Thursday, June 26, 2008

Gift Giving Made Easy...Not

There are any number of occasions which bring with them "mandatory" gift giving. Yes, as all the etiquette books will tell you, there is no such thing as a mandatory gift. That's the theory. The practice is quite different. When you are invited to a birthday party it is "expected" that you will bring some sort of gift. The same for weddings and bar mitzvahs. So let's just work on the assumption that those who accept invitations to these types of celebrations are going to give a gift.

But what kind of gift? Some people will actually go out, shop and buy an item to give as a gift. Sometimes the celebrant will have given a hint or an outright declaration of what type of gift they would like, should you be inclined to buy them something. Think bridal registries. Other people will reason that the celebrants should have the joy of buying what they want, and so they give a check. Fine, but now to the sticky, tricky part.

How do you decide how much to spend on a gift or how large a check to write out? A lot of people know what the "average" amount or range of money given for particular types of functions is in their community and they give accordingly. When I got married that "average" figure was about $36 per couple if you were just regular invitees. A few people gave less and a few people gave more, but that was the general target figure. Those who are closer friends may give more than this community average, or they may not. Some family members will give the community average; some will give more.

The question also arises as to how many people in a family are being invited to the simcha. The above discussion assumed a couple was in attendance. If single children who are very young are invited some gift givers don't factor them in when figuring out the gift amount. If the children are older singles the parents will usually up the amount given.

Now we run into some practices I am not at all fond of; in fact, I really hate them. Some people will arrive at the simcha with their check already written out, placed in an envelope and ready to give to the baal simcha. That's fine. Others wait to write out their check until they are at the simcha. Why? Because a whole lot of people are going to wait and see how much money the baal simcha spent in entertaining them before they decide on the amount. No, this is not a joke. The more extravagant the simcha, the more money has been obviously lavished in providing for the guests, the more some of those guests will give. Their "generosity" has nothing to do with how close they are or aren't with the baal simcha; it's predicated solely on a tit for tat arrangement: spend on me and I'll spend on you. That it is the young couple, at a wedding for instance, that will be getting the money because it is a gift to them, not their parents, is irrelevant.

There are some young married couples who give gifts when invited to weddings; others don't. Some of those who do not give a gift reason that everyone knows they are young and don't have tons of money and besides, why should anyone expect that they should take money from their own wedding money to get someone else started on their wedding money collection? Some of these couples figure that since the wife also contributed to the shower gifts they are "potur" from any further gift giving. A few of these young couples are related to the choson and kallah and figure that whatever their parents gave still covers them as well, married or not.

Among those who do give gifts, they don't give checks but do give presents. And as every kallah I have ever known can attest to, a majority of those gifts are what are called "pass on" presents. Frequently kallahs get doubles of gifts which they cannot return. Or they get gifts too strange to want to keep around. These gifts are passed on to the next kallah, who in turn will pass them on to the next kallah, who will then do the same. A friend's daughter received one of these gifts and her mom and I got a kick out of it. The original wrapping was still intact, if a bit frayed, and the store name embossed on the paper is what set us off. At the time the gift got to this friend's daughter that particular store had been out of business for at least eleven years.

Youngish singles who attend weddings rarely give a gift. The girls are covered by the money contributed to the shower gifts. (Just a note here: ask the girls who are organizing the shower just how many people promise to contribute to the gifts and never follow through, leaving the ones hostessing the shower with a huge bill.) The boys? You would first have to start to explain the idea to them of giving gifts as opposed to getting gifts. Or as one person once quipped, "It's their presence that is desired, not their presents."

I asked one fairly youngish couple how they determine the amount to either be spent on a gift or to be given as cash. Only when I promised complete anonymity did they respond. The husband put it best: "we ask ourself what is the least that we can get away with and that is what we give. If we can buy something for really cheap then that is what we give." The wife quickly qualified that: "it has to look expensive or have a name that people recognize as being expensive." I asked for an example. The wife said: "Last year we gave Lennox picture frames to everyone because I got a really great buy on them in a store going out of business. So we spent about $19 on each frame. But that doesn't matter. If the person getting the gift had to buy those frames they would be spending close to $90. It's not how much we paid for something but how much the thing is worth that matters."

I asked if they had ever given a "pass on" gift. The husband really laughed at that. He answered: "We gave those gifts for about the first 18 months we were married." Then he got a little bit defensive: "They weren't cheap gifts you know."

"What about cash?" I asked. They answered: "We avoid it. There's no way that we could ever get the numbers right so that someone wouldn't be insulted." "Tell her about your cousin," the wife pushed. "My cousin was going to be moving to Israel and my aunt said to the whole family not to buy any presents, just money. We were still in our first year of marriage and we didn't have much money but it was a first cousin so we made out a check for $54 and bought a nice card to put it into.. After the sheva brochos we got the check sent back to us by my aunt. She wrote that if we really could not afford to give more to our dear cousin then clearly we needed the money more than the cousin did and she was returning it to us." The wife was getting angry: "Since when does the receiver of a gift get to decide if it's enough or not?"

There's more than a little truth in the young wife's last line. On the other hand, basing your gift on whether or not you are going to be munching on sushi while sipping champagne or gobbling down kugel while chugging Coke doesn't sit well with me either.

Maybe what we need is a frum Judith Manners or Emily Post to write the definitive guide to frum simcha etiquette, particularly as regards gift giving. We have to be able to do better then we are.


Anonymous said...

You're pretty much on target with your description of gift giving but you missed one area that bothers me a lot. I've seen this happen more for Bar Mitzvahs but I would imagine it happens at some weddings too. The gift checks come in for the boy and the parents use the money to pay off the costs of the Bar Mitzvah. Anything that is left over goes to the boy, if anything is. Some people are quite open that they did this. If I am paying for the Bar Mitzvah then shouldn't I have a say in the arrangements? I might decide that we can do without a lot of the frills.

