Updated on 12.21.07

The Over-Gifting Relative

Trent Hamm

Each year, my grandmother gets me and my wife an exorbitantly expensive gift, usually something way out of her budget. One year, she managed to procure a small library of Kurt Vonnegut novels all signed and with individual notes inside in his handwriting. Another year, she managed to find me several pounds of fresh imported truffles. Another year, she bought us apartment decorations from Turkey and Belarus done in an Eastern Orthodox Christianity theme.

I am continually blown away by the creativity and generosity of this woman. She lives on Social Security and saves up throughout the year to do this for us. She’s a quiet old lady who lives with her disabled son. She doesn’t have internet access and mostly spends her time reading and such. We talk on the phone each week and I make a strong effort to make sure she sees her great grandchildren each month.

Because of her relative poverty, I feel a strong sense of guilt when I receive her Christmas gift. She’s really the only person whose gifts I feel guilty receiving, because everyone else is spending at least somewhat within their means.

She puts a tremendous amount of thought into the gifts, and it’s one of the high points of her year when she sees me sit there in almost stunned silence, appreciating the gift. And I do appreciate it – more than perhaps any gift I receive in a given year, her gifts come with a lot of love packaged with them.

At the same time, I am aware of the challenges she faces in her life. I know she has difficulty paying her bills sometimes, and I know that the financial burden placed on her by her son’s situation makes things very tight at times for her.

I’ve found, from talking to many people, that there are a lot of us out there who are in a similar situation with someone in their life. A friend, an older relative, someone who showers us with overabundant generosity to their own detriment. We often receive their care with great appreciation, but also with a sense of guilt and confusion about what the appropriate response is.

After some discussion and thought about it, this is how my wife and I have decided to handle it.

We will accept the gift gracefully and happily. The gift is very important to my grandmother to give – it’s something that makes her quite happy. If she chooses to spend her money in this way, so be it.

We won’t compete with her in terms of gifts. Some people might decide to try to make a “gift race” out of it. All that does is encourage consumerism. We’ll continue to get her appropriate gifts, but we won’t turn it into a gifting arms race.

We will offer her help in other ways. I keep in contact with her throughout the year and, if she runs into trouble with her bills or something else, I’ll help her out. Similarly, I continue to make an effort to keep her as a part of my life – she’s my grandmother, and she’s been wonderful to me since the day I was born.

We don’t feel confrontation or a request to cut it down would really help. First of all, it creates a sense of hard feeling that doesn’t need to be there. Second, she’s far too stubborn and would likely ignore us anyway. This is something we’ve actually gone back and forth on, but we finally decided that the downsides of discussing it and encouraging her to stop isn’t worth the joy she gets out of the gift giving.

How do you handle this situation in your own life? Please speak up in the comments.

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  1. Michael says:

    What does K.V. say in his notes?

  2. Unfortunately we run across this with all of our parents. We handle things the same way you do. Our children are the only grandchildren, and the grandparents get great joy out of spoiling them silly.

    None of our parents are in great health, and we know they won’t be around forever, so we let them have their joy right now. And then we try to help out throughout the year.

  3. Ryan says:

    It sounds like she finds tremendous joy in giving gifts. I definitely know people like that . . . .they are inherently givers, and there’s not changig that. It’s made up in their character and it makes them very happy to shop for people and to give.

    Accepting it gracefully like you said is the best thing to do, in my opinion. If she’s going to do it anyway, mind as well make the best of it and let her enjoy the smile on your face and the vice versa.

  4. Tana says:

    I definitely think you should continue as you have been. It probably means way more to her than you know that you make the effort to stay in touch and see to it that she sees your kids on a regular basis. Nice gifts are simply her “currency” of giving back to you, even though I am sure you receive many things from her in other ways that are not quantifiable. Allowing her the joy of giving is the best thing you can do for her.

  5. Becky says:

    My mom is this way. She doesn’t do it to the point of financial hardship, but she puts ZERO importance on saving for the future/retirement. My parents stay out of debt, but they don’t save. This is my mom’s doing, I know my dad would like to save.
    Anyway, my brothers and I receive her gifts happily and gratefully, but we are all financially planning to be willing and able to help my parents out once they hit retirement. In a sense, we feel that we’ll be paying them back for their generosity in about 15 years!

  6. Aaron Stroud says:

    I’m going to chime in with Ryan & Tana. I think we’d all agree that she would be better off if she took care of her material needs first and gave less extravagant gifts. But she wouldn’t be as happy.

    Keep doing what you’re doing and be there for her when she needs help, but also when she doesn’t. Loving her just because is the best gift you can give her.

  7. Undecided says:

    Trent – I completely understand the stance you have taken given the thought and love put in by your relative. I’ve got a slightly different situation and would love to get feedback from others.

