Just before the holidays, I was looking at my referrers, and found this list of tags from del.icio.us, which led me to frugal for life, which led me to a Carnival of Personal Finance, which led me to this post about holiday gift-giving, where the author suggests that you exchange money, and then surprise your "giver" by showing them what you bought with the money.
Economists hate gift-giving. Not because they’re cheap, but because they believe that whenever someone buys you a gift that isn’t exactly what you would have purchased with that amount of money, some possible happiness is lost from the system. (More formally, they say that things are bought for some price that the receiver values at less than the money paid.) An economist thinks that the perfect gift is cash, followed closely by purchase of the exact item that the recipient has requested.
Miss Manners would be horrified. As she wrote last week:
"By coming up with the cash gift, the gift certificate and the gift registry, it said, in effect, "Fine, get your own %#$@ presents." All the work of giving was eliminated, leaving only the expense. The possibility of disappointment was eliminated entirely, barring a rebellion on the part of the targeted donors, who so far seem to be meekly complying with demands."
"The perfect system, many believe. Apparently they failed to notice that something else that got eliminated: the entire point of exchanging presents."
I fall closer to Miss Manners in this debate. The only people I ever give gift certificates to are cousins whose Bar or Bat Mitzvahs I’ve been invited to. I don’t know them well enough to know what they’d like, and they have sufficiently little discretionary income that a gift card to Amazon can really make a difference in their ability to get the things they want. By contrast, none of the adults with whom I exchange gifts have such tight budgets that the amount that I’d give to them would make a noticable impact.
At the same time, the single most awkward moment in my relationship with my in-laws was several years ago when they sent me for my birthday present a painting that I really didn’t like. My usual Miss Manners-approved response to such gifts is to thank the giver and then stuff the item in the back of the closet. But this was both too big and too expensive to do so. So I had to tell them, and have it returned. Ouch.