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.