'Give gifts of money' this holiday season, says etiquette expert


During the holidays, you might feel extra pressure to shop for the perfect gift for each of your friends and family members, but if what you really want to do is skip the shopping trip and send them cash, that's perfectly acceptable. In fact, your recipient might well prefer it.

About two-thirds of people say that they prefer the gift of money to pay for experiences, bills, or personal spending, according to a 2019 online survey of U.S. adults conducted by Early Warning Services, LLC, the network operator behind the Zelle payments network.

While giving money seems impersonal, it can be the greatest gift of all for those who need cash to cover their expenses, or for those whose idea of the perfect gift is the freedom to treat themselves.

The best way to give a gift is to give people what they want, not what you think they should have, says Elaine Swann, an etiquette expert. That can mean sending them money so that they can choose how they want to spend it.

Giving the gift of money is becoming more widely accepted, too: "It used to be a taboo thing to give money or ask for it, but it's now becoming part of our society to give gifts of money and then to graciously accept those gifts as well," says Swann.

Across all generations, money for personal spending is the No. 1 present when ranked against tangible gifts, experiences, and money for bills or experiences, according to the Zelle study, but younger people are on record as being the most excited. "Millennials have definitely changed the landscape in terms of the way we give gifts now," says Swann.

Here are some guidelines for graciously giving the gift of money over the holiday season.

Decide how much to give, and how

The actual amount you give will ultimately depend on your budget and what you're able to give.

Swann recommends that gift givers use the "onion method" to help decide how much to give. Think of the outer layers of the onion as distant friends or family members, who will likely receive a gift in the $20-$25 range. From there, increase the amount you give with each layer. If $20 is on the lower end, then you might give up to $100 or more for closer friends and family members.

Based on your financial situation and how much you have set aside for gifts, you'll be able to come to a dollar amount that you feel comfortable giving to each recipient. Then factor in each recipient's age, how close you are to them, and what you envision they might spend the money on.

Mobile payment apps and online services have also made it faster and safer to give money. Whereas a traditional holiday card with a $20 bill in it may get lost, sending a payment digitally ensures that your money is going to the right place and that the recipient won't lose it.

Mister Manners provides tips for proper gift-giving etiquette

Video by Courtney Stith

Personalize your gift

In the same way that you put thought into giving a physical gift to your loved ones, set aside some time to think about how you can make sending money more personal and potentially meaningful.

"The way you personalize the gift of money is to go on what I call a 'reconnaissance mission,'" says Swann. "Do a little bit of research on that particular person, comb their social media pages, and really get an idea of things that they like or that interest them."

Maybe the recipient has mentioned wanting to take a vacation, or wanting see a particular movie. If you're sending them a mobile payment, include a note that specifies what you imagine they can use the money for. For example, you might say, "Put this towards that trip you're planning." That level of detail shows that you've paid attention and turns what could be seen as impersonal into a thoughtful gesture.

"The whole idea behind gift giving is to think about what the other person would enjoy most," says Swann. "Above all else, you should really be thoughtful about your gift giving."

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