A New Year’s resolution for Christmas
In the days before Christmas, I intended to write a post on gift-giving. Time flew by a little too fast, so let us call it a suggestion for a New Year’s resolution for Christmas and other gift-giving occasions.
This resolution would be: Reduce gift-giving to a minimum and make sure that each gift given actually counts.
I speak here of gifts between adults (children are a different issue altogether) were we today see unnecessary excesses that only bring benefit to various sellers and manufacturers: When a typical adult gives and receives gifts at a cost of hundreds, even thousands, of Euro or Dollar per year something is amiss—in particular, as a single hug often can bring more happiness.
In the following, I will argue based on three aspects of gift-giving, namely as a social act, as a transfer of material benefits, and as a providing of non-material benefits. I will conclude that a sensible person can reduce his own outlays very considerably while increasing the benefit for his counter-parts.
Let us start with material benefits—the most noticeable, but also least important, part:
First, if I want to give someone a material benefit, how do I best do this? There are some cases where an immediate material act can make sense, e.g. when two parents give the child moving into his first apartment some surplus items from the old home. Barring this, there seems to be three popular ways, namely giving newly bought items that cost money, giving various gift-certificates that cost money, and giving money outright.
But why should I give someone a specific item instead of the same amount of money? By buying the item, I unnecessarily restrict the recipients options with regard to what type of item to buy, of what brand and quality, and where to buy it. Further, the search for suitable items can consume quite a lot of time and energy—time and energy that could be spent better. Clearly, he would be better off with the money. (There may be instances where the intention is to direct him to a particular use, e.g., to insure that the child above has house-hold utensils—not an enlarged alcohol budget. This reasoning may be correct in some cases, but is usually off. In a worst case, the items are simply resold at a loss or gather dust without ever being used.)
The issue with gift-certificates is similar: They bind to a particular store or chain of stores, there is always the risk that the certificate runs out before it is used or that the store goes bankrupt, they do not bring any bank interest in the time leading up to the buy, and they often sell at a premium compared to cash. For instance, I have occasionally seen cinemas selling “gift tickets” redeemable for a real ticket to any show. At first look, a good gift for the movie lover, but with the severe hitch that they sell at the price of the most expensive shows—and if they are not used to visit one of these expensive shows, money is lost.
We then have the conclusion that money is (usually) the superior gift—and we end up with two adults swapping money… Obviously, these swaps do not make sense and the giving should cease or be reduced to the larger giver giving the resulting net-amount without receiving anything in return.
Second, why do we at all wish to transfer material benefits? Apart from reasons that I consider poor (e.g. the wish to impress the other party, a sense of obligation, or a wish for reactions of joy or gratitude) and that are mostly covered by the above discussion, we have the real wish to make their lives better. Here too, money is often the superior road. Where not, classical gift-giving is rarely a good solution—a better method is to make suggestions on how to improve something, inquire whether the counter-part would be interested in receiving a certain item, or proposing some kind of trade for a mutual gain (“I heard that you broke your fishing rod. Since I do not have time to go fishing anymore, we could make a swap: You take my rod, and I take your [whatever] in return.”). Obviously, there is no particular reason for such interactions to take place only around Christmas or birthdays—quite the contrary.
Let us next turn to gift-giving as a social act: It is not just a matter of things and money, but also about making a statement of appreciation, love, friendship, …
But how do we best make such a statement? Usually, things are better than money in this regard; however, if these things have to be plentiful or expensive, well, possibly the relationship needs to be reconsidered—or the princess recipient learn to re-prioritize… If things are in order, it will be the thought that counts—not the price tag. Notably, the gift need not even cost money, but may be a home-made sweater, a bag of home-baked cookies, a loving note, or possibly just a hug. (Here, obviously, it pays to know the recipient sufficiently well to make the right choice.)
As above, the conclusion is to buy fewer presents and to spend less money—there are better ways to reach the wanted effect. In the words of the Beatles: Money can’t buy me love.
Finally, we have my own favourite—the bringing of non-material benefits:
We have all made different experiences, taken different roads in life, read different books, learned different ways to approach problems or situations in life, whatnot.
Why then not let the other party benefit from these differences? There may be a book that has made a difference in the life or world-view of one person, a movie that was an eye-opener on a particular issue, a piece of music that impressed him, a particular activity that opened a new road to enjoyment, … What is more natural than to gift a copy of this book/movie/music to someone else or to take him to try this activity? To paraphrase the cheesy commercials: A pocket-edition of [x]—5 Euro. Wrapping paper—5 Cents. A new insight—priceless.
Finally, for those who have made it all the way here, a few Dilbert cartoons on related topics: