As you may have noticed, the rules for gift giving are changing. As an etiquette columnist for more than 10 years, I get a lot of questions about how to handle the tricky topic of monetary gifts. If it ever was, rest assured that it is no longer crass either to ask for cash or to bestow it. And since it costs a
trazillion dollars to fill a bag with groceries or your car with gas, this might be the exact moment to consider doing so. Money is useful, it’s necessary, and it can be a gateway to fully curated fun. Plus, a monetary gift means one less Live Love Laugh Q-Tips dispenser rotting in the landfill (i.e. it’s better for the planet). But if you feel awkward giving cash—or clueing in others that you’d really prefer to receive money—read on for gift-giving etiquette guidance.
How much is right for a wedding? A birthday? A graduation, Christmas, quinceañera, or B’nai mitzvah? It depends, of course, on your resources and relationship. (Note that for anyone Jewish, it’s customary to give in multiples of 18—the numerical value of the Hebrew word for “life,” so a way of blessing the recipient with long life.)
Expert advice on the right amount to give is all over the place, especially when it comes to weddings. Some experts say to consider the “per plate” cost of your attendance at the reception, but you’re unlikely to ascertain that without some degree of research, and heaven help you if it’s on a beach in Croatia. Other sources point to wedding-gift national averages ($120 or so according to wedding site TheKnot.com), but the cost of living in Omaha is very different than Oakland, Calif. I say go with your gut, but do stretch a little, if you can. As long as you’re not up against it financially, you’re more likely to look back and wish you’d given more than less. Think about it: When was the last time you ran into someone and thought, “Oh, I wish I’d given that person a smaller present.”
If someone asks for cash? You should give them cash, even if it feels odd or less-than-special to you. You’re showing that you hear them and respect their wishes—and your relationship will be better off for it. But there’s no law that says you can’t add a little fun extra something: college swag for the high-school grad, a Future Feminist onesie for the new baby, mazel tov sunglasses for the bat mitzvah or his-and-hers travel pillows for the honeymooners. (NB:
Redbubble is a fantastic source for very niche mugs, tees, and stickers representing virtually any interest or passion in the whole world, and you can also create custom knickknacks at Minted, or shop curated guides.)
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A sentimental card or letter can smooth over the transactional rough edges of a cash gift. You’re not doing bank business! You’re loving your person. When my kids graduated from high school, they were (of course) thrilled by the $50 and $100 bills falling into their laps—but the cards themselves really moved them. “I’ve watched you grow up,” people said, in all different ways. “I see who you are, and I like what I see.” Whatever the occasion, I make it a point now to do the same. Not a wordsmith? Find the pre-written card that best matches your feelings.
From the Department of Obviousness: Don’t put cash in the mail. Send a check or use an app, such as Venmo. If you’re sending money electronically, it’s great to note in the card the method by which you’ve sent money: “Check your Venmo for the gift that accompanies this card UNLESS YOU HATE MONEY,” or similar phrasing of your choice.
If someone asks for cash? Don’t make a charitable donation in their name. Don’t give them stocks or bonds. Don’t decide what they should properly spend it on and give them a gym membership or cleaning service, sending the message that they’re out of shape or messy. Don’t even give them a gift card, which limits where they can redeem it and adds the pressure of an expiration date. And even if you feel annoyed by an overt request for a monetary gift, don’t decide to opt out with the gift of nothing. (This is not the hill to die on.) Just give them the money they asked for—and your blessing to enjoy it.
Is a monetary gift taxable? Only if you’re talking about gifts of $16,000 or more, Bill Gates, whether it’s cash or putting money into someone’s 529 educational savings account. (So, no, the IRS doesn’t need to hear about that $50 contribution toward your nephew’s gymnastics camp.)
Maybe people used to pretend they didn’t need money or that gifts didn’t…cost money, but those days are happily behind us. Apps like Venmo have turned once-embarrassing transactions into happily routine, polite exchanges among friends and family. It’s money! It’s fine. So if there’s a wedding, graduation, rite of passage, or holiday on the horizon, and cash is what you want or need, please know that—as a bona fide expert in gift-giving etiquette!—I am telling you it’s fine just to say so. And here’s how to banish any awkwardness in messaging this.
There’s no reason not to spin the request toward fun or purpose. After all, nobody wants to feel like they’re dropping Benjamins into the bottomless hole of your credit card debt (which you’ll want to be managing, BTW). They’re enabling you to fulfill a dream—to buy a Prius, go to college, take up skydiving or plan a beignet crawl of New Orleans. And you can tell them as much. “We’ve got all the stuff we need for our home,” you might note on an insert with your wedding invitation or a follow-up email (or wherever you like). “But we’re actually trying to buy the house itself! If you felt inclined to chip into our down-payment fund, we’d be so grateful.”
A cash-aggregating app creates confidence in your givers that the money will be pooled and spent in a meaningful way. And it spares everyone a trip to the bank for those crisp $20 or $100 bills that could get lost in the shuffle. It also reassures guests that, yes, everyone is doing the cash thing, so it’s A-OK for you to do it too. Include your Venmo or PayPal handle on the invitation or announcement, or use an app like HoneyFund, which is designed for newlyweds’ honeymoon goals but lets you raise funds toward any designated purchase (but doesn’t actually constrain you when it comes to accessing or spending the money).
Offset the coldness of cash with the warmth of your gratitude. Did your daughter ask folks to put $10 in the “Rangers Tickets Fund” jar at her birthday party? Her thank-you notes can include a photo from the game (rather than, say, of her sitting on the mountain of plastic tchotchkes she might have otherwise received). Likewise, even if you’ve already sent your wedding thank-yous, text a photo from Niagara Falls to delight everyone who bankrolled the trip. And encourage college graduates to send a follow-up thank-you to anyone who helped fund their degree along the way. You don’t have to tell folks what you actually spent the money on—dorm room sheets or textbooks—but it’s nice to suggest that their generosity was well received and robustly enjoyed.
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