What Gives?

Bourree Lam explains why gift-giving remains so popular among Americans:

Americans are actually pretty generous on the gift giving front (second in the world to wealthy Luxembourgers). A recent Pew Research poll shows that across all age groups and income levels, around 80 percent of Americans surveyed felt “joyful” and “generous” about buying and receiving gifts. The National Retail Federation estimates 2014’s holiday sales to exceed $6oo billion, or around $800 per person—$460 of which is estimated to go to gifts for family members.

If that sounds like a lot of money, that might be why 46 percent of those surveyed for the Pew poll reported feeling stretched financially.

Meanwhile, Roberto A. Ferdman flags findings that put a damper on gift-giving:

Research has shown that givers tend to value the gifts they buy considerably more than recipients. Gifts are valued roughly 10 to 33 percent less by recipients than what givers paid for them, Joel Waldfogel noted in Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays, his 2009 book on gift-giving.

The discrepancy seems to come from a simple misplaced belief that thoughtful presents are the best presents. They are not. In fact, they might just be the worst presents. The more thought you put into a present, the more likely you are to stray from buying what the person you’re buying the present for actually wants.

“Gift givers tend to focus on what people are like instead of what people actually would like,” said [Mary] Steffel. “And it’s most pronounced when they’re shopping for people they are close to.”

Tim Hartford has more on Waldfogel’s research:

After surveying his students about gifts they had received over the holiday season, [Waldfogel] found that most gifts were poorly chosen relative to what the students would have selected themselves. Gifts from friends and lovers tended to be better chosen than gifts from elderly relatives but, on average, the waste attributable to poorly chosen seasonal gifts was between 15 and 20 per cent of the purchase price of the gift — that’s well over $10bn wasted in the US alone every Christmas. This is a vast squandering of time, energy and valuable raw materials.

So what if we just gave up on giving? In 2012, Paul Collins looked back at early opposition to the commercialization of Christmas:

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving, a lost player in the history of political progressivism. Now largely buried in century-old newspapers, theirs is a heartwarming story that puts War back into the War on Christmas.

SPUG started with a bang at the Nov. 14, 1912 meeting of the Working Girls’ Vacation Fund. Founded a year earlier to help Manhattan shop clerks set aside a little money each week, the fund had quickly grown to 6,000 members, with savings of $30,000. But those savings faced a jolly nemesis: Christmas. Sapped by the extravagant gifts that female department store clerks were pressured into giving supervisors—often to the tune of two week’s worth of wages—the fund’s members took action.

“Have you ever thought that true independence often consists of having the courage to say ‘No’ at the right time?” fund co-founder Eleanor Robson Belmont asked a packed hall. A former actress and Manhattan grande dame, Belmont knew how to hold a stage—and this would be one her most dramatic performances yet. The best way of saying no, she proclaimed, was to band together: “Let the members of the Vacation Saving Fund feel they form a kind of group with strength to abolish any custom, even if be as old as Christmas itself, which is not for the benefit of mankind and has not the true spirit of giving behind it.”