I may have ignited a gift war. All I wanted to do was give some homemade jam, freshly baked Christmas cookies and an Anchorage Daily News moose calendar to the former owners of the apartment building that I manage.
I've been giving them these treats for several years and wanted to continue, especially because after selling the place in October they sent me a nice note and $300 worth of gift cards.
Jam, cookies and pictures of ungulates seemed like the least I could do.
When I gave the gift bag to the husband, he told me they enjoyed the annual sweets. "I think we've got one of these coming your way, too," he said, indicating the bag.
I told him that wasn't necessary -- that I liked to share homemade treats and that I'd appreciated the chance to have worked for them. As I had written in the card that accompanied my gift, the job literally helped me survive when the chips were down.
Yet I also know how he feels: Anytime I'm given something, I want to give something back.
And that's how gift wars get started.
The gift that keeps on growing
These wars tend to escalate, according to an essay by personal-finance blogger "Frugal Zeitgeist." Someone surprises you with a present. The next year, you give that person something a little bit nicer, because you didn't get him anything before. After that, the recipient's next gift is probably upgraded, too.
"I hate gift wars. They're expensive. They're stressful. They create clutter," she writes.
The blogger has a few cease-fire tips:
• Give of yourself. Offer dog walking, baby-sitting, Web design, fancy desserts -- whatever you do well.
• Give within limits. Choose something consumable that the recipient might not buy for himself -- decent wine, chocolates, etc.
• Give to others. Donate to that person's favorite charity.
• Give, if you must. But suggest, gently, that gifts be "reasonable."
• Give what's needed. Times are tough, so FZ is sending her parents a grocery store gift card. Or how about a gift that saves the recipient money?
• Give up on giving. Of course, a no-gifts policy works only if everyone sticks with it. Another PF blogger, "Escape Brooklyn," writes that her family agreed not to exchange gifts -- but her sister sent a present anyway.
When fired upon, don't return fire
When I told a friend about this situation, she asked whether my former bosses gave presents in previous years. Yes -- gift cards with "Thanks for all you did for us this year" notes.
My friend pointed out that perhaps the $300 gift was a final thank-you in recognition to the end of our business relationship. Probably I shouldn't be giving them a Christmas gift, she suggested, unless I planned to continue at least a cordial friendship.
She has a point. When the owners said they hoped I would "keep in touch," they might have been just saying the kind of thing everyone says. Or they might have meant it. Earlier this month they sent me a Christmas card with a snapshot of their first grandchild.
They're busy, and I'm busy, but I'd like to keep in at least casual contact because they're nice people. Even so, I hope they don't send me anything more.
If they do? I'll write a thank-you note in which I'll explain that I don't want to start a gift war. Should they feel compelled to give, I'll send a list of my favorite charities and request a donation be made in my name.
However, I'll let them know that the cookies will keep coming. I like to make and share them because it brings back memories of baking with my mother. One year I skipped cookie-baking and it just didn't feel like Christmas.
However, I find it difficult to make just a few cookies. Thus if I don't give most of them away, I'll end up in the hospital, overdosed on butter and sugar and chocolate.
And at that point, someone might send me a get-well present and the whole cycle would begin anew.