I'm not trying to buy your affection but here's some cash
September 26, 2012 11:27 AM   Subscribe

I am visiting my boyfriend's family for Christmas. His parents and two of his younger brothers (still in school) will be there, and I've met each of them very briefly. They celebrate Christmas with gift exchanges, but I was thinking about giving them cash, partly because I feel I don't know them well, partly because I don't want to travel with lots of boxes, and partly because cash is a perfectly acceptable gift in my culture (for New Year's Day). I've asked my boyfriend and he seemed lukewarm, but not entirely against it. Is this an absolutely horrible idea? If it's not, what is a good amount that says I'm not stingy, but also also not trying to bribe them?
posted by ethidda to Society & Culture (39 answers total)
But you're partaking in their cultural tradition of gift giving at their home, so maybe cash isn't a good idea in this instance.
posted by discopolo at 11:30 AM on September 26, 2012 [7 favorites]

Are they in the same area as your culture, or do they share your culture? Or, generally where is his family?

In the US, this wouldn't be a great idea. Better to bring some foodstuff or a similar thing.
posted by Houstonian at 11:31 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're worried about traveling with boxes, you can always ship them to your destination ahead of time or, if shopping internationally, buy the gifts from a website that would ship domestically.
posted by daikaisho at 11:32 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is kind of weird, yeah.

For the parents, a local food product, either local to your area or your culture, would be good. For the kids, can you ask your boyfriend what they're into? Maybe an iTunes or Amazon gift card, which is pretty much like cash but a little less weird for reasons I really can't fully explain.
posted by bondcliff at 11:32 AM on September 26, 2012 [15 favorites]

Best answer: Yikes! Don't do this, you'll forever be "that weird one, the one who brought cash to Christmas". Even if it's acceptable in your culture, take the cues for what's acceptable in the culture where you're going. If you don't know any of them well enough to give personal gifts, consider food, some kind of delicious sweet thing that everyone can share.
posted by peachfuzz at 11:32 AM on September 26, 2012 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Honestly? Yes, it's a pretty bad idea. In cultures that do gift exchanges, cash gifts are incredibly gauche, and I don't think that's the impression you want to give them. Probably you (as one person) shouldn't be giving them presents at all, you (you and your boyfriend together) should be giving them presents together, and he should be backing you up hard on that, even if he does all the work.

Also, though, presumably you can just get Amazon to ship stuff to their house or whatever (and ask them not to open it), so you don't have to travel with boxes?
posted by brainmouse at 11:33 AM on September 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. They exchange gifts. As luggage space is an issue for you, if you get there a day or so before Christmas, go buy a small token. It doesn't have to be much. Your boyfriend can (and should) help you.
posted by inturnaround at 11:34 AM on September 26, 2012

Best answer: There are two potential gift-giving situations, which Houstonian's response reminded me:

- A gift as a "thank you" to the family for hosting you. Assuming you are in the US, cash is definitely not acceptable here. Wine or upscale foodstuff (chocolates, gift baskets) are best.

- Christmas gifts. Given that you are the guest and partaking in their tradition, I would still stay away from cash. If you were just giving gifts, I would suggest a gift card, but in a gift exchange that doesn't seem great either. Something small and heartfelt (even if it has heavy input from your boyfriend, heh) would be best.
posted by andrewesque at 11:35 AM on September 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

You're joining this family in their tradition, not yours, so maybe try and conform to it? (Part of the ritual of gift exchanges is opening the gifts as everyone watches, and oohing and ahhing over it; that won't work with cash.)

Try and get a bits of info about the family members from your boyfriend. Last year when i spent xmas with my new boyfriend, the siblings got a nice crafting book and a nice cookbook (since i knew that they generally enjoyed those categories of activity), the parents got a tin of homemade cookies and a nice bottle of wine. It would have been equally easy to get bath stuff (lotions, body wash, etc) or a magazine subscription, or a teapot/mug set, or something else that would be generically pleasing.

