How to give gifts to people who don't like getting gifts?
September 10, 2008 11:45 AM   Subscribe

How do I give gifts to two friends in dire financial straits, so that they won't be offended?

Friend #1: She's playing piano in our wedding and house/petsitting. She volunteered for both of these things and scoffs at the idea of us paying her. Yet I can't let her efforts go unrewarded (especially since she's going to be dealing with shedding dogs and cantankerous cats), and besides, I know she's having trouble paying her rent. It's next to impossible to give her anything - I bought her coffee when we worked together and arrived the next day to find a dollar and a thank you note on my desk. I thought of getting her something from the honeymoon that couldn't be returned, but what she really needs is cash.

Friend #2 is my maid of honor. She's a newly divorced mother of a toddler who's going back to school and struggling to make ends meet. She's flying to the wedding on her dime, and we're paying for her dress and her hotel. It's customary to give gifts to the wedding party, but these usually seem to be personalized jewelry or scented bath soap type stuff (as recommended in this question). She is not the sentimental, girly-girl type at all and though she would be gracious about it, she would think this completely useless and offensive (since we've known each other for ~20 years, I should know her better than to get her freakin' bath soap). We really don't do gifts, anyway - birthdays and Christmases have been just cards for the last 15 years. Anyway, what she really needs is money, though it seems absurdly tacky to hand her a check.

We're not in great financial shape ourselves, so it's not as if we can make much of a dent in their situations, but I really do want to show our appreciation in a way that's useful to them but won't be construed as pitying. Any ideas?
posted by desjardins to Human Relations (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
For friend #2, why don't you give something to her child? She wouldn't be able to refuse a gift that wasn't specifically for her, and you could get something that she'd have to spend money on anyway, or a gift card at a national store that she could use for just about anything.
posted by tractorfeed at 11:51 AM on September 10, 2008

If they won't take cash, then do the next best thing and put a dent in their grocery bill. Make nice personal gift baskets for each, filling them with useful everyday grocery items - coffee, cookies, fruit, brownie mix, etc. Although they really need the cash - by supplying these few items, you have freed up the money that they would have spent on those items in the first place.
posted by Sassyfras at 11:54 AM on September 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

What about gift cards to a grocery store, if they might not accept cash? You could put it in a basket with some edible treats (fruit, pasta, yummy bread, etc) if you want the gift card to look a little more festive.
posted by gnat at 11:55 AM on September 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was in a similar situation as #2 (sis got married across the country, I was in the ceremony and my BF was the officiant; we paid our own way). While I was on my way out of town after the wedding my mom handed me a sealed envelope from my sister with some cash and a nice note along the lines of "I know this was a hardship for you, but it was really important to us that you came, so we wanted to help defray the costs a bit."

It was a little weird but since it wasn't face-to-face from my sister-- and I was on my way to the airport-- I couldn't return it without a lot of rigamarole. This would work for #2 but it seems like #1 would just craftily leave it in your house!
posted by holyrood at 12:02 PM on September 10, 2008

You could pay for friend number 2's (maid of honor) plane ticket if she hasn't purchased it yet.

Well, you maid of honor doesn't like girly stuff. She must like something. What are here hobbies or interests? Any particular music group or act she is interested in? How about a pair of tickets for an upcoming concert? If she is super practical or doesn't have a lot of leisure time you could arrange for a pick-up-and-deliver-laundry service for a couple weeks, or a gift card to her favorite grocery store. I'd be more apt to splurge for something great for you maid of honor. Does she have an iPod Touch? How about a GPS system? A Kitchen Aid mixer? Organic fruit of the month club? There are tons of nifty options that would make great gifts. What would your friend like?

For friend number one, you could send a gift basket to her home, or to your house while she is house-sitting. Wine, crackers, cheeses, DVDs, a paperback, nuts, hot chocolate, tea, bubble bath, magazines, or whatever else would come in handy for enjoyable lounging at home. Wrap up a beautiful terry robe and pair of pajamas and you've got a great, thoughtful gift.

