The New Rules for GIFT GIVING From birthdays to weddings, Father's Day to Christmas, here's our definitive guide to gift etiquette in the '90s.
By JOANNA L. KROTZ Reporter associate: Mary Granfield

(MONEY Magazine) – Try this on: you've decided to scale back your holiday hoopla this season by spending less on gifts, giving more to charity and getting closer to the Tspirit of yuletide past. Joy to the world seems to be in order; glitter and tinsel do not. Hit a nerve? You're hardly alone. Holiday '90 is looming with more spirit and less shopping than the country has witnessed in years. ''At the six major U.S. gift shows where retailers buy for Christmas,'' notes Karen Gaspin, editor of Gift Reporter, ''everyone was really conservative, picking and choosing.'' The economy, of course, is taking us all for a ride, and the Persian Gulf crisis remains sobering. Conscience and conservation strike the mood for the millennium; conspicuous consumption went out with the '80s. So did some other things, like comfortable rules. Giving a gift used to cause little anxiety or comment. Receiving one required feigned surprise, delighted cries and no mention, ever, of money. No longer. Invitations now show up looking like past-due notices: cash only, donations to the honeymoon fund gratefully accepted, and lately, please send gifts to the national wildlife federation -- or some such virtuous cause. Whatever happened to, ''It's the thought that counts?'' Miss Manners knows. ''We live in bizarre times,'' counsels best-selling author and syndicated columnist Judith Martin (Miss Manners' Guide for the Turn-of-the-Millennium). ''As more people find their lives absorbed by jobs, the techniques of business are applied to personal lives and, likewise, social lives are dictating behavior in business.'' The result is a breakdown of principles about who gives what to whom, about where the lines are drawn. Up and down the scale, in offices and in homes, from January through December, gift-giving dilemmas are proliferating. By now, we've all been faced with a stumper: weddings that merge two households' worth of goods; birthday parties featuring a bevy of indulgent grandparents; Mother's Day dinners at which you say hello to Dad's new bride; graduation parties in honor of the boss' stepdaughter. Choosing a proper present ain't a piece of birthday cake. Time -- and the lack of it -- has also pushed thought out of the gift box. One result: the catalogue boom. From 1983 until 1989, according to the Direct Marketing Association, the number of Americans who shopped by mail or phone increased by 59.7%, while the population grew just 12.5%. Who's got time to shop for the perfect present? What's more, laments Letitia Baldrige, author of the Complete Guide to the New Manners for the '90s: ''People order mail-order gifts to be sent without even writing personal cards.'' In high dudgeon, Baldrige recalls a recent bride who worked so long and hard at the office that she didn't get to the printer on time -- so she simply ''faxed her wedding invitations on that slimy fax paper.''

THE GIFT OF SERVICE In reaction to fuzzy social signals and everyone's time crunch, the trend is to give cash or services, dressed up in personalized packages. Such gifts are safe, all-purpose and very often prized more than, say, an obligatory tie. Banana Republic, as a random example, offers its gift certificate in the form of a crisply designed passport. Sales of AT&T's long-distance certificates, says the company's Bryant Steele, ''are expected to double from 1989 to 1990.'' Gifts of catered dinners or maid services are growing commonplace. And increasingly, spa treatments, skin care, body massages, personal-trainer sessions, grooming and beauty services of all kinds are being packaged as gifts in every price range -- from a $10 manicure (a bargain indulgence) to a week's R&R at, say, Rancho La Puerta (about $1,500). At the seven Georgette Klinger salons across the country, reports general manager Art Minson, gift certificates for men are on the rise and sales for the annual big sellers -- Christmas, Valentine's and Mother's Day -- have grown about 18% over last season, with the average gift running $130.

THE GIFT OF MEMORABLE EXPERIENCE A corollary to cash, the gift of experience is also on the upsurge, from theater tickets or tennis lessons to weekend getaways. Giving memorable moments is particularly noticeable in business gifts. ''Six years ago, our 'Be My Guest' sales were mostly consumer,'' says marketing vice president Jim Erlick about American Express' popular gift certificates to restaurants. ''Today, it's about 50% corporate. Our research shows that professionals are tired of logo sportswear and desk accessories.'' If you're bestowing a night on the town, reminds Judith ''Miss Manners'' Martin, be realistic. Your teenager or secretary can be caught embarrassingly short when the average $50 or $75 gift doesn't cover a big-deal dinner for two at the local haute eatery. But even with gift certificates, ''you really don't have to spend a lot to give an emotional present,'' advises party and gift expert Anne-Stuart Hamilton, president of New York's A.S. Hamilton & Co. A dash of imagination and presentation count. For instance, ''if a birthday boy's going to France, put a beret stuffed with francs in a box and wrap it in a map or a flag,'' suggests Hamilton. ''With long-distance phone certificates, include a calendar marked with the dates you'll 'visit.' '' Although the rules governing gifts are bending and strained, some boundaries do remain. Thank-you notes, for instance, are still mandatory. Phone calls will not do (and not just because you're likely to reach an answering machine). ''Never,'' commands Miss Manners, ''give a giver the burden of returning a present or knowing it was inappropriate. On the other hand, never ask a friend where she put the vase or when he'll wear that sweater.'' In new or trying circumstances, the old rule applies: let your heart and your pocketbook be your guides. For other occasions, having canvassed the experts, we offer these up-to-date guidelines:

WHEN DO YOU SPLURGE ON A GIFT? Not very often. And, naturally, only if you can afford it. ''You shouldn't be in the poorhouse after buying a gift,'' announces Elizabeth Post, granddaughter-in-law to the original Emily and the arbiter of Post etiquette since 1965. ''Spending a lot makes sense only for close relatives. Never buy expensive presents for the boss.'' If you decide to go high-ticket, suggests the exuberant Anne-Stuart Hamilton, ''build some excitement and surprise. Make the presentation equal to the gift, so it's not just a big price tag.''

