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Your guide to gift-giving etiquette

Siobhan Dudley
Thursday, December 6, 2012
Your guide to gift-giving etiquette

With Christmas just around the corner, you're probably starting to think about gifts. But holiday gift-giving can be a tricky business.

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Most of us would prefer not to spend money on gifts that go unloved, but we'd also be averse to offend loved ones by being unintentionally tactless when receiving an unwanted gift. Issues such as who should be included on your Christmas shopping list, which gifts to select, and how much to spend can have a big impact on your celebrations.

Here are some strategies to keep in mind so you can avoid awkward situations on Christmas Day.

How much should you spend?

This is one of the most common grumbles about Christmas. Most people don't want to appear frugal, but conversely, expensive gifts can leave the recipients feeling uncomfortable.

"You shouldn't ever feel that you must equate the value of your gift to the recipient's household income," says Leah Ingram, author of The Everything Etiquette Book and founder of GiftsandEtiquette.com. "Instead, gear your gift more towards your own budget and what feels right to you. There's nothing worse than coming away from a gift-giving situation feeling as if you spent too much."

If you purchased a gift that is significantly cheaper than what you received, there's nothing you can really do but make sure you follow up with a sincere "thank you" card. Making a fuss about the disparity will only underscore it.

On the other hand, don't despair if you spent more, just tell the recipient that you got a great deal on the price to make the other person feel at ease.

Remember: Gifts should be given in the spirit of giving, not in the spirit of seeing who can outspend whom. It's better to choose a gift with a hefty sentiment — not price tag — associated with it.

Gifts for unexpected guests

It's Christmas morning, and you just remembered that your brother's new girlfriend is coming over to join the celebrations but you haven't bought her a gift. Sound familiar?

Having extra gift items on hand at the holidays is always a good idea. Stock the pantry with some bottles of wine (red and white), beeswax candles, a jar or two of gourmet jams and chutneys, and a gift box or two of artisan chocolates, and you will be prepared for the unexpected.

Receiving a gift without giving one in return

Just like the "unexpected guest" scenario, it's always a good idea to have a few generic spare gifts as back-up. Even better if they are already wrapped or in a gift bag ready to give!

If, however, you're caught truly empty-handed, then honesty is the best policy. Remember, there is nothing about having received a gift that says you have to give a gift in return. In other words, be thankful and graciously express your pleasure at such a thoughtful gesture. For extra points, follow up with a "thank you" card.

Receiving an unwanted gift

At some point, we will all receive a gift that we either don't like, or that we already own. It's important to respond to the sentiment behind the gift, instead of the gift itself. If you receive a bad gift, be gracious. Smile and say "thank you", but don't over-compensate with fake enthusiasm.

Sometimes honesty is the best policy. If you don't let the giver know that the gift isn't right, you may be receiving unwanted presents for years. Thank them, but tell them that the gift isn't quite your style.

If you can't bear the thought of hurting the person that gave it to you, just donate the gift to charity.

To avoid this situation in the first place, Ingram says it is acceptable to include a receipt with your gift. "If [the recipient needs] to exchange it because it's the wrong size or they have it already, why make it more difficult for them?"

What if you started dating close to Christmas?

If you've only been dating a couple of months before the holidays, don't go overboard. Spend a romantic evening together, and give the person you're dating something thoughtful or funny, but not overly expensive. Alison Blackman Dunham, advice writer and author of The Everything Dating Book,suggests sticking to simple gifts like funny T-shirts or CDs during the early stages of a relationship.

Review your gift list every year

Make a new list every year, and consider everyone in your circle of friends and family, and where your relationship stands. Has it been more than a year since you've seen each other? If the answer is yes, you can cross this friend off your gift list. Sending a card can easily prevent hurt feelings.

Re-gifting dangers

Re-gifting is a potential minefield. Inspect presents minutely to ensure that there are no tell-tale signs that they are second-hand. Think very carefully about who gave them to you in the first place and make sure you don't re-gift a present to the original giver, or to someone who is intimately connected with them.

Etiquette expert Anna Musson advises: "If you are caught in a re-gift, you can say 'It didn't suit me, but I know it was a really good gift, and I genuinely thought you would love this'."