Updated on 09.18.14

Overspending on Gifts? 6 Things to Think About

Trent Hamm

Gift by Claudia*~Assad on Flickr!One of my readers related a story to me over a long conversation that, rather than posting a bunch of long quotes, I’m going to paraphrase.

This reader, who we’ll call Maggie, receives an over-the-top lavish gift from her great aunt each year. Her aunt loves buying the perfect gift for everyone in her family and, because she’s well off, she can afford to spend the time and the money in order to find that gift.

What I found interesting is that even though quite often the gift was a truly thoughtful and beautiful gift, Maggie reacts to it with only mild happiness towards the gift. I would have been ecstatic to receive the most recent gift – an Amazon Kindle with a $250 gift certificate to the Kindle Store – but Maggie did not.

In fact, what she felt was a mix of feelings, and most of them were negative. She knows her aunt loves her without the lavish gifts. She thinks that the money spent on the gifts would be better served going to charity or even kept in her aunt’s coffers so that she’d be okay in the event of something awful. She appreciates the gifts, but often finds much more meaning in the much less expensive gifts given to her by her mother, which are usually handmade or are extremely carefully thought out. And she also finds it difficult to relate to the life of a person who can throw around money so easily, buying everyone in the family gifts that push into the four figures for every holiday and birthday.

Maggie’s aunt has her heart in the right place, don’t get me wrong. It’s awesome that she’s so giving of what she has. But Maggie might better be served giving smaller gifts and instead perhaps putting the money she wants to give to her family into accounts for each of them, to be given when she passes away. This way, the aunt gets the joy of giving thoughtful gifts, is able to show her love through her largesse and make the recipient’s life more enjoyable, and doesn’t have to deal with the side effects.

Are you like that aunt, giving sometimes over-the-top gifts to the people you care about? You might be surprised to find out that sometimes the gift isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be, like the gifts from Maggie’s aunt. Here are six things to consider.

Overspending is not love.
Maggie knows her aunt loves her regardless of the gifts that she receives from her. This love isn’t formed under the Christmas tree. It’s formed with phone calls, afternoons on the front porch, family reunions, and big life events. Maggie doesn’t love her aunt because of Amazon Kindles – she loves her aunt because her aunt has been there for the big moments in her life and has been there for her when she needed her. That’s what love is, not stuff.

Overspending puts you at risk, and that hurts the recipient.
While Maggie’s aunt might be in a very strong financial position, many big gift-givers are not. Consider what happens if you give an expensive gift, then find yourself declaring bankruptcy soon. You’ve just given a second gift to your recipient: guilt. Your loved ones do not want to see you in a financially pinched situation where it’s difficult for you to live your own life. Don’t stretch things just so you can buy a gift that’s actually beyond your means, because the consequences will hurt both you and the recipient.

Overspending can create family rifts in unexpected places.
Imagine, if you will, Maggie’s mother. She might truly wish to be able to afford such lavish gifts as Maggie’s aunt tosses out, but she cannot. So she may feel inferior and guilty because of it. Imagine, for example, Maggie herself, who receives the items but then wonders whether the money used might not have been better used somewhere else. Little tics like that add up over time, over a period of many years where expensive gifts are sent and little bruises add up. I’ve watched it happen in my own family over similar circumstances – little, seemingly insignificant things build up and erode away a once-strong relationship.

Overspending can create inflated expectations.
Alternately, imagine one of my old school pals whose grandparents got into a routine of giving him amazing Christmas gifts. One year he received a Nintendo from them, followed later by a Sega Genesis and then the following year a computer. He loved those items, but he also came to expect something awesome from his grandparents, so when their financial situation changed and they skipped Christmas one year, he accepted it on the surface, but on a lot of levels he was hurt by the change. He had spent months looking forward to a great Christmas surprise that suddenly had disappeared. While this may seem like a greedy child, it actually was not – he didn’t actually care that much about the items themselves. He mostly felt, through the emotional lens of a child, that he had somehow done something wrong and let them down, and it really dragged him down for quite a while.

Overspending doesn’t compensate for other mistakes.
Many guys tend to try to cover up for a big faux pas by buying an exorbitant gift for their wife – it’s so common, it’s often joked about in pop culture. While the gift might be appreciated, it’s not the gift that brings about the forgiveness for the mistake – it’s the fact that the husband seems to be truly showing regret. Instead of feeling like an exorbitant gift is in order, perhaps a more direct and true showing of your feelings might actually be what’s needed – and it might save a pretty penny, too.

Overspending can send the wrong message to others.
One year, I splurged on my nieces and nephews and bought them some stellar Christmas gifts. I found out much later that other members of the family didn’t interpret these as gifts for children, but as attempts as showing other family members up by buying the “best” gifts for the kids. What was intended as a gift to make a child happy instead turned into underlying resentment and some form of “Christmas Cold War” that wound up basically eliminating our family’s gift exchanges after a few years.

If you’re tempted to really splurge on a special gift for someone, think carefully about the reason you’re doing it and the potential consequences. Not only might the purchase be the wrong financial move, it also might be the wrong choice for everyone involved, including the recipient.

Because of this, I encourage people to give carefully considered gifts, not exorbitant ones. A well thought out $20 gift for someone is almost always better than an off-the-cuff $100 gift, any day of the week.

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  1. My wife and I have made an arrangement on gift giving with each other. At the risk of seeming weird or maybe alittle OCD I’ll share the basics of it with you all.
    Now that we have a baby in the house we do not buy gifts for each other for major holidays (birthday, Christmas, Valentines etc.) We simply make an aggangement to go out for dinner. Along with that, we agree on one larger gift that we save up for during the year to “share” with each other at Christmas. For example, last year we bought a new rocker/recliner as we new we had a baby on the way.
    This year we plan on getting a 37″ LCD Television to replace our 20″ TV that I bought at a Sears “scratch and dent sale” in 2002. However, the caveat is that the TV has to be less than $500.00 which likely means we will get it at an after Christmas sale.
    It might sound odd, but it has helped us from making impulse gift purchases for each other – now I just have to work on keeping the wife from making impulse “cute” purchases for the abby!

  2. Sam says:

    One tip for overspenders:

    Instead of making an impulse buying decision, allow yourself a 24 hr cooling-off period.