    My in-laws love to give my kids gifts and they always come with small gifts every visit but during the holidays they want to give memorable gifts so they ask me to select expensive gifts for the kids and they’re disappointed if my selections aren’t expensive enough…

    I’ve occasionally refused their requests because I just don’t have the time but I’ve always regretted my refusal because they tend to pick big, expensive, large (physically large) gifts instead – AND they’re disappointed because the kids don’t like getting an easel or a large plastic rocking pony. Any suggestions on better ways to handle this?

  8. Cheryl Gassman says:

    Your choices are really spot on. Sometimes the greatest gift you can give is to allow someone else the pleasure of giving. (It’s a hard one!)

  9. debtheaven says:

    While I agree with most of what you’ve written, are you sure she would even tell you if she ran into trouble paying a bill?

    There are always small and generous ways to help an elderly person with a limited budget throughout the year. Since she likes to read, a subscription to one or two to her favorite magazines. Food she would not buy herself. Maybe a fresh fruit basket in winter months, or chocolate, or alcohol. The gift of time watching her son so she can get a haircut or a manicure or a pedicure? Stationery and stamps, lovely Christmas cards.

    She sounds like a wonderful woman.

  10. Anna says:

    Wouldn’t it be dreadful if she went to great expense but got you awful gifts that you couldn’t stand?

    You wonderful grandmother is a rich woman. She is rich in imagination, rich in knowing how to make a satisfactory lifestyle within limits, and rich in having a grandson who treats her well, appreciates her gifts, and knows how to receive them gracefully.

  11. Anna says:

    Wouldn’t it be dreadful if she went to great expense but got you awful gifts that you couldn’t stand?

    Your wonderful grandmother is a rich woman. She is rich in imagination, rich in knowing how to make a satisfactory lifestyle within limits, and rich in having a grandson who treats her well, appreciates her gifts, and knows how to receive them gracefully.

  12. Anna says:

    Sorry, WordPress told me I had submitted a duplicate entry, but not how to delete it. Oh well…

  13. Mrs. Micah says:

    It sounds like giving gifts is part of what brings her joy at this time of year. So you and your wife are quite right not to ask her to stop or to attempt to compete. I like the idea of doing things for her throughout the year…I expect she doesn’t want to be paid back for the gift but probably appreciates assistance.

    If she shows her love in terms of thoughtful gifts, then perhaps that’s a good way for her to receive it too! Letters, phone calls, financial assistance, etc. :)

  14. Taylor says:

    My brothers and I used to get checks on our birthday and Christmas from our great-grandmother. Mom always told us to rip them up. This went on for several years. I thought my great-grandmother was aware of this, but it turns out that she just didn’t balance her checkbooks for five years! When she did and found out, she was very mad, wrote us all checks for the amount we had ripped up and demanded we cash them.

    So that didn’t work out. We were more successful with an extremely generous aunt of ours who showered us with gifts at Christmas and then had no money in January. We instituted a Secret Santa with a $50 limit. This benefitted me as well, as with six brothers and sisters, two parents, and two aunts, the Christmas shopping season was getting a little onerous for me too.

  15. Gena says:

    I liked what Aaron and Deb said and I appreciate how you’re opting to respond to her. Telling her to stop would almost be akin to rejection, and she gets a lot of joy from this. At the same time, you can help her out throughout the year whether she needs it or not. Bringing her groceries or fresh fruit on one of your trips w/ the kids would be a wonderful gift, too.

    You’re lucky to have such a loving and doting grandma.

  16. Renee says:

    Like your Granmother my husband’s aunt works hard at her job to give to the children in the family at holidays. I think it’s not approperiate for a great-aunt to spend so much on young children who have more plastic trinkets than they will ever need, even if they love them at the time. We have asked her to stop, but over the years I now appreciate that it is important to her. More important than her car payment. I don’t understand it, but I do accept it. However, his mother attempts to “buy” love with her gifts. It will be thrown back at us some time over the next year how much she spent and how it represents her desire to be in our lives. We are firm with her about gift giving, just as we are firm with her about most things other things. His aunt has a giving and loving spirit. His mom has mental problems. We approach each differntly because their motivation is different.

  17. Chloe says:

    My great-aunt does the same thing with my gift every year. She has had a stroke and now lives with one of her children but still manages to give amazing gifts. I try to do things not around Christmastime to reciprocate.

    My husband and I give her stamps, envelopes, cards as she enjoys mailing birthday cards to our (many, many) relatives. We also give her staple ingredients since she loves to cook: canned items, flour, sugars, one-use pie tins, etc.

