Is Money an Appropriate Gift?

I was only half-listening to a radio or television program—I don’t know, it may have been news, maybe a documentary, I was distracted—when I half-heard a remark that struck me later, when it surfaced in memory.  Only later did my brain process that background noise, that odd statement that stuck with me, though its context did not. “When you go to someone’s house for dinner, you may bring a bottle of wine, but you don’t bring a cash equivalent.”    That is not verbatim, but it conveys the concept.

Giving your dinner host a bottle of wine—or a loaf of bread or flowers—is appropriate. Showing up with a gift card to Target?  Not so much.  The idea makes me shudder in awkward discomfiture. Why is that?  What is it that makes the idea of giving one’s host a gift of cash or a cash-equivalent so uncomfortable?

I suppose the reasons for the discomfort are legion, but probably they spring from a deeply personal, utterly human emotion best captured by the phrase, “you can’t buy my love.” A gift of wine or bread or cheese or flowers is almost universally perceived as an expression of appreciation and recognition of the host’s hospitality and generosity.  Replacing that gift with cash or a gift card would cheapen the expression of thanks and turn it into a financial transaction, a payment, as if dinner with the host were simply an alternative to a restaurant meal.  Cash carries with it the coldness of purchase; a gift brings the warmth of respect and friendship.

That argument satisfies me.  But it doesn’t hold up, not when it is so common for gifts on birthdays and Christmas, for example, to take the form of cash or gift cards.  Why is it that a cash gift to a host would be crude and embarrassing to both parties, but a cash gift for Christmas is, to some, perfectly acceptable?

Granted, it’s sometimes easier to simply give money than buy a gift.  And the recipient often would be more appreciative of cash than a cashmere sweater.  But isn’t giving a gift card taking the easy, and the crass, way out?  A gift is, or should be, so much more personal. It suggests the giver has consciously considered what the recipient might want and has invested the time and effort—and money—to find it.  Better still, a handmade gift suggests the giver deeply values the recipient and has invested time and personal initiative in the gift.

Ah, but doesn’t that fall apart when the host’s gift is a bottle of three buck Chuck wine from Trader Joe’s?  My gut, my emotional reaction to that question is that it doesn’t fall apart with that cheap bottle of wine.  But I can’t quite put my finger on why.  And I still can’t quite get to the point of being comfortable with the cash or cash-equivalent birthday or graduation or Christmas gift, though I’ve given and received such gifts. When I’ve received them, I’ve appreciated them.  And I’m always willing to give the experience—as recipient—another try.

I would not go to Kroger and attempt to pay for a 28 ounce can of crushed tomatoes with a hand-turned writing pen I made on my wood lathe.  Aside from my concern that my attempt to do so might result in my being detained for a mental evaluation, it’s just absurd. I know I must pay for my tomatoes with cash or a cash equivalent.  Similarly, I don’t give my dinner host a $20 bill because it’s not an appropriate way of showing thanks.  The appropriateness, or lack thereof, may be purely a social construct, but it’s one that’s been drilled deeply into my psyche.  It would feel wrong.  But the logic still eludes me.  But so does the logic of the grocer’s refusal to accept a pen that might be worth $40 in payment for a $2 can of tomatoes.

Ultimately, I suppose, the difference is that the can of tomatoes is a commercial transaction involving a financial obligation,  while dinner at my friend’s home is a social engagement with no such obligation.  The bottle of wine is not payment for a product or service, it is an expression of gratitude for friendship and hospitality. There, that answers it.

But, still, there’s the issue of the graduation gift-card.  It seems to me we may be mistakenly allowing our expressions of appreciation and regard to morph into social and personal financial obligations.  That disturbs me.  I’m convincing myself that cash and cash equivalents are not appropriate gifts.  Gifts should not be confused with financial obligations.  Gifts should not be perceived as obligations of any kind.

I know, like so many things, gift-giving in the form of cash and cash-equivalents is not black and white.   I may change my mind about it, as I so often do about so many things. But for now, I’m thinking back to the times I’ve given money as a gift and wishing I’d given something requiring more intimacy and more consideration.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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15 Responses to Is Money an Appropriate Gift?

  1. Juan, as usual, you have given me something I need to chew on. The quote, “an effort to act above and beyond self-interest, aiming at the real of self-transcendence,” really get my mind going. Giving a gift cannot legitimately call for an expectation of any sort; but if we do have expectations, even for a “thank you,” (an expectation I often have because I was taught to expect it), are we not really giving gifts but engaging in some sort of quid pr quo exchange? I hate to think it, but, yes, we are. “Transcendence” is a hard plateau to reach!

