Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The perfect gift

I read a very interesting book over the holidays called Scroogenomics.  It is essentially a look at how we buy presents for each other, how effective our present buying is and what we might do to improve that.  The author takes a lot of time to show that we aren't generally very happy with the presents we get and makes some suggestions centered around giving to charity to try to get around the issue of people giving inappropriate presents to each other.

He talks about how people get better presents for those who are close to them and how distant relatives and coworkers and such end up giving really terrible presents.  This is generally true, as I am sure that in my experience the presents I get from my wife and parents are more on target than those I have gotten from more distant relatives.  This year I repeated something I did a few times in the past couple years which is to send out a list of stuff I want to a few relatives and it seemed to work out great.  I think I am particularly hard to shop for because I really don't care about stuff by and large.  Presuming a buyer isn't going to purchase a new computer for me there isn't much that readily comes to mind; most people can't buy me a faster internet connection, more time, or a better game than the one I have.  The list I sent out looked like this:

Kitchen knives - steak, butcher, whatever.  Mine aren't great.

The Matrix - movie
Spaceballs - movie
Fight Club - movie

Le Havre - board game
Poker chips
Good quality playing cards

A watch
A good gaming mouse.
Portable house phone - the kind I have now, but working.  :)

I ended up getting Le Havre, some good (but not the ridiculously expensive) cards, a mouse, a phone and a fantastic set of kitchen knives.  Bizarrely enough the kitchen knives were the most exciting part I think.  I got small ones from my inlaws and large ones from my parents (without coordination, just lucky) and they are SHARP.  It is quite the joy to work with high quality tools as I had almost forgotten what a really good knife feels like.  

So by and large my Christmas presents were not a surprise.  They were great though, and I feel like all the money and time that was spent on them was spent well.  I sent out the list expecting that a few people would pick a few things off of it, and I ended up getting a larger percent of the list than I anticipated.  So here is the question:  Is this a good model for giving at Christmas?  I feel like it is a much better way to go about things than simply guessing in most cases, because honestly I would much rather get gifts that I really like than be surprised by something that I will throw in a closet and eventually donate to some charity.  Some people are surely easier to shop for than others, and for those that are close to me every day it wouldn't be nearly so challenging to find something I don't have but do want.  For those that aren't so close to me though it seems like a better situation to give some guidelines and safe bets to make sure that presents are well received and useful rather than to have them go over badly.

I am not going to make a list for Wendy for Christmas, as I am hopeful that she will get things I will like.  This despite the present I got a couple years ago when I started staying home with Elli:

If you can't tell, it is a miniature, portable vacuum.  It didn't go over so well, though I think I managed to conceal my dismay somewhat.  I won't claim to be any better myself though, as I got her a Dr. Scholl's massage pad that fits on a chair for her, and it got given away today after 4 years and 2 uses.

The options that the author of Scroogenomics was advocating though were twofold:  First, giving to charity.  Specifically he thought that the idea of setting up a website where someone could donate to charity in general and have the person receiving the present pick which charity to send it to was a good idea.  While I certainly think this is an admirable goal, swapping dollar amounts that are sent to particular places seems like a completely different version of gift exchanges.  For one, it requires nearly zero effort on the part of the giver (which some may like and some may find offputting) and does not at all conceal the cash value involved.  I think many people really want to conceal how much they spent on presents and direct charity contributions remove that.  I certainly don't mind this sort of exchange, and in fact Wendy and I had one this year with Dodgeball Champ and Wood Nymph.  That said, it is a fine thing that is not particular related to gift giving in my mind, except inasmuch as it can fullfill the gift obligation for a year without the need for more stuff accumulating.

The other option he presented was a gift card.  The twist though is that any outstanding balance on the card after a preset time period (he suggested 1 year, which seems good) is donated to a charity.  You could buy a Home Depot gift card for example and when $5.67 is left on it you can just ignore it and eventually it goes to a good cause instead of being simply yoinked by Home Depot 4 years later.  I really like the idea of gift card money going to a charitable cause instead of corporate profits because it allows people to actually get the amount of stuff they want and know that the rest of the money is being used for something they approve of instead of just desperately buying something to finish off the card.  This is all fine and well, but it presumes that a gift card is a good gift.  I think that given how little time or thought goes into a gift card and how clumsy and inefficient a way to transfer money it is that it is a poor replacement for cash.  If you want to give me money, give me money I can use, not money that is restricted to a particular store, timeframe and value amount.

So while I approve of charitable donations over acquiring more goods and I also approve of sending unused gift card money to charities I don't think that these solutions really please me.  They don't actually fulfill the niche of giftgiving to my mind.  I do like the idea of reduction of consumption, but some romantic part of me insists that if we want to preserve gift giving we can find a way to do it better without losing the best parts of it.  It doesn't seem especially efficient or practical for everyone to send around massive wishlists to everyone who might give us a gift, but for me that seems to be working out great because the number of people who buy me gifts isn't very big.

Going forward Wendy and I are going to just eliminate buying birthday presents for each other and do something nice together on birthdays instead.  This is the sort of solution I approve of, which is basically getting rid of a mutual set of obligations that are considered burdensome.


  1. I still think the vacuum cleaner was an awesome gift and that you're just in denial.

  2. I mean, it was a useful thing that you didn't have to go shopping for...and you get to keep telling this story!