Scroogenomics

This morning when I turned on the TV to figure out what’s going on in the world today, I caught the last end of an interview with Joel Waldfogel, author of Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays.  His argument has to do with gifts being “economically unsound” because of the “value” of the gift as calculated both financially in and in terms of the buyer’s (or gift receiver’s) perception.  Basically his point is “nobody wants this crap.”

And on that front, I agree!  A few years ago I decided that instead of buying people gifts, I would donate money to charity in their honor to help out others less fortunate.  But because I still wanted people to have something to open under the tree, I made little gift baskets with candy and practical things (like fun chapstick flavors).  But with each year, I’ve felt more guilty not giving people presents.  Is that totally weird?  Feeling guilty for donating to charity?  But I felt this pressure like I was not giving my family their fair due by not giving them presents, especially because they gave me presents.  But let’s face it – even when you buy a present with all good intentions, sometimes the other person just doesn’t like it.  Or doesn’t need it.  

I want to bring my focus back onto donating and less onto gifts this year.  For those of you who celebrate the holidays this time of year, do you give gifts?  How can you be sure that they are meaningful and useful?  If you donate to charities, how have you made your family feel special and included in that donation?

And another question – what about struggling retailers who rely on the holidays for a sales kick to carry them through the year?  Am I not doing my part by helping out?

Just a few questions that have been on my mind since seeing that interview this morning.

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24 Comments

  1. MarissaAO
    Posted November 25, 2009 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    I don’t have much money, so I look forward to Christmas because I get stuff that I need, like shoes when all my shoes are worn out, or a new sweater. A number of my friends don’t have much money either, and it’s the same with them. We tell each other what we need for Christmas. One Christmas I got one of my friends a tupperware set, another time a large number of socks.

  2. Evrybdy44
    Posted November 25, 2009 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    I think the title says it all. “Scroogenomics” He may have some valid points but the whole thing is just so “bah humbug”. I just choose to not feel that way about giving this year or any year.

  3. aleks
    Posted November 25, 2009 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    I give presents when I see something that makes me think of someone, or when someone has a baby I give books. But I’m Jewish so the Christmas Spirit of Giving doesn’t come crashing down on me.

  4. voluptuouspanic
    Posted November 25, 2009 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    I’ve switched to giving family members donations to charities as well. I still give presents, but small, inexpensive things I know they want or need or will use. But the “big” gift ($25 or so) goes to a charity. And honestly, my family loves it. It’s thoughtful, gives back to the world, and is heartfelt. I like the Oxfam system, where you can “buy” a chicken or water for a year or whatever.

  5. Comrade Kevin
    Posted November 25, 2009 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    If one could encourage other people to live with the same degree of giving and love every day that some feign for the holiday and some only acknowledge for a short time, I think that would matter more than merely a decision whether to buy or not to buy.

  6. Laura_M
    Posted November 25, 2009 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    I do give gifts, but generally only to my family, and they’re never really anything big—a book I think my mom might like, a shirt with a funny message on it for my brother, that sort of thing. Things I know that they’ll like and use because I see them with similar things all the time. We’ve never been prone to excess in anything Christmas-related but decorating*, so I have some trouble understanding why so many people get so stressed and go into so much debt at this time of the year.
    *And even then, it tends to be “lots of garland strung all over the place and way too many ornaments on the tree because people do so many pretty things with glass” rather than “so many lights that the electricity they consume could power three or four houses”.

  7. Sandra
    Posted November 25, 2009 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    My daughter still gets gift and my spouse and I exchange but that’s pretty much it.
    Because my daughter is an only child, only grandchild and only great-grandchild, ever since she was 3 yrs old, we’ve shopped for a littl girl her age from the “Angel Tree.” The tree has the first names and ages of children who are in care (foster care or welfare). We buy a toy, art supplies and then usually something practical like hat, mitts and winter boots. Hey! It gets cold in Canada!
    A few years ago, the extended family decided that we would pool our Christmas gift money and ‘adopt’ a family on welfare for the holidays. We buy everything for them – food, gifts, cleaning supplies, bus passes, gift cards for local department stors, whatever – until the money is used up. Our gifts go to people who need it, they have a good Christmas, we have a good Christmas. Everybody wins and there’s no useless stuff laying around that has to be put away. The families in need apply for the program through a number of agencies in the area. We usually pick a family from the local women’s shelter list of families.

