Giving til It Hurts

Pop quiz: It’s December 15th, have you finished your holiday shopping yet? If you’re anything like me the answer is no. I tend to keep shopping right up until the clock ticks down to Christmas. I’m in good company here. Only 16% of respondents to a National Retail Federation poll had completed their gift-buying by mid-December – this despite the fact that people are starting their shopping earlier and earlier in the year.

I know for a fact why I am still in the throes of the retail maelstrom. It’s not that I procrastinate, or that I enjoy shopping during the busiest time of the year. It’s just that gift-giving is so complicated that I second guess myself right up until the calendar hits December 25th and I am forced to stop the crazy. In almost all areas of my financial life I am the measure of discipline. However gift-giving taps into a deep pool of anxiety – and anxiety makes a terrible shopping partner.

I am not alone in feeling the stress of this practice. According to the American Psychological Association, 42% of respondents polled felt pressured by gift-giving. It’s no wonder, when we have so much emotional investment in the act of gift exchange.

In the 1970’s, social scientist Dr. Theodore Caplow completed a seminal study about the rituals of holiday gift exchange. According to Dr. Caplow, a proper gift must surprise the recipient, demonstrate familiarity with his or her tastes, and its cost should reflect the perceived emotional value of the relationship between the parties.

That’s a daunting combo of conditions and meaning to pack into a simple bottle of cologne or a snowflake sweater.

I would add that its also important for gifts to be proportionate. Giving “too big” or “too small” of a gift can demonstrate inequalities that are definitely not in keeping with the holiday spirit. How awkward is it to give an inexpensive or generic gift to someone who obviously invested more in their gift to you? Or the other way around? When giving is disproportionate both the giver and givee may feel emotionally exposed. It hearkens back to the “I have her my heart and she gave me a pen” moment in the movie Say Anything. Ouch. Not very Christmas-y.

Economic differences between parties exacerbate the difficulty of proportionate giving. In the same APA poll cited earlier, Americans listed “lack of money” (61%) and “credit card debt” (23%) as sources of holiday stress. It’s hard not to dread receiving a nice gift from someone when you feel obligated to incur debt in order to give something proportionate in return.

Sometimes it seems as if all of the stressful aspects of holiday giving threaten to overwhelm the joy and meaning of the season. There is a lot of great advice out there about how to put limits on runaway gifting. Definitely have a budget. In large families or groups, agree to hold a drawing or only give gifts to children.

One strategy I’ve employed in recent years to honor the true meaning of Hanukkah and Christmas – and to simplify things – is to give some charitable donations as gifts. Each year I pick a charity or two and make several modest donations in the names of my friends and co-workers. I put information about the donation in a card, and that’s my gift. This kind of gift actually feels really great to give, plus I feel like it’s creative (I like to try to pick organizations and causes the person I’m giving to would support). It saves time and energy that would otherwise be spent shopping, and let’s be frank, most of us don’t really need to receive more candles or bath salts.

Gift exchange is a complex and nebulous social activity, and I’m certainly not the first person to feel anxious about it. I think as adults we want to idealize how wonderful the holiday season should feel, but the truth is that it’s normal for some parts to feel downright unpleasant. But if we let go of the ideal and accept that the holidays can be wonderful and difficult, I think it at least takes away the pressure of trying to achieve perfection.


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