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Have you ever wondered how much you should spend on a gift for someone to show them that they’re important to you?
I have. In fact, it’s happened more often than I can remember.
You might think that it’s the thought that counts, and that as long as you put your love into the making of the gift, that’s what matters the most.
But is it true in all cases?
When I was growing up, my parents found themselves in a lot of financial difficulties.
My aunt and uncle (my dad’s siblings) were doing better financially than my dad, but they never bought me fancy clothes or gadgets.
Instead, they’d buy me books, dictionaries, a brand-new desk and bookshelf.
They helped my parents out with my tuition and education expenses.
They encouraged me to work hard in school because education was the one thing that could set me on a different path from the one my parents were on.
It was through education that my aunt and uncle also got a full scholarship to study abroad and saw what the world had to offer.
To them, help wasn’t just verbal or shown through simple gifts.
They put their hard-earned money towards my development and never expected anything in return.
Now that I make money, I’ve bought them gifts, both expensive and reasonably priced. I personally wouldn’t even buy such expensive gifts for myself. But I think they’re just small tokens of my gratitude for my aunt and my uncle.
They never asked for any of those things. Yet, it makes me happy to buy them what they like. It’s just one way I return the favor they’ve done for me for most of my existence. I don’t think buying them simple gifts or making a hand-made card would suffice.
After Mr. FAF started his new job, we plan to send our parents money every month. It’s a tradition in Vietnam and China. Once a person starts working, they are expected, if not by their parents then by society, to give part of their income to their parents as a way to say ‘thank you.’
I know my parents like telling their friends and neighbors about how much their children give them each month. They may not need the money, but the thought that their children are willing to support them financially makes them feel appreciated and proud.
Mr. FAF’s family
When I visited Mr. FAF’s extended family in China, his aunts and uncles would give me a hong bao (red envelop) with money inside. Mr. FAF told me it’s the tradition in China.
His parents have given their nieces and nephews hong bao when they first met their spouses. Now it was our turn to get the lucky money from his extended family.
Mr. FAF’s extended family and his parents’ friends would take us to restaurants, and we never had to pay. They would pick up the bill and make that clear from the moment they invited us.
On our weddings in Vietnam and China (yes we had two weddings!), red envelopes were expected instead of real gifts. The closer the family member, the more lucky money they would give us.
Before I met Mr. FAF’s parents, he suggested I buy them nice gifts so that they could show off the presents to their friends and neighbors.
The gifts didn’t have to cost hundreds of dollars, but they should be good enough for his parents to be proud. I think this is an Asian thing since my parents also like showing off to their friends what Mr. FAF and I gave them.
My best friend from college, like me, is very frugal. She has a well-paid job at a big pharmaceutical company but remains conservative with her spending.
As a gift for our wedding and the birth of Baby FAF, however, she gave us a bag full of new baby clothes and an envelop with lucky money in the hundreds.
I was totally surprised at her gesture. I’m sure she wouldn’t spend that much on an outfit for herself.
For me, it was not just money. She gave us the gift of her labor, overtime work, investment, and most importantly constant self-discipline to keep her expenses down. It was a gift of generosity made possible through her frugality.
She didn’t do that to show off. We always talk about how to pay off debt, invest, and save money. I’m the last person she would want to impress with her wealth.
We never exchanged gifts on any occasions. I don’t think we ever celebrated our birthdays together. She gave us so much because she cared.
I’d be happy with whatever gift she’d give me, be it a microwave, a blender, or a letter documenting our friendship. But she went out of her way to show me that my wedding and the birth of Baby FAF were special to her.
I can discipline myself not to spend even 25 cents on candy. But when a friend gives me such a generous gift, I usually don’t skimp on returning the favor. For me, maintaining a good friendship is more important than saving a couple of dollars.
I apply the same principles to my colleagues, neighbors, and anyone who go out of their way to be kind to me or help me out when I’m in need. There are things that money alone just can’t buy.
Money can’t buy me a good friend, but it can help me show a friend how I care about them. Money is not the only way to maintain a relationship. But it’s not a bad means to a good friendship if we use it wisely.
It’s not unusual for Mr. FAF and I to balk at buying fish that sell for more than $3/lb or a food item we think is not worth $4. But we’d be more than happy to treat our good friends, who have helped us so much when we’re in need, to a meal that can cost $30. We do it not to show off, but to show them our gratitude.
We’d also loan good friends money when they’re in need, which doesn’t happen often, and are ok with never getting it back. Our friends always return what they borrow.
In case they intentionally don’t want to return the loan for whatever reason, it’d be an expensive lesson for us to know where our friendship really stands.
For people I’m not close with or don’t interact with often, I’ll just try to comply with the social forms when it comes to gifts. A gift doesn’t need to be extravagant, but it shouldn’t be so cheap and thoughtless that they think I’m stingy.
When gifts don’t need to have a price
I’d be over the moon if Mr. FAF and Baby FAF gave me a hand-made card on any special occasion, be it Christmas, my birthday, or Mother’s Day. But at the same time, Mr. FAF and I share a joint account. His money is my money and vice versa.
If he gave me an expensive gift, I’d be happy at first. But after that, I’d feel a dent in my own wallet and feel like I’m the one who made that costly purchase, a move I personally wouldn’t take.
The same goes for Baby FAF. He’s just a baby and doesn’t even know what money is yet. But as long as he lives under the same roof with us and relies on our budget, he does not need to buy anything for me.
As much as I’d like to think and say that money is not important to a relationship, I believe that it is. As I’ve grown up and experienced life over the past 30 years, I’ve seen how money can strengthen a friendship or destroy it overnight.
But money is not evil. Money by itself is just an item with no emotion or plan. It can of course bring us happiness as pointed out by a recent data-driven analysis by Tracking Happiness. But it is the mind and the heart of a person that can tell money where to go, who to help, and what to do to be useful.