you ever gone to one of those post-holiday gift-swapping parties?
Everyone brings the gifts they would rather not keep, and,
with any luck, one person's trash is another's treasure. But
how do you give the kind of gifts that people appreciate and
cherish? More to the point, how do you avoid giving the kind
of gifts that when people say, "You really shouldn't have,"
you really shouldn't have? Here are my top ten tips for artful
1. Whose present is it, anyway?
If it's really a gift, it's for the recipient. Sure, every
gift blesses the giver. You often hear people say that they
get more out of giving than the recipient does. But in some
cases, that's what the givers had in mind all along.
They pick presents they would like to receive,
not gifts that they know will please the recipient. They
buy in their own favorite color, choose CDs based on their
own musical taste, give books that reflect their own world-views.
They wish someone would give such a gift to them. If you
say you're sharing something you like with others, that's
fine. If you're doing it to impose your opinion, it's not
2. Timing isn't everything, but it's
an important thing.
Give when the recipient can really use the gift. Why wait
for a birthday or a holiday when someone has a need or a
heart's desire with a different date attached? You can give
a graduation present as a reward for a completed accomplishment,
but might your expenditure be more appreciated if it comes
on the way to graduation? A bookstore gift certificate,
tuition assistance, a laptop computer- these are gifts as
opposed to rewards.
In the larger picture, I have structured
my estate so that I'm giving big cash gifts now, when they
are most practical and helpful. It makes more sense to me
to pay off mortgages and cars for loved ones now so that
they are debt-free and secure while we're all relatively
young and healthy. It's the same with my charitable donations.
I'm giving now, while I can enjoy seeing the ways my charitable
gifts are used. I don't think it will be as much fun to
give when I'm dead.
3. Give with an open hand.
If there are strings attached, it's not a gift. If you give
money and then second-guess what the recipient does with
the money, it's not a gift. If you give a present and then
get angry because the recipient exchanged it or re-gifted
it, it's not a gift. When you give with an open hand, the
gift leaves your hand. It is no longer yours. It is not
yours to judge, to control, to manage.
I once gave a large cash gift to a family
who, in turn, gave cash gifts to others. My initial reaction
was unhappy surprise- I would never have given money directly
to the individuals they gifted, and I would never have given
to their chosen charities. I quickly remembered that I had
given a gift. I did not enter into an agreement or a contract
with conditions of satisfaction. I gave a gift, and that
meant the money belonged to the recipients to do with as
they pleased. That taught me to think ahead, to mentally
play out scenarios that might unfold, and avoid the potential
for giver's remorse. I try now to give only when I can genuinely
and freely give.
4. Don't rub it in.
I gave a gift to a loved one, and it gave me great pleasure
to see that it was being used. Whenever I experienced that
pleasure, I mentioned the gift and how happy I was about
it. One day, the recipient turned to me in exasperation.
"Have I not thanked you sufficiently for this?" she said.
"I have thanked you and thanked you, but you keep bringing
it up as if you expect me to thank you every time."
Now I keep my mouth shut. If I see that
they're wearing it, eating it, spending it, driving it,
reading it, listening to it, or in any way using, enjoying,
or benefiting from something I gave, I would rather choke
than mention how happy I am about it. (See #1, "Whose present
is it, anyway?")
5. Don't give the gift that keeps on
A camera company used to refer to its
product as "The gift that keeps on giving." I was a kid
for whom it was "The gift that keeps on costing." The camera
seemed like a great present until it came time to pay for
film and developing. I couldn't afford either, so the gift
was no gift at all.
My husband is always puzzled when people
turn down his offer of free weeks at our vacation home.
He forgets how much this "free" vacation costs-cross-country
airfare, ground transportation, meals, lift tickets, other
incidentals-all at top resort prices. Yes, you get wonderful
accommodations at no cost whatsoever, but it costs plenty
to get there and be there. Consider what your gift might
cost the recipient. Is it expensive to fill, to insure,
to clean, to operate? Does it require accessories or fees
or special clothing? Are there tax implications? If I give
a gift that requires batteries, I give a year's supply.
6. Give a gift, don't send a message.
There's a difference between giving a gift and delivering
a sermon. When I was a nail-biting child, I could always
count on some well-meaning relative to remember my birthday
with a lovely manicure set as an "incentive." I was not
inspired. I was, in fact, insulted, embarrassed, hurt, and
cheated out of a genuine birthday present.
Any time your gift implies there is something
"not right" about the recipient that needs fixing, it's
not kind, even if you think it's in their long-term best
If there are overweight loved ones in your
life, you are not doing them a favor to surprise them with
a treadmill, a health club membership, or an exercise video.
And don't ask if they would like you to get them something
like that, either, unless they have already expressed an
interest in getting your help to change the condition. The
mere suggestion screams your disapproval, and that's not
7. Remember, you bought the gift, not
Some givers like to get a little something extra, in addition
to the "There's a difference between giving pleasure of
giving a gift. You may know of a household where the parents
made the down payment on the newlyweds' house and assumed
they bought the right to say what goes on in the house.
Sometimes the ego gratification from giving
a major gift confuses a donor into thinking they bought
a piece of a charitable institution. Just because they named
the wing after you, it doesn't mean you own the wing. You
don't get to boss people around at the nonprofit. Make sure
you know the difference between an investment in personal
public relations and a genuine gift to charity.
8. Don't wear the price tag on your forehead.
Some givers want recipients to know exactly how expensive
a gift is. I once had a relative who was famous for leaving
the price tag on a gift so everyone knew exactly "how much"
she thought of them, and what they were "worth" compared
to others in the family.
Some want the recipients to know how much
of a sacrifice it was to give, or how inconvenient it was,
or how much trouble they went to in order to produce a gift.
This is a form of making the recipient pay for the gift.
It's also the hallmark of someone who "knows the price of
everything and the value of nothing."
9. If you expect gratitude, it's an exchange,
not a gift.
For decades, people have been complaining to Dear Abby that
people don't write thank-you notes. "Is it proper to inquire
as to whether a gift has been received?" they ask. If you
want to know if things have been received, send them via
trackable methods like FedEx or registered mail. Then you'll
know. If you are offended when people don't write their
thanks, don't send more presents. (However, your mother
was right: It is both polite and gracious to thank the giver,
and it gives the giver extra enjoyment-and that's part of
being a good receiver.)
10. Give the gift of dignity.
Whatever you give, whenever you give, however you give,
it costs you nothing to give recipients their dignity. The
giver is not superior. The recipient is not lesser. We get
brainwashed by platitudes like "It's better to give than
to receive" and somehow twist the message into "we are better
if we give than if we receive." I find that some of the
most generous givers are uncomfortable, ungracious, or unwilling
receivers. If you enjoy giving but not receiving, perhaps
you believe that the receiver is the "minus" part of the
equation. Give people the gift of dignity, respect, and
a sense that we are all equally valuable people. That's
one gift that actually becomes more precious when it's returned
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