Christmas shoppers, beware: These 4 gifts could end up actually costing the recipients money


Brace yourself for a cautionary holiday tale.

A few years ago, a group of friends pooled their money to give me a gift certificate to a popular spa chain during a bleak period in my life. It was enough to cover a few treatments, including a massage, facial and mani-pedi, so I booked my appointment over the phone and looked forward to a few hours of pampering. 

But instead of leaving the spa relaxed, I left in tears, because I’d been badgered with upselling attempts from every aesthetician trying to get me to spend above what my gift card covered. What’s more, I was then told I had to pay tax on the visit when it was time to leave, because I hadn’t gone to the same spa location where the gift card had been purchased. And, of course, I needed to tip each of the people who provided services, since tips weren’t included in the gift voucher. So my “free” spa day ended up costing me a couple of hundred bucks, which was an unpleasant surprise. 

A person shouldn’t have to pay to use their present.

I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. (Also, if any of the ladies who gave this gift are reading: I really did appreciate the thought and the money you all put into this!) But I was caught off-guard by an unexpected expense that I couldn’t comfortably afford. Bottom line: The worst gift I ever received came with the best intentions. 

So now that the holiday shopping season is in full swing, it’s a good time to warn about the gifts that sound amazing and generous, but which could end up actually costing the recipient a ton of cash. This used to be called a “white elephant” gift; in other words, a present that is expensive to maintain or difficult to dispose of, the way receiving an actual white elephant would be. 

Following are four gift ideas that you might want to skip giving, because they could end up being a financial burden on the recipient.

A spa day

As noted, there are several strings that can come attached to a “free” day of pampering, such as unexpected taxes or fees, as well as tips. Now, no one is saying that tipping the people providing you a blissful service is wrong. In fact, here’s MarketWatch’s guide to tipping in 2023. But the added expense may catch the gift recipient by surprise. Perhaps a tip is unaffordable. So if you are going to give a voucher for a spa or similar service, see if you can include tax and a tip in the gift-card value. Or maybe offer to cover any taxes or tips, yourself, in cash. 

And keep in mind that if you choose to give a spa gift card, make sure it’s enough to actually cover treatments. Let’s say you give a $50 gift, but the least-expensive service starts at $60. Your recipient is going to have to pay to use your present. Remember that a spa day is supposed to melt away stress, not create more of it. 

A new car or truck

We’ve all seen the commercials: a husband or wife, or a teen son or daughter, opens the front door to see a brand-spanking-new car in a snow-dusted driveway wrapped in a bow big enough to top the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. What isn’t depicted is the giftee sweating to pay for gas and automobile insurance down the road. 

The average cost of car insurance is $2,148 per year nationally, according to NerdWallet’s 2023 rate analysis, or about $179 per month. That’s an average, of course; the actual cost will vary by state, and will also be determined by one’s driving record and credit history. So keep in mind whether the gift recipient is in a financial position to cover insurance and pay for gas each month. It should go without saying that you’ve paid the full price of the car, and you’re not expecting the recipient to take over the lease or make the car-loan payments — unless that sort of arrangement was discussed in advance.

A four-legged friend

Giving someone a dog or a cat can cost a lot of scratch. In fact, cat owners can expect to cough up between $325 to $1,600 a year to cover basic essentials, according to’s 2023 cost of pet parenthood report, while dog owners could end up fetching between $610 to $3,555 a year to take care of their fur babies.

Americans dropped a collective $136.8 billion on their pets last year, according to the American Pet Products Association, including $58.1 billion on food and treats alone. And, of course, pets are living creatures that require constant care, such as making sure they are fed, exercised, socialized and given regular medical checkups. 

So while a puppy or a kitten sounds like a cute gift, it could end up costing the receiver a lot of time and money. Granted, you can’t put a price on the unconditional love you get back from a pet. But this is definitely the sort of present that should be discussed in advance, rather than surprising someone with a fuzzy bundle of lifelong responsibility.

Financial Face-Off: Cats vs. dogs: Which pet makes better financial sense?

A fancy restaurant or luxury brand voucher

Similar to giving a spa-day experience, a gift card to an upscale restaurant, fashion designer or luxury store could also fall short of expectations. On the store front, if there is a particular item or piece of designer apparel that you know your loved one has been looking at, then it might just make better sense to buy it outright, or to pool together the money with a few others to give it as a group gift.

When giving someone a gift card or voucher to shop an upscale brand, however, you can run the risk of not giving your recipient enough credit to be able to afford anything in the store, which could then push the giftee to dig into her or his own pocket in order to use the gift card at all. Again: Someone shouldn’t have to pay to use a present.

The same dilemma is on the menu with a restaurant voucher. Maybe just take the recipient out for a meal, instead, and pick up the tab. Always ask: Is what you’re giving enough to cover two or three courses, as well as drinks, tax and gratuity? Or will your recipient be reminded that there really is no such thing as a free lunch?

Las Vegas News Magazine

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