Why do we give gifts?

I love the look of lots of presents under the tree, especially nicely wrapped ones. A bulging stocking, tables loaded with treats — all these speak to the abundance of the holiday season.

Of course, though, as I’m flipping through catalogs deciding what to get people, I have been pondering why we do this. Gift giving is a rather inefficient exercise. Everyone can use cash, and everyone can use it for almost everything. But simply passing around different denominations would seem pointless. So we spend time (a valuable commodity) shopping for items to purchase for people. Shopping for kids is one thing, since they often don’t have their own funds to purchase things (and similarly, shopping for sponsored families through non-profits or churches is lots of fun too). But with adults of reasonable means, gift giving always runs into the issue that if the person valued the item in question enough, they probably would have bought it themselves.

Or maybe they would have. I enjoyed reading Dan Ariely’s column in the Wall Street Journal this weekend on what makes a good gift. He uses a predictably irrational scenario: you see a coat in a shop window, lust after it, but decide it’s too expensive. Yet when your spouse purchases it for you — using your joint checking account — you think he or she is amazingly thoughtful and generous. In other words, a good gift gives you what you want without the guilt of spending money on yourself.

I think there’s something to that, but I also recognize that in times when I’ve been given money or even gift cards – which would seem like the perfect combination of enabling you to buy something guilt free – I have trouble spending it on something I want but don’t need. Because I think there’s also a lot to the idea that with gifts, it’s the thought that counts. I don’t mean that in the usual sense. What makes gifts really exciting is the idea that somebody spent time thinking about you, pondering what you’d like and what would make you happy, and hopefully actually got it right. A gift card doesn’t indicate that someone spent valuable time thinking about you. Instead, it’s a monetary transaction — this is the amount I intended to spend.

And so, I mostly intend to buy actual presents this year, and really put thought into what people might enjoy. I will probably strike out a few times, but it will be an interesting test of how much I actually know people. I’m curious what others think about giving gift cards or cash.


11 thoughts on “Why do we give gifts?

  1. I think the ideal gift is one that the recipient will enjoy but doesn’t know (s)he needs. For example, we got my mother-in-law a new wireless router so she can use internet on her i-phone and update her Wii. She likes using her i-phone in this way, but hadn’t thought to buy a new router and is intimidated by setting it up. Maybe the gift was setting it up…

    1. @Twin Mom- I think setting it up is more than half the gift! But yes – something the recipient doesn’t know she needs also suggests that you were thinking deeply about what she might like. That gift of time is important.

  2. Yes, gift cards are distasteful to me exactly for the reason you state: it makes the exercise a monetary transaction. I don’t think, however, you should feel bad for a strikeout or two–some years the perfect gift for Person A just isn’t out there.

    1. @Christina- I’m picturing the ultimate in sheer transactions: two parties giving each other gift cards. As for the coat, my reading of the situation was not that the couple couldn’t afford the coat (that is, that they wouldn’t have enough to pay for groceries or something if they bought it). More, it’s just that the person couldn’t imagine spending that much on him or herself. The one time I bought myself a nice handbag, I made it be a present from my husband and son to me. Why is that? I’m the one who picked it out and bought it! I guess I just needed to make it be a gift to be OK.

  3. Sorry, I have to add that the example of the spouse buying the coat doesn’t always hold up. If I’ve decided it’s too expensive, I would NOT be pleased if my husband bought it. And I know women who have made their husband’s take back a gift b/c of its cost. Buying the item in those cases would actually NOT be honouring the receiver’s wishes and can be disrespectful.

  4. Two thoughts on gift cards. 1) As a teenager, I was thrilled when I finally “graduated” to getting gift cards–or checks or cash–from relatives I seldom saw instead of gifts they chose that could be a real challenge to write thank-you notes for–not because my relatives put no thought into choosing gifts for me, but because they didn’t have enough regular contact with me to make an educated guess as to what I might like. At that age, having cash in hand and getting to decide for myself how to spend it was exciting in and of itself–not to mention how much easier it was to write thank-you notes for whatever I spent it on and genuinely liked because I’d chosen it myself. 2) For my birthday this year, a dozen or so friends chipped in together to buy me a sizable gift certificate to a spa I’d been dying to go to. I would never have spent that much money on myself, nor could any one friend have afforded to spend that much on a gift for me, but by going in on it as a group, they were able to give me exactly what I wanted without straining anybody’s wallet–and without their all having to spend time individually shopping for separate little gifts that are often more of a token you then have to figure out what to do with or dispose of than something anybody really wants.

