My mom received a gift of yoga classes from my sister for Christmas. Mom isn’t exactly a zen-type person, so I wondered how it was going.
“What do you think? Is yoga fun or no?”
“I’m tired and sore,” she said. “I’m not a happy person.”
Ahhh, the failed gift. I know it well.
I’ve written about gifting before. I received positive feedback on it, so I decided to follow up with my famous (OK, maybe just developed) 8 Rules for Successful Gift-Giving on a Budget, split half between what not to do and what to do.
First, what not to do:
Rule #1: Do Not Give Money
Nothing says “I’m a lazy ass” quite like slipping cash or a check into a card.
But, but, but…Yes, I know, all kids of a certain age (and probably most adults) want cash. But ask yourself, What do they plan to do with that money?
That’s for you to find out. Ask a friend of theirs. Or if they are a kid, ask a parent. Work a little.
If you learn that they plan to salt the cash away in a savings or retirement account (hahaha), then by all means, give them cash. Otherwise, it’s on you to find out what they really want.
Rule #2: Gift Cards Are As Bad As Money
OK, they’re worse. The recipient is stuck spending the cash-equivalent gift in one place.
So gift cards accumulate in piles. If your house is like ours, you have a designated place to store your stack of unused cards, which might slowly be losing value.
And the recipient still thinks you are a lazy ass because how much effort did it take to transfer the card from the hook to the conveyor in the grocery checkout line?
Rule #3: Don’t Give a “It’ll Be Good for Them” Gift
You wouldn’t give a smoker Nicorette gum, nor an obese person a Nutrisystem plan. So don’t do the equivalent.
Hands down the worst gift I ever received on Christmas was a surprise dog training class from my parents when I was a teenager. I had recently talked them into letting me get a mixed-breed dog, and they thought it could use some instruction. No doubt he could have, but really?
At the end of the series of classes, they gave out awards for best progress, and Albert and I came in dead last. I no longer liked Albert…nor my parents. And his home behavior was no better then it ever was. Albert was never going to be Mr. Obedient, even if we brought in Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan.
A distant second was when Nora gave my brother-in-law and me a joint meal preparation experience from Let’s Dish. I love my BIL dearly, but I’d rather submit to an hour of his explaining the latest innovations in .NET database coding than to meal prep with him. Nothing screams Date Night – not Bro Night – better than cooking together. There was no way I was putting my arms around Liam to help him baste the whatever.
Rule #4: Beware of Gifts That Are Really for You
I’d say I’m about midway on the Male Clueless Spectrum, but I’ve made this mistake multiple times with Nora.
I know not to give housecleaning tools, but when we were first married, I gave her some barely there underwear. I thought she would think it to be frolicky and fun.
Nora’s take was a little different: “Did you get anything for me?”
Rule #5: Give What They Want
After all the Don’t Rules, this is the obvious 1st Do Rule.
There is a Shankar Vedantam (Hidden Brain) interview on NPR about how bridesmaids give the worst presents, because they want to give something special that signifies how well they know the bride.
Or not. Typically, the bride spends hours detailing exactly what she wants for her new family when she sets up a gift registry. When she opens your ‘special’ gift and exclaims “You shouldn’t have!” you should believe her.
Rule #6: Small Price Tag Gifts Are Fine
Yet another reason to not give cash – it’s way too easy to determine exactly how much the giver spent on the gift.
If cash is tight and you are watching every penny like you should, don’t stress about not spending much. According to this 2009 study, gift-givers expected a positive correlation between how much they spent on a gift and the extent to which recipients would appreciate the gift because givers assume that more expensive gifts convey a higher level of thoughtfulness. But recipients reported no such association.
Rule #7: Skip the Gift if Necessary
I’m a big believer in ‘Your Presence Is the Best Present.’ Especially if you are already dropping big dinero just to get to the birthday, anniversary, or wedding.
When to skip a gift:
- You have to hock a family heirloom
- You have to forego basic necessities, like food or rent
- You have to add to credit card debt, essentially ballooning the cost of the gift due to interest payments
And here’s the most essential point: No one will care, or probably even notice, that you didn’t contribute a gift.
Rule #7 also covers self-gifting. I’m guessing that most people’s gifting budget is spent on gifts for the numero uno in your life – You.
A certain Groupon-induced spin class package (that I only used 20% of before it expired) for yours truly from yours truly comes to mind. I didn’t skip a meal to finance it, but in retrospect, it was an unnecessary expense.
Rule #8: It’s OK to Take Chances
I know what you’re thinking: Earlier, he said to get them exactly what they want, and now he’s saying this?
You got it. Sometimes you just don’t know, and sometimes you have a hunch that a recipient couldn’t ever verbalize. Along the lines of the famous Henry Ford quote (that he probably didn’t say): “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
In those cases, give the equivalent of a car – just much, much cheaper.
Besides, when you ask what someone wants, their mind normally jumps straight to ‘Things’ when many people (especially older folks who have everything they need already) would rather have an experience with the giver. You know what would have made Mom’s yoga class a joy instead of a drag? If my sister or a girlfriend went with her every week.
Or perhaps a DIY gift is the best ‘Take a Chance’ gift (and a great opportunity to save money to boot). When Nora and I got married, we received a gorgeous homemade silverware chest from a relative with this note inside:
All the wood in this chest was grown, harvested, and milled in upstate New York, primarily in the western Catskills. The sides and frames of the top are made from a single piece of black cherry. The inlaid top, as well as the keys in the edges, are from a piece of black walnut. The legs and lid lifter are of spalted beech. The completed chest was finished with shellac and wax.
It is hoped that this chest, like your marriage, both formed by bringing different components together and joining them, will endure and mellow with age.”
The raw materials for the chest probably cost less than $75, but we’ve received thousands of dollars of satisfaction using it. That’s probably not calculable but that’s what I feel, so I’m going with it.
What about you? Do you have a Rule #9?