On a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory, the eminently practical and socially inept Sheldon Cooper lamented receiving a generous gift from his friend Howard—because now he was in Howard’s debt. He insisted on giving money in exchange for the gift so that they would be “even.”
While most of us know better than to pay a friend for a gift, I know we have all felt some of the discomfort with gift-giving that only a television character would dare say out loud. And gifts can be a treacherous moment emotionally and socially—particularly if the gift is financial. Few people give money to friends or family without any expectations of how that gift will be used. So how do you navigate the potential land mines inherent in gifts of money? Here are some things to consider before the next time you offer or receive a financial gift.
Should Gifts Have Strings At All?
This is a question that you should probably decide for yourself at a time when there are no gifts in the offing. I was raised to believe that gifts should be freely given—and that recipients should be able to enjoy their gifts however they see fit. But even though this was my family’s gift giving philosophy, on occasion I have found myself disappointed in seeing how someone had used a gift I chose or made for them.
This became even more complicated on the few occasions I have been in the position to offer a gift of money. How would I feel if I gave a friend money to fix her car, and then discovered she went on an expensive spa weekend soon afterward? Do I have the right to tell someone how they should use the money I am giving?
Knowing whether you feel you have a right to attach strings to financial gifts will help you determine how to handle gift-giving in the future, whether you are the giver or the recipient.
Make Expectations Clear
One of the reasons why financial gifts can be so stressful is because it’s not always clear whether the giver is attaching strings or not. So, to nip any potential resentment in the bud, make sure you talk openly with the other party about how the money will be used. In my example above, I might tell my friend “I’m giving you this $500 specifically so you can get your transmission fixed. I want you to be able to get to work each day.” From there, she can choose to accept the money with that stipulation or not.
On the other side of it, receiving a gift of money is when you should tell the giver how you plan to use it. For example, the transmission-impaired friend might say “Thank you so much for this money. I’ll plan on having my brother-in-law the mechanic give me the family discount for fixing the car, and whatever is left over will go toward groceries/my upcoming spa weekend/making a gift for you.” Again, this will give the giver an opportunity to say that they are not comfortable with how the money will be used—before it becomes a bone of contention.
Walking Away and Letting Go
Sometimes the strings attached to gifts are difficult, awkward, or just plain unreasonable. In those cases, the only ethical thing for the recipient to do is walk away from the gift. For example, if your parents are happy to pay every penny for your lavish dream wedding—provided you get married in the religious institution that you have distanced yourself from—you need to thank them kindly but tell them you’re going to pay for the (non-religious) wedding yourself. You cannot accept the money without the condition, so don’t put yourself in the position where you must sacrifice something you care about in exchange for the money.
The other side of the coin is how to deal with seeing your gift being used in a way you did not intend. For example, the parents of the non-religious couple might be thrilled when the bride and groom accept the conditional money, only to be horrified at the secular wedding the couple throws. Though you can tell the recipient (of a large financial gift) once that you are disappointed that they did not meet your condition, you then must emotionally let it all go. Because you will otherwise be sacrificing a relationship over a gift. And theoretically, you gave that gift in the first place because of the strength of the relationship.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to gift giving, it’s important that you know your own feelings and preferences and to make them known. Talking about gifts may feel awkward, but that awkwardness is preferable to a damaged relationship.