Rethinking Gift-Giving

Oil painting of a cluster of tomatoes at different stages of ripeness and a small ceramic pitcher on a rumpled blue tablecloth
Still Life with Tomatoes, 2009. For details or to purchase, please contact Alexis (contact form in menu bar).

I recently came across this post on gift-giving from Mr. Money Mustache and thought it was worth sharing.  The post is several years old and references Mother’s Day, but it applies to all the occasions on which our culture tells us we are supposed to give gifts.

Ideally, gift-giving should be a way of expressing our appreciation for the people we love, making their day a little brighter, and perhaps easing their burden.  At its worst, gift-giving can become another obligation, and the gifts we give can sometimes add to the burdens of the receiver as well as the giver.  I’ve gone to holiday gatherings without gifts to give and have been embarrassed when others brought gifts for everyone, including me.  The gifts were not personally selected for each individual, but were, I suspect, bought en masse out of either a sense of requirement or a desire for the gift-giver to feel good about herself.  These gifts were not meaningful, but they provoked feelings of guilt and obligation in me.  That is not what gift-giving should do.

Giving gifts should not require incurring financial debt, either.  I am amazed by how many Americans rack up significant sums of credit card debt each winter so they can buy their friends and families (and largely, their children) expensive things that they likely don’t need and may not even appreciate.  We do not need to buy the love of the people in our lives.  I feel certain that most of our loved ones — at least the mature and responsible ones — would rather we stay within our means than go into debt to buy them gifts.  I have a savings account designated specifically for gift-giving, which is funded by an automatic transfer of a small amount of money from each of my paychecks (this reflects my general system of sticking to a budget).  When an occasion arises that calls for a gift, I spend only what is available in that account.  I hope all of my friends and family do the same — please do not encumber yourselves with debt to buy me gifts.  Your financial security and freedom are more important to me.

I love Mr. Money Mustache’s idea of creating holiday traditions rather than focusing so much on giving each other things.  He also suggests making each other gifts, which shows a level of thoughtfulness and an investment of time that the recipient will surely appreciate.  I’ve given custom paintings and drawings as gifts throughout my life, and I am so touched when someone makes something especially for me.  Depending on what they make, it can really take a lot of time and effort, and I’m always grateful that they find me worthy of those expenditures.  Mr. Money Mustache also suggests doing activities with your loved ones instead of giving them things.  The memories created during an adventure together will be more meaningful than a hastily purchased item that will collect dust on a shelf.  You might even make the person’s life a little easier by doing some chores for them to give them a small break from the demands of daily life.

I’m not against buying things for loved ones if you can afford to do so.  But when I buy objects as gifts, I ask myself these questions:  Is this something that I am fairly certain the recipient needs or wants?  Does it uniquely remind me of her?  Will it improve his life in some way?  Will it require them to expend additional resources in order to enjoy the gift?  Does it align with both my and her values?

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with giving cash or gift cards — again, if you can afford to do so, and as long as it doesn’t create an expectation of reciprocation.  But when faced with a person who seems to have everything she needs and wants, you might consider using that money instead to make a donation on her behalf to a cause she supports. I suspect many altruistic-minded people would find such a gift thoughtful, generous, and more meaningful than, say, a restaurant gift certificate.  And if you are looking to give a gift to a person with more limited resources who really could benefit from the money you spend on them, consider adding to the richness of their life by giving a gift card for an experience, like a massage, an event ticket, or an Airbnb gift card to use at a destination of their choice.

Gifts are a way to show our generosity, but being generous doesn’t require buying unneeded, generic items or spending money we don’t have.  A little creativity, planning, and intentionality can make the gift-giving experience more meaningful for both the giver and the receiver. And of course, we don’t need special occasions to show our gratitude for the people in our lives.  There are numerous completely free opportunities to show our love for one another every day, which is more impactful than giving gifts on predetermined dates.

Over to you — what ideas do you have for meaningful, out-of-the-ordinary gifts?  Share your thoughts in the comments.

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