Saturday, November 7, 2009

Making Your Holiday Gift List? Read Scroogenomics First!

cover of Scroogenomics

"Deloitte Touche conducts an annual survey of holiday gift giving. According to their 2007 survey, respondents planned to purchase an average of twenty-three gifts for friends, family, and other acquaintances. Twenty-three gifts!?!"

Although the subtitle of Scroogenomics is "Why you shouldn't buy presents for the holidays," that's not really what author Joel Waldfogel is saying. For close family and friends - especially those you see frequently - you can probably make good gift selections. Rather, his quibble is with our gift-giving to those we don't know as well: more-distant relatives we seldom see, etc. (OK, he also has a quibble with going into debt to buy holiday gifts.)

As an economist, this who-knows-what-they-want gift-giving disturbs him. He says, "My beef is not with the level of spending and consumption at Christmas but rather with the waste this spending generates ... producing a meager amount of material satisfaction for the amount of money spent."

While cash gifts would solve the problem, cash is considered inappropriate in many cases. For example, while a grandparent may give a grandchild a cash gift, a cash gift from the grandchild to the grandparent just isn't done.

Gift cards would seem like another way around the gift-giving dilemma, but about 10% of the value of gift cards is never redeemed. "People forget about their cards, or lose them, or they redeem part but then can't find something they want that costs less than the remaining balance, or the store issuing the card goes bankrupt."

His solutions? On the realm of what's available now, he likes charity gift cards, including Charity Navigator's "Good Card." Data indicates that most people would give more to charity if they could afford to do so - and many charities "allocate resources to activities with high social return."

Ideally, he'd like to see retail gift cards which expire after 12-18 months, with any unused balance going to charity - perhaps a charity chosen by the giver.

This is a tiny book - 4.25 inches by 6.25 inches, and 146 pages excluding the notes and index. But I enjoyed the different perspective Waldfogel brings to the subject of holiday gift-giving - and I learned more than I expected to learn!

"'There are worlds of money wasted, at this time of year, in getting things that nobody wants, and nobody cares for after they are got.' The observer was the prescient Harriet Beecher Stowe, writing in 1850." With this book, Waldfogel is doing his part to try to change this.


Lelah Baker-Rabe said...

Thanks for putting the spotlight on this topic. Scroogenomics looks like an interesting read. People forget that when they buy stuff for people they think they need to buy stuff for, all that stuff puts a burden on the receiver, too. I like the idea of using obligatory gifting as an opportunity to support charity. Thanks for the food for thought!

Claire Josefine said...

From your mouth to God's ears! What a blessing it would be if we, as a culture, could learn to stop imposing clutter and guilt on others as a consequence of perceived obligation.

I especially like the idea of store cards rolling over into charity cards if unused.

Personally, i stopped giving holiday gifts many, many years ago -- with no regrets or recriminations. I bake goodies for my neighbors and sometimes host a mini-feast (I make yummy latkes). This year I'm compiling all my bread recipes into one pdf document and emailing them to anyone who'd like them. But that's it.

kbfenner said...

I wish I could get my family to stop doing the gift thing--I would give my nephews cash and all the adults my warm wishes. No one ever gives me anything I want, unless I am very specific, and even then they pay far more than I could manage to get it for.

The problem seems to be that by and large, they like what I get them. I guess that's flattering. I have learned to just return, sell or give to charity the gifts I could not use. Seems like such a waste, when they could just make a cash donation directly, as I have suggested repeatedly.

I guess I'm just a humbug.

M. Patterson said...

I don't buy gifts for holidays, except for White Elephant. I might give a small gift to my children but all of us prefer going out to do something fun instead. I tell others not to give me any gifts but treat themselves and get what they always wanted for their hard work throughout the year. I don't have much to give to charity so I donated my blood during the holidays last year.

Lawgirl said...

I started doing Christmas for Your Insides two years ago. I read an article about how storage places are booming because we have too much stuff. So I started Christmas for Your Insides, so that you can give to the truly needy.

Anonymous said...

My parents have pretty much stopped giving gifts other than cash. Due to age, they don't get around much other than groceries/doctors. I get them a couple of magazine subscriptions, and gift certificates to a restaurant. My in-laws are a different story - I once said "just a small gift card to xxx would be more than enough" and my MIL said there was no way my FIL would stand for that, everyone *MUST* have presents to unwrap!
Envelopes do not count. I wonder if it's a result of growing up during the Depression - now they want to send the message "we're doing OK, we can buy lots of presents!". Although, lately those prsents have been coming from the grocery store, instead of chotchke that sits around and then put in the "give-away" pile after a couple of months.

Which brings up a question - when you get knick-knacks that you Do Not Want, is there anything that can be done with them other than directly to the trash, or to the charity shops? I'm not talking "nice but not to my taste", I'm talking about the cheap inported schlock...

Jeri Dansky said...

I've really enjoyed reading the comments here- thanks for joining the conversation!

kbfenner, I don't thinking wanting to stop the useless-gift giving makes you a humbug!

M. Patterson, donating blood is such a thoughtful gift to the world; many of us could well follow your example!

Lawgirl, helping the hungry is another wonderful way to honor the holiday season.

I always participate in my local adopt-a-family program, where I get a very specific list of needs (like "black sweater, size medium") to shop for.

Jeri Dansky said...

Anonymous, if the gifts can't be returned, the only options I know are the charity shop and Freecycle (or the free section of craigslist, or anything similar).

I'm in a business networking group that has a holiday party where we exchange gifts - but we do a "white elephant" where everyone brings some bit of useless junk from their home or office. No additional spending! And sometimes, one person's useless junk is something someone else wants, for some reason.

So if you got your knick-knacks early enough, and belonged to a group that did this kind of gift exchange, you'd have another option!