8 Gift-Giving Etiquette Questions

Each year, especially in December, I get calls from the media asking my opinion about gift-giving practices. Here are a few of the most often asked questions:

(To preface, please keep in mind that by the very nature of the word “gift,” it is not a mandatory practice. Gift-giving is a display of how much you care about a person, the occasion, and is something given from the heart… within your capabilities. Never go into debt just to “keep up appearances.” It’s not about how much you spend, but all about how much you care. A small gift is better than no gift, and using the economy or lack of funds is never a reason or excuse. Nice $1 gifts are available when you take the time to find them.)

1. My mother thinks it is bad manners to give away a gift someone gave me. What do you think?
This is how I used to think as well. I thought I was being inconsiderate and uncaring of the person who gave me the gift if I disposed of it in any way. For years I kept all sorts of items boxed in a closet, never to be used.  Now I think differently. Once I receive a gift, it belongs to me to do with as I please. I may throw it way, exchange it, and even give it away to someone else I think will enjoy and appreciate it. The only major caution is never to give the gift to someone even remotely related to the original gift giver.

2. I hate the gifts my relatives give me each year. Is it okay to ask for cash for Christmas and birthdays?
I don’t think it is appropriate to ask for cash, generally. Instead, you could make the request as it relates to something purposeful. Here’s an example: A relative of mine asked everyone in the family to please only give her cash gifts for all occasions, because she was saving up to buy a new car. A couple of years later, she finally got her car and then sent everyone a nice thank-you note with a photo of herself, standing in front of the car. It made me feel good to have contributed money to something that was real and meaningful.

3. I was recently invited to a wedding to which I am unable to attend. Do I still have to give a gift?
Whenever you are invited to attend a special event that has a custom of gift-giving (a birthday, shower, bar or bat mitzvah, etc.), depending on how close you are and feel to the person and how much you want to show that you care, it is always a nice gesture to send a gift, regardless of your attending the actual event. Put yourself in the reverse position: Wouldn’t you think more fondly of a person who sends you a gift, even when that person didn’t attend your event? We all love receiving gifts.

4. I am about to be married to a man who has been married twice before, as have I, and we both have been single for a number of years. We truly don’t want anything more for our household and tiny apartment, such as more kitchen gadgets and miscellaneous dishware we will never use. Is it OK to ask guests to simply give us cash to help pay for the wedding and our honeymoon?
The key whenever asking for a cash gift is to make it meaningful and purposeful. It is not appropriate to simply ask for open-ended cash. To me it gives the impression I will be subsidizing your general expenses. It is also inappropriate to ask people to pay to attend your wedding. However, to donate toward a specific honeymoon trip is a bit different. Have checks made payable to the travel company, as though it was yet another wedding gift registry you have chosen. Also, while on the trip, take a few special photos or have fun gathering a batch of small mementos of the trip to send each donor when you return, along with your thank-you notes for all wedding gifts.

5. I am planning to attend a wedding where the bride and groom have specifically stated they want gifts from one of their gift registries. Everything listed is way beyond what I want to spend. What should I do?
Purchase a gift card to the store at which they have registered, in an amount you feel comfortable giving. Enclose a positive message about your desire to help contribute toward a particular, higher-priced item you saw listed.

6. I’ve been invited to a friend’s house for dinner. Do I have to bring a gift?
It is always a nice gesture to bring a small hostess or house gift whenever invited to someone’s home for dinner. Among the most common items are a bottle of wine, box of fine chocolates, bouquet of flowers, a coffee table book, or something from your own hometown, area, or country.

NOTE: When giving wine, make sure the host can actually drink it. When giving flowers, make sure they are not of a variety or color the receiver will not appreciate, because of their religion or other cultural norms. Coffee table books should be on a subject you know the receiver will enjoy. When giving an item from your home area, find items locally made versus giving an item “Made in China” to someone in China. Although the Chinese understand how most items these days are made in China, an item truly produced from your specific area will be best received.

7. I recently held a dinner party where several people gave me gifts. Do I have to send a thank-you note for these gifts and if I do, can I do it by email?
Guests bring house/hostess gifts as an expression of appreciation for having been invited to your home for dinner. As such, it is not as required that you send a thank-you note, as it would be for a regular gift. However, it is never wrong to send someone a nice note of appreciation (in this case even by email) especially for an extra special gift received.