  8. sporty070882
    Posted November 25, 2009 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    I don’t really do gifts in the traditional sense. I prefer to get things for people throughout the year when I see things that remind me of them. What I do as a single person with no children is volunteer my time so people that have families can be at home. I work at a domestic abuse shelter and I make sure that those women have whatever I can get them to make their holidays as happy as possible and those with families can be with them instead of having to work.

  9. isting
    Posted November 25, 2009 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the posting… Ironically, I’m going to give out the book as xmas presents!

  10. fwavebex
    Posted November 26, 2009 at 1:23 am | Permalink

    As a broke university student whose student loan inevitably runs out around Christmas, things get really tight around this time of year.
    For my family, I learned to knit and usually give them each something useful and hand-crafted. (Except my brother, always harder to find stuff for him…)
    For my friends, we’ve decided that quality time is the best thing we can give, so last yera and again this year we’re all going to a great local spa (Le Scandinave) where we chill out in hot pools under the snow and Blue Mountain. Its a great way to catch up together.
    I make exceptions when i find a ‘Perfect Gift’ for someone that they’ll absolutely love.

  11. James
    Posted November 26, 2009 at 5:43 am | Permalink

    I stopped giving and receiving gifts about five years ago, as a social justice thing. Donate to charities only, if you absolutely have to spend money on me. I didn’t need more stuff, and none of the people in my life needed more stuff.
    Now, five years later, I still don’t give or receive gifts, but now I think I value that as much for the lack of stress I experience during the holidays as I do for the whole justice thing. While everyone else is running around trying to find presents for other people, I’m able to relax and enjoy the holidays. It’s a nice practice, and I’d advise others to take it up too.

  12. Spiffy McBang
    Posted November 26, 2009 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    To use this idea for the OP: It seems like a solid idea to continue your charity-ness for the holidays, but get someone a gift at the moment you see something that you think would suit them perfectly. Not only can you then assuage any sense of guilt over never getting anyone stuff, but the gifts you do give will probably be better timed (no thinking of something and then waiting 2-3 months or more for the appropriate gift-giving moment to roll around).

  13. Spiffy McBang
    Posted November 26, 2009 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    “And another question – what about struggling retailers who rely on the holidays for a sales kick to carry them through the year? Am I not doing my part by helping out?”
    Retailers are not a charity. If they can’t figure out how to keep themselves afloat, let ‘em drop. The only reason to consider this that I can see is if you have a friend working somewhere and you want to do a little to help that store survive so your pal doesn’t get laid off. Even then, though, unless you make a massive purchase, you’re unlikely to have any real effect. There really is no situation where a $25 bauble will make or break the store. Charities are much more likely to make good use of their donations, big and small.

  14. aleks
    Posted November 26, 2009 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Talk about social conditioning though eh? We’re not citizens anymore, we’re consumers.

  15. wowcabbage
    Posted November 26, 2009 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    What I’m doing is I either make the gifts, if I have time (which I usually don’t), or I buy gifts that also donate to a charity that I feel the person receiving the gift would support.
    For example, last year, I bought my mom some truffles (she loves chocolate) that donated to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. She also supports St. Jude’s, so her gift gave something to a cause she feels strongly about, but also gave her something to physically enjoy. I bought my sister some earrings that helped donate to a women’s business fund, since I know she cares about that kind of thing. I do the majority of my shopping online.
    That might not work for everyone. I know my family really values gift-giving as a way to show that we care about one another. They usually aren’t expensive or showy gifts, just things that keep us connected. I think of the gift-giver when I use their present, and I hope they think of me.

