Replacing a returned gift

Question: A friend gave me a subscription to a magazine I don’t care for. When I canceled after one issue, the magazine sent the refund to Gretchen. I don’t want to seem small, but especially since I’d given her a nice present, shouldn’t Gretchen have given that money –- or another gift –- to me?

Answer: Call us unsentimental, but gift-giving is a transaction as well as a pleasure. And, usually, part of the deal is that the presents don’t just go one way. Reciprocation of some type isn’t only gracious, it’s required. So had your friend, say, accidentally left a gift intended for you behind on a train or ordered something for you that never arrived, she’d still owe you one. Bad luck and good intentions don’t wash away obligation.

But your situation is different. Your friend gave you a gift that you chose to reject. While it’s nice to get something you want or need –- and these days we’ve all gotten used to the failsafe gift (a gift card, for example, or exchangeable merchandise or an item from a “wish list”) –- the fact is that givers have no obligation to give a gift that is certain to please, only to give one that they hope will please.

Obviously, Gretchen struck out on her selection of a gift for you. But she unequivocally reciprocated your gift to her, and that’s all she needed to do. It doesn’t matter that she got her money back, because what she gave you was a present, not an I.O.U. Would it have been thoughtful of Gretchen to replace the subscription with a different one? Absolutely. But as long as she made a note to never send you that magazine again, she hasn’t done anything wrong.

Questions? Email Money Magazine’s ethicists – authors of “Isn’t It Their Turn to Pick Up the Check?” (Free Press) – at

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