Be Clear About Your Gift Giving Policy

Set it and forget it.

While the holidays dictate that gifts are required, here’s the secret that nobody tells you — they’re not. You don’t have to get someone a present! You don’t have to wade through the crowds on a perfectly good Saturday touching various serving trays and lugging them home. You don’t have to order things that you haven’t touched from Amazon and hope in your heart of hearts that they’re correct. It depends on the family and the relationship and the agreement beforehand. If you always get presents and have since you were a small child, it’s safe to assume that barring any emergencies, you’re going to buy presents. But if you’re not entirely sure, set your gift policy early and then walk away.

Setting guidelines for gifts and how and when they’re received takes away the fun of gifts, maybe. But it also serves as an etiquette that tempers expectations. If you casually tell the person you’ve been dating for three months that you should buy each other presents, but “nothing too extravagant” and come home to a Le Creuset Dutch oven, a brand new chef’s knife and a really nice French press that you’ve had in your Amazon “Save for Later” section for months, do your best to hide the nicely-wrapped sweater you have in your backpack and come up with an excuse fast.

Really a policy is considerate. It eliminates the uneasy wondering about whether or not the nice thing you got someone is right or wrong, too expensive or not expensive enough. Price limits aren’t required for a a gift policy, but they can help. Mostly, a policy should just state plain and clear whether or not you’re getting gifts at all. Don’t be wishy-washy. Don’t say “Maybe it’d be nice if you thought about getting gifts for your Aunt Kathy,” when you really mean “Please get a gift for her, she hasn’t had a gift in a long time and really, she’d like it.” Lay it out on the line. Do it early. Let the people know.

Every year around the middle of December, my sister and I text our father and begin the arduous task of figuring out whether or not we’re doing gifts. We’re not a big gift family; usually a few books picked out at the bookstore in town beforehand and wrapped so that we have something to open on Christmas does the trick. But, my father’s wife and her daughter are. For years, the gift giving policy has been murky at best. At times unable to judge how much to spend, we’ve bought gifts fumbling in the dark, hoping that the dessert plates or the throw showed that we spent the right amount of money and that we cared.

This year, in the light of Donald Trump’s unfortunate ascent to power, I put my foot down. “Everyone’s getting donations this year,” I said over Thanksgiving weekend as we stood in an overheated J.Crew and watched my sister try on hats. “That’s fine, right?” It was. The policy was clear. And that’s how it should be.