Sunday, February 1, 2009

Married Life: The Culture of Gift-Giving

As I mentioned last week, one interesting challenge that the Mister and I have encountered in new married life is gift-giving. In fact, it was probably the biggest puzzle we faced in combining our finances.

Until my brother got married in 2000 -- well, actually, not until my nephew was born several years later, I never gave one iota of a thought to the culture of gift-giving in families. I knew how my immediate family did it...and that's all I needed to know. It worked. It made sense.

I won't go into the details because it's not the real point of this story; however, once my brother's son came on the scene, I had the opportunity to learn a little bit about my sister-in-law's family's culture of gift-giving. While normal in the whole scheme of things, it was different from what we did, which did cause some interesting friction.

Having that experience in my background, going into my own marriage I knew I had better find out about my in-law's gift-giving practices before the occasions arose. In fact, as Michael and I discussed our credit histories and current financial status soon after our engagement, I inquired about his family's culture of gift-giving (even though I had a feeling I already knew what it was).

Just as I thought. It was completely different from the way my family handled things.

My family gives one gift to each member of the immediate family (now defined to include spouses-in-law and children of siblings) at Christmas. If they have a big one-time life event (i.e. marriage, birth), we give gifts for those occasions too.

For birthdays, we might send a card to immediate family members. We almost always call the birthday person on their big day (except that my brother doesn't usually remember anymore). We never give gifts (except to children). (Although our parents still give us something for our birthdays.)

For the most part, we treat Mother's Day and Father's Day the same way as we do birthdays (card and phone call)...unless we happen to be with them on that occasion and then we'll treat them to lunch or something.

My husband's family does things differently. Gifts are a very big deal. You have to give something, and you will receive something for Christmas and birthdays. Phone calls and cards are optional. Mother's Day and Father's Day also require gifts, cards, and phone calls.

Trying to merge two different gift-giving cultures is not easy. If you make a change to what your family is used to (stop or start giving gifts when you used to give or not give), you will cause waves that will ripple out to everyone in the family.

For example, if out of the blue we gave my brother a birthday gift this year, my sister may feel guilty that she didn't also give a gift to him. Maybe she feels like suddenly she's going to have to start giving him a birthday gift too. He also may feel bad that he never remembers anyone's birthday anymore. And that means we also need to give my sister, sister-in-law, and parents birthday presents too...and they will feel like they need to reciprocate to us. In the interest of fairness, it would also mean that they would have to give each other gifts too.

Likewise, it would be odd if Michael stopped giving gifts to his family for these occasions.

This is my problem with gifts. Even if no one should feel obligated to reciprocate, they do -- we do.

I pondered this situation for several months before we were married. It would start to get really expensive to give gifts to 13 family members for all of these occasions. It wouldn't settle well with my siblings in particular if Michael and I started a new practice of giving everyone birthday gifts. It wouldn't settle well with Michael's family if we quit giving so many gifts. For me, in the interest of fairness, giving extra gifts to one family and not the other was out of the question.

What would we do?!

A few weeks after we returned from the honeymoon I worked on a household budget for married life. (I do the number-crunching and budget-making and then take the results to Michael for approval.) With 13 immediate family members and lots of friends and family who have special occasions, gifts was going to be a significant line item in the budget. But how much? How would we give gifts and keep everyone (and us) happy?

The solution: the 13 close relatives each get a dollar amount assigned to them for the usual gift-giving occasions (birthdays, Christmas, Mother's Day/Father's Day). There are three categories of people: parents, siblings, and children. Everyone in each category gets the same amount budgeted each year. Michael and I decide for our own family members how we want to use that money. The adults in my family don't get birthday gifts, so they have a larger amount for Christmas. Michael divides his allotments up by all of the occasions. So, we spend less on their Christmas gifts, but they do get birthday gifts.

Will it be strange to Michael that I won't give my sister a birthday gift in a few weeks? Yes. But was it unusual to me that he sent his sister-in-law a check (because he couldn't think of an actual gift to give) for her forty-something birthday this past fall, oh yeah! -- especially, since the check was cashed but never otherwise acknowledged.

It's not a perfect system, but nearly 6 months into marriage and many gift-giving occasions behind us, it's working because we are each pretty much happy with it.

What is your gift-giving culture?

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