If people tell you, “No gifts, please,” should you trust that they mean what they say?

Usually, alas, the answer is “no.”

This has probably happened to you, right?

Everyone in your family or friend group agrees that they won’t exchange gifts for Christmas. It’s a joint effort to recognize that some folks are trying to get out of debt, save more or just stop the madness of the annual tradition of conspicuous consumption.

You breathe a sigh of relief. You can enjoy the holiday season without worrying about buying so much.

But then on Christmas Day or at the holiday party, when you gather for fellowship, out come the gifts. Now you feel bad because you can’t reciprocate. The “no-gift” contract was broken by the gift-giver, but you feel guilty.

“Some [people] just can’t seem to fully comprehend that ‘no gifts’ means exactly that: no gifts,” wrote one reader. “That means no crafty handmade thing, no donation to anything in your name and no handwritten promise to babysit or to rake leaves. And no half-finished knitting project with a projected date of completion. Stop this insanity! We are completely lost and awash in excess junk already.”

This person perfectly articulated my annoyance with the ignored agreement that exchanging gifts isn’t wanted or needed. And this doesn’t just happen during the holidays.

A betrothed couple may send out their wedding invitations urging guests not to feel obligated to bring gifts. Except, in the same announcement, they recommend that you contribute to their favorite charity — this is still a gift!

Or, parents hosting a birthday party for their child might say, “Oh, don’t bother buying Billy a present.” However, they follow up with, “But we are asking people to bring a toy or book that we can donate.” The guests don’t want to show up with some sticky-paged book or toy, so they end up purchasing something new anyway.

Perhaps you are the spouse who stresses out your husband — or wife — by saying, “Honey, you don’t have to buy me a gift. Your love is enough.”

Then, you have the nerve to be indignant or hurt when that person takes you at your word.

“When I said no gifts, I didn’t mean nothing,” you complain.

This is why people don’t believe you when you say, “No gifts.”

So the merry-go-round of gift-giving continues. You can’t get off this ride because you fear that doing so might label you a miser or thoughtless.

“Giving doesn’t have to be material gifts,” one reader argued. “A gift can be a loving message in a card, a date for a cup of coffee and conversation, an afternoon of chores, or an endless list of priceless crafts, etc.”

Another person wrote: “The best gift my son could give me is to come over and do yard work.”

All of these suggestions to seemingly relieve people of buying something still require gifts of time and/or money — even if it’s just a $5 cup of coffee or greeting card. Homemade crafts often result in the need to purchase materials.

“I remember when Christmas meant joining together with family and friends for dinner and celebration,” another reader wrote. “It has become a nightmare of consumerism, fights in stores for discounted items and endless debt. I don’t buy any gifts for Christmas, nor do I expect any because the fact that my loved ones are well is gift enough for me.”

So, how can we all stop the subterfuge around no-gift requests? Here’s how.

Mean what you say. If you tell people that no presents are required, do not suggest any gift alternatives.

Don’t contribute to the confusion. If you want a gift, don’t pretend that you don’t. False modesty is frustrating and deceptive.

●Don’t press people. I’ve been trying to end the practice myself of repeatedly asking folks, “Are you sure you don’t want anything?” It comes from the feeling that you can’t show up to a party or celebration without a present. However, pushing the issue often results in folks abandoning their no-gift policy just to stop your pestering.

Don’t gush over a gift at the gathering. People who ignore the no-gift wish should not be rewarded with public adulation, which will no doubt make others feel bad.

●Don’t feel guilty when others ignore the appeal. This is a hard one. However, you must keep in mind that the folks showing up with gifts are the impolite ones.

To be clear, I’m not advocating that everyone should stop being generous. There is certainly a lot of joy in giving and receiving. Yet, there are times when people really just want to enjoy your presence.

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or michelle.singletary@washpost.com. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to http://wapo.st/michelle-singletary.