year. Among the extras he provides: watching residents' kids, walking their dogs, and reminding forgetful houseguests to drop off the keys before leaving.
What price if you don't pony up?
But what about those clients who skimp on tips out of habit, not tech-stock trouble? I confess I was hoping to hear some amusing stories of revenge. Alas, I was disappointed.
Sure, one housekeeper told me he no longer takes on regular clients who never tip, because he's working for money, not the love of Joy. But that's not as much fun as if he, say, put salt in their sugar bowls.
And Sammy, a dog walker, has seen more generosity from clients who are schoolteachers and medical residents than from some of his highly paid, perpetually aggravated professional ones. But the way he sees it, when it comes to difficult clients, it's all about the pooch. "I love their dogs. I don't care about them," he said.
If there was a common refrain I heard, it was this: It's not just about the cash. Nice goes a long way.
Robin fondly recalls a job earlier in her career caring for triplets. She didn't get a big holiday tip from the parents. But, she said, "they thanked me every single day. They were very caring and would invite my family over whenever they were in town."
A doorman on Manhattan's Upper East Side told me that regardless of their tipping patterns, "there are some tenants you're happy to do anything for. They're nice and they don't annoy you with a lot of things. ...You have your favorites."
Not that he's delighted with tightwad tenants. He once got a $10 Christmas tip from a resident who owned two apartments in the same building.
But that doesn't change his attitude towards his work. "I spend 40 hours a week with these people," he said. "They're like family."
Jeanne Sahadi writes about personal finance for CNN/Money. You can e-mail her about this or any other column at firstname.lastname@example.org.