8. My friend believes it’s totally tacky to give people gift cards for any reason. I don’t think so, especially when I don’t really know the person to whom I have to give a gift. What do you think?
When I was growing up my parents believed it was tacky to give gift certificates, because in those days the only kind of gift certificates possible were from certain department stores, where the person had to go to the store to purchase the certificate anyway. Why not just purchase a gift, they reasoned? It was perceived as a lazy person’s way to give a gift.

However, in today’s time, it is quite different. Gift cards are now available for an ever-increasing variety of items and services, in stores and online. The main consideration is to choose a gift card that the person will enjoy using. To me, giving a generic Visa, MasterCard or American Express gift card is not as valued as one that is a bit more specific. If you do give a generic gift card, the amount should be larger than perhaps a more specific gift card. To me, a $10 Borders gift card appears better than a $10 Visa gift card.

Additionally, think about whether the store is a good match for the amount you choose to spend. As much as I would love a gift card to Tiffany’s, a $10 gift card may be of little or no use, since most items in that store are valued much higher. I would be required to put out my own funds just to use your $10 gift card.

For other gift-giving tips, see these past articles:

Gift-Giving and Receivinghttp://www.advancedetiquette.com/blog/life/gift-giving-and-receiving

Re-Gifting Etiquette: http://www.advancedetiquette.com/blog/life/re-gifting-etiquette

Year Round ABW Approach to Gift-Givinghttp://www.advancedetiquette.com/blog/life/abw-to-gift-giving

QUESTION OF THE MONTH: Submit questions and thoughts you may have on this important topic of gift-giving practices. I’d enjoy hearing from you and will be happy to reply.

Happy December, Happy Practicing, and Happy Holidays to You and All!


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33 Responses to “8 Gift-Giving Etiquette Questions”

  1. Bobbie Longo says:

    We are invited to a close friends’ daughter’s engagement party. we have already sent a very nice gift, as she lives out of town. Do we also need to give the hostesses a gift for giving the party or does the engagement present suffice?

  2. Syndi Seid says:

    Dear Bobbie: Gifts are an expression of how much you care and think about the person and is rarely a “need” to do. Since you sent the engagement gift, that takes care of that. Now all that remains if whether you want to give a hostess gift. It is not wrong if you don’t; only a big plus if you do. Good luck!

  3. nicky liles says:

    Is it unreasonable to expect a thank you for a gift when you give your children’s significant other a gift card? Signed puzzled and disappointed

  4. Syndi Seid says:

    Dear Nicky: Please do not be puzzled, it is most appropriate to expect a thank you for a gift you give your children’s significant other regardless of it having been a gift card or otherwise. A thank you—whether orally or in writing and ultimately handwritten by regular mail—is how we in civilized society show how much we appreciate and care about the person who gave us a gift. It becomes the effort, as well as the note itself, that is the true gift. As to your disappointment, this is an indicator of how your child’s significant other was brought up. Good luck!

  5. Cathy says:

    I recently gave a gift to a friend/instructor that I see at least three times a week professionally and often personally as a friend. I gave a handmade knitted gift that I believe she would like. (I have give something like this in the past and she was elated). It was wrapped at the time and given before class so it was not opened at that time. It has been over a week and I have seen her several times, we even had dinner. She has made absolutely no mention of the gift at all. This is very unlike her. It is almost like it got misplaced and never opened. Is there an appropriate way to broach the subject? I feel odd just asking if she liked what I got her? This is most confusing to me.

  6. Syndi Seid says:

    Dear Cathy: I understand your situation and you are not alone in something like this happening to others. If the person has a tradition of not opening any gifts received until Christmas, then it’s only been 3 days since it may have been opened. Perhaps the person hasn’t had time to send you a nice thank you note for it. Also, have you seen the person since Christmas? Personally I wouldn’t be overly worried until after the next time you see the person. If the person still doesn’t say anything, then I might send a quick email stating something like: “Gosh, we just saw each other and a few times before that and you didn’t mention whether you got my gift that was wrapped in…. I just want to make sure it wasn’t lost or misplaced. I know I gave it to you some time ago.” For me, the tradition is to open gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. To be candid, I still haven’t written any of my thank you notes yet. I typically get them done by the New Year weekend. Bottom-line, be a little bit more patient for a thank you to be received. But if not, it’s perfectly fine and should be asked whether the person received it. Let us know what happens. I’d love to hear back to bring closure to this matter.

  7. nicky liles says:

    I was given a Macy’s gift card by my boyfriend’s mother. Do I need to reciprocate with a gift or is a thank you note appropriate?

