Gift-Giving Etiquette When You’re In Debt (Tips & Advice)

by Dollar Stretcher Contributors

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What can you do when you’re expected to give gifts you can’t afford? Our readers share their thoughts on gift-giving etiquette when you’re in debt.

Dear Dollar Stretcher,
I need some etiquette advice. My family has racked up some debt to the point we are struggling and we are working hard to get back out of it. My question is about gift-giving and how to handle it when a gift-giving occasion arises that is no longer within our budget. For example, we had three graduating high school seniors in the family this year. We could only give them each a very small check.

I am pretty sure my two siblings are a bit ticked at me over what they consider a paltry amount, but they are unaware of our financial situation. Should I explain to my sister and brother or the three grads why we could not give more? Should I not be worrying about what they think? I ask because it will take us quite some time to work our way to better financial times and there will be more gift-giving occasions that come up. I am struggling over looking like a cheapskate or someone who cannot manage their money. Thanks for your help.

Thoughtful Doesn’t Mean Expensive

You are being responsible when you limit gift-giving while working your way out of debt. I think a few words to your siblings might be in order. Say something like, “We’re setting a limit on gifts temporarily because we are paying off some debt.” You don’t need to go into it any more than that. Then, set a limit and stick to it. That should ease their minds that you are not being selfish, and it’s not forever.

Bear in mind that a thoughtful gift can be inexpensive. If you include something that is special and particular to the person’s interest or something that sparks a happy shared memory, it will make a smaller check seem sweeter.

Family Relationships Before Pride

Typically, our financial situations are something we consider to be private and it’s hard to discuss difficulties with other people when we worry what they might think of us. However, in this case, you are talking about close family. Personally, I would rather have them know that I’m struggling financially than think I’m just being cheap with them and their kids. You don’t need to give them all the details or all the whys and wherefores, but it will likely help your relationships if they understand that there are very good reasons why you will be giving smaller gifts. The other side of this is that they may be more understanding if you have to decline invitations you would normally accept or back out of more expensive events. Pride shouldn’t come before your family relationships.

It Doesn’t Matter What They Think

Don’t be so hard on yourself. I would not worry about what they think. I have relatives who have graduated as well, and since retired, I cannot give them the kind of money they would like. So I give them a small amount, but then I look for sales to add another gift. I gave my niece a beautiful necklace with a heart that had a sentiment engraved on it. It was worth $40, but I got it for $10. My nephew got a SanDisk flash drive.

During the year, I do surveys to earn PayPal money or gift certificates. I save these for gifts throughout the year. I use them on Amazon or other sites. It helps my budget and allows me to give gifts I may not be able to afford normally.

Nothing Is Owed

First, you don’t “owe” anyone an explanation about your gift giving, nor do you “owe” anyone any specific gifts. That said, sometimes letting the people we’re close to know our circumstances helps. There’s no need to give details that are none of their business, but just share the fact that you have some financial issues right now and you’ve got to seriously restrict all spending until you get your financial health back.

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Gift-Giving Is Optional

First of all, gift-giving is optional. A lot of us are struggling financially because we feel pressured into giving gifts, making charitable contributions, and buying stuff we really don’t want to help with somebody’s fundraiser. Yes, it is nice to give a gift, but the gift-giving is not just limited to family but extends to friends and their children, co-workers, etc.

Stop feeling guilty about not being able to give a better gift and realize that with gift-giving, it is the thought that counts. If you are the kind of person who usually gives extravagant gifts, your family probably assumes you are in a bit of a pinch and should be understanding. Your primary obligation is the well-being of your family. If you think about it, you probably have given a lot of gifts this year and now you are at the point where you need to focus on your financial well-being.

Put Thought and Time Into Gift

Along with your affordable checks for high school graduates, you could spend some time doing something thoughtful for a gift. You could put together a binder of family recipes or a photo album of the graduate. Or maybe put together a box of items they may need (snacks, sheets, etc.) for when they move into their dorms in the fall. I am sure Pinterest has even better ideas. Like most things, it is easy to write a check, but with some deep thought and time, you can put together something you would be proud of and that won’t cost you too much.
Jen in Aptos, CA

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Consider Re-Gifting

Is there something in your house that the honoree has commented that they liked? Maybe you could make a gift of that. Or give an item that had belonged to grandma, for example, that could be a special, memorable gift.

The truth is (unless you have gone over the top with minimalism), we all have a surfeit of items that would be better off in someone else’s hands. There is more than one book out there written by someone describing how they didn’t spend money over the course of perhaps a whole year and this re-gifting is one theme that comes up regularly.

Don’t Cave

By all means, come clean and tell them why you have had to cut back. There is no shame in trying to get back on track and out of debt. When they know your reason, they will probably respect you for it. If they don’t understand, shame on them. Don’t cave. Debt is a horrible taskmaster.
Marge K.

Give a “Survival Hamper”

One thing I’ve done in the past is given a “survival hamper.” It’s a large, tasteful basket/prettily decorated box containing basic food like pasta, chopped tomatoes, samples of beverages, etc., with a recipe book for thrifty cooking or your own recipes. Add cleaning stuff, useful phone numbers, a map of their university town that lists the best pubs, clubs, and pizza transport details, and advice about what to do in an emergency. This is much better than mere money.

Reviewed November 2023

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