They won't expect the best gift ever, so don't stress about it. Just get something. Opting out of their tradition by giving cash will be worse than giving a non-exciting gift.
posted by Kololo at 11:35 AM on September 26, 2012

Best answer: Definitely do gifts, but don't make yourself crazy stressing over what to get. There are a lot of great generic gift ideas, some of which won't take up a lot of luggage room. Here are a few:

- Little decorative boxes.
- Blankets.
- Serving trays.
- Nice pens.
- Nice little blank books.
- Stationery.
- Coffee table books/other novelty books.
- Scarves.
- Calendars.
- Wine.
- Tea.
- Fancy coffee.
- Fancy chocolate.

And so on. To save even more space in your luggage, don't wrap the gifts beforehand. Just buy paper there.
posted by hought20 at 11:39 AM on September 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

You know, when you say cash for the New Year, I think of Chinese customs. Please excuse me if I'm getting this wrong. But if that's it, and you are looking to express a Chinese custom within their custom, and if they are in the US, you might think of a fruit gift basket containing an appropriate number of tangerines and citrus fruits. It's a traditional Christmas gift, and might just work out right. And you can explain the commonality between the two, and the importance of the number of them.
posted by Houstonian at 11:39 AM on September 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is why gift cards are so freaking awesome!

You get the credit for taking the time to pick out a gift, but it takes up no more space than money!

Find out from your BF what kinds of things his family likes. If Mom is really into home improvement projects, a Home Depot gift card is appropriate. If Dad is into fishing and Orvis or Bass Pro Shop gift card. If a brother loves movies, a movie gift car, if the other one likes clothes, Old Navy. You see where we're going with this.

Gift cards can be personal and practical. My kind of thing.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:40 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think gift cards are acceptable for the younger brothers (with a nice card, and tailored to their interests) but absolutely not for the parents. I second everyone saying food/drink is a good choice, with maybe something small and heartfelt you can wrap up. I think fancy candies are good for this, or maybe a nice bag of coffee beans or loose-leaf tea (or fancier teabags), depending on what they drink?
posted by sonmi at 11:40 AM on September 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

I would not give cash. I feel like cash is a gift that you give either when it's traditional, it's been specifically requested or when the giftee has fewer financial/social resources than the giver. My parents gave me cash for my birthday when I was younger, as they had more of it than I; it would seem weird for me to give cash to my parents unless I suddenly win the lottery or something and have a lot more money than they. By contrast, it was really weird and actually intended as an insult when an older co-worker came back from a fancy trip, gave everyone else in the office a modest present from the trip and gave me a twenty-dollar bill. I've never forgotten and it did not raise my opinion of her.

Gift cards seem like an acceptable idea for everyone, but why not also bring a small food item that everyone will enjoy - a pot of fancy jam, a box of candy, a local specialty? Ask your boyfriend what kinds of things everyone likes - it need not be expensive.
posted by Frowner at 11:47 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Gift cards, tailored to their interests as best you can (ask your boyfriend for hints along these lines). Inside a Hallmark card with a thoughtful message written inside. Definitely a safe bet if you don't know them well.

As said above (in the US anyway), gift cards are usually seen as a perfectly valid, wonderful gift but cash is quite tacky, and I have no idea why but that's the way it is.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:52 AM on September 26, 2012

I think it's perfectly acceptable to take just the small gift for the house or family together, versus having to think about individually what to get people. It's hard enough for me to think of what to get my own parents, and I know them really well. Plus I doubt they'd really want you to feel like you had to spend large amounts on them. A basket of edible goodies for everyone to share would be the way I'd personally go in this situation.
posted by bizzyb at 11:52 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think others have addressed the idea that in gift-exchange cultures, there's a difference between cash and a gift card, and gift cards are more what you want, if your goal is to blend in. I do like Houstonian's idea of giving them something specifically cultural from your background, but just giving them cash and saying "that's what my family does" doesn't come across as a cultural exchange.

