Just before the holidays, I was looking at my referrers, and found this list of tags from, 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.

5 Responses to “Gifts”

  1. Mieke Says:


  2. Mieke Says:


  3. Elizabeth Says:

    Without a doubt, we spend more on the holidays than is spent on us. But then, we like giving more than receiving. Uh, some of us. Other of us are male and/or 5 years old and excuses will have to be made….
    Big ugly pictures? *shivering in horror*
    Thank you for “packaging” up some of your best entries. And thank you for a year of thought-provoking and intelligent posts. Hope 2006 is amazing for you and yours…

  4. amy Says:

    My inner economist says that unless you’re a truly wonderful gift-giver (verified by outside sources), cash is nicest of all. It’s true there’s no joy quite like tearing the paper off an enormous (or very small) package, and that opening an envelope can’t quite match it. Even if you know there’s likely to be a very very large check inside, the panting greed isn’t as nice as the sheer happiness of tearing wrapping paper.
    Unfortunately, most people aren’t great gift-givers. When I’ve been poor, I’ve been really annoyed by presents that didn’t involve, say, food, utilities payments, & other basics. (If I can’t afford toilet paper, do I really want a decorative bamboo cutting board?) And when I’m not poor, I don’t need anything, and I don’t want people throwing away money they could just as well give me. I can put it in the retirement account, the college account, the wood-flooring account. If I’m really flush, I don’t want money, either; there’s people who need it, give it to them, and we’ll have a cup of coffee and some nice cake & that’s fine.
    Why am I about the money? Because it buys me time to do what I want, free from financial considerations. I don’t know any scarcer, less replaceable commodity than time. It also insulates from a lot of worry, which means better sleep. Freedom to do what I love and good sleep, plus the occasional chocolates. I can’t think of anything I want more than that, apart from love & sex, but those are tougher to give in a third-party kind of way.
    My in-laws make me nuts this way, btw. They don’t have money for gifts and they’re not real fine-tuned on presents anyway, so they go out and buy used crap, garage-sale/consignment stuff. Lots of it. Stuff nobody wants. Lots of presents under the tree, hundreds of dollars out the door, more for the landfill, and the nonexistent retirement plan nobody talks about. I’d much rather they gave us the present of taking care of themselves financially, and not putting my husband in the position of choosing between his parents and his daughter down the line.
    If you’re a killer present-giver, though, that’s something else. Then I think you’re doing something rare: you’re making magic. One thing about killer present-givers, though, is that I’ve noticed they don’t go for truckloads or even giant pricetags, necessarily. You get the one killer gift, and it’s still totally overwhelming. Even something like that, though, you don’t want to get one every year like clockwork, or you come to expect it, and that ruins it a little. These things are best when they’re totally unexpected, I think. I think every terrific present I’ve gotten has been a complete surprise.

  5. amy Says:

    sorry double –
    then again, I don’t see the point of $20,000 (or $10,000) weddings, either, unless you have so much money you can’t count it all. I look at the trade of half a year’s freedom or a house down payment for one day of tulle and sparkles, and, well, I guess I don’t want tulle and sparkles that bad. Or see why they should cost that much. Never got a diamond, either, looked around & saw that what I like starts at around $45K. Laughed, got an 18K band at, or something like that, for about $100, and I’ve been very happy with it, though I’m often reminded of captive cormorants’ neck rings. We went to a magistrate, then had a party for 70 in the backyard with indian food & nice beer & a mock ceremony from “Interview with the 2000-Year-Old Man”, and the whole thing came to something under $1K. I think if I were to do it over I’d have gotten a couple-three bottles of nice champagne for afterwards, when most of the guests had gone and it was just us & old college friends who were staying over.
    So, you know, I’m maybe an outlier on the whole presents business.

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