  2. Trish says:

    Not that I’m big on bible study, for by no means am I. However, referencing an excerpt from this verse would come close to my sentiment….

    This was foretold a long time ago in the Bible at 2 Timothy 3:2,3. This verse speaks of people being lovers of themselves..UNTHANKFUL..having no natural affection. This verse is speaking of characteristics of people in the last days which we are living in now. In this hectic pace world we live in, many do not think to take the time to say thank you, or simply choose not to.

    I cannot help but notice, Juan (especially within the teenagers) the shifting values from “common courtesy” to “entitlement”. That’s an attitude! I’ve always encouraged my son to say, “thank you”, and will continue to do so.

    I simply feel that “thank you” will always have a place in my home….:)

  3. Juan says:

    Damn it! I already see “edits.”

  4. Juan says:

    “Gift-giving” has always been an interesting act for me, as it appears to offer something of self-sacrifice and/ or the mere act of “giving” for the sake of giving alone. Is that fair? We should we expect something when we give a gift or perform an act of self-sacrifice?

    There is a small text that I keep around my study. Despite its recent appearance in my library, some page numbers are circled, words underlined or highlighted, and some pages have gone dog-eared, probably because it is one of the most telling books in my collection. The book is entitled “On Sacrifice” by Rabbi Moshe Halberthal (2012), and it one of those books of mine that never goes lent out.

    There is a favorite line from his Conclusion Chapter that goes, “ ‘sacrificing to’ is an attempt to establish a bond of solidarity and love that transcends the logic of market place exchange” (p.114).

    To me that says worlds to what Swinburn is prompting from us in his essay here, and possibly something of what Trish is asking. It is “an effort to act above and beyond self-interest, aiming at the real of self-transcendence” (p.115).

    Not too long ago, I was in line at the local grocery store and overheard the woman in front of me going on and on about giving money to beggers. “I once followed one,” she said to the grocery checker, “and he bought alcohol with the money I gave him.” I was taken aback by her expectations. Was she giving a gift….performing an act of self-sacrifice, or was she attempting to create some contract? Did she need to police the gift-taker? Shouldn’t she have told him that there were expectations for his acceptance? My final thought over the experience came as a question: Was she giving gift or was she drawing up a contract? The former over the latter says that there is nothing we should expect from our gift giving, for if we do, then it is not a gift; rather, it becomes the latter – a contract — or by Halberthal, we are NOT really attempting to transcend a market place logic.

    By Halberthal, the ancient rite of self-sacrifice (that usually comes in way of a “gift”) is something we expect God to do. But, when we as human beings offer a something of “self-sacrifice,” then we are enacting actions that typically belong to God. Now here is the clincher for me from Halberthal: When we perform an act of “self-sacrifice” – possibly a gift — we actually place God in debt to us – not the person for whom we give (p.36).

    There is nothing we should expect from the act of giving. While I may be hurt that the one accepting the gift did not cry or show deep affection for the gift, that is nothing to what the act really means or what it should mean to me. A gift in giving is merely that – an act of giving, and there is nothing we should expect in return. The woman at the grocery story has no right to expect some moralistic or affective come-back from the taker. When we give a gift, there is nothing we should expect … not even a thank-you!

    A gift given is a gift given…and there is nothing more we should expect … except (possibly) what is between the gift-giver and his/her Maker.

  5. I’ll think it over, Trish. “How to respond to giving.” Hmm.

  6. Trish says:

    You know, John, I was thinking. After all the thoughts of “giving”, what about those that receive, and worse, do not acknowledge the gift that was given to them. I would sincerely enjoy your view on this topic, if your willing to enter into to realm, the flip side to gift giving. Think it is worth discussing, since we are in a discussion of “give”, and to to be the reciprocity of a gift. Some people are graceful, and write you, others such little of thought and consideration , ..why does class come to mind? I don’t think class has a solid definition, but there are some obvious rules..for even the impoverished in my experience fared far better than the middle to upper mined class that I’ve known. Wish (personal request?) you would, in your word master ability write about this theme. It all connected to this…giving, receiving and reception, after all John they are all entwined. If you have interest in this, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

  7. Trish says:

    Aww…you are the fair Libra after all! I too, like an argument (till the sun rises, till it sets), but in this case I’m inclined to agree with what you’ve pointed out to me. There is nothing wrong in scrutinizing the opinion of others, for that will often lead to a deeper conversation, and possibly another precision. All good in my eyes, y mi vista!