If you think of a physical gift that you'd like to give them, but luggage space is a real issue, my favorite technique (I've lived far from "home"/parents/inlaws for 20 years now) is buying the item on Amazon and shipping it to my name at my parents' address or my husband's name at his parents' address, tell them to expect it and not to open it, and then I'll just wrap things up when we arrive at the house.
posted by aimedwander at 12:09 PM on September 26, 2012

I give cash to my gf's family on New Year (she's HK Chinese) and she gives my family presents for Christmas. Both of our families are cosmopolitan enough that it wouldn't be considered weird if we did it the other way around but we try to match each other's cultural traditions.
posted by atrazine at 12:12 PM on September 26, 2012

Assuming they're American, cash is likely to be viewed in a negative way.

Your boyfriend's job is to feed you the best ideas he has for moderately low-cost presents for them -- e.g. books/CDs they want.

Gift cards are OK if they have some personal thought to them. For example, if you know that his mother is a voracious reader, a gift certificate to a local bookstore would be a great gift- it shows some thought, but is also useful to her.
posted by Betelgeuse at 12:19 PM on September 26, 2012

Don't get the parents cash and don't get them a gift card. You may think it's patronizing for them to see themselves as the older and more responsible generation, but unless they're really exceptional people, they still see themselves that way, and they likely don't want help from you. Here's a thread on this very topic.

I think his brothers would love either a gift card OR cash. Maybe don't give cash if the brother is 21 and you're 23. That would be a little weird unless it's well known you just got a fancy job. But if the brother's 19 and you're 27, really, give him the cash, he wants it more than a token, even $20. With near-peers, it reads more like, "hey, man, I want you to have a beer with your roommates on me," and not like "I think you may need the help."
posted by skbw at 12:28 PM on September 26, 2012

Whenever my partner has come home with me, we always bought presents together as one unit. My family would purchase things for my partner, so that it might not seem "fair" (that we'd be receiving one gift while each receiving one) but we tried to spend more than we would as an individual (or, more often, give two gifts rather than one)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:30 PM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Get joint gifts for his family with your boyfriend. If you'd like to get a hostess gift - flowers/wine/candy/something - that would be nice too.

Your boyfriend should help you find things for his family; he knows them infinitely better than you do, and he hopefully wants this to go well. Let him know that it is important to you that his family like you and that this is a way he can help you make a good impression.
posted by sciencegeek at 12:36 PM on September 26, 2012

Bad idea: Giving cash.

Good idea: Telling your boyfriend that he has to help you pick out what to give. You've got plenty of time to figure out the logistics, including buying stuff off Amazon, and having them wrap/ship to you care of your boyfriends family address.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 12:37 PM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

As an alternative to cash, which culturally is not really done at Christmas, you might consider making a donation to Mercy Corps or Heifer on their behalf. You get to give them a card that says "I bought you a goat!" (or chickens, or bees, or a water buffalo, etc.) It takes zero space in your luggage and is very much in the spirit of the holiday. And it's a good thing to do to boot. Probably more appropriate for his parents (or make one big gift for the whole family, and then a small token something for the brothers.)
posted by ambrosia at 12:39 PM on September 26, 2012

I'd suggest gift cards for the younger kids and for the parents you could order for delivery just before Christmas a Harry & David hamper (or similar), which is a gift that everyone can enjoy.
posted by essexjan at 1:25 PM on September 26, 2012

Ask someone who knows the recipients before giving charity on their behalf. It is definitely a controversial choice for some, and you want to make a good impression.
posted by dame at 1:26 PM on September 26, 2012

Response by poster: Yikes! I'm definitely getting the message loud and clear. No cash gifts.

I'll just make my boyfriend tell me what to get or give money to him to buy some combined gifts.
posted by ethidda at 1:50 PM on September 26, 2012

Response by poster: Not to thread-sit: But the parents are recently separated (so I'm not sure how xmas will be celebrated) but in the same city. The whole family is vegetarian/raw foodists (which makes buying food/drinks basically impossible). And it is fairly known that I have a fancy job.

But lol, I guess he just didn't want to hurt my feelings by telling me cash would be a horrible idea.
posted by ethidda at 1:54 PM on September 26, 2012

Combined gifts from you and the BF are the best idea here. Whatever he gives, he just says "These are from me and ethidda". You help him shop for or possibly make small monetary donation toward the items.
posted by mmf at 2:26 PM on September 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Being vegetarian might actually help inspire some gift ideas - are there any good vegetarian restaurants in the city you could get them a gift certificate to?

