I’ve been feeling generous towards a low-income friend lately. Not that he needs any help, but I am able to give it. I’m not interested in giving this friend a loan, but I’m considering subsidizing various activities with him, like picking up the lunch tab or treating him to a movie.
The prospect of giving gifts to a friend outside of Christmas, birthdays, and special occasions makes me nervous. Is this even appropriate? Will I hurt his pride? I called etiquette expert Nancy Mitchell for tips. Here’s what she advised.
What are the rules when it comes to giving gifts to friends?
I think the number one rule is to know the friend and know how to proceed. Would the person be wiling to accept things or is the person extremely proud and you’ll have to use subterfuge?
Let’s start with the person who may be very proud and not be willing to take what they think is charity. You can call them up and say, I got a gift certificate to a restaurant or theater. I would love to have you come with me, are you available? They might not have to know you went out and bought the gift certificate yourself.
Or say, Someone gave me two tickets to the hockey game. Would you like to go? If you had a friend who had children, give child care once and a while. I’d love to babysit sometime. Can I babysit and give you an evening out? Or say ‘I’ve got too much of a certain product. Pass things on, share some of the wealth. Offer to share frequent flyer miles.
Is it ethical to give gifts like this to friends who, if they knew the whole story, would say no?
I think it is because you don’t have an ulterior motive. You are giving from your heart and you are showing great sensitivity to someone’s situation. It’s not going to hurt anyone, it’s going to help.
What are the no-nos of giving?
You would never let anyone in on the secret. It’s between you and whoever is the recipient. Because if the cat got out of the bag there could be some hard feelings.
What about if your friend is open to receiving gifts?
Then you could say something like, I got a bonus. Or I got a tax refund. I would love to share it with you. There’s a new restaurant I’d like to go to. Would you be my guest? I’d love to take you because I don’t want to go alone. Just go and pick up the bill. They may say, Can I leave the tip? You should say, Yes. Then say I can’t thank you enough for coming with me. I really wanted to go to this restaurant and I didn’t want to go alone.
What are other ways you can give?
It’s not always money. It’s not always writing the check. If you have two cars you could offer them the use of your car during a period where they had lost their car. Maybe they need something for their house. I know your cat just ruined your rug. I would love to replace that for you as an early Christmas or birthday present.
How should you interpret comments from a low-income friend when they mention things they want?
That can be kind of sticky. It depends. If they are fishing for an offer you have to be careful to not open the door. Read signals you get from people. If it is an outright request for something you can say, I can’t help at this time.
How does this minor giving change a relationship?
I don’t think it is as dangerous as borrowing money. Borrowing money can really change a relationship because if a deadline comes and goes you start avoiding them or they start avoiding you. Standalone gifts are a little different. I don’t think that spoils the friendship, but it’s about how you offer. No one wants to think you think they are the poor relation or the charity case. People are proud and they don’t lose that when things get tough. But in many cases they’d love an evening out. It’s just the way you say it.
What if they say no?
If someone turns down your offer after the second or third time stop offering. Because then you’re getting signals that they don’t want to go there. So just accept it but don’t cut them off. If you have extended some of these gifts or opportunities, never ever throw it back at them. Never feel like they owe you something. You should give out of the goodness of your heart.
Related: My previous interview with Nancy was about getting out of pricey social commitments.
UPDATE: Reader Jenni has a warm heart. Here’s how she helps out a friend:
I have a dear friend whose husband works in the hi-tech industry, and has been in and out of work the past 10 years. (currently out of work, actually)… I send her corny cards periodically, with a $50 gc to Trader Joe’s, that say “Happy Groundhog Day” or “It’s time to pass it on” day or “Happy Watermelon day”, or something like that (there’s always a celebration somewhere!). Her hubby wouldn’t accept it if I just gave them money, but the gift card and ‘celebration” makes it more “okay”, and they have 3 kids to feed. I would do more if she asked it of me!