Consumers have become more choosy about whom and how much to tip at the holidays, according to a new survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

How much and whom to top to has always been a tricky decision, one that may get harder in these tough economic times. During the 2008 holidays fewer people than in the previous year tipped their newspaper carrier, barber, mail carrier, hairdresser, manicurist, and garbage collector.

The poll of more than 1,800 U.S. residents was conducted in January, shortly after the 2008 holiday season, when people could best remember what they gave. A separate survey CR conducted in October 2009 shows that the downward trend might continue: 26 percent of Americans who usually tip or give a gift to a service provider said they would spend less this holiday season than last. Just six percent said they planned to spend more.

The big recipients were house cleaners, with 58 percent of people who employ them tipping them with cash, check or a gift card and 17 percent tipping them with a gift last year. House cleaners also received a larger gratuity than other service providers, averaging about $50 or an equivalent gift per tip.

Consumer Reports found other service providers included in the survey received, on average, tips valued between $10 and $40 per gift. Average cash or noncash tips were also smaller for some occupations. The median tip value for manicurists was $10, half the amount given during the prior holiday season; the median tip for pet-care providers dropped from $30 to $25.

Samantha von Sperling, owner and director of the New York-based image consulting firm Polished Social Image Consultants, says she's not surprised that people are cutting back on their holiday tipping. She tells ConsumerAffairs.com that the economy, for many people has reached a "critical point where the trickle-down effect has people who managed to survive the first year of the recession are now finding themselves struggling to get through the second year."

von Sperling suggests that those who are unable to provide cash gratuities to service people for the holiday put things on a more personal level. In lieu of cash, she suggests "spending a weekend baking cookies, wrap them up nicely and give them to everybody" who would normally receive a cash gratuity. These, she says, "are things we could do in order to still be gracious and polite so that at least people know that we care about them and hopefully understand that we just can't afford tipping this year.

"Families are looking for ways to balance their financial concerns with the need to thank people who have helped them during the year," said Tobie Stanger, the magazine's senior editor. "This year, tipping is more of a challenge than ever, but CR's survey shows that people are still trying to do it, for the most part."

Dr. Michael Lynn, a professor of consumer behavior and marketing at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, says much of the information on tipping is anecdotal. But he tells ConsumerAffairs.com that we do know that "people who are more price sensitive tend to tip less than those who are not price sensitive."

Rounding out the list of other service providers who received cash, a check or a gift card and who typically receive holiday tips in the survey: hairdresser (36 percent), manicurist (33 percent), newspaper carrier (30 percent), barber (26 percent), pet-care provider (26 percent), child's teacher (20 percent), mail carrier (13 percent), lawn-care crew (18 percent), and garbage collector (6 percent).