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Money Manners: Splitting joint gift reasonably

Dear Jeanne and Leonard: My husband’s family sometimes gives presents jointly. For example, when one of the grandchildren graduated from high school recently, everyone got together and bought her a $500 gift certificate. My mother-in-law, who’s in charge of these gifts, always splits the cost per person, not per household.

So for that gift certificate, she asked her single daughter to contribute $42 and my husband and I to contribute $84. Can this be fair? While there may be two of us, my husband and I have only one income.

– Curious, Kansas City

Dear Curious: Well, it’s not unfair.

Consider the arrangement from your mother-in-law’s point of view: You and your husband each get credit for giving the gift, so why shouldn’t you contribute twice as much toward its cost?

Of course, it’s true that families often use the per-household approach you prefer. But even setting aside the issue of the penalty it imposes on single members of the family, what if, say, your household income is greater than your husband’s sister’s income? Or what if she has three kids to support and you and your husband have only one?

Which isn’t to suggest that your family needs to develop a complicated formula for divvying up the cost of a jointly given gift. Our point is only that there are a number of arguably fair ways to split the cost in this situation, and the one your mother-in-law has chosen is as reasonable as any other.

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Dear Jeanne and Leonard: For 15 years, we’ve been in a book club with the same five couples. Each couple is supposed to contribute $50 toward the meal that whoever hosts the monthly meeting serves. For quite a while now, though, the “Jacksons” haven’t been paying their $50. We believe that the reason is they made a lot of money when they sold their company a few years ago and they now view $50 as too trivial to bother with. Should we speak to them about this?

I want to, but my husband doesn’t, because making up their $50 each time the group meets isn’t a real hardship for the rest of us, and because whenever it’s the Jacksons’ turn to host, they try to refuse the others’ money (the rest of us insist, though).

– Cookie, Silicon Valley

Dear Cookie: What do you think? Do the Jacksons still pay four bucks for a candy bar at the movies, or do they just take it?

By all means, remind your friends – nicely, of course – that they’re still obligated to contribute $50 each time your group gets together, even if they now only use bills that small for flossing their teeth. They’ve been patronizing the rest of you with their “we’re above money” attitude long enough.

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Dear Jeanne and Leonard: Our sister is an alcoholic who always overspends and then says she has no money for food. The two of us are renting a place for her (she contributes only $100 per month), and she can’t keep a paying roommate because of her behavior (she gets hostile without warning and is a terrible pack rat).

We want to become her conservators both because we’re worried about her and because we’re tired of supporting her while she blows all her own money on bar tabs. We know, though, that she’ll fight us tooth and nail on this. Should we do it, anyway, or opt for peace?

– Pam and Mike, California

Dear Pam and Mike: What exactly is so peaceful about the current situation?

Our vote is that you try to have a conservator appointed for your sister, possibly someone other than one of you (let her get hostile with someone else for a change). As tragic as her situation is, you’re not obligated to let her wreak havoc – financial or otherwise – on your lives.

Please email your questions about money and relationships to Questions@MoneyManners.net.