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Should you give the gift of cash to new graduates?

Plus, why you should honor people’s requests for no presents on their birthday and other special occasions.

We recently attended a graduation party for our neighbors’ high school daughter. We brought a lovely card and wrote a heartfelt sentiment. Our son told us afterward that we should give a gift when it is an even exchange of invites. Yesterday these neighbors attended our son’s high school graduation party and enclosed a gift of cash in the card. Now we feel bad and I’m wondering what is the best thing to do — is there a way to reciprocate belatedly with a gift for their daughter?

A.S. / Minneapolis

Yes, you can give a belated gift — drop it off with an information-free excuse like “We’re so sorry, we meant to bring this to your party!” Go with a gift card instead of cash, to avoid looking like you’re regifting them the same bills they gave your son.


It sounds like a silly ritual when I put it like that, doesn’t it? But such exchanges make the social world go ‘round. It’s not mandatory to give a present at a graduation party — invitations are never invoices! — but it’s the generally accepted thing to do. Graduation parties are ostensibly celebrations of the graduate’s achievement, but in practice they also serve as a low-key shower for the next phase of life, be that college or something else.

The main reason I think you should give a belated gift, though, is because your son thinks so. I can’t compliment you highly enough for recognizing that he might have a better grasp of the social norms of his age group than you do at times, something many parents do not acknowledge.

Is there a polite way to ask people to please, PLEASE don’t give you gifts? I understand and appreciate the thoughtfulness, but would much rather they save their money or donate it to a good cause.


E.C. / Malden

You can put “No gifts, please! Your presence is present enough” on an invitation. (Wedding- and party-goers: Please heed these wishes, even if other guests don’t. People really do mean it.)

Talk to individuals one-on-one, but don’t tell them what you told me! You’re lovely to want people to spend money on themselves or those in greater need than you — but they won’t, I guarantee it. They want to do something for you, so you have to give a more selfish reason related to your desires, not your principles — ”war on clutter” works. For birthdays or gifty holidays, offer an alternative: You don’t want a gift, but it would be lovely to go out for a nice dinner, or to get a loaf of their famous monkey bread, or if they’d teach you backgammon. See? Redirect the gifters’ impulses, rather than trying to stifle them.

And know that some people will still insist on foisting presents, no matter what you say. Gift-giving is some people’s “love language,” and if you don’t speak their language, they will just speak it louder and with more illustrative gestures, like an obnoxious tourist in a foreign country.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.