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Money Manners: Do You Have to Chip in for Office Gifts and Parties?

Do you have to chip in for office gifts and parties? Of course not. But doing so may actually get you promoted faster, studies show. The etiquette of office gift giving.

Money Manners: Do you have to chip in to buy coworkers gifts?

This month, a reader wrote in about a tricky work-related financial issue:

“I don’t love my job or the people I work with. But since no one has called me back for any other jobs, I imagine I’ll be here for awhile. At least once a month, someone collects money for a coworker who’s retiring, getting married, having a baby or leaving for a new job.

I always end up giving money – money I’d really like to spend on my credit card balances or myself. The reason I do it is because I feel like it’s really obvious if I don’t. There are only 30 of us here, and there’s always a card and party. I can’t sign the card or go the party if I don’t give any money. Right?

To make things even worse, one ringleader often sends out an email before she goes around collecting money with a “suggested amount.” So I look like a cheapskate if I try to give just $5.

Do I have to keep giving money? Is there a way to politely say no? Without anyone noticing?”

The easy answer? Of course you don’t have to give money to celebrate a coworker’s good fortune. This is America and you’re a grownup. Keeping your money to yourself isn’t a fireable offense.

And yes, you can be polite about it. Try saying, “I’m so excited for insert name of coworker you don’t care much about here. But I’m on a serious savings plan. I’d love to still sign the card or come to the party, though, to wish her well.”

You could even lie – that’s not against the law in America either – and say, “I forgot my wallet today.” Unless you work for a debt collection agency, I doubt you’ll be asked if you remembered your wallet the next day.

But office politics are never that easy. You specifically asked if people will notice.  The truth is they will – eventually. No one forgets a wallet for six months. And if you stick with your money-saving story, people may start to wonder how fair it is that you get to reap the benefits of gift giving – card signing, cake, hopefully beer and wine – without ever forking over cash. Eventually, they’ll notice you never contribute and stop asking you to join in. While everyone else celebrates in the conference room, you’ll be alone, at your desk, on Facebook.

Fine, you may think. I don’t want to go to their lame parties or sign their dumb cards, anyway.

But you think you hate your job now? Just wait until you stopped being asked to come to parties, or sign cards. Then you’ll really hate it.

So my first bit of advice is to change your mindset about donating to office festivities.  Work parties are simply a way to make the place you spend 40 hours per week a little friendlier, a little more fun. There’s even evidence that socializing with your colleagues contributes to career success. A study found that people who organize workplace social events are 40 percent more likely to get a promotion within two years than those who have an “all work and no play” mentality.

Secondly, ask yourself this: Will I ever be on the receiving end of a gift from these people?

You said your coworkers occasionally use the money to buy a gift or throw a party when someone leaves for a new job. Do you want a nice send off when you leave? (Furthermore, at the risk of sounding conniving, if you think one of these coworkers may be able to help you find a new job one day, contributing $5 here and there to stay on everyone’s good side may be a solid investment in your future).

I can guarantee that something will happen in your life while you’re at this office (or the next) that’s worth celebrating.

For instance, I recently gave birth six weeks prematurely. While I was in the hospital, stressing about the fact that I didn’t even have a box of diapers at home, two of my coworkers collected over $200 from my office mates, bought me gifts off my registry, and delivered them to my house. This act of kindness certainly justified all the times I’ve shelled out $10 for a collective office gift. Whenever you dole out some cash to celebrate a coworker’s milestone, write it off as good karma.

And find out if you can literally write the gift off your taxes. Fox Business reports, “You may give business gifts up to $25 per year per recipient to clients, associates, and employees and deduct them on your income tax return.”

You do say one thing, however, that makes me think that at least one coworker would have been a good fit for the Party Planning Committee on The Office.  It’s absurd, and tacky, that there’s a “suggested donation.” Only museums have the right to ask for that. Always remember that a “suggested donation” is just that – suggested. Don’t be bullied into paying it.

Hand that money-grubbing ringleader a five dollar bill, or whatever you feel comfortable paying, and say, “Here you go. Where’s the card? When’s the party?” As long as you give something, you can rest assured you’re an upstanding colleague who deserves all the cake you can eat.

But just because I’ve had a lot of jobs, and people liked me at them (at least I think so – leave a comment if I used to work with you and that’s not true), doesn’t make me an expert. So I told Jorie Scholnik, an etiquette expert who specializes in the millennial market and an assistant professor at Santa Fe College, about your situation.

She agreed it gets dicey when coworkers start money collections. “It’s important to remember that people have different financial situations and people want to choose how their money is spent,” she noted. “You do not need to contribute for every occasion, but it often does feel awkward to politely decline.

She suggested you take the reigns and start new traditions. “You can suggest a monthly potluck that covers all occasions,” she said.  “Or suggest that everyone gives something minimal and optional, around $20, which will cover all occasions for the next year.”

I bet you’d get a lot of support from other coworkers, who are likely just as irritated as you. Who knows? In planning these new traditions, you might just make a new friend and like your job a little bit more.

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About Patty Lamberti

Patty Lamberti is a freelance writer and Professional-in-Residence at Loyola University Chicago, where she teaches journalism and oversees the graduate program in digital media storytelling. If she doesn't know something about money, you can trust she'll track down the right people to find out. You can learn more about her at www.pattylamberti.com. And if you have any story ideas, or questions about money etiquette that you'd like her or an expert to answer, email her at moneymannersqs@gmail.com.