    1. @Gwen: Point taken on teenagers preferring cash or gift cards. I guess everyone has to figure out the dividing line. Little kids don’t enjoy opening gift cards. And they don’t enjoy shopping! I guess somewhere around 11 or 12 is where the break point comes.

  5. I love gift cards! Love getting them, love giving them!

    I really don’t like shopping — I never was a big shopper — and find it kind of stressful doing it with young children – I have a two year old and am 7-months pregnant but am not sure I will feel better about it when I have a 3-year-old or a 1-year old.

    . I’d love to read more about how to incorporate say shopping with child time.. as a working mom it isn’t practical for me to do my shopping separately from my child — and kids do like to look around, but unfortunately I am not one of these moms who finds taking a 2-year old out to do my shopping relaxing or easy.
    I am great at say taking my kid to Barnes & Noble for her entertainment but not b/c I am really trying to find the perfect DVD for her or someone else… I’d like to get better at this b/c time wise I don’t like taking time out from time with my kid or my job to shop or do a complicated holiday — unless I think it is really important to me or will make a holiday really special for my child.

    1. @Cara- I find it stressful to shop with the kids too. So I either buy stuff online, or try to take one with me grocery shopping while the other gets some daddy time. The problem for me with working for myself is that I can do shopping/errands during my workday, and so sometimes I do, but I really need the hours for work. It becomes a way to procrastinate.

  6. Yes, there is still a second shift and a third job — no matter how much you outsource, there is some shopping that needs to be done and that you as the mom or dad do best… so it is really tempting when you are self employed to handle this during the work day and if I am in the car anyway I will stop in but it becomes a work distraction.. and it takes a lot of discipline — or say the willingness to take a 2 year old to the store and suck it up that they can learn from this on A SAT or during non work time — to NOT allow this to take away from your precious work hours… the working parent who really wants to count work hours as “billable hours” and I know some salaried folks get lunch hour and there is down time at work but for those of us who are self employed or for whom 35 or 40 hours of work means actually working … and billing for those activities… it is time lost and money lost… so it is a constant balancing act..I find shopping by myself for things relaxing… actually since I had kids b/c it is kind of doubling as down time or alone time for me or sometimes I do it with a girlfriend so maybe the answer is to pay the babysitter to take the kid or get daddy to take them for a few hours so one can shop… somehow though I think my husband might not really agree to babysit so I can “shop”… but of course my teenage neighbor doesn’t care.. she will babysit on a sat for two hours for whatever the HXXk I want to do.. love her!

  7. @Laura,
    I have pondered this with my 20-something nieces and nephews who can basically go out and buy what they want. This year I am determined to put more thought into gifts (a restaurant gift card for my pregnant niece and her husband who just bought a house) Even though it’s a gift card, they can still enjoy a night out, which isn’t in their budget right now. My other niece wants to try out new recipes, so she will get a cooking magazine subscription and a basket of ingredients to try some of the recipes out.
    I have also been trying to pay attention to the things that family members have mentioned throughout the year that interest them. My iPod has helped with that, as I can take notes and not lose/forget them.

    @Twin Mom
    setting it up is definitely the most important part of the gift. My mom asked for something last year that makes cassettes/albums into CD’s and she has yet to use it. I am going to borrow it this winter and just make the CD’s for her!

    I hear you about shopping with young children. It is not productive at all. I usually bring along a special write on/wipe off book or something like that, that I ONLY use for that occasion so it’s really special. If you need to get clothes for yourself Colorforms work really well on dressing room mirrors. Shopping alone is best, but if you hire your teenage neighbor you have to add her costs into the cost of all your gifts.

    I agree with you about the coat. I was so torn two Christmases ago when my husband bought me a great purse. He put a lot of though into it–I’m very picky about my bag and it was perfect, but then the bill came and I nearly flipped out. Now that I’m not carrying diapers and wipes in it, it’s too big, and he’s upset I’m not using it anymore.

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