It's tricky. Both of your friends are going through lean times but it doesn't mean you need to give them cash. They're not on the streets. Give them a luxurious but useful present. Include a heartfelt note and have it sent to their home
posted by Fairchild at 12:15 PM on September 10, 2008

I also thought of providing something that they would need and would free up money (grocery or gas cards, a gift basket with stuff, whatever).

But, also, don't underestimate the good you can do by helping them do something nice for themselves (maybe a pedicure, or a gift card to some place non-essential). We've done this with friends by buying plane tickets or dinners to events we know they wanted to attend but could not afford.

If you really want to do cash, I would say do it unattached to the wedding, and just be honest with them.
posted by dpx.mfx at 12:21 PM on September 10, 2008

Friend #1: When she's house-sitting, can you leave her some cash attached to a note with a list of all the good places to eat nearby? I've done house-sitting for coworkers, and I would have felt a bit odd if they gave me cash as an implied payment for it, but never had problems taking the $40 they left along with the take-out menus for food while I was there. It falls more into the category of defraying costs that she wouldn't otherwise incur if she weren't doing you this favor (it's weird to cook in someone else's house with someone else's food). If cash is out, you could also give her a gift card (maybe $40 worth?) to a nearby restaurant, with the same sort of note--"I know you're running around watching our pets and so don't have as much time to get your own cooking done, please get yourself dinner at restaurant Foo around the corner!" Or, on preview, you could leave a gift card or cash for the local grocery store encouraging her to go get whatever food she prefers to eat while she's staying at your place, house-sitting.

Friend #2: Did this friend insist on paying for her own plane ticket? This seems like the most obvious thing to "gift" to her--giving her money to cover the cost of flying out. Again, easier to accept cash when it's offered to cover the cost of something that you wouldn't be paying for otherwise.

I think you can give people cash, it's all a matter of presenting it in a way that makes it less money for services rendered (feels weird to accept, as if you're profiting off relationships) or charity (which can feel really bad from a friend) and instead offers it in the spirit of reimbursing them for the costs they're shelling out on your behalf.
posted by iminurmefi at 12:23 PM on September 10, 2008

If friend number one drives a car, could you find a way to sneak it away from her and fill up her tank? She can't give you the gas back, and you can refuse if she tries to give you money as repayment.

If she scoffs at what you've done, you can just say you didn't want her to be out any extra money on the commute as she house sits.
posted by prettymightyflighty at 12:29 PM on September 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

A lot of people are sensitive about being helped, for various reasons. Perhaps talk to Friend#1 (without any gifts), and flat out say something like:

I like getting nice things for my friends, little gifts and things to brighten their day, and I like helping out and doing my part to be more than just an acquaintance. But you - you're a problem! [say it with a smile] I can't even bring you coffee without you treating it as a loan! Now I know it's not in your nature to overlook when people do things for you, but I want you to loosen up damnit, so that I can ply you with treats and bribes and sneakily try to brighten your day, without you going and attaching strings to things that were supposed to be no-strings-attached!

This is part of how I'm nice to people, and I know that part of how you are nice is by ensuring you're not imposing in any way, so how we try to be nice to each other is in direct conflict, BUT I'M GOING TO WIN! So quit now while you're ahead. As a gesture of peace, I think we should go out for lunch together, my shout of course.
So - what kind of food sounds good?
posted by -harlequin- at 12:45 PM on September 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

For #2, if you haven't already, make sure she doesn't need to rent a car while visiting for your wedding. I had rented one already for my friends' and then she told me, after I had already arrived to the rehearsal dinner, that they had arranged a bus to ferry people around. Could have saved me $300! If you can arrange for her to get meals included in the hotel, that could keep the overall trip from getting too expensive for her.

#1 is tough, so I'd continue to think along the lines of defraying potential costs. Last time I house-sat, the people left me an unlimited subway card for me to use while there, saying that they had paid for it already and wouldn't be using it. Maybe you could do something similar with a yoga card or expiring freebie coupons or a basket of perishable foods (that you could say someone sent you but will go bad by the time you return home). Or things like, "I bought the wrong kind of _____, do you want it?" My house-sittees also told me that they had free long distance calling (VOIP, maybe?), and that I should take advantage it while there.

