Friday, June 21, 2024

Ask Mister Manners, Thomas P. Farley: ‘Help! I Can’t Afford Pricey Gifts Right Now’

My friends have kids who recently graduated, but I’ve been out of work for over two months and can’t afford a gift. What should I do?

Etiquette tips on how to interact in today’s world. Have a question for Mister Manners? Send your queries to and look for replies in the coming weeks. 


Q: As do several of my friends, I have a teenager who’s a 2020 high-school graduate. Ideally, I would be giving gifts to their children in amounts similar to what they have each given my child. Unfortunately, I’ve been out of work for nine-plus weeks due to a coronavirus-related furlough and find myself struggling with matching certain friends’ generosity. What should I do?

A: If there’s one life lesson the Class of 2020 has learned it’s to take nothing for granted. Not their trig teacher who achieved the impossible and got them to like math; not having lunch with the same friends at the same table and in the same seats every day after third period; not taking selfies in the strapless dresses they picked out months ago for the senior prom; and yes, not even graduation presents that give them a jump start to their summers and whatever may lie ahead.

The fact is, though adults often feel obligated to match our friends’ largesse dollar-for-dollar (“Alice and Joe gave us $300 for our wedding; we should do the same”), the foundation of true friendships is not zero-sum-gain present exchanges.

Have a discreet word with your friends explaining your circumstances. If they are experiencing financial hardship themselves, they will likely be relieved, and you can mutually agree to ease back on costly gifts. If your friends still have the means and the desire to give exactly as they would have pre-Coronavirus, do not steal their joy. To decline their gift due to your own sense of pride is also unfair to your young graduate. 

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All of which brings us to what you can do about your desire to give when it’s in direct conflict with your bank balance. I urge you to think of creative ways to celebrate these graduates. Write them each letters sharing what you believe to be their most admirable traits. Provide advice you wish someone had shared with you at their tender age. And consider an IOU for a future gift, redeemable when your own circumstances change. And they will.

In the meantime, give your friends more credit than thinking they’ll think less of you for giving less. And give the Class of 2020 props for adaptability and acceptance in the face of circumstances none of us could ever have imagined.

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Q: We have a large beach home, and during long weekends in the summertime, my husband and I have always welcomed various groups of friends to stay with us. This year, although we want to carry on as usual, we’re also concerned about the possibility of getting our guests sick. And vice versa. Do we take a pass on inviting them in 2020?

A: I am all-in on the allure of the ocean—particularly after sheltering in place for what seems an interminably long and not terribly delightful spring. And yet you are right to be weighing the consequences of a friends getaway this summer.

As a starting point, how feasible will it be to remain six-feet apart if you are sharing a home for the weekend? No matter how spacious your abode, you will be gathering for meals and likely taking part in time-honored vacation-house rituals, starting with morning coffee and bagels and wrapping with sunset cocktails. Also consider this prospect: if the weather does not hold up, you yourselves will be holed up indoors.

Do your friends live within driving distance? If yes, perhaps you could invite them for a series of day trips throughout the summer. If they live farther afield, could they stay in a nearby hotel? This would permit you to meet up at the beach, where distancing and fresh air will greatly reduce the possibility of any unwitting COVID-19 transmission. 

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If these are particularly good friends and you don’t feel right suggesting a hotel, perhaps you might offer for them to use the house during a period when you will not be in residence. (As an aside, they should offer to pay for housekeeping following their visit.)

These are challenging times in so many respects, and normal standards of hospitality are being re-written by the week. But even more than making guests feel at home, ensuring their safety and well-being should be your number-one priority. If you have qualms about your ability to shield everyone’s health, this may be a year where taking a break from issuing invitations is not only defensible but laudable.

Mister Manners, Thomas P. Farley, is a nationally regarded expert who appears regularly in the media to discuss modern-day etiquette dilemmas — from how to split a check fairly to how to get a word in edgewise. Follow Thomas on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And for more insights, listen to his brand-new podcast, “What Manners Most,” which will be focused exclusively on Coronavirus-related etiquette for the foreseeable future.


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