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On my th birthday my husband and our -year-old son...

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Dear Tom and Ray:



On my 50th birthday, my husband and our 7-year-old son took me blindfolded to a car dealership and surprised me with a Mercedes Benz E320 with a giant red ribbon. I had mentioned that I'd always wanted a Mercedes since I sat in my uncle's car when I was 6 years old. I refused the car at the time, because the only available car was green. The actual reason I refused it was sticker shock -- $42,000! I celebrated my 51st birthday today, and my son said that I am not being gracious because I refused their gift. A year has passed, and my husband keeps asking me when he can buy me my dream car. We currently drive a 1991 Volvo 740 with 130,000 miles on it. I told my husband and son that I would ask you whether the Mercedes was worth the money for the safety and comfort. If you say it's worth it, I will agree to accept the gift. My husband and son are eagerly awaiting your response. -- Delores

TOM: Wow! What a nice husband and son you have, Delores. Unless, of course, they have ulterior motives. Your husband may be figuring that HE'LL drive the Mercedes, and your son may be assuming he'll be taking it with him to college in 10 years.

RAY: Actually, I don't think the issue is whether the car is "worth the money." An argument can be made either way, depending on how much money you have. The issue, it seems to me, is whether or not this car is a good match for you.

TOM: And I can tell that it isn't. After all, you've wriggled out of taking possession of the car for a year now. Clearly you're not comfortable with the idea of driving a Mercedes.

RAY: And I can understand why. We test drive just about every car under the sun. And while every Mercedes we get is an absolutely magnificent car to drive, I'm always a little embarrassed to be seen in it. Why? Because it sends a message. It says, "I'm superior." And try as they might to lighten up their image, a Mercedes still screams, "Hey, I've got more money than you do."

TOM: And some people are perfectly happy telling the world that they're both superior AND loaded. But you don't sound like one of them, Delores (bless your modest little heart).

RAY: So, how do you decline graciously? Well, honesty is always the best policy. I'd tell your family that while you're really touched by how generous and wonderful they are, you've realized you're just not a "Mercedes person" after all. Tell them you feel uncomfortable in such an expensive car, and that it feels a little conspicuous for your taste. They'll understand.

TOM: Then make a counterproposal. Suggest that they help you pick out an alternative -- another Volvo, a Volkswagen Passat, a Lexus ES300, or anything else that feels right to you -- mechanically and personally. And then propose that they spend some of the savings on a great vacation. And if you're feeling really generous -- suggest they come, too!

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