    The funny thing is that people are still not happy with what they have. Actually, there seems to be a problem with distinguishing two different concepts – “wants” and “needs”. Half of the population of the United States of America, the richest country in the world, says they can’t afford everything they need. Come on, people! Expensive clothing labels, lavish houses, cool cars, and upper-end restaurants are not “needs”! We can afford more than many countries’ citizens can only dream about, and we are still not happy. This must not be about money. This must be about using money to fix other problems we have. Money lets us buy the things we need and want, but it does not bring happiness.

    Fix My Personal Finance

  3. "Mo" Money says:

    Good post Thses are very good reasons to adhere to when giving gifts.

  4. Melissa says:

    First of all, Trsnt, I love reading your blog. I am currently working through the “31 days” exercise, although it’s going to take me about 60 days…
    A few weeks back, you had blogged about your financial weakness (books, if I recall correctly). My financial weakness is gifts. I generally don’t spend an exorbitant amount per gift, but I tend to buy gifts to show appreciation, especially for those who support me and my family – day care providers, babysitters, relatives who help out. I love to give these gifts, but I buy way more often than is necessary. I want to reward people for their support and a thank you card does not seem like enough in some cases.
    In addition, we have a large extended family with a lot of kids. Ten nieces and nephews to be exact. We buy for each child for their birthday and choose the children choose names at Christmas. I try to limit spending to $20 – $25 per gift.
    My point is that I tend to spend roughly $2500 on gifts each year. I have tried to cut back, but I don’t feel that I can cut back anymore without cutting people out completely. If you or anyone has any suggestions for homemade gifts or other advice, I would love to hear it.

  5. Kevin says:

    Tyler – my wife and I have a similar “deal” now that we have a little one in the house. We also both feel that money spent on experiences is more valuable than if spent on “stuff”. We have just about everything we need anyway, so the rest is really just clutter. There are exceptions, like last Christmas we bought ourselves a camcorder to record our child’s special moments.

    BTW – I bought a 37″ LCD on Black Friday last year through CircuitCity.com. It was the same TV they had on sale at the store the next day, but I didn’t have to go to the store and fight the crowds. You might try that method too.

  6. partgypsy says:

    I have been guilty of this in the past, in particular with my Mom and my sister. I can be frugal in almost all areas, but gifts can be a blind spot. One time I got my sister a beautiful diamond pendant. Months after Christmas she confessed that she didn’t wear it, and though she appreciated the gift she also felt uncomfortable that she couldn’t reciprocate. Luckily the vendor I got the pendant from was willing to do an exchange so she picked out a nice watch that she still wears to this day, but it is a reminder not to go overboard anymore with gifts.

  7. Claire says:

    Trent, have you had any experience with talking with your family about eliminating/drastically reducing the holiday gift exchange? I’ve wanted to do this for many years, mostly for the busyness factor – it just makes the holidays so crazy – but this year we’re down to one income and trying to get out of debt. We’re managing our money very carefully, so dropping $500-600 on one day does not appeal to us at all. (We have fairly large families, so even if we buy presents only for siblings and their spouses and children, parents, and each other and our kids, it ends up being 17 people. Even only $30 per person adds up really quickly.) My favorite part of the holidays is baking cookies with my sister and my mom, sipping hot cider around the Christmas tree, eating monkey bread Christmas morning (somehow all these revolve around food…) – NOT exchanging presents. But I fear that my family will not react well to my idea to get rid of the presents. Any suggestions?

  8. Shanel Yang says:

    I grew up selecting all the gifts for my family for holidays, birthdays, graduations, etc. Since my Dad liked to play the big spender, money was not an option. He like me to choose spectacular gifts so he could feel proud he was providing so well for his family. The problem was when I had to pay for my own gifts to family and friends. I was in the habit of picking out the most exquisite gifts — and so were my recipients! Well, one Christmas, when I had let everyone know that I was finally working on getting rid of my humungous debt, they were nonetheless shocked at my modest Christmas gifts for everyone. In fact, one of my sisters actually broke down and cried — she was so angry and disappointed. They’d never reciprocated my lavish gifts but always expected me to continue giving like that. That was the last time I exchanged any gifts with them. : (

  9. Jaime says:

    Great post! I agree with the last statement “a well thought out $20 gift for someone is almost always better than an off-the-cuff $100 gift, any day of the week” however it doesn’t seem like that is the case with Maggie’s aunt. You said in the beginning of the article (second paragragh) that “her aunt loves buying the perfect gift for everyone in her family…”. I get the point about overspending to compensate or to show off, but if a Kindle is something that Maggie would enjoy and likely wouldn’t buy for herself, it seems the perfect gift for someone who loves her to buy–as long as her aunt is in a financial position to afford it, which you say she is (“…because she’s well off, she can afford to spend the time and the money…”).
    You said “She thinks that the money spent on the gifts would be better served going to charity or even kept in her aunt’s coffers so that she’d be okay in the event of something awful.” That hardly seems fair. Maggie is appreciative of her monther’s well thought out, handmade gifts — but following the logic of the statement quoted above, wouldn’t her mother’s time be better spent volunteering at a shelter, or performing some other sort of charity? And if Maggie is worried about her aunt being “ok in the event of something awful”, then her aunt really _isn’t_ in a financial position to buy a gift like this.

    Maybe my family are unusual, but in the end gift-giving/receiving goes back to what I was taught as a child — it’s the thought that counts. Not the huge or small dollar amount. Not what else could be done with that money. But the fact that Maggie’s aunt loves her enough to want to treat her to something special.. It could be a Kindle & gift certificate, it could be a beautiful handmade bookmark, in the end the price tag really shouldn’t matter.

    And one more thought, regarding the idea of small gifts now and money after her aunt passes away. What if Maggie’s aunt wants the joy of watching her loved ones enjoy the things that she’s given them? Small gifts can be thoughtful, of course, but if she has the money to spend and wants to spend it on her family/friends, why should she keep it piled away to be distributed after she dies? It’s a more sound financial investment strategy, sure — and it of course depends on exactly what “well off” means — but again, if she can afford it, why shouldn’t she spend it buying thoughtful gifts for the ones she loves?

