Buying a Gift For Someone Who Did You a Financial Favor

I live with my boyfriend in a house that he owns (he was comfortably paying the mortgage and bills on his own before I moved in). My financial situation is considerably more stretched than his, with lots of loans and big bills and an uncertain partially freelance career. I pay him rent each month, but it’s not very much because I can’t afford much and it’s just so I don’t feel like a freeloader.

Recently he suggested I take a ‘rent holiday’ for a few months because I’ve got some other big bills to pay, which is a relief! However, it’s also his birthday in a month and I had been thinking about getting him a Kindle — which now won’t be that difficult to afford given the ‘no rent’ thing. What is the etiquette on how much to spend on a present for someone when they’ve just done you a financial favor? This isn’t the first time something like this has come up — a few years ago my friend bought my plane ticket to her wedding (because she could afford it and I couldn’t and she loves me) and I really struggled to figure out what kind of a wedding present to get her because spending a lot felt like “Well if you could afford this, then why not the flight?” and not enough effort felt ungrateful. — M.

Two different experiences, two different sides:

When one of my closest friends got married out of state she told me, “I know that you’re spending a good amount of money on the flight and hotel, so please don’t get us a wedding gift.” I knew she meant it, but since I didn’t want to arrive empty-handed for a best friend’s wedding, I brought along a cookbook I knew that she had been meaning to get. It was what I could afford. She and her husband often cook recipes from the book and invite me over for dinner.

When a freelancer friend worried he wouldn’t have enough money to make his rent, he asked me, sheepishly, if I could lend him some money. I said yes. I lent him a few hundred dollars — money that I would be okay losing if, for a myriad of reasons, he was unable to pay me back (my rule being: only lend out money you can afford to lose). I did it because I could afford to do it, and he did end up paying me back soon after. About a month later, we went out to dinner together and he insisted on paying. “No,” I insisted, “Let’s split this.”

“But you were nice enough to lend me that money,” he said. “I want to do something nice for you too.”

“Use whatever you’re going to spend on me and pay off your debt,” I said. We had the kind of friendship where we talked a lot about money and I knew that someone with his level of debt shouldn’t be buying me dinner. But I also understood that it’s tough to be in a position where you feel indebted to your friend for doing you a financial favor, and that there’s a weird power dynamic that can arise from that so I added, “But you can pay for my drink if you want!” He did.

I bring up both examples because of the “affordability” factor in each case. I could not afford to buy my best friend a big gift after spending money on travel and lodging for her wedding, but it was within my budget to buy a cookbook; I knew my friend could not buy me dinner given how much debt he was in, but buying me a drink was within reason.

The second example also placed me in the position of being the one doing the financial favor, which I didn’t do because I expected anything in return — I did it because I could afford to do it, and because I cared about my friend. I’m sure your friend and boyfriend feel the same way.

This is long way of going about saying: Do what you can afford to do, and don’t overcompensate because someone did you a favor. After addressing your loans and big bills and whatever monthly expenses you need to take care of, can you afford to buy a Kindle as a gift? If so, go ahead and buy it. It doesn’t sound like a “rent holiday” means you have to live a monastic lifestyle where all your money goes to paying off bills and you have no money to do anything fun. If you have discretionary income leftover to spend however you want, feel free to spend it on a Kindle.

The same could have been applied to the situation with the wedding gift: Buy what you can afford, and don’t overcompensate because your friend did you a favor.

“Well if you could afford this, then why not the flight?”

Because you could afford the gift, but not the flight. It’s as simple as that.