Gifting Etiquette in the Gym: From Personal Trainers to Towel Boys – Whom Do You Tip? How Much? And Are Treats a No-No?

by Charlotte on December 19, 2012 · 24 comments

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Okay so I do not have a towel boy. (Do those even exist anymore? And if s

o, is their job really just to bring you towels?) But, from group-fit instructors to yoga teachers to personal trainers to nutritionists, I do have a lot of great fitness people in my life! And there’s no better time than the holidays to show my gratitude, right?

Unfortunately in the past that’s about where my thought processes end. For people who are close personal friends (like Turbo Jennie), I get them a gift like I do all my friends. Plus, with my job, I can’t give gifts to people I work with because as much as I’d love to give prezzies to every great fitness guru I know (and I’m blessed to know many), I can’t, you know, look like I’m paying for sources…

And then there was the experience a few years ago where someone at the gym gave Gym Buddy Allison and I a very expensive gift and the only reason we could surmise from his curt explanation was because we were such great entertainment for him. Which made us feel a little weird and icky. Of course we had no idea what to do – give it back? Reciprocate? Make our next Great Fitness Experiment burlesque so he’d get his money’s worth? In the end we baked him a loaf of bread. He probably didn’t even eat carbs. Just… ack.

See? So many good reasons not to think about this kind of thing! Clearly it’s much better to fly by the seat of my pants when confronted with awkward situations!

But then I got this e-mail from Reader Michelle, who asks some really great questions:

Hi Charlotte,

I’m a big fan of your blog — thanks so much for your openness, humor, and insight!  I’ve been floating a holiday question with my friends and no one seems able to agree on an answer.  So, if you have time, I turn to you for help. What’s proper to give a personal trainer for the holidays?  I have two trainers — I see both once a week — and they are great!  Is it appropriate to just give a (cash) tip — what my boyfriend suggests — or might a gift card (or some sort of fitness gear) seem more personal?  And, how much should it be — around the cost of a session?

Thanks so much!  And, happy holidays!

Best,
Michelle

As soon as I read it I knew she couldn’t be the only one wondering. Mostly because I am also wondering and one plus one equals… more than one. Consensus in my book! (I should totally go into politics.) This was part of my reply:

“My short answer is that it depends on your relationship with them – if you are close and have worked with them a long time then yes, a tip or gift card for 1 to 1.5 the amount of a training session is pretty standard. If you’re not as close it’s more common to just give a nice thank-you card and a small gift/gift card. And if you hate your trainers bake them triple-chocolate brownies and bring them the whole pan! Kidding;)”

When I threw up her question on Facebook, people seemed as confused as Michelle and I are.

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Aussie trainer Nate Hamon answered, “Wait Wait – What?!?! You Americans and your tipping! Maybe I should bring my training school over there!”

Kim Ludeman wrote, “As a trainer, I have to say I have never been tipped for the holidays. I was given gifts, but never money.”

Mike Schiemer of Frugal Fitness added, “I get tips from maybe 1/3 to 1/2 of my clients, and I’ve been known to give out some free swag or free sessions to clients as well. All depends. Just remember, technically (although nobody does it) any gifts you receive I’m pretty sure are considered taxable income.”

And Melissa Sauser chimed in, “I love my yoga teacher ….hmmm would cookies be frowned upon?;)”

But never fear fit friends, you do have options! Holiday gifting in the gym seems to take one of several forms:

1. A nice thank-you/Happy Holidays card. Often one of the most meaningful things you can do for an instructor/teacher/trainer is to tell them how they’ve helped you become a better person and what you’ve learned from them. Most fitness instructors make squat and unless you’re an aerial silks artist then there’s not a lot of prestige either. Mostly they do it because they love it and they love you.