  8. Trish, i just like to argue! And every comment gives me reason to rethink something I’ve written; just me being me.

  9. Trish says:

    John, excuse my romanticizing gift giving, but that is just me, being me. Yes, you are right. If I was dealing with someone in financially direr straits, cash would be the best gift, and the most welcomed I could possible give, and I know this, but this consideration somehow got lost in the shuffle. Thank you for pointing this out.

  10. Juan, I understand the appropriateness of the video; your children are fortunate to get the Gold Chase card, but unfortunate to have to visit their father in prison! You make valid points; context is essential to knowing whether a cash gift is “right” or “wrong.” Now, though, I think of the arguments made about “situational ethics,” but that’s a subject for another time! 😉

    Trish, I agree with you, but I can bring context into the picture again: if I know someone to whom I wish to give a gift is in desperate, or even strong but not desperate, need of cash, then a gift of money may be the most intimate gift of all.

  11. Trish says:

    You’ve brought up a very valid question here, John, and I’ve have ponder this since your initial post. In my particular case, I’m one to delicate time to making a personal gift for those that have a place in my heart, and I feel what they also would enjoy. Though I have been guilty of giving money on occasion, even to my son as of recent, which I now believe requires a revaluation, thanks to you broaching the subject here.

    I recall when my first nephew was a year old, I’d made him drawing of caricature for his bedroom wall. I placed it there under the Christmas tree, amongst all the fancy wrapped boxes of store bought gifts. At one moment I thought my gift trite, for I was still in high school, and earned the little money that I had babysitting the neighborhood children. But, although this drawing for him was done from the heart, I really should not have underestimated its value (my father, whom was a soulfully unrecognized artist reassured me it was the best gift I could bestow upon another.) He was right! Too bad your blog does not permit uploads by others that post, I have photos of the Christmas tree, and the drawing, full of colors and spangles!

    To answer your question, I would say, one, its easy and simple to give cash/gift card, but more importantly its an indication that you really do not know the person you are gifting.

  12. Juan says:

    If the gift card was for more than what I could easily afford, then it’s sacrificial! If a giftcard was for some cheesy, commonly priced gift, then I agree … a bad gift….no class.

    But what if the gift card is for a college education paid “en toto”? Or, what if the money meant TOTAL SACRIFICE — everything liquified and given!?

    Hence, a precious gift card to my children is a Chase Card for one million dollars! LOL!

    For some reason, I think this song is appropriate here:

  13. By the way, Juan, I love the Alan Watts video; I think you may have introduced me to him, possibly through this video.

  14. What I love about your comments on my blog posts Juan, is that they almost always cause me to look at a subject through a different lens, with a completely different perspective. I’ve never considered the “artistic involvement” element of gift-giving in the context of giving one’s host wine or beer or bread or what have you. But that’s exactly what is happening, isn’t it? The giver is offering to be a part of the activity, to contribute to the collective efforts to enjoy the company of the participants.

    But what do you think about money and gift cards as graduation or birthday or Christmas presents? The context is very different, though I suppose in the case of a graduation gift the giver might consider himself, and might be considered, an active contributor to the development of the recipient’s maturation and growth. Or is that taking it a little too far afield? 😉

  15. Juan says:

    I like this post, because it delves into the very problematic nature of gift-giving.

    When I bring a bottle of wine (or in my case lately, two liter bottles of home-made ale or stout:), I bring them with the idea of “artistic involvement” — namely, that my contribution involves some personal, animated involvement to the collective make-up of that particular meeting’s “spirit,” OR that my bottle of wine will legitimately contribute to “what’s cooking,” both in terms of the essence of cuisine and collegiality.

    A party is like a working art piece, where members of the party are all involved in the creation of a piece of art, as if we were all painting onto a canvas certain “signs and symbols” that make up the entire piece. Even a bottle of swill-wine — if contributed with force, thought and purpose — is just as valuable as an expensive Bordeaux.

    A cash contribution to a party might be acceptable, if indeed a location for the “get-together” is important and costly, but it can hardly seen as part of the ongoing creation of the characteristic “painting” itself. The collection of contributions — for character and personality — is the art piece itself.

    Yes! A gift is not obligatory, as you rightfully say; it is participation or involvement. Gift giving is participation, nearly in the same way that I am invited to participate on John Swinburn’s blog: What will I bring his site? How will my contribution offer something to the spirit he has created?

    My best gift to the “site” is what I can give in terms of what is really me! Anything less is phony! Gift-giving works this way.

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