    Sorry for the long comment, but this post pushed some guilt-buttons. I’ve been on both the giving and receiving side of expensive gifts, and would hate to think of any of the people I’ve given gifts to feeling like Maggie, or people who’ve gifted me thinking that I might feel that way! And thanks for all your hard work writing such interesting/informative posts every day!

  10. Excellent post!

    So many people who can’t afford gifts in the same price range as other might, spend way too much time stressing over it – causing them to spend outside of their budget and subject themselves to financial havoc.

    This is a great look at the opposite end of the spectrum – how “overgifting” can actually have just as negative an effect on the giftee as it can on a budget-conscious gifter!

    Great job. Hope more people realize that it really is the thought that counts.

  11. April says:

    In the specific case of Maggie’s aunt, who has the money and the inclination to share it with her family, I think people need to appreciate the gift and spirit in which it was given. Sure, she could put the money aside, or save it, but ya know what? It’s HER money. She’s wealthy enough to do it, and it’s HER choice when and how she spends it.

    If other family members are so ridculous as to resent that she can give these nice gifts, that’s THEIR problem, their issues, and it says more about them than the aunt.

    I stand staunchly with Miss Manners. Gift-giving should never be directed by the recipient, and all gifts large and small deserve a simple thank you.

    I, on the other hand, had a problem with overspending on gifts, and unlike Maggie’s aunt, I could not really afford to spend so much. I’ve become much better about thinking through gifts rather than impulse-buying something that they’ll like, but is way out of my budget.

  12. Anna says:

    Excellent post. It’s interesting that you should mention $20 as a good representative amount for a carefully chosen gift. That is similar to my usual approximate limit of $30 or less per person (though I’ve often gone lower if I see a good buy or am really pinching pennies).

    Also, like Maggie’s mother, I often give hand-made Christmas gifts, such as knitted socks or hats, or an embroidered pillow with a design specific to the recipient’s interests. The challenge there is to start earlier in the year, preferably by Labor Day, so as not to get in a big crafts crunch during December. As in so many other aspects of life, planning ahead is the key!

  13. writer dad says:

    I really liked the sentence, “Spending is not love.” I think a lot of this, myself included, have missed this at some point. I’m a lot better than I used to be, but only because I’ve found myself counting pennies. Now though, even when I’m not, I won’t go back.

  14. Mister E says:

    I generally avoid exchanging gifts at all as often as is practicable.

    I do have to get the girlfriend something for Christmas though, that one is unfortunately non-negotiable.

  15. See My Money says:

    Whatever you do, make it interesting or unique. I have gotten gifts on e-bay and vintage-type stores that are catered to the recipient’s interest or taste, and they are not expensive. If you are going to get something cheap that the person will never use, don’t get anything at all.

  16. Amber says:

    Books always seem to be appreciated. I often find them on Amazon and at Goodwill. I tuck a special message inside the book instead of a card. This is great for everyone, especially children who inspiration to read non-assigned books to get them interested in reading. I have four brothers and all but one is getting a book this Christmas.

  17. Sarah says:

    I agree with most of this, except for the part where you suggest that Maggie’s aunt could cut back on the presents and put the difference away, to be distributed after her death. I bet that would take away a lot of the fun for the aunt! It’s her money — if she can comfortably afford to give those kinds of presents, let her enjoy the giving.

  18. liv says:

    This is very subjective. Some people don’t mind it, others do. I prefer cleverness of a gift (one that is very nice and useful) than just a random expensive gift.

    Family and friend gift exchanges are AWESOME. I’m doing one for Xmas this year with gift cards for my friends (themed, last year it was board games). :)

  19. steve says:

    maybe one way to get your extended family ready for a change in the gift-giving status quo would be to mention it starting about now in the year. If, like Claire, you’re down to a single income, and are trying to pay off debt, just make some mention of how that’s changing your everyday life and that you NEED to pay off debt. Then just mention that you’re not sure how the holidays are going to be for you.

    See what kind of response you get.

    This will accomplish two things:

    1) you will have successfully broached the topic, preparing yourself (and them) for a more straightforward discussion, which can occur in maybe mid-October, of what you’re intending to change for Christmas this year.

    2) You broke the ice for yourself and got used to the idea of having the discussion. You can now tweak your approach for other conversations with different family members. YOu can also use the gambit, “yeah, last month I was talking with (insert family member here) and we were talking about finances. My husband I have talked about it and we think we’re going to need to downsize the amount of spending we do for the holidays. How are things for you guys this year?

    That makes it look more like it’s a done deal and there’s a partial social consensus already, and invites their own thoughts.

    Just a couple of ideas.

  20. steve says:

    Also work into your conversations with your family your positive vision for Christmas–the things you really love about spending it with them–and the fact that, as you wrote, your ” favorite part of the holidays is baking cookies with my sister and my mom, sipping hot cider around the Christmas tree, eating monkey bread Christmas morning (somehow all these revolve around food…) -”

    Together you can help build an expectation for greatly reduced spending on “stuff” and a reemphasis and appreciation for the “together things” that make Xmas so good for you. Then, you’ve addressed the emotional aspect of gift giving that many of the other posters have mentioned, and there will be less or no shock at the sudden drop in spending and overt “goodie”-giving.

    Let’s face it, the reason we fall into the holiday trap is emotional, historical, and because of family habits and assumptions. Cleary, the holidays are driven not by rationality, but by emotions and expectations. Or else, why would so many people feel “forced” to spend money they can’t afford to spend, and wouldn’t spend except for the fact that “it’s the holidays?”

  21. Josephine says:

    About 10 years ago, I decided not to purchase anymore Christmas gifts. Although I made a huge dent the first couple of years, about 1 or 2 gifts did “sneak” in. Eventually, all Christmas gift exchanges on my part ceased. When I mention that I do not exchange holiday gifts, I get quirky looks, but no one has accused me of being “cheap”. Instead I’m amused when others find it necessary to justify their gift exchanges to me. Finally, I watched my holiday stress plummet and I enjoy the holiday season so much more.

  22. Karen M says:

    A very timely post, as many people start holiday shopping with the Labor Day sales.

