Sunday, October 21, 2012

Gift Giving Obligations

Hello Polite Readers!

Today's column comes from Alisa, who wrote in with a very timely question about holiday gifts:

I have a bit of a sticky situation.  I worked with a woman for several years, and during that time, we became social outside of work.  We also began to make Christmas/birthdays at work more fun by exchanging gifts.  I kept my gifts around $15 in value, but she began to up the value of what she gave to me.  For my last birthday (in January) she gave me around $50 in gifts.  Shortly after, she left her job for another in a different city.  We still plan to keep in touch via email and facebook, but we probably will not be getting together much in person, if at all.  Her own birthday came up after she left, and since she'd spent so much on my last gift, I felt obligated to get her something, so I boxed up a gift and mailed it to her.  But now Christmas is coming, and I would really prefer not to continue exchanging gifts, since it was mainly a 'work thing', and honestly, I do not have the funds right now.  My question is, how do I let her know?  I'm afraid she is going to spend a bunch of money on me again, and I really do not want that.  But she's very sensitive emotionally, and, I think, lonely right now in her new city and job.  I don't want to hurt her feelings.  How do I handle this?

I think this is a problem that far too many of us have, especially as the bad economy just drags on forever.  In a perfect world we wouldn't mind buying nice gifts for everyone we know, but in the real world, every gift that we feel obligated to buy for a not-so-close friend or distant relative is less money that we can spend on our nearest and dearest, or more debt that we go into so we can keep everyone happy and still pay the bills.

The first question I want you to ask yourself, Alisa, is have you and your former co-worker actually kept in touch via FB and email? Are you having meaningful conversations, or just "Liking" each other's vacation pics? Because if it's the latter, than the friendship is dying a slow, natural death and you don't have to worry about doing more than writing "Merry Christmas" on her wall in December.

If you're still close, though, then she probably does plan to send you something for the holidays, especially if she hasn't found a new work buddy. You should go ahead and break the news to her soon so that she hopefully hasn't already purchased your gift yet. Say something like this:

 Hi! Can you believe it's only a couple of months until Christmas? I was just starting my shopping and I'm pretty depressed about how low the budget is this year. I'm not really going to be able to buy gifts for most of my friends. I wanted to let you know because you've always been so thoughtful with gift-giving and I would feel horrible if you sent me something when I can't afford to return the favor!

Of course, the problem with this is that it might be revealing more of your financial situation than you're comfortable with. You can change the wording a bit to be more relevant to your situation and less about finances. Do you have kids, or is there a new niece or nephew or baby cousin in the family? You can say that you're focusing on the younger generation this year. Or go the tried-and-true "real spirit of Christmas" method and focus more of your giving on charity this year, saying something like:

Hey friend! How are things going? How's the new job? I just wanted to let you know that I was thinking about the holidays (hard not to when Wal-Mart already has Christmas trees up!) and feeling bad about how many people are out of work and homeless this year. As such I'm going to be spending a lot of my usual gift budget on canned goods for the food bank and I was thinking you might do the same! Wish you were still local, we could hit Costco together!

 Whatever method you go for, be sure to still acknowledge your friend at the holidays. I would send her a nice card with a heartfelt note, wishing her well, sharing a funny tidbit about a co-worker you both know, something that will make her feel remembered and help tide her over while she builds a social circle in her new home.

Also, keep in mind that whatever you say, she may still send you a nice present. Some people just really love shopping for the perfect gift, wrapping it up nicely, and seeing you enjoy it. It's not about give-and-take for them, because they get rewarded by the act of gifting to you. Did your friend ever seem resentful when you were giving her $15 gifts and she was giving you $50 gifts? If not, she is probably just the sort of person who sees the perfect thing for their friend and buys it, without any concern about the price or what you'll give them in return. In that case, you just have to learn to let it go, and not feel bad when you can't reciprocate.

On the other hand, if she does act resentful and starts making passive-aggressive comments, you have my permission to hasten along the natural death of the friendship by hiding her on Facebook!

Do you have your own holiday-related problems that are already stressing you out? Need to have the perfect response memorized when dealing with your creepy uncle at Thanksgiving? Just drop me an email at and I'll see if I can help!

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