Every year, in the weeks and days before the holidays (or Mother’s/Father’s/Valentine’s Day), the same frenzy unfolds:
- Facebook groups are full of ‘What gift should I get for … ?’, often followed by ‘They already have everything’.
- Retail stores are packed; parking lots are bursting at their seams.
- Delivery vans are dropping more parcels at people’s homes than at any other time of the year.
Many people are stressed and feel under pressure. Yet, everyone buys gifts for their loved ones, even those that can’t afford them. Because that’s the way it is. But, does it really have to be like this?
Today we will demystify the act of gift-giving and suggest a more sustainable approach that is a win for everyone – you (and your wallet/sanity), your loved ones and our environment.
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Why do we give gifts?
Have you ever asked yourself this question? Doing a bit of research on the topic, and without being experts ourselves, the act of gift-giving seems to be (at least) as old as mankind itself.
Back in the day when humans lived in caves, gifts were exchanged between groups that would meet each other for the first time. Tribes used gifts to identify whether their counterpart was a friend or foe, with the reciprocity of the giving and accepting interpreted as a sign of being friendly to one another. Gift-giving (and accepting) formed the start of relationships.
While the act of gift-giving has evolved since caveman days and continues to evolve, it exists in all cultures, with the expectation of reciprocity more pronounced in some cultures than in others. Wise men gave gifts to Jesus (in the form of Frankincense, Gold and Myrrh – each with a special meaning), which is seen as one of the main reasons why we give gifts at Christmas and on birthdays today.
Gift-giving is one of the five love languages: Gifts are vehicles through which we express our feelings of love and appreciation for one another.
Gift-giving makes us feel good. It allows us to connect with the people in our lives and gives us a sense of purpose and belonging. We are social creatures after all.
A lot of pleasure is in the giving, knowing you’ve taken care of someone – Tracy Ryan, Professor for Advertising Research at VCU
The downside of gift-giving
We all have seen (or experienced ourselves) the stress in the lead-up to the holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day… you name it.
Taking the economic lens of value exchange, spending $100 on someone else could have a far greater value to the recipient than if we had spent the $100 on ourselves. Think of those less fortunate than many of us.
The flip side, however, is also true: $100 gifted may have far less value to that person than if we had spent it on ourselves. Think of the bracelet your mum bought you (and you never wear).
In its survey on Christmas gifts, ING uncovered some interesting findings:
- 70-75% of survey participants felt that Christmas was too focused on spending, with 42-47% of respondents feeling forced to splurge at this time of year.
- Thankfully, most people are sensible about their spending. But people do get into debt (22% in the US, 10% in Europe), just to buy Christmas gifts.
- While most people appreciate their gifts, 14-19% of survey participants were unhappy with their gifts (if they remembered them at all).
What do people do with unwanted gifts they don’t want to hold on to? In the US, 40% re-gift them, 31% return them to the store and 19% throw them away. In Australia, 20% donate them to charity. In Europe, 14% sell them.
Gift giving has environmental effects too: increased traffic on the roads, unwanted gifts ending up in the landfill, not to speak of the environmental costs that come with the manufacturing of many items made in countries less focused on sustainability.
So, how to prevent unwanted gifts?
Well, you could stop gifting altogether, but that’s not what we are suggesting here. There are however quite a few things we all can do to prevent unwanted gifts.
As a giver, avoid gifts that are very personal, such as clothing, shoes, cosmetics or perfume – unless you were specifically asked to buy a certain item. Asking the recipient directly or someone who knows them well (such as parents, children, or partners) is a good way of finding out what someone would appreciate.
Recipients can make the lives of givers easier too. As kids, we made wish lists, and there is nothing wrong with sharing your wish list with your loved ones as an adult:
- If you always wanted to visit a certain place but it has been too expensive to afford on your own, everyone could chip in to make that wish come true.
- If you are a student about to live away from home, why not use a gift registry so that your family can help you get set up in your new place?
Speaking of wish lists: Is your children’s wish list way more than you can afford? Don’t get into debt just to buy what they want. Talk to them and make a realistic plan to save up for that special gift over a period of time. Ask other family members to contribute to achieving the savings goal faster. And, depending on your children’s age, they could even take on the odd little job to help with the funding. Money doesn’t grow on trees, and it’s important that your children know that.
Often the hardest ones to get on board are grandparents, for example, when they take the word baby shower too literal or when they think their taste applies universally. But the same principle holds true for anyone really: communicate, communicate, communicate.