Scraps said...

I only just recently heard of the practice of tit-for-tat giving. It still makes me ill. And the check that got sent back to the young couple? That just had me sitting at my computer, open-mouthed, thinking What the HECK?!

G said...

One point:

Others wait to write out their check until they are at the simcha. Why? Because a whole lot of people are going to wait and see how much money the baal simcha spent in entertaining them before they decide on the's predicated solely on a tit for tat arrangement: spend on me and I'll spend on you.

That's quite the negative viewpoint, don't you think?

Perhaps the person is waiting to see the wedding before writing out the check because they wish to see just how much money/help their friend is in need of.
In today's world, more often than not, there is going to be money coming to the young couple from the parents. So this person waits to see how much was spent on the wedding before deciding how much assistance to contribute to the cause. It can be from an altruistic angle.

Anonymous said...

What about the other side- those who receive the gifts at their wedding, and then spend the next four months figuring out how to write personalized thank you notes to everyone who gave them gifts?
Is there an etiquette deadline for thank you notes?

Anonymous said...

There is a difference G between giving a gift to someone and giving tzedaka or doing a chesed. First of all checks are made out to the couple, not to the parents. So anyone who waits and writes out a bigger check isn't doing anything for the parents, unless the parents are charging the kids for the wedding and they are going to be required to sign over those checks to the parents. Giving a gift is not "contributing to the cause." If your assumption is that those parents who make a less costly wedding are doing so so that they can give more money to their children as a gift, think again. Some people just can't afford all the bells and whistles. And they aren't giving their kids those expensive gifts either.

If anything your "altruism" remark should apply to the less expensive weddings, not the expensive ones. It's "clear" that the people who make those less expensive weddings have less money and could use a hand from the guests. After all, those who are making the really expensive weddings couldn't possibly be spending money they don't have could they (sarcasm intended)?

ProfK said...

Just Curious,
Please see an answer to your question in the new posting on Wedding Thank You Etiquette

Anonymous said...

What Anonymously said! Otherwise the logic would be to give a larger check to the cheaper chasoneh since they obviously don't have the money and a smaller check to the more elaborate chasoneh since it's obvious that they do have the money.

G said...

It's funny, I made NO mention of what type of wedding would result in what kind of check.

And yet...

SubWife said...

Not everyone writing a check at the wedding does so because he wants to see how much money was spent. Some of us are just procrastinators...

concernedjewgirl said...

I had to hold my self back from commenting to this blog the day that it was written.
You see my husband and I paid for our wedding. It is incredible to me that there are people that go to weddings and DO NOT GIVE A GIFT! How on this earth is this etiquette at all! Trying very hard to judge favorably one might say that they forgot. Then I would reply, they did not forget to come, they did not forget to RSVP. Once you RSVP and the caterer has the numbers it doesn’t matter if you back out last moment. It is incredible how much chutzpah people have. People talk about helping, and supporting and how much weddings cost and then those same people do not give a gift at all. I’m not talking about the people that put in $20 for the shower, which is a whole topic all in its own. I’m talking about people that came, some even with dates and no gift. The other terrific bit of detail are the people that feel like $20 covers them….HELLO do you not understand that a portion is over $100! Anyhow, that is just a little bit of what actually goes on.
For all the critics out there, yes I feel that if you are making a wedding and inviting people then you should invite them because you want them there and not because they will give a gift. Yet, we live in a civilized society. When you go to any kind of occasion you give a gift. If your gift is your soul presence although poetic in gesture is crude in reality.

SubWife said...

I had a coworker who made a very lavish wedding, where a plate cost about $200. After the wedding she literally had a list of people whose gift didn't cover the cost of their plate. In my mind, it's extortion. If you want to have a dream wedding , it should be your problem, not your guests'. My gift to the couple is pretty much the same regardless of whether I don't attend the wedding, come solo or with my husband. Should one give a gift if they attend a wedding - yes. How much should be up their judgment and financial situation. Otherwise, simply write on the invitation that poor and cheap need not rsvp.

Anonymous said...

Also something that was not mentioned. I got married before many of my friends and my cousins and my parent's friends kids. The checks that came to us as gifts were for all kinds of different amounts. When these people started making weddings my parents were sort of puzzled. Were they expected to give back to those people's kids what they gave to us? In some cases my parents felt that more was appropriate and in some that less was. They finally just went with what felt right but they still wondered and so do I.

Anonymous said...

Getting a gift instead of a check doesn't make it any easier. So many people just buy whatever they can pick up on sale and don't think if it will be useful or fit the taste of the person getting it or even if it is something that the couple probably bought for themselves. It's not about the price the thing would have cost if it was not on sale. If you're not sure if the person will like it or need it then get a gift certificate instead and let the couple pick out the gift.

Even worse are the gifts that come in wrapping paper boxes or bags that make you believe it was bought in the store whose name is on the bag. Then you try to return it and discover that that store never carried this item.

Anonymous said...

ConcernedJewgirl, if you are counting on the guests to pay you back for what you spent on the wedding then tell me that up front and I just might point out places where you could save me a lot of money. I'll agree that a gift on these occasions is really required but the amount should have nothing to do with the amount you spent on the wedding.

Anonymous said...

Someone mentioned that they give the same amount whether they go to the wedding or they don't or even if they go without their husband. I thought a little about that and I don't think most people do it that way. Lots of people who couldn't make it to our wedding and who sent no gift. A few who sent a token gift or small check. I say small because at my brother's wedding when they came the check was much larger. So even if people say they aren't paying the hosts back for the money the hosts spent it doesn't hold true when you see the gifts if they weren't at the wedding.