When A Frugal Life And Social Gift-Giving Come Into Conflict

A reader wrote in with the following thoughts, which got my juices flowing:

It seems like I am constantly being invited to baby showers, weddings, birthday parties, graduations, and house warmings and that a gift is expected at every one of these occasions.

While I enjoy giving gifts to my close friends and close relatives it seems like the situation is getting out of control. Children get piles of junk at their birthdays, and I feel like that just because I was given a wedding invitation I am expected to send a gift even if I can’t attend the event.

My husband and I were recently invited to a house warming party that one of his co-workers is throwing for himself. On the invitation this co-worker actually solicited gift cards, saying that he preferred them over actual gifts. In the past I have given herbs from my own garden, or a loaf of bread as house warming presents – nothing extravagant, nothing that cost more than a few dollars.

My husband and I would really like to change this gift giving culture. Especially with the holidays coming up. We would like our children to be able to have birthday parties but we think a gift from the grandparents, and one form mom and dad is more than enough. Our children don’t need piles of presents to celebrate their birthday.

What is the etiquette for attending these types of gatherings and what am I obligated to bring a gift? Should I just decline these invitations if I want to stay within my budget for a given month?

My wife and I have adopted a policy for giving gifts to people that has served us well over the years, especially recently as we have become more aware of our personal finance and of our status as consumers.

First, we generally give homemade gifts. My wife used to give handmade soap out as a gift to people. I like giving food items myself, and that’s part of the reason why I’m taking a strong interest in baking at the moment.

We believe strongly in the idea that the gift you give is a representation of what you think of the buyer. I would far rather receive a well thought out $5 gift or a homemade gift that a person put a lot of time into than a $50 gift card or a $25 tchotchke that didn’t involve much thought. I’d also far rather spend a long time thinking of, planning, and executing a great gift for someone I care about than running down to the store on Christmas Eve and grabbing whatever is left.

In other words, dear reader, I agree with your gift giving philosophy.

Now, the problem comes when you interact with people who have a different philosophy. Someone who invites you to a housewarming party, then actually has the audacity to tell you to bring a gift card, has a far different philosophy than the one described above.

My advice is that if you’re going to make such a stand, you need to make the first move. Wait until you have the opportunity to have a celebration where you would receive gifts, then tell everyone invited that this celebration doesn’t revolve around exchanging material stuff. My wife has told people in the past, “Oh, please come! No need to bring anything – just bring yourself!” Then, individually talk to the people you invited and tell them that you’re simply burned out on the constant gift giving.

Also remember that people constantly use their peers as role models. Many of your friends might be feeling similar things, so if you start making such moves, others might follow.

I’m sure the readers will have plenty of comments on this one.