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The SMCs (struggling middle classes) continue to cling to values of generosity and goodwill to all at Christmas, despite the fact that our incomes are vanishing faster than Cinderella’s finery at midnight.

This makes the euphemistically named Christmas box — aka tipping — especially alarming. Tipping strategy needs thought, whether you’re heading off to stately piles in Towering Brisket, Sodding Bottom or wherever, or warming your collective toes in front of the fire at home. So who should get what?

If you want a happy, quietly productive life in the coming year you have to get this tip right. And if you know them as well as you should, a hefty stack of readies stuck in the Christmas card, plus a bottle of fizz, go a long way, assuming your company policy allows such things. Tell him or her about the cash to ensure it won’t inadvertently be chucked out.

Refuse operatives
Some local councils in the UK ban tipping. Anyone contravening the ban may, I suppose, risk a bribery charge.

Postal workers
They were threatening to strike, but they’ve been stopped by a legal challenge. So they may be particularly in need of festive cheer in the shape of cash. I feel for them. I used to depend on tips from my regular student job as a Christmas postperson. You may also feel generously inclined to local “gig economy” workers delivering piles of internet shopping who have less secure employment. 

Takeaway drivers
Debrett’s, the 250-year-old etiquette authority, advises “yes” so long as the meal is intact.

We have builders in at the moment. They reproduce at an astonishing rate. We started with three. This morning I counted eight, all raring to finish the job before Christmas when they have their flights booked back to Poland. The point is that if our builders can afford swanky cars — BMWs which out-sparkle our 20-year-old Saab — why should we bother to tip them? We already hand out boxes of sumptuous biscuits in the hope that it will make them hyper and therefore work even faster. So biscuits are out. Wine? No idea what they drink. Money would seem the obvious, but we have no idea how much and probably wouldn’t be prepared to give it if we knew. We await inspiration. 

My excellent NHS doctor is well paid, but traditional gifts such as wine and chocolates are health hazards of the type that doctors spend most of their professional lives advising against. Maybe a card will do. Doctor’s receptionists, on the other hand, should be richly rewarded with top-quality chocolates if they have ever managed to get you a same-day appointment.

Now my daughters have grown up, I am spared the agony of what to get their teachers. Some tipping websites suggest creative options such as baked goods or home-made cards. But for those who do not have much money, a card and a fairy cake may seem a bit of a let down.

The boss
Not so much a tip as a bribe, so best not attempted. A trip for two to Glyndebourne, or a methuselah of Cristal, might indicate that your pay packet needs to be reconsidered by the remuneration committee. A cheap present is equally fraught with problems because you are unlikely to know enough about them to come up with something cheap but brilliantly imaginative. Just remember what Andrew Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England, told Tim Harford about gift-giving: “I start out with the best of intentions — some small, inexpensive but deeply meaningful gifts that will stir the soul of the recipient — and then, at the last minute, end up panic-buying rather thoughtless, often expensive and largely unwanted stuff.”

Domestic helpers 
For cleaners, gardeners, nannies, tutors and newspaper deliverers, the typical answer is a week’s extra wage — although this value system seems a bit skewed. As for gillies and gamekeepers, if you want to live, let alone have a decent day shooting or stalking, tip well and be guided by your host.

Serving staff
If you eat out over the Christmas period, do you tip extra on top of an already overpriced meal? Well, yes, given that the staff are working while everyone else isn’t, and are often woefully badly paid anyway. Check with the serving staff that they will get the tip if added to the bill and paid by card. When my children were working as waiters their horrible employers used to take any tips which were paid by card. A discreetly folded note can be stuffed into a pocket. 

Upstairs downstairs 
Finally, those who are going to be country house guests in the UK this Christmas need to be careful about creature comforts as well as tipping. Apart from the normal precautions of smuggling electric blankets into stately homes with 1920s heating systems battling unsuccessfully against plunging temperatures, food supply can be an issue should the typical fare of knife-resistant venison, grouse or pheasant become overwhelming.

Discreetly take your own food, but unpack yourself before one of the staff begins the job and reveals your secret stash.

Tipping domestic staff in these places is a conundrum. Should you really have to leave a pile of notes on the dressing table in your school friend’s stately pile in Shropshire just because her husband’s ancestral residence is immense and has turrets? She doesn’t feel the need to leave a similar wedge on the bedside table of our charming but smaller, turret-free, bijou city residence. If property value is the issue here the two places are probably on a par.

Like it or not, the tipping conundrum looms into view with the predictability of Marley’s appearance at Scrooge’s festivities and I for one have had enough of it. It’s time to dump tipping — so next year let’s try to pay decent wages instead.

Jane Owen is an author and former deputy editor of FT Weekend. Email oldmoney@ft.com; Twitter: @Jane_Owen

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