When times are tough, the tough sometimes need a little help to get going. But spending cash on incentive awards may be the last thing you can afford. Here are some creative, low-cost ideas for rewards:

* The thanks-for-the-loan-of-your-spouse prize. Chris Carey, president of Datatec, a Fairfield, N.J., company that installs in-store computer systems, measures success through customer surveys. The employee with the highest survey score at the end of each quarter receives a plaque of recognition. And the employee's spouse receives a letter of appreciation and a certificate for a free dinner for two.

* Perfectionism has its rewards. Using the same customer surveys, Datatec also tracks the number of perfect scores per job site on a monthly basis. Workers who raked in the greatest number of perfect scores receive a "data dollar," which can be used to purchase products from a catalog.

* Pampering without guilt. Happy Feet Day was born the afternoon that Linda L. Miles, president of Linda L. Miles & Associates, in Virginia Beach, Va., stole away from the office to have a pedicure. Miles, who with her mostly female staff designs and conducts seminars, thought it might be nice for everyone to take an hour off to get pedicures. Total tab: $175, plus tip.

* First-in-first-out award. The coffee cup, balloons, or flowers and free lunch that $34-million Phoenix Textile, a St. Louis-based health-care linen supplier, gives its Employee of the Month aren't expensive or particularly memorable. But winners are reminded daily of their status by one other perk that goes with the award -- the parking space right next to the front door.

* Monopoly money with purchasing power. Two years ago, when Pam Reynolds, president of Phoenix Textiles, wanted to design a new incentive system, she invented a new currency: "bird bills." Employees could earn the play money through excellent performance in 10 to 15 areas. To foster teamwork each employee was also granted a "bank account" of bird bills, which could be given to other employees who helped them. At year-end Phoenix hosted a cocktail party and auction at which employees could use their bird bills to buy items such as movie tickets, a cruise, a fax machine, and sleeping bags. The total cost of about $15,000 (including dinner and the auction) may seem high, but the program's cost per person is only about $214. -- Ellyn E. Spragins