Saturday, November 26, 2011

Why We Should Not Give Holiday Presents

Personal finance guru Suze Orman had her staff ask people on the street what presents they got last year at the holidays. No one could remember.

This amazing consensus is proof we shouldn’t strain our finances to give holiday presents. They aren’t appreciated beyond the moment. The sad truth is, most of the presents we give make no impact on the recipients’ lives.* Why go crazy spending tons of money, especially tons of money we don’t have or can’t afford to spend?

What Suze Orman didn’t ask the people on the street was this: Did they remember not getting holiday presents? Did they hold it against someone because that person did not buy them a present?

Isn’t one of our chief fears at the holidays that we will not appear generous enough? That people will think ill of us for not getting them gifts, or for getting them presents that are not sufficiently lavish? And doesn’t that fear suck us into a never-ending effort to prove, through spending more and more money, that we are good people?

Our holiday gift-giving efforts are futile. The recipients do not remember what we give them.

This realization should be freeing. If no one remembers what we give them, it hardly matters what we give them, or even if we give them anything at all. Will they remember what we did not give them? If this year, we announce we won’t be giving gifts, will it be held against us for the rest of our lives? Probably not. This time next year, the people we did not give presents to won’t remember what they got or didn’t get, or from whom.

If we know people ready to be seriously offended because we do not give them holiday gifts, these are not our friends or loved ones. People who don’t like us will not like us any better if we spend big money on them. Within most families, there typically are some relatives who don’t get along with each other. Should they be forced to give gifts? I don’t believe so. In-laws are a common case in point. Or siblings. Presents don’t do it. If our decision not to give presents this year is held against us by someone, we should think seriously about why we are in such a judgmental relationship, and what we can to do change it or walk away from it.

Don’t get me wrong. I like buying holiday presents. I like wrapping them. I like seeing people open them and enjoy them. However, gift-giving is an art, and not all of us are artists. It can take years to learn how to give a memorable gift to even one particular person. Odds are that most of our gifts, year in and year out, will fall flat. Worse, sometimes the presents we give become a burden on the recipient. People don’t need to be reminded at the holidays that they can’t afford to give lavish presents in return. Be kind, and rein it in.

Buying a holiday gift is often an impersonal action taken to fulfill a conventional expectation. That’s why a singing bass and a pet rock and a chia pet all became best sellers. Offices have figured it out; the Secret Santa tradition limits the dollar amount to be spent, and everyone gets to unwrap one surprise item. That’s a civilized convention. Too bad we don’t seem able to carry it over to our families.

Yet it is easy enough to change the implicit family rules, and even long-held traditions. Just tell your relatives you won’t be giving presents this year, except perhaps one item each to the children. Ask your relatives do the same. When you release yourself from the social onus of buying presents, you should release others. You might be surprised to learn that not giving gifts is a relief to them, too.

Most important of all, you should not go into debt to buy anyone a holiday present. People who love you want you to be happy, not burdened by debt and regret come January.

(*Children are the exception, but they don’t need lots of toys. They'd rather unwrap less and participate in more fun holiday events, from outings to decorating and everything in between.)

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