Ask the Experts

Gauche Gifts

For relatives like uncles and aunts, my siblings and I usually work together to buy gifts. We like to send something that is easy to send by mail–chocolates, centerpieces, stuff like that. But my aunt’s birthday is coming up, and we’re feeling a little weird this year because we know that she’s in a ton of financial distress. She has debts she can’t pay, her credit is shot, and the whole family is worried about her. My siblings and I feel silly sending chocolates so someone with a ton of credit card debt, so we were trying to think of ways we could tailor her gift to her financial situation. Any suggestions?

Financial problems are as difficult as they are common. American household debt hit an all-time high of $12.84 trillion in the summer of 2017, and while some of that debt may be healthy, it’s clear that we’re not all feeling very secure when we look at our bank balances. An unexpected $500 bill would lead 20 percent of us to put the charge on a credit card–setting ourselves up for more debt down the line. And when a member of your family is dealing with burdens like debt and bad credit, it’s hard to know how to react.

While it can be tempting to try to help directly, this isn’t necessarily a good idea. Gifts and loans of money can put a strain on family ties and friendships, and if root problems like spending habits and fast-mounting interest aren’t addressed, you may only be treating the symptoms, not the disease. This hasn’t stopped 97 percent of us from borrowing from friends or family at some point in our lives. Too bad only 50 percent of us ever paid back the full amount!

On top of this, a gift-giving occasion like your aunt’s birthday is probably not the right time to address her financial problems. Gifts are not necessarily about practicality, the experts at Gift Blooms say–flowers remain perennially (no pun intended) popular as gifts despite lacking in utilitarian features, and while gift cards are extremely useful, a mere 27 percent of Americans prefer to receive them over another type of gift.

If you really want to help your aunt, speak with a parent or other relative about how to best approach is. There are ways to repair poor credit, credit experts say, and there are legal paths to a stronger financial future for people living under the burden of debt. But financial troubles can be a very sensitive subject, and it’s best that you are careful in how you approach them. While it may seem silly to you, your aunt might be embarrassed to have a college student trying to help her financially. Be tactful about your aunt’s finances–and, on her birthday, pretend you don’t know anything about them at all.

“The greatest gift that you can give to others is the gift of unconditional love and acceptance.” — Brian Tracy

John Regan is a former Director of Sales for equity research.