Holiday Money Etiquette

By Mike Peterson
In November 19, 2010

Budget-friendly advice on everything from re-gifting to holiday tipping

There’s no avoiding it: The holidays are here.  It’s officially time for joy and cheer; hot chocolate and fresh-baked cookies.  Black Friday.  Cyber Monday.  Secret Santa at work and Bing Crosby on the radio.  Wish lists and strings of little twinkly lights.

The holidays are a magical time, to be sure. But if you’re on a budget (and these days, who isn’t?), that long, festive stretch of road from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day can often lead to awkward situations where your need to be financially responsible clashes with the pressure to chip in just ten more dollars for the office toy drive or to shell out $50 for a gift for your sister’s cousin’s 32-year-old son (even though you haven’t seen him since he was three).

So, where do you draw the line?  Is it okay to trim down your gift buying list this year?  Is it necessary to buy your boss a gift or to tip the kid who delivers your newspaper?  Is re-gifting an unforgivable sin or a thrifty alternative to hitting the mall?  When does “frugal” cross over into “Grinch” territory?

Read on for practical – and tactful – ways to handle five  sticky holiday money situations.

Situation 1:  The budget-busting group gift. Your sisters want to buy your parents a two-week Alaskan cruise for Christmas.  They’ve asked you to chip in, and your share is $700 – almost more than you were planning to spend on all of your holiday shopping – parents included.

My advice: Try telling them the truth.  Something like, “I’m sorry, but that’s really out of my price range.  I can contribute $100 – will that work?”  If you simply don’t want to discuss what you can or can’t afford, tell them you’ve already purchased a gift for your parents.  Bottom line: Don’t get guilted into spending more than you can actually afford.

Situation 2:  Re-gifting. Your Aunt Tillie gave you a lovely fondue pot from a very expensive specialty store.  Only problem is, you hate to cook.  Can you give the fondue pot to your foodie brother?

My advice: Go for it.  But re-wrap it first (and make sure Aunt Tillie isn’t around when you and your bro exchange gifts).  In general, there’s nothing wrong with re-gifting – it’s a frugal way to give a good home to a gift that would otherwise languish in a closet in the guest room or end up banished to the attic.  Just make sure you’re re-gifting because you know the person who’s getting it will love it — not because you’re trying to avoid the mall.

Situation 3:  Buying for the boss. Last year, your boss gave you an expensive-looking cashmere scarf.  You don’t have tons of extra holiday cash.  Do you need to reciprocate with an equally extravagant gift?

My advice: Save your money.  Most etiquette experts agree that it’s not necessary for employees to give gifts to the higher-ups.  If you really want to give your boss a gift, get together with your coworkers and purchase an appropriate group gift – it’ll be easier on your wallet, and there’s no chance that your token of appreciation will be misinterpreted as an effort to kiss up.

Situation 4:  You can’t afford to buy for everyone. Parents.  Cousins.  In-laws.  Aunts and uncles.  Your sister’s quadruplets.  Your three brothers and their significant others.  If you buy a gift for each member of your family, you’ll probably have to take out a second mortgage on your home.  How do you cut down on the gift list – without hurting anyone’s feelings?

My advice: Find a sensible alternative to curb the out-of-control holiday spending.  Suggest only buying for the kids in the family this year.  Or do something fun like a family Secret Santa drawing or a white elephant gift exchange. Chances are, you aren’t the only one feeling the pinch of buying for 75 people.

Situation 5:  Holiday tipping:  Who gets what?  And why?  And what if you can’t afford to give your hairdresser an extra $75? For many people, holiday tipping is an essential part of the season.  After all, it’s a nice way to show your appreciation for the college student who walks your dog five days a week or the guy who keeps your lawn so neatly manicured year-round.  But you’re not made of money.  What are the rules for holiday tipping?

My advice: Give what you can. And don’t let the “rules” dictate what you give and who you give it to.  Love your mail carrier?  There’s nothing wrong with a small gift to say thanks.  Ditto for your hairdresser.  And when it comes to what you give, it’s your call:  Cash is always nice (most etiquette experts recommend about a week’s pay for full-time help like housekeepers and the price of one appointment for hairdressers and the like).  But if you’re trying to stick to a budget, there’s nothing wrong with a tin of homemade cookies.

So, there you go.  A few savings-savvy tips for keeping your budget in check during the holidays.  And remember, the holidays aren’t about money – they’re about spending time with the people you care about.

Happy holidays!

Mike is the author of “Reality Millionaire: Proven Tips to Retire Rich” and he has been published in a variety of local and national publications including Entrepreneur Magazine, Deseret Morning News, LDS Living Magazine, and Physicians Money Digest. He holds a B.S. in business administration from the University of Phoenix.