Tired of being nickeled and dimed? Here's a free tip.

This is the age of the outstretched palm, a time when people at every economic level are depending on, or hoping for, the largess of others.

In its most poignant form, that empty, beseeching palm belongs to the destitute and down-and-out who have no roof, no bed, no place to call home. The owners of these outstretched hands station themselves on city streets and implore passersby: "Please, can you spare some change?"

At the opposite extreme is a second type of outstretched hand, visible only behind closed corporate doors. It belongs to those in the highest echelons of power. They call their reward a bonus, and they expect the amount to be in the stratosphere. "More, more," the occupants of corner offices demand, their sense of entitlement running high even as those far below them on the economic ladder struggle to stay afloat.

A third kind of upturned palm, so common that it has become part of the fabric of American life, seeks not a handout or a bonus but a tip.

From restaurant servers and taxi drivers to couriers and clerks, the expectation is clear: Reward me for my service, even if I don't always serve you well. Never, it seems, has the pressure to tip run so high or created so much confusion on the part of those expected to fill waiting hands.

To tip or not to tip - that is the vexing question these days as more and more of us wonder how much, how often, and to whom we should give.

Example 1: Several times a year, our local newspaper carrier now slips an envelope into the paper, bearing his name and address. Just a friendly little reminder in case we're looking for a way to express our appreciation. What was once an annual custom at the holiday season has turned into a year-round appeal. Will mail carriers want a Christmas-in-July tip, too?

Example 2: Somewhere along the way, the "No Tipping" sign at a nearby Dunkin' Donuts quietly disappeared. Now a large Styrofoam cup sits prominently on the counter, stuffed with dollar bills and change. Hint, hint. Starbucks does the same. Will McDonald's be next?

Inconsistencies abound in the world of tipping: If the driver who brings a pizza to the door deserves a gratuity, what about the man delivering a bouquet from the local florist? And if a parking-lot attendant expects an extra dollar, why not the gas-station attendant who braves rain, snow, cold, and wind to fill tanks and wash windshields?

Since taxi drivers receive tips, could the time also be coming when van drivers shuttling airline passengers from the terminal to the rental-car lot will expect a little something, too?

Perish the thought.

Hotel maids may be among the least-tipped but most-deserving service workers. Unlike waitresses and waiters, who have contact with customers ("Hi, I'm Steve. How you folks doing?"), maids make their rounds invisibly, scrubbing and cleaning while guests are out.

A hotel manager in Wisconsin calls tipping of maids "a feast or famine thing in this business." Most guests, she says, leave about a dollar a day. Some business travelers who stay two or three nights might give $5 or $10, but other visitors leave nothing.

No one can underestimate the importance of tips for some workers. An uncle of mine worked his way through business college as a waiter. One evening always remained indelibly etched in his memory.

He waited on a table of 10 men. He worked hard, and they lingered long. Yet they left only a single dollar bill on the table. Even in the late 1930s, that was a terrible tip.

As he recounted the experience a few months ago, he said in a voice still incredulous, "Can you imagine? Only a dollar for 10 people. I needed every cent I could earn."

No wonder he held a soft spot in his heart for waitresses and waiters, treating them kindly and tipping them fairly.

As tipping expands into frivolous areas and becomes ever more entrenched, there is a growing irony: Those who work with the homeless advise against pressing money into their outstretched palms, explaining that many will not use it for food. But who is out there suggesting that we also put the brakes on gratuitous tipping, refusing to toss away money for services not rendered?

In those cases, down with guilt. Up with the courage to Just Say No, wordlessly, with wallets firmly in pocket or purse, completing the transaction with old-fashioned forms of appreciation - a smile and a thank you.

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