Guide for gift giving beyond family and friends

Beverly Bird

The holidays are a time for joyful gatherings with family and friends, eggnog, tables laden with food and — if we’re going to be honest — a good amount of stress. Giving gifts is fun, but it can be a challenge as well, especially if you’re on a budget.

Unfortunately, there are few hard-and-fast rules when it comes to holiday gifting — and you likely have had a few cases where you thought you nailed a gift only to find out it wasn’t a good pick. Here are gift-giving guidelines to fall back on as a new holiday season approaches.

Your mail carrier

If you live in a complex or development, and your mailbox is a slot tucked among many others, you probably never cross paths with the mailman. If that’s the case, you can cross him off your list entirely.

But if you periodically wave to him as he comes to your door to deliver mail and want to show your appreciation, the U.S. Postal Service takes a lot of the guesswork out of the matter. You can’t give your mail carrier cash or the equivalent, such as a gift card that can be exchanged for cash. It’s against the law. Anything else you might give is limited to a value of $20 per occasion.

Fortunately, you can get a lot of mileage out of $20. Consider baked goods, maybe even from your own kitchen, or a CD to keep your carrier humming while he completes deliveries.

Friendly folks at the salon

Some relationships lend themselves to shared secrets and juicy personal details. For example, your hairdresser might know more about you than your own mother. If you know her as well as she knows you, finding the right gift should be easy.

Your stylist might have mentioned that her coffeemaker went toes up or that her winter gloves have seen better days. In this case, a personal gift would be appreciated and appropriate. The same applies to your favorite bartender or anyone else who occasionally plucks tissues out of a box for you while nodding understandingly.

If you don’t visit the salon regularly, send over a card that includes a tip above what you usually give. Consider gifting a percentage of the cost of your average visit. In other words, if you spend $75 five times a year and usually tip $15 dollars, or 20 percent, consider adding $15 for a total tip of $30 at Christmas. This assumes that you have an appointment in December. Otherwise, it’s probably not necessary to go out of your way to deliver a present.

Household help

Housekeepers can feel like members of your family, particularly when they’re in your home at least one day a week. But you might not feel quite as cozy with the guy who maintains your lawn and clears your driveway of snow in the winter. Your relationship with him might be a bit more distant because he doesn’t actually work inside your home.

Cash is always appropriate for people who tend to your property. Offer up to a week’s pay for a housekeeper who comes once a week or a month’s pay for someone who lives in the home. You’re giving the gift of choice by allowing him to buy whatever he needs. You can probably limit your gift to your lawn service pro to $25 to $50.

If you happen to know that one of these people really needs something within this price range, feel free to substitute a tangible gift instead. The Emily Post Institute stresses that, whatever you give, it should include a personal note expressing how much you appreciate him and all that he does to make your life easier.

People who look after your kids

The people who care for your children are probably high on your gift list — after all, they’re tending to the most precious things in your life. A peer-to-peer site devoted to vintage and handmade gifts, Etsy, offers fun and creative suggestions for teachers and daycare providers. Browse online if you’re struggling to find an appropriate gift.

You might want to consider doubling up for your child’s teacher. Have your son or daughter give one gift while you supply another. It’s a nice touch for your child to get involved. Not all teachers can accept cash or gift cards, particularly those working in public schools, so if you’re thinking of going that route, check to make sure it’s allowed.

For a babysitter you use regularly or a nanny who lives in or takes care of your children almost every day, follow the same guidelines as you would for other household help.

Health care providers

It’s considered gauche to give cash to those in certain professions, notably physicians and dentists. If you want to give your doctor a Christmas gift, it should be small and not too personal.

The American Institute of Medical Sciences & Education suggests a “medical” tree ornament, such as a syringe or stethoscope, or a coffee mug relating to the doctor’s specialty.

Of course, this rule applies only to the practitioner, not the office staff. You can bend the rules a little for those who work in support as opposed to patient care. While it’s still smart to avoid cash, a small gift card and a note of thanks is appropriate for someone you’ve dealt closely with over the year.

And don’t overlook Fido’s caregivers. Veterinarians, kennel providers and groomers need Christmas love, too.

Your boss and co-workers

Rules for office gift-giving can vary considerably from employer to employer, and there’s no single formula to determine what’s okay, what’s too cheap or what’s too lavish. It depends on where you work and the company’s policies.

If this isn’t your first holiday at the business, you likely already know the rules. Otherwise, if you’re celebrating your first Christmas with the company, find out well in advance how gifts are exchanged, if they are at all. For example, the office might organize a Secret Santa or set a spending limit on gifts.

Regardless of your office’s specific policies, it’s wise to keep work gifts professional. Forbes suggests that if you would give it on Valentine’s Day, it’s not appropriate for Christmas. If you’re friends with a coworker and want to give something more personal, consider exchanging items away from the workplace. Gifts to bosses and managers are frowned upon within some companies, because they can create competition among employees, so do your research before offering up a present to your direct superior.

So, there you have it. Pour yourself some eggnog and enjoy the holiday season knowing you’ve got this handled.