    My husband and I don’t exchange gifts with each other. We know the things each other wants, so it basically amounts to doing each other’s shopping. As far as getting these things, we are both runners so we set goals, such as “after running 75 miles, we will purchase X item,” which helps keep us on track both physically and financially. Often we find that we don’t want that particular item anymore.

    We also don’t buy gifts for family during the holidays. My husband is in the Marine Corps, so we are stationed over 2,000 miles away from the closest family member. Postage rates are extremely high, so it doesn’t seem worth it. However, I knit as a hobby, and, like a poster above, agree that handmade socks make a wonderful surprise gift (usually in my suitcase when we make it back to our hometown).

  23. partgypsy says:

    I agree that if you want to change the gift policy for this or all Christmases, start early. I have a sister in law who suggested we do a secret Santa for the sibs and sib’s in law. It was a good idea and we have been doing that since, but for the first one it was mentioned maybe a month before Christmas and I had already had everyone’s gifts purchased already, including things like magazine subscriptions which have to be purchased early.

  24. gwen says:

    Like Anna, we’ve given homemade gifts in the last few years: soaps, beer, preserves, knitted hats, gloves, sweaters, etc. !

    But, we’re rethinking this for the extended family, because the gifts just aren’t appreciated. It is especially troubling to me, since I have put aside things for my own kids to knit hats, sweaters, mittens, etc for others (both adults and nieces and nephew), and very rarely seem to have the gifts be appreciated. I can understand if you’re thinking they must be repulsive, but I’ve spent good money and time to think of things with great yarn and nice patterns for people.

    Certainly the response has freed me to stop knitting for people beyond my extended family, unless they specifically ask for something. It is nice to just buy something, without sacrificing my whole fall on knitting obsessively.

  25. GettingThere says:

    Gift gifting can be about power (I’ve got more than you), but it can also be an expression of love and connection. There have been times in my life when my income has been better than it is, and in those times my goal was to give very intentional gifts; things I knew someone could use, or would love, that showed I’d been listening — not to their gift lists, but to their stories. If it cost $5, fine. If it cost $200, fine. It wasn’t about the cost, it was about the value for the person receiving it.

    What concerns me is how often we project our issues with receiving onto those who give. Somehow it is Maggie’s Aunt’s fault that she gives with an open hand, rather than Maggie’s, who seems to receive with a closed heart. Maggie seems to be passing some pretty strong moral judgment on an Aunt who she knows loves her. Why not just receive and be glad, and know that a gift freely given is a joy? Why does it have to be about competition? Who is Maggie to say what her Aunt should do with her money?

    Maggie just needs to live her own life and give what she wants and can give, and stop worrying about other people’s motive, intentions and bank balances. It’s hard enough to get our own lives right — there’s no need to take valuable time deciding how others ought to live, too.

    I say good for Maggie’s Aunt!

  26. Giving and receiving gifts is such a slippery terrain. While I agree with all of your points, there’s another thing to consider – recipient’s expectation of you. Specially if it is a close loving person and is aware of your financial position. Sometimes the expectation is such that since you’ve been earning this much, you gifts should reflect that. Doesn’t matter if the gifts you’ve bought are bought with the recipient’s needs and hobbies in mind, and are given with all the best intentions. Sometimes, price tag is what matters. I have burnt my fingers in gifting once and I am not going to go there again. Now, I consciously try to gift a notch higher than what I should be giving, I try to take into account recipient’s interests, but if I can’t find something with a higher price tag I just stick to the generic pricey gifts, instead of an inexpensive thoughtful gift.
    You might say that, if thats the case, then maybe that person is not a very close loved one after all. I can only tell from my experience, that it is not the case. The person is indeed a loved one who’s stood by us through think and thin, and has only our good in mind. Its just that the expectations are a little higher.

  27. Vikki says:


    This is just what I needed to hear right now. My Father’s 65th birthday is the day before Christmas, and I was planning a large party. Thanks to your article, I’ve remembered that that’s not his thing. The big party is my style, he’ll be just as happy (if not happier) with my surprise visit (all the way from San Francisco) and a home cooked meal. Especially if I make him a pie. That’s way better than some $2K party.

  28. jen says:

    sometimes, when i find a spectacular gift that i know is perfect for someone, I’ll send out a message to various friends and family and say “I think X is perfect for this person, wanna chip in on it with me?” Usually I get such a great response that I end up buying some accessories to go with the original gift.(ie. Extra track to go along with a giant lego train) It turns out that the fun and excitement of watching someone open a great present isn’t diminished by having shared the purchase, so everyone comes out happier and richer at the end.

  29. Nate says:

    Maggie is the one with the problem here, not Maggie’s Aunt. GettingThere @ comment #17 got it right.

    It is sad that Maggie can’t appreciate the gifts and that she actually resents the gift giving.

    Frugality is great, but bitter feelings about nice expensive gifts from someone who loves you is not frugality. It’s just an imposition of your attempts at frugality on someone else: I don’t buy nice things for myself so neither should my Aunt, even if she is rich.

    So lame!

    What a horrible thought that I could be frugal now to be rich later in part so that I can give expensive gifts to those I love, only to have them resent it.

    I am honestly blown away that someone would actually think this way.

  30. BonzoGal says:

    I can sympathize with Maggie, but for a slightly different reason. My mom gives hugely elaborate, expensive gifts for birthdays and Xmas. She puts a lot of thought into them and obviously enjoys giving… BUT! She spends herself into debt to do so. I’ve begged and pleaded and discussed this with her over the years, to no avail. She’s even gone through bankruptcy for her credit card debt, yet still gives things like new vacuum cleaners, expensive baseball tickets and so on to her kids and grandkids.

    I feel bad receiving these gifts when I know they’re putting her in debt. I’m still trying to get her to stop and just spend time with us, or teach me how to make her special ice-box cookies, or any number of things in lieu of material gifts.

    So to the person who claims that Maggie is receiving with a “closed heart,” I disagree- Maggie is showing proper concern for this situation. Maggie’s Aunt isn’t a bad person (nor is Maggie saying this), but her overspending is making Maggie feel bad- and why give a gift that makes someone feel bad?

  31. kelly says:

    Why would this be considered overspending if she can afford it? It sounds to me like this is Maggie’s hangup, and therefor not her aunt’s problem. I think it’s selfish to tell someone – keep your money now, I’ll get it later when you die so I don’t have to feel bad that you have more money than I do. Maybe her aunt wants to spread some joy while she can witness it.

