Christmas presents; changing incomes
November 14, 2019 10:49 AM   Subscribe

My parents don't have a lot of money. They would like to send Christmas presents. I have more money than they do. I would like to send them presents. How do I make it not awkward? Snowflakes inside.

My parents are struggling financially for a variety of reasons, including a late career layoff, bankruptcy, bad real estate loss, and my mother's mental health and other disabilities. They have had a particularly tight season.

My stepdad got in touch last night to ask what me, partner, and child, would like for Christmas. I didn't know how tight things had been, so I said "child likes Lego, partner would like a gift card for clothes for their new job, or a magazine subscription maybe" (not realizing how awkward it is to ask someone with little money for a gift card, and that said magazine subscription might be out of their price range).

I would like to communicate to them that it is very kind of them to want to get us gifts, but if the gesture is important to them, they could get us coffee or chocolate or some other small scale consumable. Neither of them do crafts or make foodstuffs, and we live in different cities. Time and energy are both limited.

I also want to get them gifts. I know my mother needs new clothes and hasn't been able to get them for herself. I would like to get them a giftcard for a restaurant they like, because they haven't been able to go out in months. I would like to get them gift cards for groceries or for the drug store so they can get good food and toiletries they might not otherwise be able to. I'm concerned that it will create an uncomfortable dynamic if the gift/care package I send them is much larger in scale than the coffee/chocolate they send me.

My mom and I have a strained relationship and communicate minimally, largely because of her untreated mental health issues and alcoholism, but I care about her and want her to have a comfortable life.

I feel so uncomfortable about how to communicate this. What is the most tactful way?

They helped me out financially quite a bit in my early twenties, and I feel guilty that that money could have gone into their savings to cushion this difficult time.
posted by unstrungharp to Human Relations (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Have the awkward conversation about "small gifts are okay," and maybe suggest they seek out something local that's harder for you to get - candy from a local chocolate shop, coffee from a non-chain or limited-area-chain, etc.

For your part, maybe include a note with whatever gift you send, something like,
"Please enjoy the attached gifts without guilt - my current prosperity is a direct result of your support and guidance, and I would like you to enjoy the holiday season."
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:02 AM on November 14, 2019 [8 favorites]

In your situation I would just lie my head off.

"Hey, Todd, I rethought what I told you last night about partner and child, and I realized I don't even know what specific Lego child wants. You know how kids have to have the exact right thing their friend got or whatever, anyway last time I got child a stormtrooper kit and it was the opposite of a hit. Also partner is unbelievably picky about clothes and I just found out that catalogue I steered you to is off the list for whatever reason. If you haven't already bought stuff, don't! Can you just get them [inexpensive item/substance]? They love that [thing/stuff], and I can assure you I at least have not bought them [one/any], yet."

Agree that it would be cool if you could suggest an inexpensive item/substance that's local to them or easier for them to get than for you to get.
posted by Don Pepino at 11:08 AM on November 14, 2019 [9 favorites]

Some ideas.

Send them the gift package you planned. Include a card with it saying something like you helped me out in my twenties it's my turn to help you out.

If having the awkward conversation just isn't something your family will do & you're worried that they'll try to buy the expensive presents for you guys. Call them up & white lie that you spoke to partner afterwards & they've already got those things, so how about something like the coffee, candy, your recipe for x etc. Have this conversation before you send the gift cards

If you want to avoid the awkward gift comparison, you could always send it as a Thanksgiving gift and your way of saying Thanks for the help they gave you, then send smaller things at Christmas so they don't feel the comparison as much. Then the help isn't tied to being a Christmas present & you can do the old, we're cutting back on consumerism this Christmas & simplifying gifts excuse for receiving smaller gifts.

I would often pay just quietly pay off my mums gas or electric bills in winter to help her out. That way she couldn't say no & it freed up some extra cash for her.
posted by wwax at 11:10 AM on November 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've lied and said I won/was gifted gift cards to places that aren't local to me but are local to them and could they possiby use them?
posted by tipsyBumblebee at 11:12 AM on November 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

Could you combine the "forget what I said last night because I got it all wrong" lie as suggested by Don Pepino with a request that they donate to a meaningful charity in your area? Generally gift amounts to charities in the name of someone else don't get reported, so they could donate $5 and still get the "Thank you for your contribution to Special Charity" donation card.
posted by angiep at 11:19 AM on November 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Or how about something unique that only they could give you:
"I've always loved that photo of me and Aunt Becky–what I really want is a copy we can put in the living room."
posted by the_blizz at 11:28 AM on November 14, 2019 [13 favorites]

Call or email and say "We're reconsindering our lives and we're commiting to making a conscious effort to limit our consumerism. This year we'd like to focus on consumables and experiences in our house. Chocolate, coffee and a movie pass for Child would be really valued and appreciated."
posted by DarlingBri at 11:46 AM on November 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm in a similar situation, and admittedly...I just fudge the truth a little.

Every year, I tell my dad how much I really miss a certain kind of popcorn he can get from his local corner store and an affordable brand of chocolates local to him. They're not super common where I live, but they're also not as impossible to get as I maybe make it seem, and they're both lightweight to mail.