    We feel that it is not our place to tell her not to give us gifts. She so obviously enjoys it. We just try to enrich her life and ease her burden in small doses each time we see her.

  18. hensteeth says:

    Please know how much I appreciate you sharing your insight and knowledge. Your blog has made a huge difference in my family life, and that is a gift beyond price. Thank you.

    Wishing you and yours a happy Christmas.

  19. Annie says:

    When you and your wife open the gift, I’m sure it’s the moment she’s waited for all year. I think your response is right on target.

    What a wonderful woman!

  20. E.C. says:

    If you ever feel guilty enough that you decide to give the Vonnegut books away, you have my email address :)

  21. Patrick says:

    I think you and your wife handle this the only way you can – with grace. I think your grandmother must have little desire for material things in her own life, but she enjoys giving those things to others. She is extremely thoughtful and creative, which is wonderful.

    You mentioned helping her out financially if she needs it, which is an awesome thing for you to do.

    There were several great ideas in earlier comments to show your appreciation – little things you know she would appreciate. Some time for pampering, reading material, your company and the company of her great grandchildren. Another idea – you are a huge fan of cooking. Have her over once a month, or if it is more convenient for her, go to her place and cook her a gourmet meal and take care of the preparation, cleaning, etc. I’m sure she would love any of these things.

  22. Elizabeth says:

    My grandmother was thrilled when I told her what I wanted from her this year for Christmas was family pictures — they are relatively inexpensive to reproduce and they mean a lot to both of us. I wonder if you could drop hints that you’d be interested in something like that — or her written/recorded stories of growing up, memories of the family, etc.

  23. JMom says:

    I like your strategy. I do agree that she probably takes great pleasure in being able to do this for you.

    I am sure that in her way she is giving back for what you do for her all year. So it is a great circle. Most elder people I know (and I’m getting to that point myself) do not really need anymore material things. Your time and attention means more than anything you can give in a box.

  24. Cheryl says:

    I love all of your ideas. I have a large family and used to buy for all of them. After joining this website and other financial forums things have changed. Now we draw names. Or we make homemade gifts.
    I think you and your wife handle it perfectly by helping her the rest of the year.

  25. Sarah says:

    My husband and I have been in this position for the last decade from both his parents and his grandmother. Unfortunately Anna hit the nail on the head – their understanding of our personalities is low. Some gifts, like some antique vases whose mark I recognized on sight, I sold, and fed back sizeable checks to his grandmother for her birthday. I heard later that these checks were very welcome for medical bills. That sort of news makes us really angry when we discover that Gma has been watching late night National Mint commercials and now everyone has useless, worthless fancy commemorative coins in their stockings.

    Although I agree with the commenters above, that there are personalities whose joy at Christmas comes from giving – they may with age lose grasp of their real priorities. One of DH’s brothers routinely pads Gma’s bank account without her permission, so that she can afford her medicines. We say, every single time we talk to her on the phone, that talking with her is gift enough, and DO NOT send us anything. The message has slowly been sinking in – but so has her financial situation, and her daughter (my inlaws) is now coming to the same place in life, having ‘enjoyed’ most of her retirement savings. I blame our materialistic society, and cannot keep silent with our loved ones. To ‘love’ means also to shoulder burdens for, not merely keep from offending.

  26. Ellie says:

    Please send her oil, gas company or electric company payment for her next month. You wouldn’t want any of these shut off this cold winter.

  27. Chuck says:

    Hello Trent, reading your article this morning brought forth a huge emotional swelling in my chest and while I wanted to jump into the comments right away I thought it best that I reply after the ebbing. Having been around this planet for eight decades I have learned one immutable truth and that is that we are all made of the same material concerning life. We all in some fashion feather our nest as best we can, raise our offspring as best we can and as we begin to age realize that it is far better to give back to life than to take from it. This I find manifests itself in many ways and I think this is a gift that is given to all of us and it is pretty much up to us how we let it come forth. Your grandmother in indeed a GRAND mother and it sound to me like she has a good deal of wisdom to guide her. My advice to you would be to accept her as she is, assist when she allows you to and give her an out pouring of love that will last her into her next lift. Don’t try to force your values on her or as you said get into a gifting war. Be a support team member for her, it’s important.

  28. Sunshine says:

    My partner and I are in a similar situation and we choose to handle it the same way as you do. Her adopted mom is generous throughout the year and there is no swaying her, so we spend time with her and treat her to outings as often as we can. My mother, on the other hand, has not chosen to act the same way and it’s slowly driving a wedge between them. I keep telling her that her principles will get her nowhere in this situation, but she insists. It’s really very unfortunate.

    I think you have handled it the best way possible.