In both cases, make sure that they know they need not give you a wedding gift! If you think they're the type to do so anyway, see if you can request something inexpensive yet specific to your friendship, like a mix CD or a collection of recipes or a framed photo of you two from the past.
posted by xo at 1:21 PM on September 10, 2008

What about sending an gift certificate? You can buy pretty much anything from Amazon these days, and being an electronic thing, it's somewhat hard for them to give it back. I also think the grocery themed ideas are excellent!
posted by katemcd at 1:24 PM on September 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Regarding friend #1, I may be misunderstanding the situation, but given that she won’t even take a cup of coffee, I’d be careful about trying to help her out financially at all. You care, and that’s great—it’s absolutely admirable and your heart is in the right place. However, this sounds like a matter of dignity for her. If she’s uncomfortable with even a small thank-you gift, give her a card that says how much it meant to have her play music at the wedding, and then for the pet-sitting, perhaps something consumable (stock up on her favorite foods?), but don’t give her cash. What you intend as a helpful gesture could be completely humiliating for her. Even if you don’t hand her a wad of bills, something that is essentially cash, like a very practical gift card, will come across the same way.

(I’m not saying it’s emotionally healthy to not be able to accept a friend’s gift, but your question wasn’t “how do I talk to my friend about her gift-phobia?” What you want to do is thank her for her gifts to you of piano music and pet-sitting, and to my mind, a “thank you” to a particular person should cater to their particular personality. You may enjoy receiving gifts, but your friend doesn’t. You should either respect that or have a conversation with her about it, don’t force a gift on her that will embarrass her or hurt her pride.)
posted by Meg_Murry at 1:59 PM on September 10, 2008

In my opinion refusing reasonable gifts -- especially on the order of giving someone a dollar for coffee freely given -- is offensive. If I went to someone's house and they offered me a beer, it would be severely rude of me to reach for my wallet and ask how much it'll be.

That said, I would turn the tables on them and get angry if they don't accept your money. For #1, tell her that she's performing a needed service for your wedding and you simply insist on paying. (If she says her music is her gift to you, then you might let it go but be sure to refuse any other gift she tries to give.) For #2, tell her that it is customary for the bride and groom and their families to pay for travel arrangements as needed. If either of them refuse, get mad. "Oh, so my money isn't good enough for you? You think we can't afford it or something? How dare you!"

On the other hand, be sure your payments to them are reasonable or else it will seem like unasked-for charity and you'll be the offensive one. I would avoid grocery cards -- for someone who is already sensitive about their finances, a grocery card is one step above food stamps.
posted by skallagrim at 1:59 PM on September 10, 2008

My suggestions are:

1. Everyone's said this but I agree with the gift cards.

2. Do you know them well enough to donate to particular bill they need help with? You could do it anonymously in the case of friend #1 and it doesn't have to be for the full amount. Medical bill? Car insurance? Vet? Cell phone? Rent? Child Care? For friend #2 you could write a check to the company/creditor/landlord and then write a nice card saying what you've done (for friend #2). About 10 years ago my beloved cat (RIP) was ill and needed about $600 in treatment. I didn't know how I was going to pay it and was frantically looking for a 2nd job. A few days later the receptionist at the vet's called up a said, "A friend has paid us $500 toward medical care for you cat. They wish to remain anonymous but want to tell you that they love you." Blow me over with a feather! It meant the world to me and still chokes me up. My cat lived another 14 years after that and every day was a blessing. It was a gift that kept on giving. To this day I have no idea who did that. I asked everyone I knew, but they all denied it was them. I think they did it because they knew I would be embarrassed to take a donation and I never ask to borrow money. Bless their hearts. I've since paid it forward.

3. For either of them, if you can figure out something they really need and send it to them? You can do it anonymously and just send it to their address. Diapers come to mind as a big expense for someone with a toddler.

4. Slip them the money in an envelope with their name on it (in an unwatched purse or jacket pocket) -- then deny it was you if they ask?