    Being a gracious gift RECEIVER is also something people need to consider.

  32. GettingThere says:

    BonzoGal — Your Mom’s spending is a problem, and clearly her giving is neither healthy nor wise. I’m sorry to hear about your situation — and hers. She needs not just financial advice, but some therapy, too, to figure out why she’s doing this to herself. In your mom’s case, the giving is a symptom of a larger issue.

    That’s a far different thing that Maggie’s Aunt, who has money and is choosing to share it. Why should that make Maggie feel bad? I suspect Maggie’s issues are more about herself and her financial situation than they are about her Aunt.

  33. Susanna says:

    Like “learning the ropes” I too have had my fingers burned by gift giving, more than once. It’s hard to know what to give sometimes, and is it the thoughtfulness of the gift or the price tag that matters most to the recipient? To Maggie it would be the former, but to many people it’s the latter. That doesn’t make them bad people, but their expectations (society’s expectations?) can induce you to spend a lot more than you’re comfortable with. As an example, recently a long-time friend was talking about her now-ended marriage, and was laughing about all the gifts they received but never used. She said they had lots of fun registering for all kinds of things at the dept. store, but had no idea what to do with the items when they received them. Many of them stayed in their boxes in the garage. She esp. laughed about getting a fondue pot. I almost choked when I heard that. I was the one who bought it for her! I was then struggling by on my meager salary and bought them the fondue pot because it was the only thing I could afford on their list. It was nice to hear how my hard-earned money was spent on such a useless gift!

  34. I think that when you’re giving a gift, it’s important to think about what will serve and please that particular person(in short, you need to be unselfish and thoughtful). It’s not about what makes the giver feel good, it’s about what makes the receiver feel good.

    That said, when you receive a gift you don’t absolutely adore, you should be unselfish(which in this case means being graciously appreciative).

  35. Evangeline says:

    . Trent is right, you cannot buy love It’s simply a matter of someone with money or credit cards going over the top. For them, it isn’t about the receiver, it’s about making themselves feel/look good. Maggie’s aunt should love her enough to respect the boundaries. This isn’t just about Maggie’s graciousness. It’s also about an aunt that continues a gift giving pattern that clearly upsets the recipient. That’s not love. That’s called being self centered but people shy away from the term because money and gifts are supposed to change the definition.

  36. Awesome Mom says:

    My kids have a ton of toys and plenty of clothing. I am dreading Christmas this year because I know that the toy pile will only grow. What are some suggestions that I can give to the grand parents about gifts that will not add to the massive toy pile yet will give the grandparents the joy of giving?

  37. Kevin says:

    Clare @ 9:10 –

    For my brothers and sister (and wife’s siblings) we just all kind of agreed when we started having kids we’d stop the presents for each other and focus on the next generation. Now we only buy presents for nieces/nephews and our parents & grandparents. Much easier, and honestly buying for siblings just turned into a gift card swap anyway.

  38. Kate Coldwell says:

    Don’t forget another reason to avoid gifts that are notably expensive- it screams “I’m insecure with my gift choices so to be sure you would like it I spent more, after all everyone likes a bigger better gift, don’t they?”. It’s the old excuse “I’m rubbish at buying gifts, I find it easier to be sure if I spend more money”.
    I think the best gifts are the ones with novelty value that fall well into the acceptable price range, particularly when value has been added with your time e.g. handmade gifts, searching for second hand goods of real value. My other favourites are luxuries that frugal people would rarely buy themselves such as spa treatments, yoga classes, high class gym membership. I got my partner a knife skills day course at a chef school and although he abhors gifts without substance where there is no “keeping” the gift physically (like my luxuries above) he loved it as a really great learning experience of great value to him. It was his idea of a luxury (not mine so much). I like to think of what a person wouldn’t buy themselves and get them that.

  39. GettingThere says:

    Please note that the following is not designed to start a political discussion in any way. Let’s not go there, folks. But on the issue of gift giving,I just read an article on the Obamas’ policy with their kids about gifts. To quote:

    “In a magazine interview Obama and his wife Michelle revealed that one of their steadfast house rules is not giving Christmas or birthday presents to Malia, 10, and Sasha, seven.

    The couple explained that they spend “hundreds” on birthday slumber parties and want to “teach some limits”.

    The girls are also given an allowance of just $1 a week for performing household chores, according to People magazine. Those chores include making their own bed, setting and clearing the dinner table and putting themselves to bed by 8.30pm.”

    This sounds like the focus in on shared experience (i.e. parties) rather than gifts, and in my own life, that’s what I do also. My closest friends and I put money toward specific events or travel we’ll share, rather than buying a specific object for one another. After all, once you’re old enough, you don’t need anything more!

    I don’t have kids, so I don’t know what I’d do. I do know that I would want my kids to understand issues about money, and more especially value, from day one.

  40. IRG says:

    It’s clear from this post that many people with frugal instincts feel threatened by gifts that cost a lot (“a lot” being in their minds; money is indeed relative. A $250 gift is nothing to someone with a lot of money.)

    It’s interesting that you have taken from this example and made it all about “overspending” which it clearly was NOT for this aunt who was mentioned.

    You bring up many interesting and valid points on gift giving in general ( a subject fraught with givers and receivers intentions and expectations, but you miss the most obvious:

    A gift is whatever someone wishes to give you. The price is really not the issue. (Though it seems a lot of people clearly are reading into this, which may say a lot more about the recipients and their insecurities than it does about the givers.)First of all, focusing on the price, rather than the thought, shows that it is often the receiver, and not the giver, who has issues with money. (Why would you even care what someone spent, whether $5 or $500? It’s what someone wants to give you, or not, of their own free will and choice. You, as the recipient, don’t owe anyone anything for receiving a gift, other than a Thank You. If YOU can’t be bought off with gifts, if YOU don’t bestow them with more “power” than they have, what is the problem? The only example I can think of is with grandparents when the parents specifically ask that they limit gifts or $ on the grandchildren because the parents are concerned about spoiling children who may grow up with entitlement issues.)

    Obviously, if someone buys expensive gifts and can’t afford them, that’s another issue.

