Those racecar-shaped oven mitts that Uncle Joe gave last year are still in their plastic wrapping. That itchy sweater from Mom a few birthdays ago sits in a box somewhere under three years of dust.
Gift giving remains a mystery of the universe. But some folks feel squeamish about providing the one present that everyone could use: cash.
“I suspect that, contrary to popular belief, many folks do not like to give money, not because they don’t want the receiver to know how much they spent on them, but because money does not reflect the personality of the giver or the receiver,” said Eric Silverman, associate anthropology professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.
That’s what Lara Thomas-Walsh of Brick, N.J., learned at a young age.
“In my family it was just considered rather thoughtless to give cash, like you couldn’t be bothered to put forth the effort to choose a gift for someone,” said Thomas-Walsh, 35.
Fox Doucette, 27, of Reno, Nev., heartily disagrees. He said his mother started handing over cash gifts when he was 13, after figuring out his shifting tastes became like bobbing for apples.
“I always say to people: ‘If you want to make me happy, don’t guess what I want,”’ he said. “What’s the difference between spending 50 bucks on someone and giving them 50 bucks?”
Karen Campbell, 46, of Sacramento, Calif., sees a huge difference. “My grandmother was one of those proper, Victorian ladies,” she said of her gift-giving role model. “Great thought must go into every gift.”
It’s the thought that counts, right?
“Americans have come to believe that gifts should be about sentiment rather than monetary worth,” said Laura Miller, assistant sociology professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. But, “the monetary value of a gift continues to be very important.”
That idea is more flexible, Miller said, in a lopsided relationship, whether by age or class. A well-to-do person might give cash to a mail carrier or door man, but “the reverse never happens.”
Similarly, an older person is more likely to give money to a child or grandchild than vice versa.
Laurel Graham, associate professor of sociology at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said older adults appreciate a present that demonstrates thought and care.
“Many will tell you that a homemade gift will mean the most to them,” Graham said.
While some feel it’s rude to give cash, manners experts say the practice is socially OK.
“It’s absolutely appropriate,” said Elizabeth Howell, spokeswoman for the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt.
Howell said that one should never ask for money, however: “You can certainly direct them to a gift certificate option, but you wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, just give me cash.”’
Whether to give money can depend on preference and comfort.
“In certain parts of the country, it’s very common and accepted to give money,” said Colleen Rickenbacher, a Dallas-based etiquette maven. “That’s true in the North, not in the South.”
And cash can look like an actual present, Rickenbacher said — inside an elaborately decorated greeting card or a slender box wrapped in lively paper.
The major credit card companies are banking on a number of Americans who still won’t give cash. American Express, Discover, MasterCard and Visa all sell gift cards, with varying fees for purchase and for failure to spend within a specified time frame.
The companies that peddle the plastic contend that giving a gift card has advantages.
“It’s more personal than cash,” said Stephanie Stegich, American Express spokeswoman. “It’s more safe. It’s refundable. It has a little more cachet than dollar bills.”