HOW MUCH SHOULD YOU SPEND ON A MODEST GIFT? This is a hard call. It's a matter of context: How much do you earn? How close are you to the recipient? Do you feel generous? What should not be at issue is a tit-for-tat mentality. Be strong. Just because old Cousin Clark sent you a $35 widget does not mean you owe him a $37.50 gizmo in return. Buy gifts according to your dictates and desires. Chuck Langham, an editor of Defense Department publications by occupation and, by choice, founder and executive director since 1979 of SCROOGE -- Society to Curtail Ridiculous, Outrageous and Ostentatious Gift Exchanges -- has received lots of requests for specific rules to limit spending. His group offers this formula: ''Spend no more than one-half of 1% of your annual income on Christmas gifts.'' If you earn $50,000, that's $250. (For a lifetime membership and a yearly newsletter, send $2 to SCROOGE, 1447 Westwood Rd., Charlottesville, Va. 22901.) Wedding presents too are influenced by social climate. Is the venue in practical Des Moines or pricey New York? How's your cash flow lately? On average, advises Letitia Baldrige: ''$25 to $100 will buy an appropriate wedding gift -- from a store where the couple can easily return it.'' CEOs, however, might spend $500 for, say, the daughter of a long-time business associate. How much a child's gift should cost, birthday or otherwise, raises thornier issues, especially in this era of reconstituted families when presents may mistakenly carry messages of commitment or loyalty. Experts' advice is to pare down the product and play up the experience for children. Give gifts of adventure or outings, accompanied by toys that fit the program -- a train ride plus a toy locomotive. Overall, trust your judgment. ''You can't talk about appropriate gifts for children without discussing an individual family's values,'' explains therapist Barbara Nordhaus at the Yale Child Study Center in New Haven. ''A family in which parents create the notion that every desire can be gratified is doing the child a disservice. That isn't the way the world works.''

WHEN IS IT OKAY TO GIVE CASH? The short answer is: more and more often, but this issue presses a lot of emotional buttons. ''In the past three years, money is a much more acceptable gift, especially for weddings,'' notes Susan Bell of the New York-based Saved by the Bell Corp., a gift shopping service for individual and corporate clients. With budgets tightening, environmental and health sensitivities rising -- remember when a bottle of wine would always do the trick? -- and everyone's style turned most particular, gift certificates and even outright gifts of cash are more frequent and appreciated. In the office, when saying thanks at holiday time to subordinates, says Letitia Baldrige, also author of The Complete Guide to Executive Manners, gift certificates are always appropriate: ''Spend about $25 for an assistant who's been with you for six months,'' says Baldrige, ''$100 on one who has worked for five years and several hundred on an assistant of 10 years or more.'' A holiday bonus from the company, of course, isn't the same as a gift. Several experts suggest including a personal remembrance with a check -- a scarf or muffler, desk accessory, fragrance or aftershave -- to make the money warmer. Giving cash itself (whether a check or crisp bills) seems to be the crucible of postmodern manners. Like most of the etiquette gang, Elizabeth Post says ''giving cash is a cop-out, except for certain occasions or groups'' (second marriages, 50th-wedding anniversaries, Jewish weddings or Italian funerals). Money gifts make many people uneasy or indignant because, for them, it bespeaks a lack of interest or feeling. Lately, the trendiest turn on giving cash is donations to good causes in a recipient's name, be it a just-married couple or a multinational corporation. The environment is a favorite. In 1988 the Sierra Club's Commemoratives Program was set up so that people could donate money as wedding or birthday gifts. ''Last year,'' says public affairs director Joanne Hurley, ''those gifts doubled.'' On the corporate side, also in 1988, for example, New York ad agency Della Femina McNamee stopped sending Christmas gifts to clients and began giving * cash in the name of their clients to such charities as the Red Cross, says the agency's Sherrill Cresdee. For many businesses, such charitable contributions not only lower costs and raise the corporate profile but also avoid any taint of impropriety. ''Among many executives, particularly the younger ones,'' says Jonathan Mann, who heads up the Business Ethics Study Team affiliated with New York University, ''there's a heightened awareness about decisions that seem routine today but might have dramatic consequences down the road.'' The news is that giving cash is controversial but catching on. Play by your own rules, know your recipient, and use gift certificates as a compromise.

WHEN CAN YOU JUST SAY NO? It's okay to ''pull in the horns,'' says Letitia Baldrige, and cut back on the Christmas gift list that tends to multiply. Send a card instead. Explain that you won't be sending the usual gift; then include a wish for good fortune and happiness. More formally, if some distant pal sends you a baby announcement and you feel social pressure -- don't. You need not buy a present. Merely send a card with congratulatory wishes. Announcements should be just that -- whether for a newborn, an engagement, graduation or any other rite of passage. Ultimately, the etiquette of giving should be motivated by desire -- how much do we care about the person on the receiving end? ''To a great extent,'' sums up Judith Martin, ''the joy has gone out of giving presents because of growing networks of obligation. Gifts should be lovingly selected. Personal.'' $