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A Holiday How-To Guide: Gift-Giving Etiquette

You’ve got your significant other, your kids, your parents, and your siblings on your gift-giving list for sure. But what about all the other people you cross paths with every day? Sometimes it’s hard enough trying to find the perfect gift for family and friends, let alone your kids’ teachers and the dog walker! (And should you even give a gift to the dog walker?)

Today, I’m here to set the record straight on the finer points of holiday gift-giving etiquette, along with a few ideas for quick and inexpensive gifts that people will love getting from you! (Here’s a hint: it’s not fruitcake.)

First, a quick primer on the basics of holiday gifting versus tipping:

  1. Never tip salaried professionals (teachers, doctors, nurses, personal assistants, office staff, etc.).
  2. Give small, thoughtful gifts to the people with whom you interact regularly or who provide some level of personal service to you or your immediate family: day care, preschool, and elementary school teachers; live-in health care workers; nursing home workers; personal assistants; etc. Limit spending to about $25 per gift.
  3. Give cash gifts (tips) equivalent to one visit, one day’s pay, or one week’s pay (as appropriate) to other service providers: babysitter; hairstylist, manicurist, barber, massage therapist, and personal trainer; pool cleaner, landscaper, and gardener; housekeeper and cleaning staff; and pet groomer, pet sitter, and dog walker.
  4. Give a cash gift to your apartment doorman, superintendent, and/or building manager based on the level of service you’ve received through the year (generally between $25–$100).
  5. USPS regulations prohibit letter carriers from receiving cash gifts, so plan to give your letter carrier a small gift instead (homemade cookies, breads, and cakes are a good option). UPS and FedEx prefer that customers give small gifts instead of tips, but don’t specifically prohibit tipping. Limit spending to about $25.
  6. Conventional wisdom frowns upon giving gifts to your boss, as it might come across as an attempt to curry favor. Every workplace is different, though, so use your best judgment and decide for yourself. (You might talk to coworkers about pooling together to get one gift from the whole team, for example.) Consider drawing names for coworker gifts, or when giving gifts to some coworkers and not others, do so in private (to avoid hurt feelings).
  7. Keep a stash of small gifts on hand to give to neighbors, hostesses of any holiday parties you attend, and for last-minute or unexpected gift giving.
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This year, I’m making a bunch of these festive, quilted mug rugs as part of my holiday gift stash! They stitch together in a flash.

The Gift Stash

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older, it’s the immeasurable value of having a secret stash of little gifts to have on hand for neighbors and hostesses and the inevitable “Oh no! I completely forgot about…” folks. Whether you curate your little gift stash throughout the year or spend a weekend busting through a batch of them, I guarantee you that they’ll make you look way more put together and prepared than you may feel during the holidays! Some of my favorite have-on-hand staples include:

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Mini pound cakes. Maybe it’s because I’m a Southern girl, but I have literally never met anyone who didn’t appreciate a homemade pound cake. Don’t buy them from the store! Even for a self-proclaimed non-baker like myself, spending a day making batches of mini pound cakes is almost pleasurable and definitely not as hard as you think. Most (Southern) ladies have their own go-to recipe: my mom’s is a lemon pound cake that is to die for, and my grandmother always made a chocolate pound cake with chocolate frosting that I have now co-opted as “my” recipe. If you don’t have a recipe of your own, I swear by any pound cake recipe published by Southern Living magazine. (Check out the Gifts That Say Thanks Pinterest board for links to some of my favorites!) Pound cakes are freezer-friendly and therefore perfect to make ahead of time—just be sure to wrap them carefully to prevent freezer burn.

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Mason jar cookie mixes. Almost as good as a pound cake—it’s the promise of a tasty homemade treat for the recipient without the hassle of shopping for and measuring out the ingredients. These kinds of gifts are fun and easy for little ones to help “make,” so they’re a fun idea for teacher gifts. Jar mixes are also perfect for making lots of gifts at once!

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Pretty kitchen/tea/fingertip towels. These are the ideal hostess gifts, because we all know that you can’t have too many kitchen towels! I got an embroidery machine over the summer, so I’ve stocked up on some plain towels that I can quickly personalize with the hostess’s monogram or a holiday motif. Tie a pretty towel onto a bottle of wine or gourmet olive oil, a small cheese board or wooden trivet, or a scented pillar candle for a well-rounded gift.

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Ornaments. I’ve always loved getting beautiful ornaments as gifts; even if it’s not “my style,” I’ve always appreciated having something that will remind me of the person who gave it to me or make my tree décor a little less one-dimensional. Ornaments are great to stock up on at craft fairs (look for local artisans) or on your travels. Unless it’s themed to where you live or a place you’ve been, stick with more traditional-looking ornaments to appeal to anyone’s tastes.

I hope this little primer helps you round out your holiday gift-giving list. I’m always on the lookout for unique last-minute gifts, so I want to hear from you! Do you keep a gift stash for last-minute gifts, and if so, what are your favorite ideas? Share your ideas in the comments section below!

Happy gifting!


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