2. A small gift. Oh what to give the buff person in your life? So many fit gift lists have been made that I hesitate to add to that. Okay here’s one idea: Give them a kettlebell. Put it in a gift bag. Hand it to them by the handles. They’ll love you even more after their broken toe heals. Okay, now you see why I don’t give advice?? Actually though, you can never go wrong with a decent water bottle. If you want to be cutting edge, get them a glass one in a bamboo or rubber shell. But every fittie or foodie needs water! My other seasonal fave that (I’ve convinced myself) everyone loves is candy cane Chapstick. It comes in a cute tin with three flavors, one of which is peppermint! And it does double duty because not only does it keep your lips Zumba ready (oh yes you duck-lip in Zumba! We all do.) but I’m told by runner friends that you can swipe it around your nostrils before a winter run and it keeps your snot from freezing. Although you should probably buy them at least two separate tubes unless you want the gym equivalent of picking your nose and eating it.

3. A gift card. Some call this a cop-out. I call it brilliant. I don’t know what people did before gift cards were invented! (Wait, yes I do, we all got a lot of generic picture frames and candles. That sucked.) So maybe it says “I don’t really know what you’d like but everyone loves money so please take my money and forget about the fact that it’s slightly impersonal” but as long as it isn’t to someplace lame then everyone will be happy.

(Side note: My one major gift card pet peeve: When you give someone a card that requires them to spend more money to use it. Case in point: A friend once gave me a 15$ gift card to a spa to get a facial. I’d never had a facial (still haven’t and you’ll see why in a sec)! But when I called to make the appointment I discovered that facials are like $50. So basically the “gift” would cost me $35. No thanks. That card sat in my wallet for years, annoying the crap out of me everytime I looked at it. Eventually I gave it to another friend who loved facials and was happy to get a coupon.)

4. Food. While food is traditionally a pretty safe holiday gift – who doesn’t love truffles? – it can be pretty loaded in fit circles. First of all, so many people are avoiding gluten/dairy/soy/sugar/carbs that it can be a feat to know what they can eat. Second, even if they can technically eat it, sometimes they don’t want to. I’m not saying that personal trainers shouldn’t enjoy an indulgence but rather that foisting your idea of an indulgence upon someone who is very particular about their indulgences is maybe not a great idea. When in doubt, go with edible underwear. It’s basically fruit leather and you can never go wrong with fruit, right?

Do you have any suggestions for Michelle? Which of the fit people in your life do you tip/gift and what do you give them? Or do you think the tipping thing has gotten out of hand? Has anyone ever given you a really weird gift in the gym??

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Bek @ Crave December 19, 2012 at 12:41 am

I don’t think I’d go with tipping, but then again tipping is not the common thing in Australia. I think baked goods or food is lovely- bonus points for giving them a ‘healthier’ version (or just telling them it is muahaha). I think a nice gift is also the way to go. This all depends on your relationship with the person also.

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Jess December 19, 2012 at 2:23 am

When I worked as a trainer in the US there was a huge range of things I received- no standard amount. Some people didn’t do anything, some gave cash and a few gave more personal fitness type presents. One trainer who worked with me got a $500 tip! I was jealous! Haha! In Australia tipping is uncommon, but a small gift is sometimes given. So I don’t think there is an agreed standard.

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Tara @ Sweat like a Pig December 19, 2012 at 2:24 am

I can weigh in on this! I manage a gym of more than 60 trainers, and we are all being flooded with presents at the moment. Most people give a card and a gift card, but other common gifts are boxes of chocolates, books, workout clothing and bottles of wine. I also work in the wealthiest suburb in the whole of Europe, so a £100 gift card is not unusual. We all love Christmas time!

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Karen December 19, 2012 at 2:52 am

This year for all those tricky what do I give them people I’ve given them a world vision Christmas card, I’m not sure if you guys have it over there. Basically what it is, is a card that has donated something to a family in need in one of the countries world vision works in. There are all different price points to chose from and the card has a picture of a child receiving the gift on the front. I’ve given pencils to school children, mosquito nets to a family, seeds to support farmers and toys to children. They also offer things like a goat for a family, teacher training, clean water etc. if your not sure what to give perhaps consider something similar, most of us in the Western world have enough “stuff” and it really is the thought that counts !

