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A whole new take on giving until it hurts

By Maria Puente, USA TODAY

You've done all your Christmas shopping, even figured out, finally, what to get your mother-in-law. But wait, it's not over. What about the kids' teachers and the nanny? Your hairdresser? The maid, the doorman and the dog walker? Your personal trainer, massage therapist and the Fed Ex guy? And maybe the coffee barista?

The coffee barista? OK, so maybe you're not really worried about getting gifts for the staff of your favorite Starbucks, but odds are that somewhere in America, someone is. Because one of the most anxiety-provoking aspects of this anxiety-laden holiday is the ever-lengthening list of people who perform some regular service for you and thus must be remembered in some way at Christmas.

A few generations ago - before working couples and $3 coffees - most people walked their own dogs and cleaned their own houses and had never heard of Fed Ex. Now some people's holiday gift lists are so long that they're spending more on obligatory "duty" gifts or tips than for their own families and friends. And some recipients are so nervy that they leave empty envelopes expecting them to be filled.

"Most people are giving gifts to people they don't want to give gifts to and receiving them from people they don't want to receive them from," says Sunwolf (her full name), a professor of communication at Santa Clara University in San Jose, Calif., and author of the forthcoming book Gift Giving Unwrapped. "There are a lot of people with gift lists that need purging badly, and they don't know how to go about it."

Take Marie McCoy of West Bloomfield, Mich. She gives cash to the mail carrier ($20), her hairdresser ($50-$100), the newspaper carriers (three at $20 each), the UPS guy ($20), her housekeeper ($50-$100), her personal trainer ($70-plus) and five people (sometimes more) who are guards in her gated community ($10-$20 each).

"It's definitely in the hundreds of dollars, but once you get started, how do you cut back?" she laments. "Spending all this money on acquaintances makes the holidays tense, particularly when you're trying to stay on a budget."

So much for a merry Christmas, especially for women. Because, Sunwolf says, it's women who worry about duty gifts and tips. Thanks to their early social training, many women tend to obsess over gift comparisons: Is it enough? Will they like it? Is it as good as other gifts? Most guys usually couldn't care less about that stuff.

"Guys see it as a task: Get something from the drugstore, and if you're not happy with it, it's your problem," she says. "Women are socialized to look for a reaction - 'It's perfect, just what I wanted.' Resentment blends in with stress, because she's buying all the other (family) gifts, too."

Who's resentful? "We're not resentful," proclaims a chorus of people who sent messages to USA TODAY.

"I don't think of them as 'duty gifts,' " says Jack Groshans of Pinckney, Mich., who gives to the man who works on his sprinkler system ($50), the three-person gardening team ($25 each), the two-person team of snow plowers and sidewalk shovelers ($25 each) and the mail carrier ($50). "The level of reward is tied to the level of service I get that I feel is over and above the job we are already paying them to perform."

Plus, you don't have to give people cash. Linda Volpe of New Castle, Pa., likes to treat her hairstylist, teachers, secretaries, church directors, mail carriers, paper carriers and helpful neighbors. "I like to give people plates of home-baked cookies, nut rolls and sweet breads; gift certificates for the movie theater, ice cream parlor or car wash; or simply a card with a special book marker or prayer card in it."

But even those who say they love giving gifts express ambivalence. "Usually the (recipients) are a lot poorer than I am, so I feel that I am adding some joy to their lives," says Meg Seff of Manchester Center, Vt. On the other hand, "buying or making all these extra gifts does create more stress, because I am always running into someone I forgot and then have to run out and get yet another thing. So all in all, it is a mixed bag."

Actually, it's just the price of our service-oriented lives, says Stacie Krajchir, co-author of The Itty Bitty Guide to Tipping. The book is aimed at dispelling what the authors believe is widespread ignorance about who should get what year-round. "With the I-need-it-now lifestyle we live, where we want everything faster and better, that costs money," Krajchir says. "We should ask ourselves who we are grateful for and who provides a really good service, and those who do should be thanked in whatever ways we feel best."

Bryan Curtis, co-author of the Gentle Manners books on polite behavior, has a better idea: Tip or give all the duty gifts you want - just not at Christmas. "Designate a special time during the year, say in July, when you can provide a tip for good service to the people who help you," Curtis says. "Then you can focus on your family and friends at Christmas. Plus, you're going to stand out more to the people you do it for."

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