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Published: Jul 01, 2024 5 min read
A stack of money wrapped with a gift bow
Money; Getty Images

July, August and September are the most common birth months in the United States, meaning you probably have a birthday — or know someone who has a birthday — coming up soon. And try as you might to plan ahead, you've probably found yourself running around the house in the hours before a party searching for an item you can wrap and conceivably pass off as a present.

It would be so much easier if you could just Venmo them a few bucks or email over an Amazon gift card… but is that too impersonal? Does it come across as thoughtless?

Not according to Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Texas.

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“Cash is king,” she says. “Everyone loves money.”

People of all ages welcome monetary gifts — and sometimes, they prefer it. In a 2019 survey from Mint, 61% of respondents said they’d prefer cash or a gift card to a quote-unquote “traditional” present. A 2023 YouGov poll found that “cash or money in some form” beat books, event tickets, clothes and electronics in a ranking of the holiday gifts people would be most excited to receive.

“I think giving money as a present can be perfectly appropriate and even appreciated in most instances,” etiquette expert Myka Meier, from Beaumont Etiquette, writes in an email. “It's a gift that truly allows the person you are gifting to choose what they really want or need.”

Meier points out that, in some cultures, it's actually standard to receive money for certain occasions. The New York Times reports that in Japan, for instance, the typical goshugi — envelope of cash handed over in association with a celebration — is up to ¥50,000 (over $300). South Korean weddings often have a designated person who collects all the chug-ui-geum.

Speaking broadly, cash can be preferable if the recipient is going through a transition and/or taking on expenses associated with a new life stage. Think: graduations, weddings, baby showers.

The money can help offset the debt they’re taking on, and that’s no small thing.

How to give the gift of cash (or gift card)

There are some caveats here. Gottsman says whether a gift of money is perceived as impolite often depends on the relationship you have with the recipient.

For instance, while your 15-year-old nephew might be stoked to get $50 cash, your more established great-aunt might be offended — she might interpret the gesture as you suggesting she needs money. It could also go south if you’re in a new romantic relationship where your partner is waiting for you to give them something meaningful.

“Think about the recipient's lifestyle and your relationship with them,” Meier says. “Consider if they might prefer the flexibility of cash or if they would appreciate the thoughtfulness of a bespoke gift.”

If you’re worried about seeming cold, Gottsman suggests you “warm it up” by getting a crisp bill from the bank and enclosing it in a nice, handwritten card. That shows the recipient that you put time and effort into the present (and didn’t just pull a crumpled twenty out of your back pocket 10 minutes before the party).

This goes for gift cards, as well. Choose a place that you know, based on your shared history, the recipient loves. That way, you’re personalizing the gift and enabling them to get a treat of their choice on your dime.

Say your cousin loves going to their local AMC movie theater but has trouble justifying the $15 popcorn combo given her strict budget. With an AMC gift card, you’re letting her splurge without the guilt of overspending on something frivolous.

That’s going to make more of an impact than a random hand cream she’ll never use.

“It is not a thoughtless gift if there's some thought put into it,” Gottsman says.

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