A good cookbook: "How To Cook Everything Vegetarian" by Mark Bittman.

Do they have a juicer? Other fancy type kitchen stuff? When you are a strict vegetarian/raw food eater, my experience is that you have to be pretty into cooking and food because you can't eat out very easily and have to bring your own food to many events.

Share of a CSA for the coming year?
posted by treehorn+bunny at 3:27 PM on September 26, 2012

A workaround for the no-cash-allowed-but-very-limited-information-on-gifts-they'd-like problem I once used successfully was what I'll call 'returnable value gifting'. I had information on a store where A shopped, and that B liked music - or whatever - but nothing else except that they were very picky and kinda ungrateful.

So I went in and bought absolutely the ugliest items in the store and a selection of terrible CDs - or whatever - and made sure to keep the receipts.
I know that giving someone something they'll have to go return and exchange is sort of an anti-gift. But if the point is to have some physical object to open and appreciate (this is why cash and gift cards are no good), and the receiving party has at least some sense of humor, then ....

Gifting something totally ridiculously awful that everyone can laugh at serves both the material (it's worth X when they exchange it for something they want) and the social bonding aspects of gifting. Sometimes it's so bad-but-lovely they keep it, or it becomes a family story. ('Remember that time you got me that monkey lamp/orange fake fur hat/Masters of the Tuba box set? It was HILARIOUS!')

If your boyfriend is no help at all, it's possibly worth a try. Then take his mother aside for a cup of coffee and you can both roll your eyes about how hopeless he is and trade some hints for next year.
posted by bartleby at 3:38 PM on September 26, 2012

I think bartelby's idea is just terrible if you don't know these people.

I also agree with those who said do not give gift cards to the parents -- they're not different enough from cash, particularly for the parents. I wouldn't really give them to the siblings either.

The food gift ideas seem most appropriate or just let your boyfriend take care of this --it's his family.
posted by DMelanogaster at 5:48 PM on September 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Do joint gifts, your boyfriend will know what to get his family, or at least you can ask him questions (like of the "does your mom collect anything?" variety) and that will help you come up with some joint gift ideas!! My husband and I always do joint gifts for our family members, even when we first started dating.
posted by echo0720 at 7:18 PM on September 26, 2012

My family is into Christmas gifts, and I think it's a great example of a family where cash would not go over well. Even gift cards are viewed as somewhat lame, lacking in personal thought. It would just be awkward and whispered about later. Not a good idea.

Collaborating on gifts for the family "from both of you" is the best idea I see offered here.
posted by Miko at 8:10 PM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

A consideration from the UK - it is very common for family who aren't physically there to send cash in Christmas Cards, especially to children from grandparents.

In fact, I still sometimes receive cash from my wife's extended family. I don't think it is always gauche, and it is used when there is uncertainty as to what would be preferred. This is probably less common in person, but still happens.
posted by fizban at 11:43 PM on September 26, 2012

Fascinating cross-cultural problem!

I dont know what culture you are coming from, or going to, but often in gift-giving etiquette, the value of the gift is not necessarily related to it's monetary value. Value can be from the thought and understanding that the gift demonstrates or from its rarity.

I would consider taking some things from your culture. They do not have to be expensive or require big boxes, they dont even have to be rare to you; but if you take gifts which are rare or unusual to the recipients then you completely sidestep any notions of monetary value.

This would also be a great way to break the ice and, certainly in my family, would be seen as a very valuable, friendly gesture.

I dont know the specific things which the culture you are going to value but for Xmas in the UK alcohol, food and 'winter' specialities are particularly valued. You could, for example, take a bottle of local drink (to be opened ceremonially after the meal) and a box of local sweets (to be opened and shared when the individual presents are opened).
posted by BadMiker at 5:41 AM on September 27, 2012

If you're absolutely strapped for ideas, go to a fancy kitchen store, buy and wrap an assortment of tiny kitchen items - get ones that people don't buy for themselves and that can be used in preparing any kind of food. Don't label them but bring some labels. Then, when you arrive, you can get a sense of how to dish them out. Items might include things like fancy spoons, one of those cheese plane/garlic plane things, little storage items - basically just buy out the novelties rack at a Williams-Sonoma-like place.

