Holiday '90 is looming with more spirit and less shopping than the country has witnessed in years. The economy, of course, is taking us all for a ride, and the Persian Gulf crisis remains sobering.
Up and down the scale, in offices and in homes, from January through December, gift-giving dilemmas are proliferating.
One result: the catalogue boom. From 1983 until 1989, according to the Direct Marketing Assn., the number of Americans who shopped by mail or phone increased by 59.7%, while the population grew just 12.5%.
In reaction to everyone's time crunch, the trend is to give cash or services, dressed up in personalized packages. Such gifts are very often prized more than, say, an obligatory tie. Gifts of catered dinners or maid services are growing commonplace. And spa treatments, skin care, body massages, personal-trainer sessions, grooming and beauty services of all kinds are being packaged as gifts.
A corollary to cash, the gift of an experience is also on the upsurge, from theater tickets or tennis lessons to weekend getaways. Giving memorable moments is particularly noticeable in business gifts.
In new or trying circumstances, the old rule applies: Let your heart and your pocketbook be your guides. For other occasions, having canvassed the experts, Money magazine offers these up-to-date guidelines:
When do you splurge on a gift? Not very often. And, naturally, only if you can afford it. "You shouldn't be in the poorhouse after buying a gift," says Elizabeth Post, granddaughter-in-law to the original Emily and the arbiter of Post etiquette since 1965. "Spending a lot makes sense only for close relatives. Never buy expensive presents for the boss."
How much should you spend on a modest gift? This is a hard call. It's a matter of context: How much do you earn? How close are you to the recipient? Do you feel generous? What should not be at issue is a tit-for-tat mentality. Be strong. Just because old Cousin Clark sent you a $35 widget does not mean you owe him a $37.50 gizmo in return. Buy gifts according to your dictates and desires.
Wedding presents are influenced by social climate. On average, advises Letitia Baldrige, author of "The Complete Guide to Executive Manners": "$25 to $100 will buy an appropriate wedding gift from a store where the couple can easily return it."
How much a child's gift should cost raises thornier issues. Experts' advice is to pare down the product and play up the experience for children. Give gifts of adventure or outings, accompanied by toys that fit the program--a train ride plus a toy locomotive.
When is it OK to give cash? The short answer is: more and more often. "In the past three years, money is a much more acceptable gift, especially for weddings," notes Susan Bell of Saved by the Bell Corp., a gift-shopping service.
In the office, when saying thanks at holiday time to subordinates, says Baldrige, gift certificates are always appropriate.
Several experts suggest including a personal remembrance with a company bonus check--a scarf or muffler, desk accessory, fragrance or after-shave--to make the money warmer.