  16. kungfulola
    Posted November 27, 2009 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

    Are we allowed to talk about how much we enjoy receiving gifts? My shelves are stuffed with books that I will read again and again. Many of them are all the more precious to me because they were gifts from cherished friends. I know it might sound selfish, but I love having things I can hold in my hand and remember festive gatherings with people I love. As nice as it is to give to charity, if everyone I knew did that 100% of the time instead of exchanging gifts, I would have missed out on a lot of pleasure. And I love surprising those people with things I know they will find beautiful, or useful, or both. I put a lot of thought into choosing gifts, and I never try and impress or outdo anyone. If it costs less than ten dollars, but I know it is perfect, why sweat it? For me, the “value” of a thoughtfully-chosen gift from a relative or friend couldn’t be measured by an economist.
    “Scroogenomics” has no place in my life.

  17. middlechild
    Posted November 28, 2009 at 2:02 am | Permalink

    few years ago I decided that instead of buying people gifts, I would donate money to charity in their honor to help out others less fortunate.”
    I’m sorry, but I’ve always found that trend obnoxious. People can’t protest, lest they look ungrateful to you or overall selfish (how dare you protest MY donating to a charity, instead of actually buying YOU a gift).
    If I want to donate to a specific charity of my choice (and it would probably be something people would either blow off or wrinkle their noses at, like NARAL), then will. I suppose if you know beforehand what charities someone likes or you buy a gift from a company that donates to a charity (like the poster with St. Jude’s truffles above), it’s not so bad, but even then, the idea of donating to a charity in someone else’s name really rubs me the wrong way…using the opportunity to spend money on a cause you see fit, regardless of how the would-be receiver might feel.
    Don’t get me wrong, I hate the pressure to buy gifts. What if people wrinkle their noses at what you really need, or get you something you don’t even like? What if YOU get someone something they’ll never use (a waste of money and a seemingly thoughtless gesture)?
    I don’t think it should be a taboo to just give people money. In theory I realize why it might seem cheap or tacky to give someone 20 bucks in a card (if you have a spending limit), but I would much, much rather get or give ten dollars (if people have alot of people to buy for or are near-broke, I can definitely understand giving a small amount) that someone can spend on what they like–movie tickets, Starbucks, gas, make-up, eBay, whatever THEY choose–than give them an overpriced shaving kit or a lotion set from Bath and Body Works (unless I know a scent they like, and that they’ll actually enjoy the gift).
    Maybe they’ll donate it.

  18. Mary_Fred
    Posted November 28, 2009 at 4:05 am | Permalink

    Aye, aye. This is sort of how I feel. When someone donates to a charity in someone’s name for a gift without prior knowledge as presumptuous. I don’t know why, it just strikes me as that. If anyone did it to me I am almost positive I would not be happy.
    If you want to donate to a charity don’t do it my name, just donate. I donated 10 dollars to a sorority who were doing a fundraiser for breast cancer (I’m a college student with a limited income), it really didn’t make me feel good but that’s my contribution on my own behalf.
    That’s just my personal opinion.

  19. Mary_Fred
    Posted November 28, 2009 at 4:08 am | Permalink

    Whoa, the second sentence should be ” When someone donates to a charity in someone’s name for a gift without prior knowledge it strikes me as presumptuous”

  20. Icy Bear
    Posted November 28, 2009 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    I’m with the people who say donating to charities in someone’s name can seem rather obnoxious. And in my experience, it makes everyone else feel awkward… it comes off as an implicit critique of present-giving on Christmas, which may or may not be intended (and certainly is quite valid!) but invariaby makes everyone uneasy. I’m usually all for making everyone uneasy about problematic social customs, but Christmas doesn’t seem like the right time for that.
    At the same time, I dislike useless gifts that clutter up people’s houses – I can’t stand the thought of another pretty box or notepad or soap that never gets used up! I’ve developed a rule for myself to avoid that tendency… I only give gifts that are either: a) food, b) tickets to events, or c) books, DVDs, or CDs if the person asks for certain ones specifically. I think that way no one ends up with more stuff they don’t need. Of course I do my best to shop ethically for these things.

