When it comes to gift giving, it’s the thought that counts, right?
Maybe, maybe not.
Don’t get me wrong: I really love giving gifts around the holidays and at other times (usually birthdays), and I naturally love receiving them as well. At least certain gifts.
When a gift is something that someone really wants or needs — or if you have a true burst of inspiration, it’s a wonderful, exciting feeling for the giver and the recipient. It’s not about how much money you spend, it truly is the thought that counts. Usually these are gifts for people we know very well…our immediate families, significant others, and an inner circle of friends. I have gotten some really great gifts over the years, usually from people who know me very well and often from those who have asked what I wanted to get.
But then there are the gifts we give to people who don’t really meet that criteria. You buy a token gift for the mail carrier, another token gift for your second cousin twice removed, and a third token gift just to prevent an unanticipated gift-giving emergency faux pas. It’s often considered to be more polite to buy a bad gift than no gift at all. I’ve certainly done it many times, so I’m just as guilty as anyone.
Even for the people we know best, we sometimes buy filler gifts. In addition to the nice, thoughtful gifts you have bought, you buy more little token gifts as stocking stuffers. Sometimes these are cute and good for a brief laugh or a small indulgence like candy. Sometimes there are some legitimate big-ticket gifts that just happen to be small enough to fit inside of a stocking. Jewelry comes to mind. But, most of the time it’s just filler. (Even the phrase stocking stuffers literally says that the gifts are purchased for the sole purpose of taking up space.)
We all get things that we don’t particularly like, and we all give things that we don’t really have high hopes for the recipient liking because we don’t really know most of them very well. But we do it just to be polite because, well, it’s the thought that counts. We feel guilty or awkward if we overlook someone, especially if we are going to see them in person, and advertisers prey on this.
It’s actually a substantial economic problem, and University of Pennsylvania economist Joel Waldfogel has been on a mission to help us fix it. His book, Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays, explains that holiday gift-giving is actually quite wasteful.
What’s distinctive about all of this [holiday] spending is that, except for the prearranged gifts for teenagers, the choices are not made by the ultimate consumers. For the rest of the year, the people who will ultimately use the stuff choose what they buy. As a result, buyers normally choose things they correctly expect to enjoy using. But not at Christmas. As a result, the massive holiday spending has the potential to do a terrible job matching products with users. Throughout the year, we shop meticulously for ourselves, looking at scores of items before choosing those that warrant spending our own money. The process at Christmas, by contrast, has givers shooting in the dark about what you like, recalling the way the imaginary red tornado distributes gifts.
Joel Waldfogel, Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays
Every year, the media talks about the importance of the holiday shopping season as an indicator of the nation’s economic health. The logic goes that more consumer spending is a cause for optimism. But do they ever stop and ask if consumers are spending their money wisely? Do they stop and ask how much credit card debt they are in come January? According to Waldfogel, Americans waste about $85 billion each winter on gifts that people don’t even want.
Unfortunately, when people cut back on holiday spending in tougher economic times, they might still buy just as many gifts for just as many people but just buy less expensive or token gifts (again, just due to social pressures).
It’s not just a matter of money, it’s also a matter of time. Shopping is time-consuming, and homemade gifts are even more so. Aside from the financial drain, so many people feel overstressed and overcommitted during the holidays. They have too many people to shop for, and they often wander about aimlessly in search of inspiration they will probably not find…so they settle for just giving something in order to be expedient. Really, if it’s the thought that counts, how much thought was involved in buying a candle for ten different people on your list? These social pressures actually suck the joy out of gift giving and even gift making.
As a gift recipient, I’d prefer that the same amount of money be spent on fewer, bigger-ticket gifts — or even on necessities for people who are less fortunate than I am. I’d rather not feel obligated to give a bad gift to someone I don’t know that well and give better gifts to the people I do know well.
Wouldn’t you? So let’s put an end to the social pressures of obligatory filler gifts. Doesn’t your mail carrier have enough returns to deal with as it is?