Love & Money: How to Talk About Gift Giving in Relationships

My current paramour and I had our first date two months before Christmas and three months before his 40th birthday. Instantly, the gift giving pressure was on.

We decided to make our gifts small and thoughtful. That first year of Christmas and birthdays was a success. A romantic rose quartz crystal for me, a t-shirt of his favorite minor league baseball team for him.

By the time the next Christmas rolled around, my expectations about the relationship — and hence, what kind of gifts we would give each other — had shifted, but I hadn't mentioned it to my partner. Had I gotten myself into a trap out of which there would be no earrings, no plane tickets, no grand gestures? Romance is in the little things 99% of the time, but then there's that 1%.

That Christmas, the man I love gave me a copy of David Copperfield. I read the first line. "I am born." I didn't read on.

It wasn't that it was a book that was the problem. The gift was about him and not me. It was a book he liked that he thought I might, too, enjoy. To add insult to injury, I had purchased him a silver money clip engraved with our relationship credo.

Now, we have more flexibility in our gift giving. The idea is not necessarily how much is spent — though we try to give each other a ballpark — but that the gift be truly thoughtful.

So how do you avoid getting The Complete Works of Charles Dickens when what you want is a weekend in Mexico? Learn from my mistakes and heed some tips from the pros.

If You're Not Going to Talk About It…

Let's say you just cannot bear to talk about the gift giving process with your love. Let's say the idea of it seems like the antithesis of romance. If you can't discuss a mutually agreed upon plan beforehand, then Dr. Nerd Love suggests playing it safe.

"Buying expensive or outrageous gifts when you're still early in the relationship is going to be a huge red flag to the majority of people. It's an extension of the Grand Romantic Gesture that looks great in movies but actually freaks people out in real life."

His rule of thumb for gift giving ranges from 1 to 4 dates (a card) to 4 to 5 months of casual dating ($50 gift plus dinner) to 7+ months of a serious relationship ("Honestly, at this point, you should have a pretty solid idea of what your sweetie is into and is appropriate.")

If You Are Going to Talk About It…

Because you are, you know, in a mature adult relationship with open communication, you have a few options.

Set a Budget

Whether you've been dating for a few months or married for years, many couples decide that having an open and frank conversation about holiday spending can help ensure that no one feels slighted or hurt, says Lauren Rowling of Financial Best Life. She suggests coming to the conversation with an open heart and mind, and choosing the moment to have the discussion carefully. Or else.

"I remember the last Christmas I (unsuccessfully) gifted with a significant other, I opted to have this discussion in the car after Thanksgiving," she writes. "Truthfully, I ambushed him with a conversation he wasn't expecting, but he got so angry at the number I suggested that I became offended. Shouting and tears ensued; he didn't like that I snuck up on him, I was hurt he felt that number was way too much to spend on someone he'd been with for almost a year. See? A difference in expectations."

Splurge Together on a Gift or Experience

While banding together erases the element of surprise, Erin Lowry, of Broke Millennial, points out that splurging together on an experience can help strengthen the bond of the relationship.

"It's a way to make Christmas memorable without breaking the bank…. creating a shared memory instead of just checking something off the other person's wish list," she says.

Don't Opt Out

Gift-giving is an ancient social ritual with a complex psychology attached to it. When you skip out on the rite by refusing to give or receive gifts during the holidays, psychologists say you miss out on an important connection with loved ones.

"That doesn't do a service to the relationship," said Ellen J. Langer, a Harvard psychology professor told the New York Times. "If I don't let you give me a gift, then I'm not encouraging you to think about me and think about things I like. I am preventing you from experiencing the joy of engaging in all those activities. You do people a disservice by not giving them the gift of giving."

Either Way, Remember…

Give What They Want

Good gifts aren't about the giver's interests (ahem, see David Copperfield example above). The gift is (duh) for the recipient. Think about what they would like. Really think.

Here's a tip: The secret to good gift giving is pretty simple. It's also a key element to being a good partner. Listen. Pay attention. Your sweetie will reveal things they've always wanted in conversation. When they mention wanting a new fishing rod in July, take note. That information will come in handy in five months. Notice what gets them excited, what makes them feel alive and jazzed about life. Whether it's vintage vinyl, French food, or backpacking, chances are it's fertile ground for a gift they'll cherish.

You'll Get Something In Return

Even though you're thinking of them, psychologists say it is often the giver, not the recipient, who reaps the biggest psychological rewards from a gift. Giving to others reinforces our feelings for them and makes us feel effective and caring, Dr. Langer told the New York Times.

Go With the Intended Spirit of Gift Giving

"Gift regardless of budget or expectation of a gift in return," suggests Lauren Bowling of Financial Best Life. "I love this idea and feel it works well when gifting with the less emotionally charged relationships in your life like your friends, family, and co-workers."

But honestly, couldn't we all stand to let go a little in love, too?

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