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Illustration of two holiday ornaments wrapped in hundred dollar bills hanging from the branch of an evergreen tree. Amanda Northrop for Vox/Getty Images

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What your kid’s teacher really wants for the holidays

Finding the right gift for teachers and other service workers is a puzzle, but there’s one thing everyone will appreciate. 

Allie Volpe is a senior reporter at Vox covering mental health, relationships, wellness, money, home life, and work through the lens of meaningful self-improvement.

Ask a teacher what gifts they hope to receive from their students during the holidays and the answer might be similar to that of Nancy LeBano, a speech therapist in southern New Jersey: “Not candles!”

According to LeBano and her colleagues, mugs are another no-go. Scratch-offs are nice gestures. But gift cards are best. Always gift cards. “Because you [can] get what you want or need,” says Shelby Davidson, a teaching assistant at the same school. And if any parents of LeBano’s students happen to be reading this, she’d specifically love a Wawa gift card. (Wawa, for those uninitiated, is a convenience store chain with locations along the East coast.) “Wawa is thoughtful because we love coffee and it feels like a treat,” she says.

As the holiday gifting season approaches, teachers, along with essential service workers like personal trainers, building supers, hair stylists, sanitation workers, and delivery people, often make the shopping list. But what to give these people is a consistently confounding puzzle. While inflation is impacting everyone’s finances this year, if you’re in a position to give something extra, keep one gift idea in mind. Skip the kitschy presents or homemade crafts and bestow the most utilitarian gift of all: money. “The most tangible way to show your appreciation,” says lifestyle and etiquette expert Elaine Swann, “is to give the gift of money.”

Who should I give gifts to during the holiday season?

You should consider giving a little something extra to anyone who helped make your life easier this year, Swann says. Babysitters, teachers, house cleaners, dog walkers, landscapers, personal trainers, hair stylists or barbers, sanitation workers, building supers, door attendants, and postal workers are all fair game. By no means do you have to gift every single service worker you encounter, but it’s a nice gesture to show the ones who squeezed you in for a last-minute appointment or went above and beyond that you appreciate their work. Be sure to check with school district policies or other rules the gym, salon, building, or company may have about gifting. For example, public school teachers in Massachusetts and Oregon can accept gifts up to $50; United States Postal Service workers can’t accept cash or gift cards in any amount or any other present worth more than $20.

How much money should I spend?

How much you spend on each person is dependent on how much you’re able to give and the role of the person you’re gifting. For people who help out in your home or provide a service — babysitters, housekeepers, pet sitters, hair stylists, nail technicians, massage therapists, personal trainers — Swann recommends giving them what you would typically pay for a day of their service.

What should I get service workers as a present?

Jeremy Yamaguchi, the San Diego-based CEO of lawn care company Lawn Love, says the best holiday gift he ever received when working as a lawn care professional was cold, hard cash. “I was able to use the cash to buy what I wanted or needed at the time,” he says, “instead of being limited to a certain store with a gift card, or limited to a specific gifted item.”

Gift-givers can get bogged down in sentimentality and select presents supposedly showcasing how much they know and care about the recipient, but oftentimes people want the thing that’ll make their lives easier. Jessica Shults, a salon owner in Burnt Hills, New York, always appreciates cash “because I can inject it right back into the business for things we may need,” she says. As much as she loves cookies and candles, money helps pay the bills. “With business costs going up due to inflation, cash always goes the furthest for our salon,” she says.

For those under the impression that cash is a tactless and tasteless gift, Swann is here to assuage concerns: Money is not thoughtless. “Gift-giving should be focused more upon what the recipient would like to have and less about what we think they should have,” she says. “So with that being said, people want money.”

If you feel the urge to get a little personal with your present, opt for a gift card that complements the recipient’s life. For instance, Hannah Shine, a personal trainer based in Sydney, Australia, suggests a gift card for a massage or a day spa. (“Avoid anything exercise-related,” she says.)

Think about what the person might experience at work and what could help them unwind. After navigating the complexities of teaching in New Hampshire during a pandemic, a parent of one of Liz Daly’s high school students gave her a gift card to a local liquor store during the 2020 holiday season. “It was perfectly timed and much needed,” she says.

How do I express my gratitude?

Regardless of your gift of choice, Swann stresses the importance of sharing your appreciation with the receiver. A short note saying “Thank you for helping my child with math this year” or “I am so thankful for how flexible you’ve been with my schedule” shows you care. Even if you’re sending money over Venmo or Zelle, always add a little note, Swann says. “Then the person really feels as though you see them and that you appreciate them,” she says. “This time of year, especially in all that we’ve gone through, is a time for us to show that kindness and consideration toward others.”

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