Should I Accept a Gift if I’m Unable To Give One in Return? Experts Weigh In

Happy couple giving wine bottle to man.
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Inflation is casting its shadow over the holidays this year, as we’re spending more on everything from family meals to travel, whether it’s hopping on a plane or driving across town. This is inevitably leading to some tough decisions.

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In its annual holiday spending survey, Deloitte found that Americans plan to spend $1,455 on the holidays this year, including gifts and other holiday spending. That’s on par with their spending survey findings from last year, but with a couple of key differences.

First, in order to combat inflation, more of consumers’ budgets will be diverted from other types of holiday spending to cover gifts. Second, people plan to reduce the number of gifts they purchase overall. According to the report, shoppers plan to buy nine gifts this year, versus 16 in 2021.

For consumers eyeing their holiday budgets and figuring out what kind of spending is in their comfort zone, that could potentially make for some awkward situations.

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Some families may choose to forego traditional gift-giving in favor of more budget-friendly alternatives, like name draws or white elephant exchanges. Others, though, will stick with tradition. Some will insist on giving gifts to everyone on their lists, because they can and want to.

So if you’re on the receiving end of a gifter’s generosity, but not in such a generous position yourself, how do you navigate this situation gracefully?

Elaine Swann, an etiquette expert based in San Diego, stresses the importance of being honest. “Right now is not the time to lie about our circumstances,” Swann said. “It’s really important to use that core value of honesty. Talk with your family or the organizer of the gift exchange and let them know what you can and cannot do.”

Maybe that means you have to bow out of gift-giving altogether, or you may need to draw back on the amount you spend, which may not match what others are spending. Whatever the case, by bowing out gracefully, Swann said, that will give the group the opportunity to make adjustments.

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Julien Saunders, author of Cashing Out, suggests taking this opportunity to share more about your circumstances and financial goals with others.

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“It can be awkward, but no one is obligated to spend money on gifts,” Saunders said. “You can simply send a note, email or text message in advance of the celebration, stating how your decision will help you achieve your goal. This way, your family is made aware of your intentions and may even celebrate your financially-responsible decision making.”

You can also consider alternative ways to participate while still honoring your budget. A homemade gift you can make in batch quantities and give out to individuals in your gift exchange will still make you feel like part of the group. Swann suggests homemade food items like a cookie recipe packaged nicely in a mason jar, or pulling photos off your loved ones’ social media, getting them printed, and presenting them in little frames from the dollar store.

“When all else fails, there’s nothing wrong with purchasing a stack of cards and handing those out to everyone,” Swann said. “You can spend some time writing in those cards and sharing your thoughts about that individual, couple, or family, and what they mean to you.”

To alleviate any feelings of guilt for not giving a gift in return or not matching the expense of the gift you received, Swann says it’s important to remember the pleasure that others get from giving gifts — and that’s something you should allow them.

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“People who give gifts want to spread good cheer towards others,” Swann said. “It gives them some fulfillment. Sometimes they may have gotten more joy out of giving a gift to you than you realize.”

There may indeed be some awkward moments. But not accepting a gift that someone wants to give you could be worse by causing offense. Swann says to go ahead and accept the gifts as well as the moments of discomfort, and take it all in stride.

“Push past that awkward moment, because it’s going to happen. That’s called being human,” Swann said. “Graciously say thank you, and then to take that extra step to feel better about yourself, send a thank you card later on letting that person know how much you appreciate that gift.”

She says the card should be hand-written, which shows that you made the effort to write your own words, apply and stamp, and take the card to the mailbox. At the very least, you’ve given them the gift of your time.

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About the Author

Cody Bay is an award-winning writer, editor and media ace based in Seattle, WA. With a focus on social good storytelling and content strategy, she recently led the Microsoft News for Good initiative at MSN, creating content experiences to inform and empower readers to take action on the causes they care about. She has contributed to a wide variety of local and national publications, including Microsoft’s IT Showcase, The Seattle Times, Seattle magazine, The Travel Channel and the Puget Sound Business Journal, and was previously a multimedia editor at The Associate Press in New York.
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