The Propriety of Cash Gifts

Just over three years ago, I wrote an essay to explore the appropriateness of giving money as a gift. I waffled to the conclusion that the practice is, at best, questionable. The piece drew some interesting and thought-provoking responses from a couple of my friends who, at the time, regularly read and commented on my blog. Recently, I happened upon that essay and the comments it prompted. On reading the post, I realized that, three years later, my opinions on the matter have evolved to a limited extent, thanks in part to my friends’ comments. With that as a backdrop, this post again attempts to answer the question: Is Money an Appropriate Gift (in U.S. culture)? Below is an edited version of the essay, incorporating my evolving perspective.

The question arose from some “background noise” I heard on the radio or television, something to this effect:  “When you go to someone’s house for dinner, you may bring a bottle of wine, but you don’t bring a cash equivalent.”

Instantly, I agreed. My opinion is that 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 or a twenty-dollar bill?  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?

The reasons for the discomfort probably are legion, but I suspect 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, in my view, cheapen the expression 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 (and not so distasteful) 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?

Let me back up here to introduce an idea introduced to me by my friend Juan. He said, “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.

He offered quotes from the book On Sacrifice, by Moshe Halbertal, who wrote, “In its mode as an offering, ‘sacrificing to’ is an attempt to establish a bond of solidarity and love that transcends the logic of market exchange.” Halbertal also wrote, “In its mode of ‘sacrificing for,’ the sacrifice of the self is an effort to act above and beyond self-interest, aiming at the realm of self-transcendence.

In that light, Juan stated,  “A gift in giving is merely that, an act of giving for which we should expect nothing in return…When we give a gift, there is nothing we should expect, not even a thank-you!

Now, back to the issue of whether gifts of cash at Christmas and birthdays are cheap and tawdry or genuinely ‘sacrificial,’ in keeping with Juan’s comments. According to Juan, it depends on the context. If a cash gift at graduation might enable the student to pursue her dream of a college education, the context suggests a gift of cash might sacrifice giving a more personal, intimate gift in favor of giving something far more impactful.  The decision of an uncle or aunt to offer cash instead of a hand-made guitar would be understandable in that light.

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?  Isn’t that path an abrogation of the sacrifice Juan equates with giving? A thoughtful gift is, or ought to 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 entirely 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.  Yet Juan’s comments echo in my brain. And something else he wrote holds meaning worth considering:

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.

Still, I cannot get the thought out of my mind that the giving of cash in lieu of something more personal paints the act of gift-giving as a commercial transaction. 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 a 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 for the invitation and the opportunity to be involved.  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, even with Juan’s excellent contributions to the discussion.  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. No, it doesn’t.

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, absent compelling reasons to replace more intimate gifts with more meaningful cash.  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.

Gift-giving in the form of cash and cash-equivalents is not a black and white issue. Ultimately, the decision to give cash ought to be made only after serious consideration of the best interest of the recipient, both in terms of need and desire. The giver—the one making the ‘sacrifice’ by offering a gift—should have no expectations of anything in return. Not even thanks.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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