Also, who restricted gift giving to special occasions such as Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries and the like? If you want to express your love and appreciation for someone with a gift, and you see something that would really resonate with them, why not buy and/or gift it there and then?
Alternatively, you could take a note of your gift ideas for the people in your life (whenever the ideas turn up) and then refer to that list when you decide to go shopping for that special occasion. Makes for a less stressful shopping experience, guaranteed.
Finding a gift that will be appreciated by someone you don’t know very well is often the most difficult one. Think of the Secret Santa you do each year with your work colleagues: You set a budget and draw a name, but then you’re left to figure out what to get for them. Why not extend the Secret Santa idea just a little bit? Instead of just putting a name on the ticket, each recipient could list three things they would appreciate, leaving the gift giver to choose among them.
You could do the same as a family too, avoiding the huge pile of gifts under the Christmas tree and potential disappointment.
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Gift ideas that are a win for everyone
Before we share some specific gift ideas, let’s remind ourselves why we gift in the first place: Gifts are a symbol of our love and appreciation for each other. Gifts connect us and make us feel good. We don’t need to buy the most expensive jewellery or a ton of cheap toys to achieve that, right?
We can achieve the benefits without lighting a lot of resources on fire, we can achieve the warm feelings associated with giving without buying a lot of stuff people don’t want. (Joel Waldfogel / Economist and Author)
For those who’ve got it all
When Paul and I married, we already had a household together. We didn’t need anything to be added to it. Yet, especially at occasions like weddings, people often feel odd if they come empty-handed to celebrate with you. We, therefore, created a gift registry of a different kind, shortlisting different charities, and different types of donations at different price tags, from which our guests chose as they preferred. Our gift registry raised more than AUD700 in donations.
Another great example we have seen friends do is a wishing well: their guests would put envelopes with money into a (bucket decorated as a) wishing well. The money gifts contributed towards their honeymoon of a lifetime. Gift cards and plain old money may not seem to be the most inventive gift ideas. But the gift you are giving is the gift of choice.
Charity donations and wishing wells are not just great for weddings, by the way (or only for people who’ve got it all):
- Instead of a physical birthday gift, an animal lover will appreciate donations to an animal-welfare charity on their behalf.
- Your grandson has this plan to backpack around the world. So, why not have a wishing well on his 21st?
The unusual gift
If you ask someone what they would do if money was no option chances are they’d have an answer for you straight away. So, everyone could use a lottery win, right? Well, one of the most unusual yet IMHO perfectly sensible gifts could be a lottery ticket or scratchy. Just don’t expect to receive a share if it does turn out to be the winning ticket.
Your gift is the gift
Paul’s best friend gifted us her services as a photographer at our wedding reception. Leveraging her skills and living her hobby at the same time, she created some wonderful memories of a very special day for us.
Are you a handy person? Does everyone love what you cook? Do you enjoy baking? Do you have a green thumb? Whatever it is: your ‘gift’ might be just the right gift for someone you love. Baking your granddaughter’s favourite cake for her birthday or turning your elderly parents’ overgrown backyard into a beautiful oasis for them to relax in are wonderful gestures that mean the world to those on the receiving end.
And if you don’t have the gift why not pay someone who has it? All it takes is a bit of thinking outside the box, literally.
Gifting your time
The next idea goes hand in hand… A great gift (any time of the year) is to volunteer your time, be it to babysit your nephews and nieces when your sister has to go to the doctor, to bring meals to the homeless and elderly or to tutor kids after school…
Making time in your busy schedule to visit your grandma would surely make her day (and yours). Even just coming home earlier from work to spend (more) time with your partner and/or children would be a win for everyone. Why not make it a habit: every Friday, you come home early and do something special with/for your family.
The memorable gift
This brings me to my last gift idea: experiences.
Even before I knew what minimalism was, I preferred gifting experiences (especially those that involved spending time with the recipient):
- a picnic with friends by the beach
- a helicopter ride over Sydney
- a musical.
I would create vouchers for the experience, sometimes talking in riddles to make the recipient guess what the experience would entail.
Vice versa, one of the most memorable gifts I have received was being whisked away by a friend after work one day to watch U2 that night (a concert I had missed out on securing tickets for). A beautiful surprise.
Experiences don’t have to cost much either: Taking your children on a camping weekend (or even just tenting together in your backyard) would give them (and you) a wonderful memory.