    But the aunt here has the money, so what is the problem?

    I think Maggie is imagining and creating more problems than exist. Does she feel “less than” because she can’t reciprocate at that level? Is there some sort of underlying relationship or interpersonal problem with her aunt, as in Maggie perhaps doesn’t feel as close to this aunt and maybe feels guilty about receiving this kind of gift? It seems to me that there is more going on here than the cost of any gifts. And that’s usually the case, when people use gifts to “measure” the quality of a relationship.

    Gift giving like everything else is about INTENTION. I think the aunt’s intention was to give something she thought the recipient would like and use and that they probably could not afford. That is genuine kindness. It does not sound as if the aunt is trying to impress anyone or compete in a family gift-giving competition. She likes to give gifts to people. And now she’s being accused, in your article, of possibly causing all sorts of rivalries, problems and issues? Talk about lack of gratitude.

    The recipient seems to have problems in receiving and spends time second-guessing.

    Gift giving is not a competition,nor as you correctly point out, about how much someone is loved. Most of us know that.

    And why is this woman worried about how it will affect her mother? Does her mother have some issue with the aunt?

    Somebody has some issues here, but I doubt it’s the gift giver.

    Once you start setting “rules” about gift giving, you miss the whole point.

    Nobody , ever, has to give gifts. They are never mandatory or obligations, IMHO. Once you accept that, you give as you can.

    I have received gifts of all kinds over the years, and grateful for them all, whether lavish and over the top (by others’ definition, not mine) or more “modest.”

    I appreciate them all and keep them in perspective. Once you start reading into them, you can only create havoc and heartache.

    So accept with an open heart and no expectations (People are not here to hand out items on our wish lists, folks! As a wise friend once told me: Gifts are nice and thoughtful, but if I want something, I go out and buy it for myself. I don’t expect my friends or family to purchase it for me!

    Think about that.

    Let’s not take the joy out of sincere gift giving by over analyzing (based on our own responses) it or over-regulating it.

    I’ve received first edition books and handmade crafts, as examples at gifts at opposite ends of the spectrum. Both are loved and appreciated, as kind gestures on behalf of the givers. Nothing more, nothing less.

    Something is only what YOU believe it is.

  41. Erin says:

    Awesome mom @ 12:20. Why not ask for classes? I have a friend who does this and her daugher goes to dance classes, swim classes, gymnastics classes, art classes all at almost no expense to her and without accumulating any more toys. Stuff like goggles or paint brushes would make great stocking stuffers too!

  42. tightwadfan says:

    if Maggie’s aunt loves giving great gifts and can afford to do so, I’m not seeing the problem. Have to agree that the problem is on Maggie’s end. This whole discussion is making me sad, so much emotional baggage attached to the gift giving/receiving. Christmas has become such a mess.

    Give within your means. Receive what you get gratefully whether it’s too much or not enough.

    I guess you could boil down this post to one piece of advice: some people can’t accept a gift graciously so you may want to be real careful how much you spend on gifts.

  43. Kevin says:

    GettingThere – the McCain’s probably give their kids’ a house for Christmas….now we know why he couldn’t answer the question!

    Just kidding people, don’t get all fired up.

  44. battra92 says:

    Claire, what I would suggest is to be honest about it and say that while you love Christmas and all, you just can’t spend the money.

    The other options are to instead make gifts. Make cookies or Chex Mix and put it in dollar store tins for everyone. Instead of $600 on one day you may have spent $20-30. Plus hand and home made gifts are always the best (especially the edibles.)

    Or you could always do Tag-sale dollar store finds but that can be a bit tacky.

  45. Jessica says:

    I really liked today’s post. I feel like this relates very well to the Christmas season, where children begin to expect lavish gifts from parents and family member, all the while never knowing the true meaning of the holiday. I have also seen many people spending much more than their means on their significant others as a way to show how much they care as well as to show-up friends. Gift giving should be about showing appreciation to the receiver, not about how much money can be spent.

  46. GettingThere @ 11:02 am August 28th, 2008 (comment #17)
    Getting There is totally right (except for bringing in the Obama’s family…barf). If maggie’s aunt can afford to give expensive gifts and ENJOYS doing so then Maggie should accept the gifts with an open and thankful heart. She is blessed to have a generous aunt who enjoys sharing her wealth.

    I am not wealthy in the least but Christmas is my absolutely FAVORITE time of year. I think about what to get people all year long and have a small gift savings account so if I find things through the year I can pay cash.

    Giving thoughtful and meaningful gifts means so much to me … it is what Christmas is all about for me. On the other hand I don’t really enjoy opening my own gifts. lol

    “My kids have a ton of toys and plenty of clothing. I am dreading Christmas this year because I know that the toy pile will only grow. What are some suggestions that I can give to the grand parents about gifts that will not add to the massive toy pile yet will give the grandparents the joy of giving?
    Awesome Mom @ 12:20 pm August 28th, 2008 (comment #25)”

    Awesome Mom – I have a coworker who takes the toys his kids receive at Christmas and birthdays and lets them pick two. That’s it. TWO. The rest he puts in a box in the closet. Every once in awhile he’ll let them pick another but the majority are forgotten about by the kids. Each Christmas time he brings those toys in for our adopted family from the Salvation army. :) And his kids have started enjoying those donations – they like the idea of donating their gifts to needier kids. :)

    Just an idea.

  47. Oh…and Claire.

    I made the suggestion one year (several years ago) that we do a secret santa name draw and it has caught on with my family. Everyone really seems to enjoy it and it is now tradition on our Thanksgiving get together to draw names. We set a $50 limit and each person buys for one other person.

    Of course, we still go a little nuts and buy for all the kids but that is up to each person and the rules are ‘ no getting mad if others get more gifts’. Each person is “guaranteed” one gift. :) I think last year I got 2 or 3 gifts (mom and hubby still insist on buying me stuff). I’m fine with that. It was more than enough.

    I know families who do it different ways so just figure out what works for you guys. :)

  48. Jules says:

    I could never quite understand the fuss about presents. My boyfriend’s family is REALLY big about Christmas–easily over a hundred presents between 8 people. It’s especially ironic because, when we asked anybody what they wanted for Christmas, they’d say, “But I already have everything I could want.”

