Danielle, 36, is a branding consultant who lives in New York. The other day, she got a text from a friend asking if she’d pitch in for a housewarming gift for another friend. Danielle likes friend No. 2 a lot, but hasn’t seen her recently enough to know that she’d bought an apartment. Danielle said sure, but was was stunned to discover that the gift was a $900 vacuum cleaner. This friend with the new apartment doesn’t live lavishly, and Danielle is pretty sure that if she saw the price tag on this vacuum, she’d be shocked. Just a year ago, she was living in a walk-up with a rotating cast of roommates.
This whole thing has made Danielle think of what she’d spend on a friend’s housewarming, and she thinks it’s $100 max. Does that make her cheap? Should she text the gift coordinator and say that’s her limit? And what if she thinks this gift is totally insane? Should she just forge her own path and get her friend a gift certificate to Bed Bath & Beyond or a nice bottle of wine? How can she be a good friend, but not TOO good of a friend?
The Goldilocks situation of gifting: Find a present that’s not too little, not too much, won’t make you broke, and isn’t socially awkward. Have you ever showed up to a friend’s “super casual” baby shower and realized that it wasn’t quite as casual as the humble copy of Goodnight Moon you brought? Meanwhile, over-gifting comes with its own set of problems. How is the recipient supposed to reciprocate? That’s one hell of a stressful thank-you note. And what if the recipient didn’t even want that absurdly expensive (tacky, non-returnable) light fixture in the first place?
First off, $100 is a perfectly respectable amount to spend on a friend’s life milestone. In fact, it’s what the vast majority of people are willing to shell out, according to registry website Zola. “The average order value for a physical gift or a cash-gift contribution is pretty much the same,” says Jennifer Spector, Zola’s director of brand. In other words, most people approach gift-giving with an idea of how much they’re willing to spend, and then work within that parameter. (This is also known as sticking to a budget.) So, Danielle, you’re not cheap — you’re normal, and responsible.
Next, there’s the question of what your friend would want for that $100. If money is particularly tight for her right now, it could be excruciating for her to get a $100 bottle of wine (let alone a collectively purchased $900 vacuum) — or hey, maybe she’s tired of counting pennies and would be thrilled to have both! You could always reach out, congratulate her, and delicately inquire if there’s anything you can bring to brighten her new home — and if she mentions that the vacuum texter is coordinating something, then there’s your answer.
Of course, she’ll probably respond with something like, “Nothing, just come over!” Which is one of those polite lies we tell so often that it feels true (technically, she doesn’t really need anything, etc.). Sure, some rare breeds get squeamish about gifts, and there’s a small chance that your friend genuinely desires nothing more than your compliments on her excellent taste in real estate. But she has just plunked down her life savings for a piece of property, so she’ll probably be grateful to friends who cough up for a few niceties to put in it.
“Personally, I always prefer to err on the side of generosity,” says Jessica Zen, the founder of Seattle-based company The Present Perfect, which offers gift-concierge services to businesses and individuals. She points out that most people won’t confess that they’re actually dying for something extravagant like, say, a talking vacuum that’s fluent in five languages. “Generally, people don’t like to ask for something big, or admit that what they want is expensive, or that a particular material thing would make them really happy, even if it very well might. No one wants to feel or seem materialistic.” (This is, by the way, one of the reasons why people have an easier time requesting a Bugaboo — you’re technically asking on behalf of your future children, as well as yourself.) Still, Zen adds, “It’s definitely possible to take it too far, and make the recipient uncomfortable. It’s always important to think about how the gift will make the recipient feel.”
Also important: Dig around to find out if your friend has dropped hints or outright asked for anything. A series of studies published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2011 showed that gift recipients are much more appreciative of gifts they explicitly requested than those they did not. Ironically, gift givers assume that their gift will be equally appreciated whether or not it was requested — i.e., they think the recipient will be equally happy with the stockpot that was on their registry as the (tacky, non-returnable) light fixture that wasn’t. (These studies also found that gift recipients would usually much prefer money over material goods, whereas gift-givers believed the opposite.) The takeaway: If you want to give someone a gift they’ll truly be grateful for, either find out exactly what they want, or give them cash.
In any gift-giving scenario, there will always be a well-meaning friend who goes rogue — which may be a good reason to beware the vacuum zealot. “Usually, it’s because they think they have a great idea,” says Zen. “I’m totally guilty of it. People want to feel memorable through their gift. Sometimes it’s great, and you wind up with something fantastic that you didn’t even know existed, and other times you wind up with a super-expensive thing that you can’t get rid of.” And no one wants to be memorable for that.