I celebrate most holidays with three immediate families and three more extended sets, so it’s always interesting for me to study their gift-giving habits. I recently decided I wanted to make a concerted effort to get better at gift-giving myself, so I started thinking about how to do it better. Here’s what I’ve come up with.
I decided to start with the traditional gift-giving approach and see how I could improve it. Current best practice seemed to be the following:
- Ask target for their wish list.
- Determine an appropriate price range.
- Purchase a socially approved item within one’s price range.
On this model, reciprocal gift-giving holidays effectively turn my money into goods on my wishlist (through the intermediary of other people’s money/wishlists).
But this process could be improved in obvious ways. After all, if the items on my wishlist aren’t rare, I can purchase them just as easily as you, so the entire wish-list idea is a bit silly. What if I don’t want anything that costs less than $20, or the only things I want are sex toys (and it’s a family-friendly holiday)? What if my wishes change between when I distribute the list and when I receive gifts? Besides, this wastes paper and results in unnecessary logistical issues with gift transportation. So let’s get rid of the wish-list step entirely! Aside from social convention, the following procedure ought to be strictly superior:
- Determine an appropriate price range.
- Write target a check for said price.
On this new, improved model, reciprocal gift-giving holidays effectively turn my money into… other money?
…wait a minute.
(But if you think about it, ridiculous though this model is, we actually do implement it sometimes! Well, actually, because we have cultural hangups around real money, we implement a strictly worse version of this already terrible model, where we give people money except they can only spend it at one particular place, thus combining all the crassness of money with the inflexibility of wish-lists. Blech.)
The basic problem here is that the traditional approach to gift-giving is based on spending completely fungible resources—my money and your money are exactly the same. So I want to try giving only non-fungible gifts—essentially following this rule:
Give people something they couldn’t have given themselves
Sure, this is hard, but not as hard as it sounds. I listed a bunch great gifts I’ve received, given or observed and tried to figure out the common threads, and I think there are some transferable insights there. Here are the ideas I came up with:
Skills or expertise. This is the most obvious—in fact, it was my default when I was in high schooler and didn’t have money to buy things. Instead, I would compose the musical equivalent of doggerel for my relatives every Christmas. The secret here is to lower your standards: as I learned from experience, even though I wasn’t a great composer, my relatives couldn’t tell, so the effort still went over well.
Outside perspective. Last Father’s Day my only present to my dad was a card that I made. It was titled “7 ways to be an awesome dad” and had corny little illustrations of all the awesome things he’s done for me. It worked really well because (obviously) it means much more when I tell him he’s an awesome dad than when he does. In a similar vein, for a friend’s birthday, his girlfriend went to everyone he knew and had them say nice things about him, then made it into a book. And it was fantastic.
Surprise and ingenuity. Some of the best presents I’ve seen were great just because they were so zany. Last year my mom and I gave my grandmother a “cheese of the month subscription”; every month we’d buy her a new kind of cheese. This is hard to pull off unless you’re as creative as my mom, but when it works it’s very memorable.
Taste or selection. One area where just buying things can work is art, like music or books—for me, the most important cost of new music isn’t the money to buy it, but the time spent looking for new music that I like. For instance, one of the best gifts I’ve received, which combined this category with the previous, was a handmade book of photocopies of a number of less common Christmas carols. Similarly, you can give someone something they don’t know exists yet, like 90-degree prism glasses.1
I guess I can see why people don’t do these kinds of gifts. For my non-fungible assets like time and expertise, it’s harder for me to find the right way to spend them—the wish-list approach is a simple algorithm, whereas I have to be creative to make someone a nice card or a mix CD. Non-fungible presents also feel more personal, and therefore more dangerous: it’s fine if someone doesn’t like the book I gave them, but it hurts if they don’t care for the waltz I composed.
But the objection about difficulty is moot if your goal is to give a good gift, not just a minimally difficult one. And if you’re worried about rejection, I recommend you to just try this once or twice and see: in my experience, fear of rejection is vastly disproportionate to the likelihood someone will actually reject your gift or how painful rejection is when it happens. So this is the rule I’ll try to follow with gifts from now on.
The above rule gets you pretty far, but here’s some other stuff I’ve found useful:
Keep a “gift list” going all year long. Personally, I only get so many flashes of creativity, and if I wait to think of all my gifts until December, I run out and start to get boring. So I try to think of gift ideas throughout the year, which makes holiday seasons far less stressful.
Avoid gifts with hidden costs. I often don’t like receiving books I haven’t asked for. Why? Books don’t cost much money; by far the largest cost is the time it takes to read, which I’m obliged to do if you give it to me. If I don’t enjoy the book, I’ve just spent more resources than you have on my own present. The “taste or selection” category is especially bad for this, so beware.
Experiences are often better than things. This point is borrowed from academic happiness research, which has found that generally experiences make one much happier than physical objects. I’ve lost track of most of the toys, books, and clothes I’ve been given—they just sit in my room (or in my attic) taking up space. But I still remember the amazing wild mushroom dish that I ate at a ridiculously fancy restaurant as my grandmother’s Christmas present to me.
(Of course, you should still remember to choose the experience well! Grandma was doing a great job applying taste or selection: she knew that I would enjoy the restaurant but be too much of a cheapskate to go there myself.)
Gifts are way better when they’re unexpected. Another advantage of the gift-list strategy is that you can build up a backlog of ideas. In this case you can give some of the backlog randomly throughout the year—framed as just “hey! I got you a thing!"—and max out the “surprise” dimension. I’ve actually done a worse version of this; rather than a true backlog, I gave my best friend a birthday present three months late. Even then, the unexpectedness seemed to make up for the long delay.
So here’s to non-fungible, unique and surprising presents. Happy gifting!
Thanks to Nick Ryder and Gautam Mohan for feedback on a draft of this post.
Thanks to Nick Ryder for the example! ↩︎