  8. J says:

    I am a step-mother of a 24 year old girl and a 19 year boy. For 6 years I’ve sat back and watched these step kids gladly take all the gifts that are given to them by my husband and I. This year they didn’t even buy their father a single gift! This has been happening for 6 years and I’m feed up. They gladly take the money, gifts and free food. They don’t even offer to bring a dish for dinner. I blame my husband for raising such inconsiderate kids. Why would these kids think that a part of joy is give a gift from the heart. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Please, please help me with a realistic explanation.

  9. Mona says:

    if I return a gift that was given to me by a friend to macy’s and use the money to buy something else. Will the gift giver know that I returned it?

  10. Syndi Seid says:

    Dear Mona: Thank you for your inquiry. To my knowledge if you return a gift to Macy’s they will not give you cash for it. Rather, you will receive a Macy’s gift card to purchase something else in the store at any time. I don’t think stores need to keep records on who returns what items from whom.. So bottom-line, I think you are safe to return your gift to Macy’s without the gift-giver’s knowledge. Good luck!

  11. Tangerine says:

    For Christmas, my mother gave me a very used, tatty, dog-eared novel, which I had seen her reading some months back. On one birthday she gave me a hardcover book that I had read at her home, many years prior. The spine was crushed; the pages were yellow and falling out. There was even an old newspaper clipping within the pages, obviously used as a bookmark. My heart sank. When I asked her not to do this, she was furious said that she “couldn’t possibly give a book that she had not read first” as she “cannot resist”. She also said that she wouldn’t do this to a stranger, but to her family, it is ok. I told her it was bad form and was like giving a box of candy, but sampling a few first, or giving a bottle of wine, but tasting it first. Also, my siblings received $1,000 for their 50th birthdays but when mine came around, all I received was a (losing) lottery ticket. She is neither senile nor poor and cannot understand why I am so unhappy with her. Please don’t tell me to “get over it”. I would appreciate some good suggestions.

  12. Syndi Seid says:

    Dear Tangerine: Thank you for writing. Situations such as yours are never easy to handle or remedy. I’m curious to hear what—if anything—did your Mom say when you gave her the box of candy analogy? Assuming you are not wanting to chose the option of “getting over it”, what other options are there left but perhaps confronting your Mom more directly and specifically as to why your siblings receive cash and you don’t? Could it be your Mom thinks your siblings need the funds more than you? That her gifts, albeit used are more personal than money? All I know from an etiquette perspective is whatever course of action you choose to take, it must be considerate of everyone involved (Mom, siblings. yourself, close friends and relatives); be respectful to everyone; and still be honest within yourself. The question now remains is if you do confront your Mom about this further, it’s not what you do, but how you do it that will make the difference. Remain calm at all times. Let me think more about this and if I have new ideas, I will surely share them. Good luck!

  13. Tangering says:

    Hi Syndi, when I mentioned the box of candy analogy, Mom just got huffy. I think she has a problem with gift giving in general. She doesn’t care about her own birthday much and probably doesn’t think that anyone else should either. I have not spoken to her since before Christmas. When I asked her very nicely and gently to not send used books as gifts, she then sent me a nasty email and said that I lied about the book with the broken spine and newspaper clipping. I think this issue is less about etiquette and more about psychology. I am the youngest of three. My two siblings do little for Mom and get away with it, whereas the expectations of me are greater. Like I said – I now realise that this is a job for a shrink! However, would be grateful for sound advice. Many thanks.

  14. L says:

    I just realized that a gift I gave last month for a Bar Mitzvah was just way too low (cash is traditional). I’m not Jewish and this is all new to me. I feel embarrassed. Is it better to try to forget about it or should I send another gift?

  15. ALEX P says:

    Where can i find birthday gift giving etiquette?What website can i go 2?

  16. Syndi Seid says:

    Dear L: I don’t think another gift is necessary. Yet let this be a lesson to perhaps research or ask someone ahead of time what traditions there may be you should know about before attending various cultural events. In this instance, the most you could do at this point is to send a nice thank you note for being invited to the event and you could acknowledge you didn’t know ahead of time to give money and thank them for the great cultural experience.

  17. Syndi Seid says:

    Dear Alex P: In general birthday gift-giving guidelines are not unique, unless you are asking about a specific culture. The important thing to keep in mind is the person. What their personal likes and dislikes may be. What their hobbies and interests are. Giving a gift is something that should stem from the heart as something you especially chose with care for that person. If you don’t know the person well, research their social media profile and/or ask other friends. This kind of research will show how much you care to choose and give the appropriate gift. Good luck!

