The author of Scroogenomics was on NPR today, and said that the financial value of gifts we give one another is 20% (on the average) less than what is paid for them, resulting in some $62 billion dollars in waste each year. That’s the cost from the things we give one another to wear or decorate our houses or watch or listen that the other persons don’t value as highly, and wouldn’t buy for themselves at the same price. Cash is stigmatized, gift cards (if they’re at places we go – ever gotten a gift card from some place you hate? For me it would be Old Navy) are among the most highly prized gifts, and cause the least waste. On the other hand, there is waste with gift cards because they are lost, forgotten about, not redeemed within the correct time period, or there’s left over value that isn’t used.
My solution is the every day gift registry. Personally, I think obligatory gifts are a sham, and are inherently wasteful transactions. But if a gift needs to happen, a registry with items one actually desires at all kinds of values, makes sense. I use Amazon’s, but I’m sure there are others. You’ve got to keep up with the registry, though, or you could end up with something you already bought – Amazon works to prevent you buying things people are buying for you, at least.
Another way I use to show appreciation of people but also step out of the culture of giving them things they don’t need, is charitable gift cards, donations in their name, etc. Now, someone gets the gift that really, really needs it, and the recipient of the card gets the sentiment and the additional joy of giving. Global Giving, Give Meaning, Oxfam – these all have gift giving capability. There are also microlending gift cards, like those offered by Kiva – that way if they want to withdraw the actual cash after the loan is repaid, they can, or they can re-lend. But yeah, $62 billion in waste just cements that holiday feeling, doesn’t it?
All the “dirty Santa” crap with the dollar limits in offices all over the US just underscores how useless and absurd it all is, with a kind of gift lottery and nasty gameshow of things you probably didn’t really want to buy or receive, and are even less personal than just an envelope of cash, which has zero waste and can at least be used to pay your bills. I propose we all put $25 cash in envelopes (only expense is the envelope) and exchange them with each other. If it’s really “all about the joy of giving” and not about obligation, our own desire for shopping, or the need to display our prowess at selection, arrangement, or wrapping, then what’s wrong with each of us going home with someone else’s envelope of equal value? Is it the unpredictability that’s needed? Let people design their own envelopes then. What’s wrong with $25 cash in a uniquely designed package. Or do we actually need the gifting Russian roulette? OK, so dump all the envelopes in the center and draw straws for the pile. At least it’s honest gambling, and your losses are tax deductible.
The office pool to get people a birthday gift, graduation gift, baby shower gift, wedding gift, boss’ day gift, etc. is pretty bad, too. Some of the buying decisions that happen once you let go of your cash… ever seen a diaper cake? Just what they’ve always wanted. Almost institutionalized mockery of generosity, almost deliberate waste. For everyone. And how many times a year is that, for how many people? I’m with George Costanza – “where does it end?” I have a close associate that says she’d gladly never receive another gift if she could be freed from the obligation of giving them. The agony over what will be impressive or even acceptable at the desired price, or even what the appropriate price range is (it comes down to price range when you didn’t want to do it in the first place – when it’s obligation) – it’s just so much pretense – it’s like being roped into faking it through someone else’s religion.
And don’t lecture me about the spirit of Christmass. Neither of the words that constitute the name of that holiday season have anything to do with giving as we have processed and reconceived it. Bah. Humbug. That’s right, I’m with the author of Scroogenomics, subtitled Why You Shouldn’t Buy Gifts for the Holidays. That, again, is why I like the charitable gifts in other people’s name. We usually have enough stuff or, as the author suggests, we know best the stuff we want and buy it for ourselves, so the majority of received stuff (as gifts) is relatively useless to us. There are exceptions, but they underscore the rule.
$62 billion could eradicate poverty in large areas of the world, or pay for the 2009 US Federal Budget allotment for all food assistance programs. Or, if you don’t care about the poor, we could just use it to unify the two Koreas (that’s just one year’s wasted gifts), or fund Russia’s military, or create another Warren Buffet, or pay for the environmental damage to the US caused by coal plants, or fund the F-22 program, or cover Illinoisor New York’s pension liabilities, or properly maintenance all vehicles in the US, or replace AIG’s losses in a record single quarter, or cover two weeks worth of money the Federal Reserved pumped into the banking system in 2007, or cover what we gave FEMA for Hurricane Katrina, or pay for Japan’s economic stimulus, or fund the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. I can think of lots of uses that don’t involve figuring out how to regift things, carrying boxes to Goodwill, or virtually sustaining the garage sale industry.
Gift cards? Great, if you know where the other person buys things. Gift registries – can be good, if you don’t get overlap. Envelopes of cash? Ever seen a wedding on the Sopranos? It’s just the right thing to do.