Overblown Offering: Declining the elaborate gift

by epi on January 20, 2012

Q: I recently received a very expensive holiday gift from my brother-in-law. I don’t feel right accepting such a gift. Prior to Christmas, the agreement was made that the adults would not exchange gifts. But on Christmas day he had gifts for everyone. I think this goes back to last Christmas, when we also agreed not to exchange gifts. I made a nice gesture and bought him an inexpensive gift in token of him organizing his own business. The monetary difference makes me uncomfortable. Should I refuse this gift? If so, how do I properly do so?

A: It’s your choice whether or not to return his gift.  Nonetheless, if you decide to return the gift, you might say that although you appreciated his thoughtfulness, you just don’t feel right keeping such an expensive gift. You might also explain that, even though last Christmas it was agreed for the adults in the family not to exchange gifts, you had given him the gift as a way to wish him success in his new business.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Country Girl January 20, 2012 at 2:04 pm

I have to say I would be really disappointed if my family members suddenly decided to stop exchanging gifts. I would really miss the joy of seeing the people I love the most enjoying something that I had thoughtfully given them. Is it possible that BIL could have bought this gift before the agreement not to exchange this year was made? Is it possible that, even understanding that his family couldn’t afford the time or money to get him a gift, he just couldn’t help but sharing his blessings with them? It makes me sad to think that returning the gift is likely only going to accomplish taking away the joy that brother in law felt in giving it.

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Winifred Rosenburg January 20, 2012 at 3:16 pm

My mother has a similar arrangement with her sisters. They all agreed not to get each other birthday presents anymore, but they still do Christmas presents. They did it because they all agreed they have too much stuff and would rather just celebrate together without getting more stuff.

It seems unlikely that he bought the present before the arrangement was made since apparently the agreement was made at least a year ahead of time.

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Country Girl January 20, 2012 at 4:18 pm

I also know from a personal experience that there are many various reasons friends and family choose to change up their method of or eliminate all together gift exchanging. I think the problem arises when not every person whom these blanketed rules affects is involved in making that decision. It seemed to me, and perhaps I unfairly read into it, that brother-in-law wasn’t really involved in deciding or didn’t agree with the change, as obviously he still wanted to give gifts. (Of course it only adds to the confusion that even thought this decision was apparently made the previous year, he still received a Christmas gift from his sibling-in-law.)

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Marilyn January 20, 2012 at 4:00 pm

I’m afraid you’re missing an important point: a boundary was set and the brother-in-law crossed it. If returning the gift with the explanation that it’s simply too extravagant to accept takes away his joy at giving the gift, then how secure is this guy? How much true joy did he receive from giving the gift? How much does he respect the wishes and feelings of others if he extravagantly breaks the agreement?

My family is large. My sisters and I have agreed not to give gifts. The first year of gift-free happened when people were broke, in college, unemployed, etc. One of my sisters showed up for gifts for everyone, which really hurt the feelings of a lot of us because she broke the agreement that we all reached together.

Now days we give each other something inexpensive—homemade dog treats, a five dollar hair comb, etc. If someone cannot give one year, that’s fine. Anyone can opt out at any time, any year. If you can, it remains inexpensive and small and often handmade.

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Whitney January 23, 2012 at 4:31 pm

I agree with Country Girl’s comment:
“It makes me sad to think that returning the gift is likely only going to accomplish taking away the joy that brother in law felt in giving it.”

I don’t think it matters whether the brother-in-law was part of the decision-making process or was aware in advance of the ‘deal’. He gave you a gift because he wanted to give you a gift. If he didn’t want to get you one, he had a very easy out to not give you one because of your agreement. So to put his feelings into simple terms – it made him happy to give you a present and so in all likelihood, it would probably make him unhappy (and a little awkward) to have it returned to him.

Alternatively, you mentioned that you think he might have felt obligated to get you something because you gave him a token gift (for his business) last Christmas. EVEN IF that is the case, he gave you what he gave you because he wanted to give it to you. He would have given you something small if he didn’t want to get you something and simply felt obligated.

In regard to your other concern, if the gift is truly excessive ($300 – $1,000,000…) you could tell him that you do not feel comfortable keeping it, if you really want to. But if he still makes it clear that he wants you to have it, then you would make him happier by keeping it, and that to me is the nicer thing to do. If it is anything less than $300, I would not make a big deal about it at all. I would tell him how happy his gift made me, how appreciative I am, and how generous and unexpected it was.

Also, I really think the issue will resolve by itself, so not to reoccur next Christmas. Due to the mere fact you did not give him a gift this year, he will likely reconsider getting you such an expensive gift next year, or getting you a gift at all (since he knows that you are actually going to stick to the deal since you did already this year). If he did it solely out of obligation, well the favour has been returned and so that reason is out. If he still gets you an expensive gift, and again you feel awkward – if he is giving them to everyone then he wants to do it and just let him, because it obviously makes him happy.

I say all of this because my dad has a habit of returning gifts to me sometimes, because he thinks I shouldn’t have spent so much or because he doesn’t need the item. But it just makes me feel lousy because I wanted him to have it, even if he returns it, I want him to use the money to get something else that he wants. (And he doesn’t need the money… so its really is just the joy in giving it to him.)

Ironically, he mentioned to me once how he hated how his mother used to always return the gifts that he would buy for her, because he wanted her to have them. Which is funny because he now does the same to me. But the point is that most people feel lousy when a gift is returned, and this even includes people who return gifts themselves.

