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Disparity in giving: Imbalanced gift exchanges can be awkward

By Sherri Richards

FARGO — Differing family dynamics can make things lopsided under the Christmas tree.

Take the childless aunt who buys gifts for her brother, sister-in-law and their three kids, and receives one from the family in return. Or the couple who gives one joint gift to a friend, and gets two.

Uneven gift giving also can result from disparate incomes, said Morgan Almer, financial counselor with the Village Family Service Center in Fargo.

“You feel guilty,” he said. “They could afford a much nicer gift for your parents.”

Imbalanced gift exchanges can lead to awkwardness between those giving and receiving, said Peggy Post, director of The Emily Post Institute and author of more than a dozen etiquette books.

Giving group gifts can help even things out, as can different gift-giving traditions, such as drawing names or present swaps.

Understanding etiquette

While a singular gift from a couple or family is perfectly appropriate, Post said gift givers should try to parallel each other in gift giving.

“A lot of it is trusting one’s judgment, using some common sense,” Post said, adding that it’s important not to “break the bank.”

Whether someone gives individual or joint gifts depends on the relationship between each party, Post said.

For the single person exchanging gifts with a couple, “either give them a joint gift or tone it down a bit if you’re going to give them each one separately,” Post said.

“They’d probably be happy to have it balance out, too. They might feel like they slighted you,” she adds.

A large piece is focusing on the spirit of giving, said Post and Ellie McCann, a family relations educator with the University of Minnesota Extension office in Moorhead.

“As adults, to remember that, whether we’re giving or receiving, it’s about the thought and the sentiment of the gift,” McCann said.

Often, the guilt about giving too much or too little is unnecessarily self-imposed.

“I think families can be very understanding when it comes to financial things,” Almer said. “It might bother me, but they wouldn’t expect me to come with a sack of gifts if I was unemployed.”

Balancing it out

Individuals and families can take steps to even out disproportionate gift exchanges.

To reduce the amount of time and money spent shopping for presents, singletons can give one gift to a couple or an entire family, such as tickets to an event, a movie, board game or jigsaw puzzle.

“I love that idea because I think it can really focus on activities that are good for the family and that bring the family together, that they’re going to remember,” McCann said.

Gifts of service — such as coupons for babysitting services or a home-cooked meal — are another option.

Almer suggests siblings go in on gifts together for their parents, setting a dollar amount everyone can agree on. He said it’s also OK to contribute different amounts, as long as that arrangement is transparent and agreed on by all gift givers.

Dollar limits on gift exchanges can also help address disparity.

“If they blow that limit up, that’s their decision,” Almer said.

Almer’s family has a tradition of each person bringing one gift — this year it’s a $10 tool (for men) or scarf (for women). Everyone answers Christmas trivia questions to determine who picks first.

Any change in gifting traditions needs to be discussed. Those conversations should be held early (at this point, perhaps addressing next year’s holiday), and include the entire family.

McCann suggests asking, “What do you think gift giving should look like?”

Whatever traditions are in place can’t be abandoned lightly.

“Traditions are part of core values,” McCann said.

A family’s tradition

Bridget Belter of Leonard, said her family addressed potential unevenness early on.

“When we all graduated from high school, we just decided at that time, we were all going to school and none of us had enough money to buy everyone a gift,” Belter said.

They started drawing names for Christmas gifts. Fiancés, spouses and children all went in to the pool of names when they joined the family.

Next year, the kids will draw among themselves, Belter said.

“It’s really cut down on the spending, and it’s a lot more fun,” she said.

Everyone makes a list. Last year the dollar limit was $50. This year it was cut to $30.

Belter said it’s a fun challenge to find good deals to buy as many items from the list as she can.

Drawing names makes sense in a time when kids have so much stuff, Belter said. She said her 9-year-old niece has never questioned why she doesn’t get a gift from her aunt.

Belter also recognizes it’s a more equitable arrangement for her unmarried sister.

“It’s really not fair for a single person to buy for four people and only get one gift back,” she said.

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