I like the "items from my culture" idea - although it would depend on how comfortable you were with that; I could see how it would feel weird. Another option is "items from my city/state/region" - I have been known to bring people little Minnesota-themed items or Minnesota souvenirs. As long as you don't get the ugliest possible plastic junk, that usually goes over pretty well. I've gotten people novelty magnets, locally produced wild rice, tiny local crafts, books about our region - I don't know where you live, but in Minneapolis there are shops in the various neighborhoods that sell such things in different degrees of tasteful and kitschy.

Or hey, what about Christmas ornaments? I got people some locally made blown glass ornaments one time - the kind of thing you can hang in your window if you don't want to hang it on a tree. If I had to do it again, I might get some swedish straw ones (since my family is of Swedish descent and there are lots of Swedes around here, so it's both personal and regional.)

Also, I have been in a situation sort of like yours - the new person at a traditionally large and lavish family holiday. Nobody expected me to produce fancy, perfectly-cued items. I would argue, in fact, that if your boyfriend's family is going to be seriously upset that you bring them charming Home City novelties or a garlic plane instead of Posh Yet Appropriate Items In Quantity - especially if they frame this as 'she has a fancy job, she'd better dish it out' - then you might as well just do your best and resign yourself to failure, as they probably won't like anything you do.

But I bet a collection of Cute Souvenirs From My Hometown will be perfectly acceptable.
posted by Frowner at 6:23 AM on September 27, 2012

I am American/white, and my husband is Chinese. As a flipside example to your question, I am absolutely expected (by his family, but not him so much) to adhere to Chinese customs at Chinese New Year and other occaisions. If I showed up with a tangible gift that would be perfectly acceptable to my family or friends rather than cash, my husband would never hear the end of it (although nothing would be said directly to me). That is not to say that your boyfriend's family are as judgemental as my husband's family. But I think if you consider what would happen with your boyfriend if the situation were reversed, you can see that the more polite route is to participate in his family's traditions.

Gift-giving in the American culture (sorry if I am being assumptive here) is suposed to demonstrate the giver's thoughtfulness with regard to the recipient. The amount spent is not relevant as long as the gift is something that the recipient would really like or use, with bonus points if it is something that they would never buy for themselves as it may be too extravagant for their budget. Under those expectations, to give cash is viewed as lazy and thoughtless. As in, "oh, I couldn't be bothered to think of what you might like, so here, here's some cash". It's particularly thoughtless if you are giving money to someone who already has money, as in, not someone who is trying to figure out how they are going to pay their light bill this month. (I have been with my husband for 13 years, and Jesus Christ! does he refuse to accept this concept! It's infuriatingly insulting to get cash from your husband. Who you, you know, SHARE THE CHECKING ACCOUNT WITH).

In this particular situation, you have both the benefit of time, and of having someone who knows the individuals in question really well. So your boyfriend could help you select appropriate gifts. Or you could do a joint gift for his parents (larger budget, makes you both look good). If you felt comfortable you could call his mom and ask what she thinks the brothers might like (bonding opportunity), or more likely you could ask your bf to do this for you when you are in the room.

As personal note, I think edibles or experiences are the best gifts. Nobody needs more clutter in their house, and it's really hard to gage peopke's personal tastes when you don't know them well.

One more thing, you should take a nice hostess gift as well, a good bottle of wine or a nice olive oil or a dessert or something. It's not exactly your first impression with the family, but close enough, and it never hurts to be classy.
posted by vignettist at 8:05 AM on September 27, 2012

You might appreciate this recent question debating the issues when someone in the US asks for cash.

These rituals we entangle ourselves in, it's not simple!
posted by BadMiker at 2:07 AM on September 28, 2012

« Older Is leasing a Chevy Volt a great deal?   |   Shakin my pirate booty! (Trader Joe's soundtrack... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.