  18. Glenn says:

    Your statement:

    Guests bring house/hostess gifts as an expression of appreciation for having been invited to your home for dinner.

    Is this custom a northern thing (or regional) as in the south some people get their feelings hurt when they hear complaints about dinner party invites that don’t bring a gift. I prefer to think that gift giving is a nice thing to do, but not mandatory. I think it is bad manners for the host to publicly state that they are upset that a guest didn’t gift.

  19. Lory says:

    Help! I have a niece and a nephew, I have never missed a birthday or Christmas without a giving a gift. There is a 10 year age difference – but both are my brothers kids. I always give gifts to the kids Christmas Eve that we spend with our father & family and I then give a gift Christmas Day which we have with our mother. I also buy my brother and sis-in-law just for Christmas day, I send him a card for his bday, he calls me. My fathers family decided a few years back to pick names for gifts and I make sure not to get there names, so either way I am buying for them and there was an agreement to buy for the kids. SO – my son never gets gifts from my cousins or Uncle. However, my cousin has given my brother’s kids gifts. My brother buys my son a gift on Christmas for Christmas Day, I can understand that. However, he has missed multiple birthdays. After last year when I finally got upset and I asked if he just wanted to come to an agreement to not buy for the birthdays, as I have worked out with other friends after hardship, he said a gift is from the heart and he doesn’t want me to buy for his kids just because he bought for mine. Comes From The Heart, hmm. So what is he saying – he doesn’t care, so he doesnt give gifts? This year he did call my son. Call– my brother lives in the same town, it was a gesture though. I have already bought the kids a present for the upcoming holiday, did I mention the kids birthdays are Dec and Jan? I am fed up. I have watched my cousins for decades not give gifts. My brother admits he has missed more than one of my sons b-days. I do not want to give the kids birthday gifts anymore. I will send cards or give cards at partys, which I have been to almost every one of. I am done, I just wonder how he will react come one of his kids bday and all they get is a card from me?

  20. alana says:

    My husband and I just came from visiting his aunt in the east coast of Canada. We spent three nights at her place. My husband wired up some lights for them free of charge. Do we need to send them a gift w the thank you card. I did buy he a little something while we were there and we bought them supper.

  21. Debbie says:

    I am a Great Aunt of 12 children and have no children of my own. 7 of them, I am very close, with and see them often. 3 of them I see a few times a year and 2 of them maybe 1 time of year if I am lucky. Do I have to buy Christmas gifts for all of them. They will be all be at Christmas this year. How do I approach this without going broke and offending any of the kids.

  22. Mae B says:

    Hi! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a team of volunteers and starting a new initiative in a community in the same niche. Your blog provided us useful information to work on. You have done a marvellous job!

  23. Hal says:

    Hi, I found your blog today while searching for the proper etiquette for returning a money gift. A few months ago, I was in ICU for liver failure. I was being set up for a transplant, my case was acute. A friend gave a very generous gift to us to cover medical expenses and personal travel expenses. My liver has been healing and I am not needing a transplant now. We didn’t know what to do with the check so we put it in savings. That was in March. We have now paid off the medical bills and would like to return the gift. We don’t know if it would hurt the feelings of the giver or if it is wrong and offensive to return it. We do not want to hurt feelings or seem like we are not grateful. Can someone help with the proper etiquette. Thanks for your time.

  24. Syndi Seid says:

    Dear Hal: First congratulations on your recovery. Best wishes to your continued success. The thought of returning a gift is most kind of you and would not be my first choice. It appears you were able to pay for all your medical expenses and personal travel expenses on your own without utilizing the gift. However, you could think of it this way… had you used the funds, wouldn’t it then be true that you would have funds of your own left to use for other purposes?… How about fixing the leaky faucet, or having a new chair in which to sit more comfortably while recovering? It’s all about perspective and how you want to show your gratitude for the gift received. Here are a few ideas:
    — Use the funds to help support other ongoing medical supplies and costs or something special that you would be proud to write the gift-giver a nice thank-you note for having help fund.
    — Leave the funds in savings in case of a future emergency and use the dividends to invite the gift-giver to a nice meal or special gift you know s/he will enjoy.
    — Send the gift-giver a nice thank-you note and inform the person you have purchased a one year subscription to fresh fruits or flowers as a thank you, plus you can also take the person out to a nice dinner to enjoy together.
    Friendship is all about showing how much you appreciate and care about the person by equally sharing time together in ways you both will enjoy… a round of golf?
    — Invite the gift-giver to a nice dinner and be candid with the person about what was done with the funds and ask their choice of how they would like the funds to be held, used, or returned. This is something I would do only if I know the person well. As you stated, it may be an insult to return it.