  49. Erika says:

    My birth family is not much into gift giving for adults. We kind of feel obligated for Christmas but birthdays are usually a dinner out. My husband’s family gives us money for every possible event they can. My kids (who are 4 and 5) get money for Valentines Day, Halloween, and for every vacation we go on. My inlaws make a huge deal out of giving money and buying gifts. My kids get $20 cash every week from them. I understand that part of it is because they didn’t have anything when they were young and while they are not rich they give because that is how they show love. If I ask them not to, they won’t listen even if my husband tells them no they still don’t listen. First am uncomfortable because I don’t feel there is a need to throw money at kids so young. We work and will give the kids what they need. If they want to give to college, give it to me and I’ll put it in their funds. Part of the other problem is that my inlaws are ungracious recipients of gifts. They have accused me of using their gift and giving it back to them. My mother in law has told me that her husband can’t find out she got this or he’ll get mad. My husband gets mad sometimes because it makes him (us) feel like they think we can’t take care of our kids but I think to some degree he just accepts it.

    We equally disagree on inheritance. I tell my parents that I expect 0. He finds it insulting that my parents will not have money to give us when they die. He expects money from his parents who have struggled and worked hard all their lives.

    It is a difficult balancing act and we are still trying to figure it out.

  50. Dariaclone says:

    I agree with those who think this might be Maggie’s problem. If Maggie’s aunt can afford the gifts, then Maggie should be happy to accept. Sometimes it takes a bigger person to accept generosity than it give it.

    If one can afford it, it’s not overspending.

    Generous gifts do not necessarily lead to the ends stated in the article.

  51. zoz says:

    Several years ago, I decided I was finished with being stressed about finding and paying for the perfect gift for everyone in my family, so I proposed a solution that we’ve all now adopted. Each of us buys ourselves a present from each member of the family with whom we’re exchanging gifts, and then brings the items and our thanks to our holiday gathering. This way, everyone spends what they can afford, gets exactly what they want, has loads of fun seeing the present they “gave”, and is relaxed and happy from not having to exhaust themselves and their bank accounts shopping. This has the added benefit for parents in giving them control over what gifts their children receive, and for the childless in trying to figure out the perfect present for an eight year old.

  52. Venecia says:

    Oooo good topic!

    Claire, how about suggesting a secret Santa gift exchange as a -fun- alternative to all the shopping and wrapping and stress. Draw names and take the time to get something really special (which doesn’t have to mean expensive) for the person. Start lobbying early. If you get buy in from enough relations, the rest will fall into line. Honey instead of vinegar, you know?

    Awesome Mom, we do a giant toy sort and donate before Christmas. Outgrown clothing, old toys, etc are given to Goodwill before the new batch of presents arrive. The anticipation of new stuff makes letting go easier (she’s 5, so it’s a learning process). We also do a gift tree each year where she takes some of her piggy bank money to buy a gift for a child her age. Finally, I give specific gift recommendations to friends and family (Amazon wish list rocks for this) of books, toys she’s specifically requested (with an emphasis on educational ones), and art supplies she needs more off (where does the PlayDoh go?). Keeps the plastic cruft down a bit.

    Finally, poor poor Maggie. I tell you what, why doesn’t she send the Kindle to me? I could take it off the oppressed girl’s hands. I promise to appreciate and value it, write a heartfelt note of thanks to the Aunt, and mail it with a box of homemade truffles or cookies.

  53. KoryO says:

    Awesome Mom….been thinking about this too with my little squirt. What me & my sweetie came up with is this….instead of spending big bucks on an over-the-top party for his birthday or buying out Toys R Us, we are going to use that money for “experience” gifts.

    I just told the people in my little guy’s life that my favorite childhood memories were when I spent time with people I loved. I don’t remember what I got for my sixth birthday as much as I remember the time I went with my dad to the state fair, or when I went to the zoo with my parents. Even a spur of the moment picnic was more memorable than most of my Christmas presents. Funny thing is….they pretty much felt the same way. (Toss in the fact that you don’t have to worry about sizes, batteries, mailing and packaging costs, and it looks even better!)

    So now we’re taking the squirt out on a day trip to Des Moines for the zoo, we’ll go off to the Children’s Museum in Coralville, and maybe we’ll sneak in a trip to a pick-your-own apple farm around here when his godfather gets here in late September. We’ll take longer trips when he gets older and let him in on deciding what to see and where to go.

    They’ll get to enjoy him, he’ll get to enjoy their company, and everyone will have a memory that will last longer than this year’s “must have” overpriced, overhyped gift that he might play with for all of twenty minutes.

  54. TwoWishes says:

    I recently read a book called Nation of Rebels (subtitled “How Counterculture Became Consumer Culture”), which used the “one family member buys unusually expensive gifts” scenario to describe how consumer expectations can ratchet upward without anyone necessarily intending that to happen.

    Picture a family that usually gives modest gifts each holiday season. One year, for whatever reason, someone buys extravagant gifts. Starting the next year, the rest of the family won’t feel comfortable giving the same modest gifts as the past, for fear they’ll look cheap compared to the recent extravagance. So everyone’s gifts get a little fancier….. The authors describe a kind of “consumer arms race”, where “defensive” maneuvers may reach the same end result as a purposeful “offensive” decision. And compare the ways out — starting a new tradition of Secret Santas or limit on gift costs — as the equivalent of an arms control treaty.

  55. Linda says:

    Oh man, so many of these comments really hit home for me. I overspent a lot and not only at Christmas. I ended up filing for bankruptcy after a job loss and continuing to overspend after recovering from no income. I was on a cash only basis for 4 years and could not make enough headway to repay my debt.

    So now I give small $15 – $20 gifts to nieces and nephews and their children. This is ok, but I just wonder if there isn’t a better way to use my limited funds. I figure if I have such buyers remorse that maybe gift cards would be a better choice.

    Trent, would you have any opinion of how old Maggie is? I’m nosy and also I wonder if her parent(s) benefit from this largess as well.

  56. Sandy Fleming says:

    I agree with comment # 17 posted by Getting There. The Aunt is giving a GIFT….gifts should be received it graciously and with thanks.