4. hal_c_on, your idea about tipping the piano playing is brilliant!
posted by trixare4kids at 2:05 PM on September 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's not up to you to decide if they really need money. Get them something nice that's not patronizing or intruding.

Card or gift certificate to check out a specific, fun restaurant.

If you go to Fandango, you can buy them a movie gift certificate that can't be returned, transferred, or refunded.

For the person with the child, gift certificate to Gymboree and offer to babysit.
posted by sondrialiac at 2:52 PM on September 10, 2008

Oh, and don't buy diapers, clothes, or anything else unless you know exactly what size to get, and that she actually needs them.

Believe me, the last thing she wants are a bunch of clothes or diapers that don't fit and take up room, but are new so she doesn't want to throw them away.

You can also ask her out on a friend-date and hire a babysitter so you can enjoy a night out together.
posted by sondrialiac at 2:53 PM on September 10, 2008

A great work-around is a grocery/super store gift card (think Target or similar). This can be used to pay for food and other necessary items and free up cash for rent or whatever else . . . but makes it seem less like "hey, you need money!" My family does this all the time and it works wonderfully.
posted by lacedback at 3:00 PM on September 10, 2008

If your friends know as much about your financial situation as you have included in previous AskMe's, they will very likely be quite uncomfortable at receiving lavish gifts from you. Keeping the gift well within the amount you can afford, and (more importantly) they believe you can afford, will make for a lot more social comfort on both sides.

I'm always a fan of gift certificates (and those prepaid gift cards) as being a lot better than a straight-up cash gift in a lot of situations. Somehow, $50 at my favorite restaurant is a lot more exciting than $100 in cash, even though that's maybe not rational. But the gift certificate indicates that the person knows me and knows my tastes, while the cash is just a fungible item that I can spend however.

So I'd suggest a gift card/certificate plus a letter telling that person how much she is appreciated.

And even then, some people are just really crappy gift-receivers. It makes them uncomfortable, and they have a mistaken idea that they are now obligated to give something of equal value, or whatever. If that's the case, expect discomfort to ensue — either she will send it back, or give you something of equal value (defeating your purpose), or the friendship might suffer. You know them, we don't; personally, I'd risk the possibility of tension to give a gift to someone I want to thank, but that's easy for me to say sitting here.
posted by Forktine at 4:54 PM on September 10, 2008

I would avoid grocery cards -- for someone who is already sensitive about their finances, a grocery card is one step above food stamps.

Having been in your friends' position (not financially great but offering to help with a wedding or similar situation) I would second this. If I were them, I don't think I'd want your help with daily, mundane stuff (cash, food, diapers, grocery/Target card, etc). I would appreciate being set up with or reimbursed for costs assosciated with helping out (rented car, cab rides) and, if I protested, the magic words that would make me accept would be "Oh, we'd planned on paying for that [rented car or whatever] anyway--and we're doing it for Jane who's helping out with the food too."

A gift of the sort of thing they like to indulge in when they have the $$$ that month (and don't when they don't) is ideal, esp if it can be delayed to a month when they don't have the $$$ but could really do with the indulgence. So, yes, an Amazon gift card and note saying "I know you love those books/films but didn't know what you had already" would be appreciated.

A case of wine would be nice too. Or coffee.
posted by Martin E. at 5:03 PM on September 10, 2008

Interesting. I recently house sat and actually considered it as them doing a favor for me. (I love checking out new neighborhoods, and they pitched the idea to me as a fun opportunity.) So, since they were already doing me a favor, I was careful to leave the place cleaner than I found it (cleaned the toilet and shower, vacuumed everywhere, washed the sheets), and I more than replaced anything I used. I brought over my own dish soap and bought a fresh bar of hand soap to replace theirs. Since #1 sounds worse than me (I let people buy me coffee), watch out for the potential that she'll see the arrangement this way and try to thank you for letting her stay in your house.
posted by salvia at 6:59 PM on September 13, 2008

« Older Passports, please.   |   Directory Assistance Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.