    If any one else reading this post has ideas, by all means share it. Such matters are most personal and no one solution is the right choice. Good luck!

  25. Syndi Seid says:

    Debbie: I have a similar situation. I am a Great Aunt to 16 children with no children of my own. I make every effort to send and/or give each child a gift each year because it’s my way of showing I care about them and want to stay in touch. Because there are so many, I must also limit the funds I spend, so I am always on the look-out for year-round sale items that fit my budget, get items while on sale and keep them until Christmas. The key to gift-giving is it is not something you “have to buy” or the amount of any one gift, but a gesture of how much you care.

  26. Syndi Seid says:

    Alana: A thank-you note for the time you stayed at anyone’s home has nothing to do with anything else that may have transpired. There is no “if I do this, I don’t have to do that” when it comes to sending a thank-you note… specifically wiring lights, nor giving a little something, or buying dinner negate the kind gesture of sending a thank-you note upon return home. What is not necessary is sending them a gift with the thank-you note. You have already given them gifts of the “little something” and supper… the wiring lights was a “favor” performed.

  27. Syndi Seid says:

    Lory: I understand how you feel. You are not alone in your sentiments when not everyone reciprocates in the same spirit of giving as you have felt. As your brother said, “a gift is from the heart” and when the heart is not willing—no matter what the reason—it does not have to give. I would enjoy hearing how things have turned out.

  28. HAL says:

    Thank You so much for the reply. We did send the Thank You card in March after I got home and I have saved your suggestions. Our friend, we do not know well, just a casual or business friend of sorts but, never the less, a friend. We greatly appreciated the gift. It was a gift that gave us time to think and recover. My illness was a shock, just my body rejecting my own liver, go figure. You have been very helpful and the perspective from someone else brings new insight. Thank you for the well wishes. Thank You for your time.

  29. Syndi Seid says:

    Dear Glenn: From start to finish your comments are accurate. 1. It is an expression of appreciation to give a gift when invited to someone’s home for dinner; 2. This custom is worldwide, not only in all parts of the U.S., it is a time-honored custom in many countries all over the world, including China. 3. It is not mandatory to bring a gift when arriving. Some cultures do it after as part of a thank-you gift and at times it can be sent ahead of arrive… as in the case of sending a floral table arrangement. 4. Most of all you are absolutely correct about it being poor manners to ever state publicly your disapproval of someone not bringing a gift. An equally appropriate way to show appreciation is to reciprocate by inviting that host over to your own house of dinner. In this situation a nice thank-you note with the invitation attached is perfectly fine. The downside being the hosts won’t know until days later and to complain during the event can be most wrong and hurtful.

  30. Michelle says:

    We are having a banquette for a society at a university, I have always been active in sports and fine arts in high school and we always gave the coach or teacher a gift at the banquet. I suggested that we give a gift to our (not so active) sponsor to the others in my organization and they all refused the idea. I have alway been taught to give a gift to the person over a group no matter the cirumstance. He has been a longtime sponsor and I feel we should respect him by showing our appreciation. Am I right to feel that we owe him a gift? And if so, how do I explain to the others that this is proper ettiquette?

  31. Syndi Seid says:

    Michelle: Gifts are given to show how much you care about a person and from that perspective it is always a nice thing to do. However, when you are part of an organization you must also think about whether you are setting any precedence for future situations. I think in this situation creating a nicely framed Certificate of Appreciation may be enough of a gift. It can be singed by everyone on the committee/board, etc. or just by the head person. This is something you could do for all time in the future as a nice gesture. Good luck!

  32. Patty Krois says:

    I have given a Christmas gift to a mutual friend. I received a thank you, but have been told by my mutual friend it has not been opened.
    There has been some harsh words between us shortly prior to Christmas, but gift exchange done prior to negativity. We both said thank you via text.

    If she doesn’t have interest in opening gift, can I take it back?.it is at mutual friends house gathering dust.

  33. Syndi Seid says:

    Patty: Reality is once a gift has been given, it no longer belongs to you and to ask for it back would only add insult to injury. My best suggestion is to write her a nice handwritten thank-you note for the gift she gave you and perhaps mention how sorry you are about the situation that happened, in hopes she will reply in-kind. Texting someone who gives a gift to acknowledge receipt is fine, but not as a true thank-you note. Good luck!

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