Three Christmases ago, you added your best friend's new spouse to your shopping list. Two Christmases back, you added your sister's new husband. Last Christmas you added your best friend's baby and your brother's bride. This Christmas, you added a niece, a nephew and two more friends' spouses.
Not that you're keeping tabs or anything like that--heaven forbid--but you can't help but notice that while your cost of giving soars, your net gain remains stalled at pre-inflation levels.
For every three presents you bequeath, you receive one in return. You give Sis and her family a vase, a necktie and a stuffed clown; Sis and her family give you a vase.
Not that such minor inequities matter in the least--goodness, no. It's better to give than to receive. It's the thought that counts. It's Christmas. It's . . .
. . . Expensive!
All the joy in the world won't pay the bills, especially when you're living and buying on a one-paycheck income.
What's a single to do? We asked a few masters of etiquette for their counsel.
"Buy one present that can be used by all family members, if you can't afford individual gifts," said Elizabeth Post, the granddaughter-in-law of Emily Post. "A basket of fruit can be enjoyed by everyone, as can games or VCR tapes. There are many things that you can give to the entire family."
However, if you're sticking to individual gifts, "I think that you definitely should include the spouse; it would seem strange to give just one person a present," said Post, who updated her legendary relative's book, "Etiquette."
Letitia Baldrige, on the other hand, said singles need not feel obligated to annex their Christmas lists each time friends annex their families.
"You are not beholden to give a separate gift to the spouse of your friend," said Baldrige, who revised "The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette," is the sister of the late Cabinet member Malcolm Baldrige and was chief of staff for Jacqueline Kennedy during her White House years.
"Whether you give the spouse a present depends upon your relationship with him. If he is someone you have known for a while, then you may wish to buy him a gift as well."
Single people who are on a budget "first and foremost should remember the original friend," said Sandra Wessel, a shopping counseler for Tiffany & Co. in Costa Mesa.
"If you've had a special bond with that friend, I don't think the family members would feel slighted by not receiving a gift from you. The husband or wife wouldn't expect it, and the kids are so busy opening presents from Santa that they wouldn't even notice.
"You might pick up something for the kids if you take a special liking to them, but to be honest, sometimes you can't stand the kids or you can't stand the spouse," Wessel added with a laugh.
Cindy Davis, etiquette instructor at Florence Smales School of Charm in Fullerton, suggested that "friends and family discuss in advance how to go about exchanging gifts."
"Particularly for a single person, it just gets to be too much when friends start marrying and having children," she said. "Come right out and say, 'Money is a problem for me this year.' "
All angles considered, a "unisex" gift for the whole family may be the most polite and least expensive route to take.
"The best solution is to buy one gift that both people can use," Baldrige said. "It's just as easy to give bar glasses as it is to give a silk scarf or cuff links. A basket of food is always nice, or a bottle of wine, or if they play tennis, cans of tennis balls."
"Glassware is always appreciated," Wessel said, "although I'm not sure the children would be thrilled with it."
However, children might be thrilled with food, games or a Christmas ornament, she said.
"You may as well forget jewelry," the Tiffany counselor quite graciously advised.
Buying for two (or more) can be tricky. "Let's say you've known the wife for a number of years, and you know that she adores delicate things such as crystal," Wessel said. "Now all of a sudden she's married to a man who is totally practical and not at all interested in decorative items.
"You have to try to find a compromise: something that is exciting to both of them, functional yet decorative. For instance, you might look at our Elsa Peretti bar glasses, which are pretty and at the same time sturdy and useful."
Even if you do decide to buy a joint gift for a couple, you can still acknowledge your original friend individually, Davis noted, with "a little something extra--a small token."
After all, she said, "the point of giving a gift at Christmas is to say, 'Thanks for being my friend.' "
Of course, the number of dollars in your checking account could determine the number of gifts in your shopping bag. "If you are at the pinnacle of success, you may want to buy something for each family member," Baldrige said.
Married people should keep in mind that their single friends and relatives often give more than they receive at Christmastime, Wessel said.
"My sister is single and loves to buy for my three children every year," Wessel said. "She spends about $20 or $25 on each. So I try to estimate what she'll spend on my family, and I buy something that would be at least equivalent."
In the end, the moral to any Christmas story is that gifts need not cost a lot to mean a lot. It really is the thought that counts.
"A symptom of American greed is our overemphasis on material items," Baldrige said. "But gifts in which the giver has invested time rather than money can be just as special as expensive gifts.
"I have a single friend who bakes loaves of bread the night before Christmas, then the next morning takes a cab around (New York City) delivering them. It's the greatest Christmas present she could give."
To quote the Grinch from Dr. Seuss: "Maybe Christmas doesn't come from a store; maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more."