The politics of Christmas present buying

Francesca Specter
Yahoo Style UK deputy editor
Christmas present giving can get complicated. [Photo: Getty]

With a general election just around the corner, politics are high up on the agenda.

But many of us are managing a similarly tense diplomatic situation at home – Christmas present buying.

It’s a minefield. With clashing expectations around spending and complicated etiquette situations (do I have to buy a separate gift for my partner’s parents?), what should be good-natured festive gift-giving turns into a flurry of panic, guilt and passive-aggression.

Thankfully, we’ve rounded up a panel of gift-giving experts – because Santa’s elves were sadly too busy to comment – to answer all your present conundrums. We spoke to Oli Townsend, deals expert at Money Saving Expert; Lucy Hume, Associate Director of Debrett’s; and Alexandra Spencer, a PR expert at gift selling website PrezzyBox.

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Here what they had to say to our burning questions:

I'm the only single person in my family – is it fair that I buy 14 presents and only get seven in return?

We’ve all been there: when a family member announces they’ve invited their new partner for Christmas, and suddenly you feel compelled to buy two present rather than one.

But you shouldn’t always have to feel like you buy multiple gifts for a couple – particularly if they’re living together, says Hume.

“A suggestion could be to look to give the couples a gift for their home, or for them to enjoy together,” she suggests. “That way, not only is it a thoughtful way to include the both of them but it could also help to limit the number of gifts you may need to buy.”

Is a gift voucher an acceptable gift?

A gift voucher from someone’s favourite retail store might seem more thoughtful compared to giving cash – but there’s a chance it can backfire, says Townsend.

“With gift vouchers, there’s always the risk that the shop could go bust and the vouchers could become worthless overnight. Not only that, but some vouchers expire and it’s easy to forget to use them.”

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“It’s much safer to give cash as a gift than vouchers,” he adds.

Do I need to buy a present for a person I've only just started seeing?

It’s tempting to read into buying a Christmas present for someone when you’ve only just started dating – as if the choice of gift (or lack thereof) will hold connotations for your future relationship.

Hume argues it’s appropriate to get a gift for your new love interest “regardless of the length of time that you have been seeing each other”, adding, “a small gift would be seen as a charming way to show your appreciation of the recipient.”

Should you buy presents for your partner’s family?

This is a tricky one. While you might feel obliged to buy a little something out of respect for your host, don’t feel obliged to buy gifts for someone you have no relationship with, advises Spencer.

“Christmas gift etiquette is tough, but we don’t think you should feel obliged to buy gifts for someone unless you want to,” she says.

However, if it’s a case of not knowing what they like (for instance, in the case of a new partner’s parents), you can rest assured a cosy, winter-appropriate gift like a pair of cosy microwaveable boots or a personalised Dairy Milk bar will go down well.

When is a present not a present? For instance, can I buy my sister something practical, like a can opener, if I know she doesn’t have one?

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to what is and isn’t an appropriate Christmas present, says Spencer, as long as they “bring joy” to the recipient. “Any gift that will create moments of happiness for an individual is a legitimate gift,” she says. “It doesn’t matter whether that’s a bottle of gin, a Toblerone with their name on (this is, luckily, a thing) or a can opener.”

Hume agrees, adding: “When it comes to gift giving it is the thought that counts. If the person you are buying the gift for has asked for something specific or needs/wants something more practical it is a perfectly acceptable gift.”

If a family member earns more than me and always buys expensive gifts, do I have to reciprocate with a present that has a similar cost?

You should never feel obliged to bankrupt yourself over keeping up with others at Christmas.

“We need to remember that Christmas isn’t a retail festival,” advises Townsend. “Gift-giving creates an obligation on recipients to give back something of at least equal cost, whether they can afford it or not.”

To save you or your relatives being out of pocket, he suggests a compromise.

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“For some, the gift of ‘not obliging you to buy for me’ is actually better. It might seem like an awkward conversation to have, but more often than not you’ll probably find the other person feels the same and will be happy to make a ‘no unnecessary present pact’,” he says. “You could at least agree to a £5 or £10 cap on gifts, and then put more thought into what you get. Or, you could give to charity instead.”

How can you tell someone they always buy bad presents?

It’s bad news: there’s simply no good way to have this conversation.

“You can't [tell them],” says Hume. “If someone has gone to the thought and effort of buying you a present, do your utmost to appear grateful even if you're inwardly groaning as you unwrap yet another hideous scarf.”

How do you make sure your presents are sustainable?

At a time when we’re thinking about sustainability and trying to minimise our carbon footprints, the idea of buying and receiving gifts that will get chucked out is problematic.

Thankfully, there are a number of ways you can make your gift giving more sustainable, suggests Spencer. The simplest method is to simply ask people what they want, she suggests. “Ask if there’s anything they’d really love is the perfect start, as is talking to others close to them to get their advice.”

That way, you’ll know your gift will get used.

You should also consider buying gifts made from recyclable materials: wood, bamboo or cork, she says. Packaging is also important: look for gifts which come in recycled or recyclable packaging, and make sure you recycling your wrapping paper too.

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