“The greatest gift is a portion of thyself.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
When I was a young kid, I loved Christmas. Waking up on that fateful morning to run to the bedroom to see what Santa had brought made it almost impossible to fall asleep on Christmas Eve. My brother used to like to find an airplane in the sky and tell me it was Santa and his reindeer so I’d go scurrying off to bed at some crazily early hour like 11:30 PM.
Eventually, I started learning that there was also joy in giving. I wanted to shop for everyone, so my parents gave me a Christmas allowance and let me go wild in Target. I’m not sure that my uncle Barry was terribly impressed with the calculator I got him, but, hey, it was the thought which counted, right?
My experience with Christmas gift giving followed a parabolic arc of joy. When I was a small child, it was all about me and about getting gifts. Then, as I became aware of the world around me, it started being more about giving gifts than giving gifts. Once I became an adult and on my feet, it became all about giving.
But, then, surprisingly, the joy of Christmas giving took a turn downwards in the parabola. First off, most of the people for whom I was buying a gift already had everything they needed and usually what they wanted too. How often do we wind up getting a tie for Dad because we can’t think of anything he wants or needs? Secondly, Christmas was becoming a game of one-upmanship, with people trying to outdo each other in getting better and better presents.
We were getting on the Christmas hedonic treadmill. Some distant relative or not-so-close friend would buy a Christmas present for us, and we felt compelled to buy one back, even though the only way we knew the original sender’s address was to check on the shipping label.
Really, what was important to me was the time I was spending with the family. Since I lived in a different part of the country, and had since the Army had decided I should go off and see the world, that was what Christmas was about, not the exchange of presents that, in the big scheme of things, had relatively little meaning.
In 2011, Americans spent approximately $460 billion in Christmas gifts. That’s about $1,500 per person in the U.S. Of that, 10% of the gifts were returned. Goodness knows how many gifts wind up in closets, unused. Let’s guess 5%. Add the two together, and we’re talking about $69 billion dollars wasted on useless gifts in a year.
I’m not trying to portray a pre-visionary dream version of Ebenezer Scrooge here, singing bah humbug and making the Bob Cratchits of the world slave away for the holidays.
Nor is Christmas the only time when we spend money on tokens to show that we care. Cover your toes, for I’m about to step on them. Let’s think of some other “sacred cows” where you’re supposed to buy something to show you cared:
- Funerals. Yes, funerals. It’s decorum to send flowers to the service to show that the departed was loved and cared for, particularly if you’re not able to make the funeral. On average, we spend $231.38 per funeral on flowers. According to the CDC, 2,437,163 people died in 2009, meaning that we spent almost $564 million on funeral flowers.
- Valentine’s Day. I know. Husbands, try getting away with showing your wife this article as justification for getting her nothing on Valentine’s Day. We spend $19 billion on things to show our significant other that we love them. What do we do on the other 364 days?
- Birthdays. I tried, but Google failed me. There is no actual number which I can find that tells me how much people spend on birthdays every year. I’m willing to stake a claim that it’s a large number.
- Weddings. According to the Wedding Report, we spend over $50 billion per year on weddings, which, as the CDC reports, was spent on 2.1 million weddings. There were also 872,000 divorces or annulments. Yes, it’s nice as a young couple to get a little leg up on life and to christen the new home with towels, linens, dishes, and everything you’ll need as a family. However, if you’re like us, you haven’t pulled out the china since the first year of your wedding when you thought it’d be nice to actually eat on nice china and then discovered it’s a real pain to wash it. Or silver? Polish that lately?
If you reflexively recoil at the thought of not buying gifts, flowers, chocolates, ties, etc. for every occasion that occurs when you are expected to bring something to show that you care, you’re not alone. We get it beaten into our heads all of the time that we’re supposed to buy gifts to show others that we care. Instead of actually caring, we get to substitute money for caring through the purchase of a gift.
“You’re supposed to get gifts,” your Monkey Brain insists in the back of your mind because he knows if you get someone a gift, then they’re probably going to adhere to the law of reciprocity and give you one back. Like it or not, we keep mental track of who gives gifts and keep score.
Who told you that you’re supposed to do that? Advertisements? Someone? “They?” Where is it written that your relationships are cemented because of how much you spend on the other party? Is that truly how you want to measure love? Maybe so, if you’re Snooki. There are a lot of industries out there which want to perpetuate the notion that gift giving, flower buying, and chocolate giving equals caring, commitment, and love.
How do you show that you care without breaking the bank or seeming like a fusion of Ebenezer Scrooge or Silas Marner?
For the person who doesn’t have it all
- Cash. Nothing spends like cold, hard cash. The recipient can get what he or she wants and avoids the embarrassment of telling you that the shirt you got him was two sizes too large or small or that it looks like the dog got sick on it.
- Time. Actually spend some of a finite currency you have – you. Cook for the person. Do household chores. If you’re handy, do some work around the house. Cut the grass. Write one letter every week for a year – not an e-mail, but an actual, handwritten letter. Don’t take the easy way out and send money as a proxy for you.
For the person who does have it all
- Contribute to an educational trust. Since the recipient has succeeded and is set, change the generational path and ensure that future generations have the same opportunities to learn and to succeed without being burdened by the enormous anchor of student loan debt.
- Contribute to a charity. This is what my family does – we give donations (mainly to the Wounded Warrior Foundation and to the USO) to the recipient’s favorite charity in honor of or on behalf of the recipient. That way, we know that the money is going to a good cause.
In this article, I’ve identified over $500 billion of money which would, were it efficiently spent, be what an economist would call a transfer payment. The problem is that the money is not efficiently spent. Flowers die. Chocolates go to our waistlines and to our thighs. Ties either get returned or go into a dark corner of the closet never to see the light of day. I’d be willing to bet at least 20% of that money is spent in a way that has no, true, meaningful effect on the recipient of the spending – that’s $100 billion per year.
It’s also the same amount that we take out in student loans each year.
Think our next generation of students could use that money for college? Or that the Red Cross could use the money? Or the Wounded Warrior Foundation? Or the American Cancer Society? Or…or…or…
Will this change your spending on gifts this year? Tell us about it in the comments below.