Personal Finance 

When Is A Gift More Than A Gift? [Part 2]

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This is Part 2 of a piece that began when Tim and Saladdin began debating in a post on ideas to help solve the 20% home down payment dilemma, continued on through email, and Part 1 is available here. Here is the continuation of that debate.

Saladdin: You are only the second person in 15 or so years who
recognized the username. I devour history, especially military history. After 9-11 I waited for some comment on the name but it never came.

You say a gift is a gift but would you not feel some sort of obligation to help the gifter out if they fell in to some financial troubles. Would that not be considered “strings attached” although it is unsaid? Could you turn down your friend who handed over 10K for a down payment now that he is broke because all his sugar futures are worthless ?(I know a guy who lost his shirt in sugar).

I am not married (and not a believer in it either but that is another conversation) but I do not see what I do for my girlfriend as a gift. If a gift has no strings attached then this would not qualify. I do expect something from her. I expect her to take her education and better our life, together. So I do have stake in her success and failures. There is give and take, not just giving. I am financing our betterment. So since I am receiving something from this, I do not see it as a gift. But honestly, it does feel good. I do understand the swelling of feelings inside when someone helps out another person. But for the most part I am not boastful about it. I never say to her “I am the reason you are able to do this.” She is doing it for me also. That is where I think there is a difference.

My best friend of 25 years and his wife live in a house given by his parents. This is not a mansion or newly built house. Just a simple 85K house (Tennessee home prices). He drives for UPS and she is a nurse with no kids. But yet they stay in the house rent free when they can afford to it alone. I thought about what you said about “looking down” on others. It’s not that. It’s pity. I pity people that do not care for themselves when able to do so. This doesn’t mean I dislike them or hold them in disgust. It is just my feeling about the situation. I am human and have these worthless feelings no matter how hard I try. And I know pity is a wasteful feeling and not helpful in any way, I admit that. I thought for the longest time that it was jealousy ( in regards to my friend and wife). But he is a 30 year old man who still carries his parents checkbook (and I mean an actual checkbook) with him in case of emergencies. How can I be jealous of that? I save jealousy for anyone with Angelina Jolie.

I am legitimately curious, if the gifter returned and said they needed that money back if you would return it by selling the house? Maybe this is a stretch but do you see my point. There are always strings of some sort attached, either said or unsaid. You said your wife has a hard time with these gifts. Maybe you can sleep at night but it sounds as if she doesn’t.

If it doesn’t make your wife feel “right” then should that not be a sign that something may be wrong with accepting the gift?

When are parents done taking care of their children?

See if this makes sense. It is not the actual item that I feelings about (for example jealousy because someone has a new car and mine is crappy) but the way that item was achieved. What do you think? That make any sense?

I would love to be a cliché. I was born the son of a poor sharecropper (where’s that from?). I try to live my life in a way that I can sleep easy at night. Sometime’s I do, sometimes I can’t. I am a good friend and good brother. So much so my brother named one of his sons after me and even my sister named her daughter after me. So I must be doing something right (my philosophical side shining).

Tim: Again, a gift in of itself is simply that. If you continually choose to look for the strings attached to it, then no, you will never consider a gift for the sake of a gift. Sometimes it isn’t a matter of if you can do it alone either.

Again, it isn’t always about you. You’ve mentioned several cases, all with strings, all with the condition that reverts back to reciprocity if the person now becomes stricken by poverty. I don’t feel there is an obligation of reciprocity simply by virtue someone gave you a gift. Presumably the person is a very good friend or family in which case, I would do all I could to help them out, but never on the condition that we received a gift in the past. You either help them out because you have compassion for your family and friends or you don’t.

My wife’s feelings were based on stubbornness, too. Her parents genuinely do not consider anything they give to her as continued support for their daughter. They give because they want to, and she accepted this. Since when did charity or gift giving become a condition for caring for someone and an expression therein? I for one would refuse a gift if there was such a great burden of expectation hanging over my head.

What happens if your girlfriend doesn’t succeed, or succeeds then chooses to leave you? Surely it is no longer for the betterment of both of you. Do you pity her as you do your best friend, because your girlfriend’s family does have the means to support and educate her? You might consider yourself feeling pity, but it is condescending to think that just because people are generous, they are not acting out of purely benign reasons. Pity isn’t when someone who can afford something but doesn’t have to pay for it, it is jealousy. It’s jealousy, because you have had to do it on your own all your life, and you expect that others should have to live life the same way. If it really is pity, do you think someone far richer than you really cares that you pity him for being wealthy? Conversely, if you are giving a gift (there have been many posts on the subject of financial gifts and/or loans to relatives/friends), then there should be clarity in the gift in of itself without reciprocation. Really, it doesn’t matter if a gift is $1 or $1million, because the value of the gift isn’t what is important: it is the act of giving and receiving.

Talking about giving house down payments as a gift. We have friends who just married. The girl’s parents had planned on financing a down payment for the house ($300k on a $1.5m house) as a gift, while the guy’s parents were going to pay half the mortgage payments every month through his work as part of his pay package. Because there was a minor delay in transferring money from the parents’ bank accounts to theirs for the down payment, the girl’s parents simply decided to pay for the house outright. With them, there was no hesitation or second guessing in receiving the gift. My wife and I talked about this on several occasions, not because of the gift, but because of our friends’ values. They still have their parents’ credit cards, have gotten expensive cars from their parents (porsche, mercedes), and their salaries are essentially spending money. They are in their late 20s. We realized our values are not the same.

The parents’ credit cards were not renewed after we were married, no more free cars, and our salaries are used for our budgeting goals. Now, we are in a similar situation where we’ve been promised a house since our siblings each have received houses (each over $1m). We are on the fence about this and have had many conversations about it. We didn’t accept red envelops at our wedding (Asian Wedding), because we wanted people to enjoy the celebrations and despite the fact that not accepting red envelops is considered a bit arrogant (considering we had 1200 people at the wedding, the money would have been quite substantial). We are still planning on buying our own house and saving for one on our own, but the gift offer is still out there. I don’t know if we will accept it, we both feel that we can do things on our own. At the same time, we do understand that the gift is out of generosity and our parents seeing us, no matter our age, as their children and wanting to continue helping them out.

If we do accept the house, we will undoubtedly put the money towards our children (when we have them). Our fathers have earned their lives from nothing to means. They did so, because they valued their families and wanted a better life for them. We all on some level want to think that we have earned our life. This doesn’t mean that we can’t accept gifts. To go around all your life pitying others for their means, is no way to live your life nor is going through life thinking someone is only giving because they want reciprocation in the future. We also want to do it on our own, but we aren’t naive to think that our parents’ gifts cannot make our lives easier as well as our children’s lives, no matter our means. When does being a parent end?

Whenever the parents decide they want it to end, because sometimes parents want to continue being parents and you simply have to let them. After all, you are the reason they earned a better life in the first place. How can you take away from them what they have worked their entire life to earn? Of course, your situation is different and earning your life on your own is what you know. At the same time, you are being the parent between you and your girlfriend. Are you at some point going to stop supporting her? Highly unlikely if you plan to stay with her. I don’t know yet if we will accept a house or not. We surely aren’t living our lives as if we are going to accept it.

Whew! Still here? Share your thoughts below! (I’ve turned on comments this time!)

{ 14 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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14 Responses to “When Is A Gift More Than A Gift? [Part 2]”

  1. plonkee says:

    The thing about relationships, is that you are obliged to help people if you can, simply because they are your friends, not because they once gave you a gift. The strings exist because the relationships do, not because of the gifts.

    A real gift doesn’t demand reciprocity, if you give something away, you don’t get to ask for it back. If I have a relationship with someone and they are in trouble, I would help them if I could regardless of whether they gave me a gift or not.

    A really large gift causes problems, I grant you. Giving large gifts with strings – I will give you this college education if you will then study – is acceptable if the strings are explicit, fair and reasonable, but if they are not explicit or are a form of blackmail, then they shouldn’t be accepted. The reason that large gifts cause problems is that they are often unaffordable and people don’t want to admit that.

    Someone giving you something very valuable does bind you tightly to them, which is why such gifts mostly be given and received by people who are bound that tight together anyway.

  2. Bob says:

    I have to say, I agree with Tim for the most part. Especially on the reciprocity matter.

    Some gifts are just gifts. If the gift is from a close friend or family, I would attempt to help them if their financial situation turned dire, not because of the gift but because of my relationship. Conversly, I would feel little compunction to present financial aid to someone who I did not have a relationship with just because of a previous gift – although this would be an unlikely situation.

    It does seem that these two come from very different backgrounds. Tim, appearantly coming from a family where purchasing multiple $1m homes is not a hardship, has a much different take on the gift than Saladdin. Gifts like that would be much easier to receive than a gift from a party in a more tenous position.

  3. Foobarista says:

    The question of a down-payment “gift” from parents to children is somewhat different from gifts or “bequests” between friends. I come from the school that says that money and friendship should rarely mix, after having been burned several times by this in the past. I’ll help out in true “act of God” emergencies, but I refuse to become a sugar daddy to someone’s spending habits.

    Large “life-starter” gifts from parents to children are extremely common outside the US, and among many cultural groups in the US. Some richer families regard this as an advance on an inheritance, while others have an implied quid pro quo where the children are expected to take care of the parents when they get old, so the children get jump-started financially by the parents when they’re young.