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Naomi/Dragonmamma December 19, 2012 at 6:46 am

Here in Santa Rosa, CA (40 miles N of San Francisco) actual things given to personal trainers the past week: Bottle of wine, $20 bill in a card, box of chocolates, gift cards for Trader Joe’s and Oliver’s Market (a local store.) Not all from one person, of course.

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malevolent andrea December 19, 2012 at 8:16 am

Last year I got the trainer who had helped me with some of my lifts a supplement store gift card. She later told me she’d used it to buy a very fancy shmancy shaker cup (so close to your water bottle suggestion.) This year I didn’t have anyone I needed to individually thank and just brought in some cookies for the gym front desk people. They’re all young kids so I didn’t worry about healthying it up.

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hannahviolin December 19, 2012 at 8:49 am

I was just trying to figure this out yesterday. I have a trainer and I decided to just get him a starbucks gift card (and I know he loves starbucks) along with a little gag gift (we are pretty friendly.) It was odd though, I was trying to figure out what amount, and honestly, this is the THIRD Christmas I’ve had with him…and I couldn’t remember what I did the past two years. I know I gave him something–cash, gift card? but I should really write this stuff down.

The part about getting a random gift from somebody at your gym was hilarious. And creepy.

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Cindy Fatchick December 19, 2012 at 8:53 am

I always give my trainer a card and cash. At this time of the year he has a lot of cancellations so his income drops substancialy. I always have to cancel at least 2 sessions myself. At the gym I go to all the woman that use the locker rooms in the morning like I do have a money collection and we jointly give that cash to the locker room attendents with a super sized card.

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Happier Heather December 19, 2012 at 11:57 am

What a fantastic idea. The locker room attendants have the worst job at the gym, so it’s nice you remember them!

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Geosomin December 19, 2012 at 8:58 am

I usually give people a small tin of homemade cookies and a card. It may not be super healthy, or useful, but it’s from the heart, and they don’t have to eat them if they don’t want to. I used to be a baker, so I can make some mean christmas goodies…and I can’t presume to know what they’d want, or what amount of $$ would be enough/not enough. The whole “tipping” wording always rubs me the wrong way -like it is enforced and expected. I feel if you really want to give someone something as thanks then do so…and if you don’t know what to give them, just ask. Maybe there’s something they’d like, or something you can contribute to.

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Alyssa (azusmom) December 19, 2012 at 9:28 am

I LOVE Karen’s idea!
I din’t receive many gifts or tips from clients (must be doing something wrong, lol!), but I also don’t expect it. However I have gotten a couple of lovely cards with personal comments, and they mean the world to me!

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Sylvie @ StruggleswithaFatA December 19, 2012 at 11:48 am

I <3 my candy cane Chapstick! I'm horrible with gifting though. I can't think of what to get my BFF for Christmas much less what I'm supposed to tip someone. I do think tipping has gotten out of hand. I also think gifts have gotten out of hand. I like to give people gifts when I see something that makes me think of them. Not gifts I feel obligated to find and give. Unexpected gifts are the best. Though you can never go wrong with fuzzy socks!! ;)

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eliz@ourcrazysweetlife December 19, 2012 at 12:13 pm

This is so hard. I live in NYC where every trainer surely has some uber-wealthy clients who give them beaucoup-bucks or, you know, a ride on their private plane for Christmas. I worry that anything I could give would look paltry in comparison. I also feel like I’m paying so much for the sessions themselves that I don’t really want to tip. And then I feel like a scrooge. Ugh.

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Stacey December 19, 2012 at 2:56 pm

I gave my trainer a card and cash today. He looked inside then looked at me with a puzzled look on his face and said “What for?”. lol. I guess he isn’t used to getting Christmas tips.

