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When I was shoveling snow recently, my neighbor made the stereotypical "how much to do mine?" joke. After chatting for a few minutes, it became very clear that she could not afford a shovel and was embarrassed by that. I came back after she went inside and shoveled for her, but she heard me and both her and her husband came out to try to pay me, which I refused as politely as I could.

I know they have had a very hard year financially (lost one of two jobs due to the pandemic), while we have been very lucky. I would like to buy them a snow shovel and perhaps a holiday gift for their child. However, I'm not sure how to do that without 1) making them feel bad for not reciprocating, or worse, actually spending money on a return gift and 2) making them feel like we think we are better than them.

The best option I have been able to come up with reading advice elsewhere is to leave the gifts anonymously. I have no problem doing that, but want to hear if anyone has any better advice to enable them to accept the gifts without saddling them with emotional burden.

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    Have you considered letting them borrow the shovel instead of buying them one? If so, why did you rule out that option? Dec 15 '20 at 13:05
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    Leaving a shovel anonymously could seem like someone leaving a critical comment about the state of their driveway. That said, given your conversation, it's more likely that they'd know it's you, and then your interactions will be just as awkward. (Should they thank you? Give you an anonymous gift back? etc.)
    – Llewellyn
    Dec 15 '20 at 17:34
  • @JoryGeerts That is a great question. I did not consider it. The thing that comes to mind in this situation is that they work odd hours and would often need it when I'm not available to lend it. But it is a good idea.
    – ericksonla
    Dec 17 '20 at 15:59
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    @ericksonla I assume then you live in a place where you can't just leave a shovel laying around up against the side of your house?
    – DKNguyen
    Dec 17 '20 at 23:57
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I once was in a similar situation, offering a gift to someone way lower income than I was, and I understand clearly the desire for anonymous philanthropy, but I would think there is room to be upfront about that.

In my situation since we were both gamers and I offered gaming gear, I could pretend an implicit counterpart, that he use it when we were together.

You both know your financial situation is different, but if they feel embarrassed, it could be making them another gift to let them know what would be a good counterpart for you, so they can have a feeling of reciprocity. Perhaps do a bit of shoveling for you, perhaps giving you a hand for displacing something heavy. Letting them know that the service is worth the shovel would enable them to enjoy it guilt-free.

Eventually, if you tie closer binds, it may become possible for some people they give up the politeness facade and enjoy gifts for what they are, but this doesn't seem possible now, based on your discussions, and not with everyone.

If you can't come up with a counterpart and offer something that wasn't asked for on the sole basis of income difference, condescension can be suspected. When that is the case I usually prefer to fill the need to be philanthropic elsewhere.

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One option is to get a shovel, make sure it looks a bit worn, and give it to your neighbors with the message it's a spare one you found in your shed. Your neighbors might see through it, but that doesn't really matter. Just tell it convincingly enough for everyone to pretend it really is just a spare spade you found in your shed. The same trick can be used for the Christmas gift for their child. Get/buy a nice toy and give it to them saying that your children/grandchildren/cousins don't play with it anymore.

Let me use the following analogy. The same as in a lot of other cities, some hobos sell magazines on the street here. Sometimes I buy such a magazine from one of them. But to be honest it are always crappy magazines for which I never would have spent money in a store, at home it goes to the trash pretty quickly. However by selling a magazine the hobo can pretend he/she is not begging and I can pretend I am not just doling out money to a stranger.

I am not saying your neighbors are hobos, they are probably hardworking people (I am also not saying hobos are necessarily lazy people). The point that I want to make is that from personal experience I know that a little pretense can be quite important, even if all involved can see through the pretense.

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I'd still give them the shovel. If you do it anonymous they'll (likely) still instantly know it's from you and end up in a "why anonymous? Is he ashamed of us?" and you're just being nice, why not show that you care? I'm a big fan of not dimming down friendly behaviour because of possible misinterpretation. The focus should then be on mitigating the misinterpretation.

Often people want to give something in return when you give them something, or at the very least a chance to. I suggest you still give the shovel. It's a nice thoughtful gift which then can use. You don't mean it condescending, just being helpful. You would like it if the roles are reversed.

They might feel embarrassed to take help, IMO you should focus on making clear that they should be. You could go with a polite "Just being neighbours, looking out for each other ". You could also go for a more joke version "Now you can clear my driveway sometimes, haha". Note: you should feel the vibe whether a joke is appropriate.

I find that often when you give them a chance to 'earn' the gift, it's easier to take the gift and appreciate it. Keeping the situation simple, not allowing it to be made bigger than it is, works long term. Sometimes I help you, sometimes you help me. No need to keep score.

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