Scanning Sunday's New York Times, I felt like one of those computer programs that tracks text for the increased usage of certain words. I'll bet you've noticed the increase in ad copy like Lord and Taylor's "Give Thoughtfully, Spend Wisely, Sleep Soundly". Editorial material abounds in "Luxe for Less"-themed articles.
The premise is, "We know you have to spend money, but here's how you can trim your bill and not look cheap." Retailers fear that people will simply stop spending, so try to steer us toward lower-priced options.
You have another choice: get off the strictly commercial treadmill. I'm suggesting this as a way to control spending, but even more, to give in a more personal way. Most ideas below involve some cost, from several dollars to maybe $50 or so.
1. Orchestrate an Experience
The Occasional Caterer: A card with the treat you'll prepare and deliver (given reasonable notice): homemade pizzas, a hamper of tapas or an Indian feast. Merle mixes an intense caesar salad, you choose the date and she drops off a garlicky, anchovy-redolent bag with a packet of homemade croutons. Anders brews his "Robbie Burns Odemeal Stout" and delivers a dozen potent pints.
Emotional Rescue: A sleepover invitation for the children of your tired friend, Saturday brunch till Sunday supper is fine, or be a hero and give a full weekend. A friend of mine did this for me for about five years and I have rarely appreciated a gift as much. Cost: food for the kids, a few movies and maybe some Advil and earplugs.
Tell your friend to reserve an afternoon. Pick her up for a surprise outing to somewhere she would enjoy but is not likely to venture on her own: art show, botanical gardens, poetry reading, bike ride, or, if you live in a city, join the audience of a TV show. Stop for tea.
Yes We Can, Closet Edition:
Come over with bags and help her clean out her overflowing closet, the one she's complained about. Go to Ikea, buy three $5 bundles of wooden hangers, and purge every ghastly wire hanger. If you want to get fancy, buy shoe racks or other storage goodies.
2. Part with a Treasure
Do you have something a friend adores, covets, cannot stop admiring? If you can let it go with grace, do so. Because this is not a common social practice (except as part of potlach rituals in some native communities), you might accompany your gift with a comment such as, "I know how much you've always admired this pearl pendant. I'd love you to have it".
This is a gift, not "I-can't fit-into-these-pants-will-you-take-them"? And no strings. Once given, it's gone. If the recipient passes her pendant to her daughter or auctions it on eBay, you have to be cool with that, or don't do it.
Jewelry, art, and decorative objects lend themselves to this type of heartfelt giving, but other items work too. Doug had long admired a friend's vintage Martin guitar; when James gave it to Doug, he wept with joy.
3. Absolutely no cost but lots of affection
I've had friend who grew hostas and gave me a selection. One friend washed and detailed another friend's car for a season. Someone else taught her friend the basics of the guitar.
If the gift involves a promise of future delivery, be sure to schedule it. And of course you wouldn't offer what you can't quite give, like the well-intentioned man who promised his partner he would stop smoking... but so far has not managed it.