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Jen December 19, 2012 at 3:28 pm

This is funny this is the third Christmas I have had with my trainer. I researched this the first year and was on the fence about tipping until I read someone who said- If you don’t want to tip your trainer then it is time to find a new trainer. I am guessing the sentiment behind it is if you like him or her and they are getting you results you should feel so inclined to want to thank them. I realized I really liked my guy and he was getting me results and he is young and the gym gets a good bit of the money I pay for sessions not him and he goes above and beyond for me. I also agree with a previous poster they lose a lot of money at Christmas- so I saw this as a professional service and went for tip over gift. Also he is a 25 year old guy so how in the world do I know what he wants. I gave him more the second year because he trained my husband as well. This year I gave him a tip early in October because he had surgery and was out for weeks so I figured he could use the money – hope he remembers that and is happy with the nice card that says he is really great that has no cash in it.

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Jonathan Aluzas December 19, 2012 at 7:18 pm

Okay, so I own two small personal training/group training studios and have quite a bit of experience in this area because the holidays become an embarrassment of riches for me, my partner and our small staff.

Here’s my take: Just come from the heart. In the end, we just want to know we made a difference in your life. A card with a personalized message is awesome (I’m not a big fan of the generic, signed card with no handwritten message. That may be snooty of me, but that smacks of just being a name on a list and, frankly, I wouldn’t be hurt if you just left me off the list!).

And, if we didn’t make a difference in your life, don’t give a gift!

Here’s a rundown of gifts we get every year, just to give you some ideas:

Lots of home-baked goods (cookies, cake, etc.), and some of it gets thrown out due to the sheer volume of it, but we’re human and we like it. You can’t trust someone who turns down cookies.

Booze. Always a favorite.

Sherri’s Berries, Gift Baskets with Gourmet Nuts and Chocolate

Starbucks Gift Card – What trainer doesn’t drink coffee?

Cash, Lululemon cards, Amazon cards, Barnes and Noble cards, Trader Joes and/or Whole Foods cards, etc..

Oh, and they bring a litany of gifts for our two gym dogs, Cody and Lola, too!

Anything over $25 is huge, as far as I’m concerned. Anything over $50 is embarrassing to me. I probably take in several hundred or more dollars in gifts every year, and every year it’s a wonderful, and touching surprise.

There’s no handbook, just come from the heart.

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Jody - Fit at 55 December 19, 2012 at 8:41 pm

I am not doing much lately due to money constraints so… BUT if I had the money, I would do what I could & what I thought would be best for the person. I do think it has got carries away in past years when people were expected to tip everyone in their path! ;)

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Kelly December 19, 2012 at 10:49 pm

My husband and I don’t do Xmas gifts at all anymore except for our nephews but I do take exception to those I consider my regular service providers, i.e. hair dresser and trainer. Hair dresser gets an additional holiday tip at last hair cut of the year and my trainer, well, he already has it made in the shade as I feed him on a regular basis. But I give him 2 modest gift cards to Starbucks and Chipotle because he goes to both places so frequently. It’s a nice gesture that he appreciates and (he says) it doesn’t make him feel too weird about accepting a gift.

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Nicole Stout December 20, 2012 at 12:56 am

I think after paying a trainer thousands of dollars, they should be getting me a Christmas gift!

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'Drea December 20, 2012 at 10:39 am

I gave two of my yoga teachers $20 gift cards to Whole Foods plus a copy of a blog post where I had talked about them fondly.

Deciding the amount was a struggle but, in the end, I just wanted them to know I’ve benefited from their classes.

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Robby Nutrition December 28, 2012 at 2:14 am

I work as a DJ, more of a hobby so I made one of these USB sticks with my DJ logo on it and gifted it to my personal trainer. It was a pleasant surprise for him. Hope to continue our cooperation and builld even better personal chemistry with him as I really like his professional side.

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popular kids toys November 15, 2013 at 11:52 am

When it comes to gift ideas, stay awa from just giving them cash.
Presenting cash essentially sends out the idea, “I could not be irritated to think that much for you, so there you go, that’s in short just what you were worth for me.”

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Natalie December 17, 2013 at 8:44 pm

So what do you tip if your personal trainer is the owner of the gym? Do you tip them at all since they are the owner?

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