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Whitney January 23, 2012 at 5:21 pm

Also, in response to Marilyn’s comment, I don’t think giving an elaborate gift and being disappointed about its return makes one insecure, disrespectful, or brings into question the sincerity of the ‘joy’ felt upon giving it. I think it is normal to feel disappointed if someone returns their gift to you. It’s awkward, you feel bad because you made them feel uncomfortable, and you’re a little bummed out because you thought the item x,y,z would have been an amazing gift for the person and you were naturally excited for them to have it.

And yes, it is totally awkward to be on the receiving end, no doubt. I don’t think his actions were right, or something that I would do myself, but what’s done is done. Your question is to figure out the best route based on the situation at hand, which could mean accepting the gift because you know that would make him happy. Just because he made you feel uncomfortable, doesn’t mean it is necessarily best to make him feel uncomfortable back.

Why don’t you try to figure out what you think he would want and what would actually make you feel better. Would he prefer you have it? Would he be disappointed if you gave it back? Would it really even make you feel better to return a gift because you felt uncomfortable, knowing that you are making him feel uncomfortable for returning it? You might be surprised, but that might make you feel just as bad as keeping it.

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Random Mom January 20, 2012 at 4:38 pm

In instances such as these, family members tend to be relieved when the tradition of exchanging gifts comes to an end (it’s an expensive habit), so it seems to me that your brother-in-law is either a show-off or hard of hearing. Sure, a few relatives might want to continue to shower tokens of their love upon others, but a deal’s a deal and you shouldn’t be punished for wanting to stick to it. Why someone would put others in the position of having to be the bad guy (a.k.a. follower of rules) is beyond me.

If the family’s consensus was to end the tradition, it should be honored. If you would feel too uncomfortable returning your Brother-in-law’s gift, let it go for now, but remind him of the family’s agreement as Christmas 2012 approaches; I’m sure you’ll have a few opportunities to do so. If accepting his latest gift bothers you too much to keep it, return it to him – in private – and explain why.

You’re not off the hook either. Surely, you could have presented his congratulatory gift for starting a business at some other time of year to avoid any confusion.

P.S. – Your brother-in-law’s joy at giving the gift shouldn’t supersede your comfort in accepting it. If it is, the gift-giver is focusing too much on themselves and not the recipient.

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Zakafury January 23, 2012 at 10:50 am

Perhaps he thought the agreement was only for last Christmas. Times were harder. As a show-off who loves giving Christmas gifts, I was eager to get back to the practice after members of my generation asked not to exchange presents last year.

Also, I take issue with this “too extravagant” idea. Like I said, I’m a show off. I have a steady job, no kids, and no debt to speak of. So, I have a bigger budget to spend on this stuff than many of those receiving the gifts. I would be a little offended at being told how I could (not) spend my money.

If the gift is of such a magnitude that you can’t possibly help but feel indebted, then I suppose refusing it would be fine. If you’re really just feeling guilty because it’s something nicer than you could have afforded to reciprocate, put those thoughts aside. Christmas is not a quid pro quo endeavor.

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Jon Morgan October 15, 2012 at 3:53 am

Right on, Zakafury! “Accepting a gift honors the giver”

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Jon Morgan October 15, 2012 at 3:50 am

A friend and I are taking a third friend out to dinner for his birthday……. Who has the “right” to decide where to go? The birthday boy will not be asked to pay for anything.

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Winifred Rosenburg October 15, 2012 at 8:55 am

You and the other friend who is paying ultimately have the decision, but it would be nice to get input from the birthday friend too. One way to do this would be to ask your friend what type of food he is in the mood for. You could also come up with several ideas that are fine for you and let him choose from that selection.

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Carol Carlisle August 5, 2013 at 11:10 pm

What should someone do about gifts that are given with lots of strings attached? I just want to be prepared in anticipation. Should they be refused? This would be a friend who has lots of expectations that accompany her gifts. What would be appropriate?

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Dorothy Shepherd December 30, 2013 at 9:37 am

My sister and her husband have showered me and my spouse with kindness and generosity over the past 40 years – we always stay at her home when in town (quite often), she treats us like royalty, encourages us to use her vacation home, etc. We have always reciprocated with small token gifts but this year decided that 40 years of their wonderful generosity merited a little “payback” and at Christmas gave them a generous monetary gift to help fund their upcoming European trip. They promptly refused it (“too much”) and will not discuss it further. We are hurt and saddened, and feel awkward accepting their hospitality in the future. What to do?

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Maggie December 30, 2013 at 3:49 pm

I think the issue isn’t that you were overly-generous, but that you chose to express your generosity with cash. For adults–especially if they are older and have stable finances–receiving a gift of money is very awkward. Most adults generally don’t want friends or family to feel the need to be their financial benefactors. If you wish to re-pay their generosity, choose a thoughtful gift—perhaps even an expensive one–but not cash. Perhaps fund an experience for them while they’re in Europe (race car driving in Italy or a cooking class in France) or get them some monogrammed luggage or a nice travel wallet. To ease the awkwardness of this situation, enclose a card saying that you hope they were not offended by your gift but that you wished to express your thanks for all of their generosity in the past. Then you say that you hope they have a lovely trip and that they know how much you love them. Then everyone puts this behind them. And, in the future, you only give cash to young people–or those of limited financial means who you know well enough to know you are not offending them.

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