My brother and his wife are very well off–beach house, luxury cars, extravagant vacations– and always send us expensive Christmas and birthday gifts for us and for our children. It is becoming increasingly difficult for us to reciprocate. My husband was laid off a year ago, and recently started a new job, but at a roughly 50% pay cut. We barely make it month to month with both of us working. We have a small house and a big mortgage and must charge unexpected or big-ticket items and pay them off over several months. This is our reality. Usually we send an expensive gift basket of fruit or chocolates to them for the holidays, and send gift cards or ship nice presents for their children because they live so far away. This is starting to be stressful. Should I say something to them about the gifts or just go further into debt to keep up?
I think you should go into debt. It’s far more important for you to send your brother elaborate baskets full of kumquats and a basket full of weirdly unrefrigerated items than it is for you to save for college, pay off your credit card bills, and pay your mortgage. I have a brother, and if he and his wife were like, “We can’t send Christmas presents this year because money is tight,” I’d be like, “Screw you, assface! I sent your kid an organic free-range pony with a LEED-certified barn for his birthday! You better send my kid an anti-gravity machine and a NASA-approved spacesuit or you are DEAD TO ME.”
I’m sure your brother is aware of your financial situation, and he spends money on gifts because he loves you and wants to give you and your family nice things, and because he can afford them comfortably. I bet he’d be horrified if he knew you were scraping together pennies from underneath the couch cushions to buy stuff for his family. You can do one of two things: either graciously accept the gifts and reciprocate with heartfelt, thoughtful presents that fall within your budget, or you can explain to him that it makes you uncomfortable knowing you can’t give as lavishly as he can, and that you’d rather he spent a little less. If it were me, I’d just write a super-great thank-you note, accept the presents, and move on.