  21. GREGORYABUTLER10031
    Posted November 29, 2009 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    I don’t buy anybody in my life anything – because I think the best way to show love to somebody is by my everyday actions and words towards that person, not buy spending a bunch of money I really don’t have.
    Not to mention the fact that the merchants and the corporations have perverted the true meanings behind all the major holidays so they are all about buying stuff.
    As far as the ” struggling retailers who rely on the holidays for a sales kick to carry them through the year?” that’s their problem, not mine!
    I am under no obligation to “do my part by helping out” and buying their merchandise!
    If they can’t make enough money to stay in business, that’s really their problem, not mine!

  22. Pantheon
    Posted November 29, 2009 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    I also don’t like the idea of donating to charity in someone’s name, unless its a charity you specifically know they care about. For example I’ve mentioned that when I can afford to in the future, I’d like to donate more to planned parenthood, but I can’t afford it now. So if someone I had said that to donated to PP in my name I’d think that was nice (not saying I wouldn’t enjoy getting a tangible gift myself, but I would be ok with the charity in that case). But if some person who had never discussed charities/nonprofits with me randomly donated to some charity in my name, I’d probably be annoyed that they were being so presumptous and trying to count it as a gift when its really not. (Kind of like when your boyfriend gets you sexy lingerie that HE wants you to wear for him, and tries to pass it off as a gift for YOU.)
    I’m a big fan of making gifts for people though, even if its something cheap. It shows that you thought about them and spent some time on it.

  23. Marc
    Posted November 30, 2009 at 5:51 am | Permalink

    Here’s the thing, ladies and gentlement – I do appreciate your sense of social justice by donating to needy causes and charity, rather than giving gifts at Christmas time.
    However – as some would say, charity does begin at home. While we may have the privilege to reject the idea of gifts, and seeing said idea as a commercialization and exploitation of the spirits of giving, there are many others who rely on our presents to get by for the rest of the year. We, sometimes, need to remember that.
    We need to remember that Christmas gifts aren’t about the latest gadgets or toys, but giving the people in our lives what they can really, truly use for the year to come. To reject the idea of giving presents during this holiday season would be to reject the needs of those we are closest to.
    Altruism is nice and wonderful – but let us not forget to check our own privilege – in that we get a choice in deciding whether Christmas presents are important. Others do not.

  24. KBZ
    Posted November 30, 2009 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    My husband and I have BIG families, and we do the best we can with the gift-giving thing.
    Between our kids (2), our immediate families (9 people), extended families (42 people, of which we buy for 8 [by random drawing])), and charity (about 6 kids gifts) — we buy probably 20-30 gifts at Christmastime. Our Christmas shopping is almost done for this year(except for our gifts to each other, and a bit for the kiddos).
    In the past, we’ve spent far less — but we always give what we can. When we’re financially well-off, we spend more. When we were broke, we made due with what we had. We never go into debt for it, though. We give from what we have, and according to what we have.
    There was a year where my husband and I exchanged a single $25 DVD set between us so we could focus our extremely limited resources (we scrounged together about $250 total for that year) on the kids and other family members. We’ve waited in line for celebrity autographs for my sister (a gift that cost $4 for quality photo printer paper, and three-and-a-half hours in the freezing cold rain — but she loved it).
    We’ve got a great family. They welcomed us in when my husband was unemployed for 7-months and we lost our apartment. We give to show our appreciation for all they’ve done for us — and to extend a helping-hand where it is needed. Sometimes we give necessities — clothes, cash, whatever. Sometimes we give entertainment or random gifts that someone would like, but wouldn’t buy for themselves. Sometimes we give a restaurant gift card and babysitting services to give a couple a nice date night togheter. Sometimes we just try to find something they’d like that they haven’t thought of.
    Sometimes its inexpensive — sometimes its not. But, whatever it is, it is always appreciated.
    kbz

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