Great advice here so far. One side of my family always promises up and down that there won't be any gifts exchanged at family Christmas (except for those given to the little kids), so my parents and I don't bring any. Then, of course, one or even two of the other groups hands out gifts to everyone, including me and my parents. (Usually they're small-ish gifts, like $5-10 range.) This makes my mom really uncomfortable, and she sometimes wonders if she ought to bring gifts anyway. I think that would be silly; everyone's saying there aren't going to be gifts, let's take them at their word. If I receive a gift, I make sure to tell the giver thank you in person, and if I didn't feel able to adequately do that, I'll write them a nice thank-you note. This has been going on for several years now, and I figure that if they're somehow mad they aren't receiving gifts from me, they are free to not
give me any next time; then they will be happier, and I will be fine either way. I don't think their motives are malicious at all, more on the side of just wanting to give without receiving, and sliding somewhat into poor communication (like we're supposed to know "no gifts" somehow really means "small gifts"
I do think there's an interesting reciprocity with gift-giving amounts, particularly between friends who choose to socialize (vs. family, who may not have as much choice). I try to take my cues from the other person, but also of course my own budget and desires, first and foremost. Example: Jill and I used to be best friends and roommates, and we would spend about $50 on each other for our birthdays and then another $50 on each other at Christmas. As we drifted apart, both physically and emotionally, I started resenting spending $100 on her, when I spent less on other people I felt closer to, so I finally suggested combining birthday and Christmas gifts as the dates were somewhat near each other. She reacted with relieved enthusiasm. So then it was down to $50 just once a year. I was still taking a lot of time and care spending that $50, and again I started feeling resentful, because I felt like she
wasn't putting that much time/effort and possibly money into it. One year I shipped her something I thought was quite nice, and never heard a word from her about it, not even that it had arrived safely, until I had asked her several
times. And that year she didn't "get around" to sending my
gift until February, and it seemed to me like something that didn't cost nearly what I had spent on her.
I don't mean this in a whiny way, just that all of these things were telling me that she wanted to lower the amount of time/effort/money we spent on each other. At least, that's what I was hearing, whether she really meant to tell me that or not. I have no idea about her finances or other stresses she may have been experiencing at various times--we had drifted so far apart that we didn't even discuss those things, in fact we hardly communicated more than a couple times a year. I found that I was much happier with the arrangement if I lowered my own time/effort/money. So nowadays I send her a $25 gift certificate to a store with a lot of options; and the only effort I make beyond that is glancing at her wish list and suggesting something that money could go towards, though of course she can spend it on anything she wants. And, every year I now wait to see if she
is going to mention gifts, because if she doesn't, one of these days I may stop sending her anything at all. Again, not punitive or anything, but it just seems silly to me to spend $25 on someone with whom I might literally exchange only two emails since the last Christmas. I spend less than half of that on a co-worker whom I see five days a week, eight hours a day, who is a great person and lots of fun to be around.
Oddly enough in the last couple of years Jill has sent me more thought-out and perhaps expensive presents, but still hasn't increased her communication with me, so I haven't changed my own pattern yet. As a PP said, it's not just about the monetary reciprocity on a specific occasion, but also about the relationship
during the rest of the time. Getting nice gifts from a near-stranger doesn't really encourage me to send nice gifts to that stranger in return, you know?
Anyway, sorry for the saga.
I think what it boils down to is you spend what you can afford (not just, what will let me pay the rent, but also, what will let me not be mad about spending that money this way) and you accept what you receive graciously, and if you want to have a relationship
with the person, you do other nice things for and with them the rest of the time as well. And if they seem uncomfortable or impolite about it, well, there's several options, but vague discomfort or rudeness would not
make spend more
money on someone--just the opposite, in fact.