If Someone Gives You a Pricey Birthday Gift, Do You Have To Spend the Same?

Happy girls exchanging gifts.
Milkos / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Gift-giving can be a tricky practice from an etiquette perspective, especially when it comes to how much is appropriate to spend on a gift.

Is tit-for-tat always the best practice — meaning, should you always spend what someone else spends on you? While this seems like a fair guideline, does this mean that you have to splurge on a birthday gift if the recipient recently purchased an expensive gift for you? Here’s what the etiquette experts say.

You Don’t Have To Spend as Much If You Are in Different Phases of Life

“If you receive a generous gift from someone older than you, perhaps a friend of your parents or grandparents, or a relative from an older generation, then no, you do not have to reciprocate in terms of birthday gift value,” said Emilie Dulles, traditional etiquette and contemporary protocol expert and owner of Dulles Designs. “Perhaps they have more resources at this stage in life, or felt compelled to give to you generously.”

You Also Don’t Have To Match Their Spending If You Can’t Afford To

“If the gift is from a close contemporary friend or sibling or workplace associate, giving a return gift closer to the same value is not a must either, unless of course, you can afford it,” Dulles said.

If the gift is from someone who is familiar with your financial circumstances, they likely aren’t expecting you to spend as much on them when the time comes.

“Usually, if the pricey gift is from a close friend, she perhaps knows your financial situation and she definitely doesn’t expect a pricey gift in return for her birthday,” said Maryanne Parker, an etiquette expert and founder of Manor of Manners.

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Don’t Feel Obligated To Spend as Much If the Original Gift Wasn’t Given With Pure Intentions

“If we know that people are trying to make us feel uncomfortable, we definitely do not need to feel obligated to reciprocate,” Parker said. “As a matter of fact, we do not even have to accept the gift if it is very expensive. But if we understand that the intentions are pure, genuine and supportive, we can accept the gift and return the gesture with something meaningful, thoughtful and unique.”

When in Doubt, Go With Your Gut

“If any contemporary gift giver places a high value on how much things cost, or the level of dollars invested in gifts they give or receive, take a moment to research and consider the cost of any return gifts you might consider when their birthday month rolls around and give according to your conscience,” Dulles said.

Remember That Sentimental Value Ultimately Means More Than Monetary Value

“A great gift is never about the price tag,” said Lash Fary, Hollywood gift-giving guru and author of “Fabulous Gifts.” “If someone gave you a ‘wow’ gift that also happened to be expensive, the more important question isn’t so much about reciprocation as it is purpose. If it was for your birthday or the holidays, then you probably do want to not only send a lovely thank-you note but also put some thought into coming up with a fabulous gift of your own. Someone with the means to give an expensive gift is not likely to be keeping a price tag scorecard but will note whether you remembered them or went out of your way to do something nice in return. Keep in mind that the perfect present in this regard can rely on sentimentality and thoughtfulness, which don’t cost you anything!

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