  4. Dave says:

    Bob and Plonkee nail it with the relationship angle. I do wonder, If Saladdin is reading, if your parents had a sudden run of bad luck. I mean really bad luck. Blew thru any and all saving plus insurnace type of bad. What would you do? Would you help them out? How about expecting anything in return?

  5. monkeymonk says:

    When my wife and I bought our 1st condo back in 2000 we talked both of our parents into each “loaning” us $10,000 for the $28,000 down payment. The deal was that we would pay them back at 5% interest per year after we had eventually sold the property (like a CD invested in your children). We paid the additional $8,000 and were responisible for all our monthly payments.

    Two years later we sold the condo for a profit of $140,000 (we were incredibly lucky since the housing boom was in full swing). Each of our parents got a check for a little over $5,500 and we banked the rest of the $129,000 in profit. We could never have afforded the entire down payment at the time without them.

    This just shows how leverage can be such a powerful force. We had only $8,000 and were able to turn it into nearly $130,000 in just two years.

  6. monkeymonk says:

    Sorry math and memory are lousy. We didn’t rip our parents off. 🙂 Each got a check for a little over $11,000 which reduced our profit down to 118,000. Still not bad for an initial payment of $8,000.

  7. Tim says:

    Bob, for the most part of our lives, we did not have significant means. We were lower middle to middle class families.

  8. Tim says:

    In addition, my father worked three jobs, and my wife’s family started out with absolutely nothing.

  9. saladdin says:

    Thanks for the question. Because you asked me a direct question I will answer. The answer is that I would not help either of them in any way, directly or indirectly.

    I am trying to stay out of the conversations here because I want everyone to read Tim’s and my emails without trying to influence anyone. I will not defend myself but am willing to explain my points to anyone who asks directly. I have no problem answering questions directed specifically at me.

    Thanks for reading my long emails.


  10. Dave says:


    Thanks for the response actually. And I’ve no problems about holding my questions till the end, because I am curious about your mind set. Don’t worry, not reading into it good or bad just simple curiosity. The why’s that influence a persons thoughts hook me like that.

  11. Anthony says:

    I sympathize with Saladdin’s feelings about having your *own* accomplishments and not feeling like an outside variable played a part in your success. This goes to self esteem and I believe it to be a good attitude to have. Some children grow up as spoiled brats with sky-high expectations of how others should work to benefit them, and those kids most likely grow up to be selfish and ungrateful partners in their relationships & friendships.

    For those who borrow from parents or friends, I think that’s fine, but that’s not a privilege not all others have access to, and you are the beneficiary of a system that rewards availability of wealth with more wealth. The lack of family/friend benefactors is a hindrance to upward social mobility for the lower classes.

    I applaud Saladdin for his attitude. There’s nothing wrong with his philosophy.

  12. plonkee says:

    I can only assume that someone who wouldn’t help their parents either directly or indirectly if they were in trouble just doesn’t have a good relationship with them. Which is fine – we can’t all get on well with people that we’re related to.
    But it brings me back to my main point. I would try to help out my parents or siblings if I could even though, in particular, my siblings have never given me anything of serious monetary value – regardless of whether they could ever do the same thing for me in return.

    I agree that lack of access to friends/family that can help you hinders social mobility, but I don’t see how not accessing offered gifts helps anyone else move up the social ladder. Things like access to grants for college would help those whose families can’t, as does access to credit (including microcredit where relevant).

  13. Richard says:

    Tim asked the question when does being a parent end and I think that is the most valid question. When does being a parent end? If you read “The Millionaire Next Door” I think you’ll see how constant gifts that large can be detrimental to the ones receiving the gift. People get accustomed to accepting gifts as in the case of your friend. It becomes financial life support. If your friend’s parents died or suddenly stopped gifting, could your friends stop their spending habits and learn to live off only their income? Put the situation in reverse. What if when you give gifts to your children that they became dependent on them and could no longer live on just their income alone. Would you still feel obligated to continue giving? When does being a parent end?

    I believe that I am the person I am today because I have had to struggle. It builds character. I intend to follow the thought process of one of my favorite people Warren Buffett. His kids and grandkids never got any monetary assistance from him and I would argue that the money, which will be donated to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, will be better put to use because of it. I, like him, would rather make a larger impact on the world and make it a better place than to just give the money to my kids and have them spend it away.

  14. Carl says:

    I guess it depends on how you see money and family. For me, I was raised with the ideal that your money was the family’s money and that everything you do is to benefit the family.

    So my parents “loaning” me money isn’t really giving it to me, rather they are simply investing it for the family, for future generations.

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