  57. Todd A says:

    I think extravagant gifts are only appropriate within the confines of parent/child or spouse/spouse. If even then …

  58. Jenzer says:

    WHOA. Nowhere in the original article did Trent say that Maggie was ungracious to her aunt, or that she did not express thanks to her aunt upon receiving gifts. One comment above even stated that “it is sad that Maggie can’t appreciate the gifts,” when Trent actually wrote that “she appreciates the gifts.”

    When Trent said that “Maggie reacts to it [the gift-giving] with only mild happiness,” it sounds like several posters assumed that Maggie expressed this “mild happiness” outwardly. On re-reading the fourth paragraph, I took away that Maggie’s mix of emotional and intellectual responses is an INTERNAL struggle for her. Nowhere did I read that Maggie gives her aunt a “gee, thanks” response with all the gusto of Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.

    A great friend of ours is a clinical psychologist in his 80s, with much wisdom about life. He’s adamant that emotions cannot be prescribed — that no one should tell another person how they *should* feel. If Maggie feels a mix of emotions about gifts from her aunt, then she’s got every right to those feelings.

    How Maggie outwardly demonstrates appreciation to her aunt is a separate issue from the emotions she feels inside. I agree that gracious acceptance of gifts is important, even if the gifts stir some internal turmoil. I believe it’s possible for sincere gratitude and mixed emotions to co-exist–I don’t think they are mutually exclusive.

    That said, I do think that managing her own emotions is Maggie’s responsibility. Trent’s post gave me the impression that Maggie is basing her OK-ness on her aunt’s behavior, i.e. “I won’t feel OK inside unless my aunt changes her gift-giving habits.” We’ve got some challenging gift-givers in our own extended family, and I’ve come to realize I can’t change their behavior, just my own.

  59. Jenzer says:

    @ Awesome Mom: check out Flylady’s list of clutter-free gift ideas for kids. She’s got LOTS of great ideas!


  60. Sharon says:

    Vickii, I like your idea of the visit and the dinner. However, if you can get hold of your father’s address book, write to everyone in it and ask them to send you a memory of something they did with him. Then put those letters in a scrapbook. That will give him something he’ll really treasure, and you’ll be able to learn a lot about him that we as children don’t know about our parents as people.

  61. frankly, i wish i had the problem of giving extravagant gifts. i have a big family (actually two different families due to my parent’s divorce). we have finally eliminated sibling gifts and just do the kids, so that’s a help, but my list is still huge. i would love to not think about what i spend but instead i pinch pennies and feel like a miser. i used to love christmas, but now it’s kind of a big pain.

  62. reulte says:

    I think Maggie needs to talk to her aunt about how she (Maggie) feels when receiving such a wonderful gift.

    She finds it “difficult to relate to the life of a person who can throw around money so easily”? What a ridiculous concept! She doesn’t have to relate to some stranger with money. She can more easily relate to her beloved and loving aunt or to the sister who grew up with her mother. Why does Maggie feel so … bewildered? Undeserving? … Does she feel this only with the aunt who gives well-thought-out, perfect gifts simply because they’re pricey or does she feel this about most gifts in varying degrees depending upon their monetary worth. Maggie may need to consult with a good friend or counseler about her own feelings.

    Having said that, I do realize that some people use gift-giving as a show of power and superiority. If Maggie believes her aunt may be that type of person, then Maggie needs to decide how she should act in the future.

  63. emily says:

    If you take anything from the “love languages” maybe this great aunt is loved through gifts and thinks it’s how she can greatest show love to her friends and family.

  64. Slinky says:

    I keep trying to initiate a gift exchange, but one uncle is being a hold out. Apparently he is reluctant because that’s what his very large family did when he was a child. This is unfortunate, because it makes it really rough for the kids who are all just now grown up and struggling to make it through college. Luckily, no one ever minds hand made gifts or cookies for christmas. Our family actually has quite a few hand crafters which is why I want to do the exchange. I don’t have time to make any of the really cool things I find for people!!

    I think my new tack this year, will be to have a gift exchange between us cousins, and hope the adults start opting in. It’ll help at least.

  65. Lilli says:

    I agree that it’s the thought, not the amount of money, that goes into a gift is the most important thing, but with that said, I disagree with the author’s suggestion that a better gift would be to spend less on the material presents and to stash the “left over” money into the niece’s inheritance! One should except all gifts with genuine appreciation (and a thank you note!) – not chastise the giver about their spending habits.

  66. This post is so perfectly times. I have struggled the past several years with juggling Christmas. Not only gift giving but spending time with both sides of the family.

    This year my husband and I are going to put our foot down so to speak. We have agreed that the part we like the most about Christmas Eve (which we always spend at my parents house) is opening gifts and yummy food and limiting how long we spend at their house so we can get home at a reasonable hour.

    Christmas morning is limited as the kids go to their mom at noon. We have some traditional items to eat, open our gifts and hang out before the kids have to be taken to their mom. My husbands parents will be seeing the kids either Christmas eve after we get them at noon and before dinner or another day.

    To Awesome mom (comment 25), my husband and I ask my bonus kids (and help if necessary) to go through their stuff and put a donate bag together of items they no longer use. Not only does this help in making room for the new items they receive at Christmas. It’s a great reminder to them of the less fortunate. My husband and I actually don’t spend too much money on them but try to choose a few great things that they will love. Birthdays are spent doing an experience – one year it was rock climbing – one year it was horse back riding, etc.

    My BS (bonus son) plays guitar so we are going to find him an effects pedal for his guitar (he’s 13) and my BD (bonus daughter) loves beading and reading so we are planning on getting her some beads she can’t really afford for herself (she’s 14) and some books she would love.

    Erika (comment 35), my in laws are the WORST when it comes to Christmas (or any time of the year for that matter). They overspend on the kids (and us when we were speaking) like crazy. They have gone through one bankruptcy and were facing another. They don’t have friends or any real hobbies except their grandchildren and that is where they choose to focus. Yet they go overboard to the extent they undermine my husband and myself when it comes to parenting etc. Last October we attempted yet again to have a conversation with them about this and unfortunately it went very badly. We have not spoken to them since then. I won’t go in to details here but suffice it to say that if they were more respectful of their role as grandparents instead of trying parenting all over again I believe things would have gone differently.

    Thanks for all of the great tips!

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