  29. Grandparents are special people! I am amazed when I look at the relationship of my parents with my children. To see the patience my father exhibits as my son pounds a drum or blows a horn. Now this is the same man who took me down several notches for walking too loudly on the carpet. :)

    The passage of time and grandchildren, are certainly powerful agents of change.

    Best Wishes,

  30. rhbee says:

    From the other side of the coin: I am, and always have been, someone who takes great joy in gift giving. I don’t show much emotion in my normal relationships and I mostly lead a very private existence but I love to find the right thing for the people I care about. Unfortunately, I rarely get any feedback as to how the gift has been received, probably because of my own need for privacy. But this is the one aspect of the process that wears me down to the point where I begin to question my own motives for the giving. Still, it is way better to give than, . . ., so they say.

  31. Carol says:

    The reply from debtheaven was spot on.
    Another way to “help” her throughout the year would be to call her utility companies and have one or more of her bills sent to you to pay for a year.
    People who live alone and/or take care of someone else need your time more than anything. It is a lonely time and more visits and phone calls help so much. Older people also enjoy recieving mail. A cheap and happy way to let them know they are valued, you can pick up cards at thrift stores, and card outlets for very little. Buy a variety of stamps, believe it or not they ARE seen and talked about.

  32. julie says:

    Dear Trent,
    What a wonderful women. As the parent of handicapped child giving some time with your cousin, take him somewhere where he will enjoy himself and she has time for things she needs to do is a wonderful gift, an afternoon at a hairdressers or a spa she would not do by herself with our wife comes to mind.

  33. red says:

    My solution would be to send a couple $50s in an envelope from a “Secret Santa” because I am financially secure. That would be the only way I could accept the gifts with grace.

  34. renee says:

    speaking as a Grandma – until you’re a Grandparent you cannot know the deep, deep love for your Grandchildren. To know that we have given you a truly meaningful gift, well, it makes our heart swell in ways a non-Grandparent would never understand. Love her with all you’ve got – she’ll be gone way too soon.

  35. Tall Bill says:

    WOW, This sounds like my sister, who used to “Feed the Dolphins” and now spoils her nieces and nephews with extravagant gifts to impress them – far exceeding all other, yet, she is the lowest income earner. It’s sad & the only reciprocating way has been to help with chores, etc for her. As family, we have learned that we’re too close to effect change.

  36. Sarah says:

    I think your approach is correct, Trent, but let me echo the people above who said you shouldn’t wait for her to ask for financial help–she might well not. Just bring her necessities when you visit; it will seem most natural that way.

  37. Sharon Campbell says:

    Sometimes the greatest gift you can give is to graciously receive one. The previous posters have a lot of wisdom. What a special lady!

  38. Lisa says:

    Trent, Great approach to this loving and generous grannie! I hope you will make sure that no one steps in and takes anything from her as she gets older and older. Generous elderly folks can easily be duped and with people coming in to take care of her son the fact that she is vulnerable becomes common knowledge. (This is not to say that the care-givers are less than trustworthy themselves, but their coming and going make it obvious to the outside world that there is a vulnerable situation.)

  39. Randall says:

    I used to have ‘another’ mother that was exactly like this too. Very generous to everyone on Christmas. She almost ‘lived’ for Christmas, squirreling away presents throughout the year to give out. Christmas for her started the day after Halloween and didn’t end until mid Feb.

    I don’t think she thought it’s extravagant, she thought it was worth every penny she spent to bring happiness into her loved-ones lives. It was just a different priority.

    King Osric: There comes a time, thief, when the jewels cease to sparkle, when the gold loses its luster, when the throne room becomes a prison, and all that is left is a father’s love for his child.
    (from Conan the Barbarian)

    I/we just appreciated it, and made sure we supported her (both personally and financially) throughout the year as needed. I miss her still, especially around Christmas.

  40. Mikey says:

    Let Grandma give her gifts as she obviously derives great pleasure from her efforts. Enjoy the gifts with the love they bring, she won’t be around forever. I wish my gparents were still alive. You are lucky.

    A couple of times a year buy her a month’s worth of groceries in canned goods, meats that can make 3 or 4 meals(hams, etc). If she questions the food say there was a great special on and you bought more than you have room for. Another reason would be my wife and I got crossed up on who was doing the shopping and we doubled up on everything. Finally, tell her you love her and wanted to make sure she had what she needed. She won’t mind any of those scenarios. Merry Christmas!

  41. Sally says:

    Ok – my two cents – 5 months later than the post. I agree that you and your wife are handling it the only way you know how. However, I feel that people with your grandmother’s condition are “selfish” That is correct. Selfish. People need to take care of themselves before they “take care” of others. It is the height of irresponsibility to shower others with gifts and not be able to handle the basics in life. Again, just my two cents.

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