In return, I always tell him that I got a good price on some gift cards through a group purchasing thing at work, and that since I never go to [insert chain restaurant or store] because it's hard to get to without a car here, I hoped he and his wife could make use of them. I tuck that gift card in with his "real gift" of some little local luxury like smoked salmon, and he either believes it or cheerfully pretends to.

It was a little awkward to navigate the first couple of years, but it quickly just became the new gift-giving norm.
posted by northernish at 11:49 AM on November 14, 2019 [17 favorites]

I would use the great lie above about why you need to change the gift suggestions you previously provided, and I would get them a gift certificate for dinner out and/or clothes and not mention anything about this being gesture of repayment for help provided earlier in life. I think pointing it out would be harder on their dignity than not pointing it out. I would not get get them gift certificates for groceries or drug stores or anything else that falls into the category of basic living necessities because that would point out their dire straights.

I would then think about how I could be more help during the regular part of life - is there some way to lift their burden in a meaningful way that is longer-term? A "loan" to pay off high interest debt? I would wait until after the holidays to take any steps on that part of the plan.

How did you find out that money was tighter than you thought? Is there someone who has the inside story on how they are doing that you are in touch with? If so, maybe they can help with ideas for longer-term help.
posted by girlpublisher at 11:57 AM on November 14, 2019 [5 favorites]

Yes, concur, don't get them staples until after the holiday. For the holiday get them festive things to help them celebrate and be happy and not be worried about money for a bit, particularly not be worried about how much money you spent. If you send the basic sustenance stuff after, you can make it look like not a holiday gift that they'd have to feel bad about not being able to reciprocate but more just you trying not to waste something, like, "I can't use this, but maybe you can?" That "re-gifting this card somebody gave me for store I don't patronize" idea is a great one.
posted by Don Pepino at 12:12 PM on November 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Here's a long comment from me on a similar topic.

A few thoughts --

I would probably not address this head on. Better to let them think you haven't noticed. Even if they know you know, maybe avoid connecting it to gifts.

Taking back the gift requests, or at least augmenting them, is good. Then develop the cheapest possible taste, and as you've discovered, ask for generic things that might conceivably be very cheap, like socks, a fuzzy hat, etc. Bulky is good -- it feels better giving someone a cheap gift when it's big in size.

Ooh, are there any hand-me-downs you want, like that table in the attic? That one you supposedly have really great memories about that would mean so much? ;)

Don't be surprised if they give you guys expensive stuff anyway. The desire to preserve one's dignity (combined with the unfortunate fact that our society values wealth so much) is a powerful force, and ultimately an important one.

One way to make your gift seem less disproportionately larger is to split it up into multiple occasions. Happy Thanksgiving. Happy anniversary. Just thinking of you. Happy New Year. Send an Advent calendar with a little gift certificate or some food treat as well.

Speaking of gift certificates, that's a super helpful way to let them have the experience of giving you a gift without paying for it. Could you send them an Amazon gift card, say for Thanksgiving? They can use that to buy some of the gifts.

Can you visit them? If they don't have Amazon prime, shipping is expensive. You could bring the meal (otherwise cooking for you all would be way more than shipping) and smuggle some other stuff into their house as well -- extra food, "some stuff you bought that doesn't fit me -- does it fit you, mom?" Maybe take them out to that restaurant they like.

For your presents to them, if you're really concerned about their finances, you might try to subsidize their everyday life as much as possible. Like a meat or coffee subscription service -- something that replaces money they'd otherwise spend.

I don't know their level of desperation, but be careful giving them $50 to spend on a single dinner if they're at the level where they'll be calculating how many pounds of rice and beans that could've paid for.

If you're really doing well or really worried about them, you could potentially offer to pay them back what they gave you in your youth, even with interest if you wanted, or make payments against it. Just an idea. That would be a way to send them money with a defined extent (instead of indefinitely) and while letting them save face.

You're kind to think of this. Hope this helps.
posted by salvia at 12:54 PM on November 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

In my family, the adults have gone to presents for only the kids. Maybe suggest that to your parents? Then they can spend a bit more on your child and not have to spend anything on you and your partner. And, you can still get presents for them.

This happened in my family because I had a conversation with my sister about this. It was getting to be a bit of a financial burden to always have to get things for spouses' partners we didn't know.

We still exchange birthday presents.

As for strategies: you could make up a story (is that terrible?) along the lines of, "Partner's family had a great idea. We're trying to focus less on consumerism for the holidays but still preserve the magic and fun for the kids, so we're not going to exchange gifts among the adults except for grandparents. I thought this was a great idea. So how about if you get something for Child but not Partner and me?"
posted by bluedaisy at 1:14 PM on November 14, 2019

You could say that you passed their question on to your partner and, having talked about it together, you've decided you want to make this a book-focused holiday. Partner would love Book A, you would love Book B, and for your child Book C or their choice. (You could check how much the books cost, or send them specific amazon links to paperback editions, etc.)

With the things you want to do for your parents, they don't have to be done in the context of Christmas gifts. You can start doing these things after the holidays and frame them as monthly help, or a New Year's thing, or "I won some giftcards" or "I got a raise" as mentioned above or whatever. De-coupling these from the holiday gifts helps get away from the gift-comparison context.
posted by trig at 1:36 PM on November 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

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