Gift Guide: Being better to give than to receive

Who writes a gift guide in January?

This one is not about specific gifts but rather a philosophy of gift giving. Every year at Seasons I run into the problem that decently well off adults have with gift giving. They will often ask for a list of possible gifts, not knowing what to get. And it can be hard to come up with the list because, frankly in these days of online ordering, if there’s something you really want that is not that expensive an item, you would have bought it already.

I believe that instead of giving people what they want, you should give them what you want to give them. This is not simply a desire to make gift giving more selfish, to making giving be in the interests of the giver. It is a statement that a proper gift should be an expression of yourself. It should be something you enjoy giving, and not just because you want to bring a smile to your recipient (though you should also want that.)

Christmas shoppers often overspend to buy fancy and overadvertised gifts which seem nice but which are never really used by the recipient. This is actually a major inefficiency in the economy, in that products are produced to little productive end other than to say, “see, I spent some serious money on you.” We’ll never stop that but we might redirect it.

Rule One: No money between adults

Adults should never give money. That’s not an expression of yourself, unless the expression is “I’m really rich.” The one exception is that parents can give life-changing amounts of money to children. A large sum can be an expression of your instinctive desire to make your kids’ lives better. Likewise employers can give cash bonuses. But those are not really gifts.

Rule One-A: Absolutely no gift cards.

Gift cards are like giving money, except they’re stupid money that can only be spent at one store. Stores love them because people leave $5 billion undredeemed on gift cards every year — down from $10 billion back when they were allowed to let gift cards expire. Many people think a gift card is better than money because it says, “OK, at least I know enough about you to get you a gift card at a store I know you like to shop at.” But that’s hardly saying much.

Gift cards from generic stores that sell something for everyone are right out. That’s just the gift of cash with a restriction. Gift cards might be more tolerable from extreme specialty stores, so that your picking of the store constitutes an expression of yourself and your relationship with the recipient.

Gift cards for services are a bit more tolerable. After all, it’s hard to give services otherwise.

Gift cards would make more sense if they were offered at a discount, so you could buy a $50 card usable after seasons for $40. They almost never do this though. But it still isn’t much of an expression of you.

Exception: If you truly need a gift that requires no expression of yourself, these might work. For example, gifts for people you don’t know well, gifts for a large group of co-workers etc. But what you’re saying here is, “listen, I wanted to give you a small gift but let’s face it, you weren’t high enough up on the list to merit a lot of time.” Sometimes that’s a perfectly OK thing to say, if it’s a gift for your postal worker or the office.

In addition to services (which can’t be physically given) we’re seeing a lot more in online or virtual goods, such as downloadable games, e-books, apps, music and the like. Sometimes you can buy a code you can email, or if you know somebody’s account, you can add such items to it. This creates a conundrum. I would much rather somebody gave me an e-book over a paper book these days — I don’t have shelf space. Do you give these “items” because the only way to give them is virtually? Or is this a sign that these items are now removed from the set of things that should be given? It may be best to consider a middle ground which discourages virtual gifts if you can think of something else, but tolerates them if they really are the best thing.

It’s more acceptable if you can give a very specific item, like a song, book or game you picked. No iTunes gift cards, but instead codes for a specific item. One for which the choosing of the item said something about you.

Imagine a world of plenty

One way to think about this is to imagine a world where everybody you knew was a billionaire, with no want for money. What would you give then? You can see immediately how giving cash or a gift card would make little sense in that world. Truth be told, for most gifts, the cost of the gift is a blip in our net worths, so the real world is not too different from this one, unless you’ve giving a gift that’s so extravagant that it would be noticed in the annual budget, like a car.

Limit your manufactured items

The adage that the best gifts are ones you make yourself has much truth. And where you can afford the time for that, or have the skills for it, this is indeed the right way to go. But I don’t expect you to stop giving manufactured items entirely.

When you give a manufactured item, one that you can just point-click-and-ship, the gift is not the item, but what went into selecting it. The choice must depend not on your impressions of what they want, but rather ways in which you can be better (by some standards) at picking what they want than they are. You must find something that you knew was good but they didn’t.

So if you really know cameras, you probably know better how to shop for certain items. Buy something that you know more about than the recipient. Do you have good taste in clothing, or know where the best shops are? That’s where to buy your items. Not in a big box store or at the mall — anybody can go there.

Do you own and love a hot gadget that is not that popular yet? Get it, even though they might not love it as much. What you are sharing is your knowledge and love for the item, to let them see and experience a part of your life.

Books and other media

One particular type of manufactured item deserves special attention, namely books and media. Don’t give books of the type they like to read. Give the books and authors that you have read and love. Again, you might give them a book they would not love as much as the new hardcover from their favourite author. But the book, and the love for it, is an expression of you. If you know them intimately enough to know of books by their favourite writers which they themselves might not know about, that’s also OK.

It’s also OK if you are a better researcher to use that skill to surprise them. Perhaps you know more about how to look things up online, or read the right blogs where good people will recommend things. You can buy those things as long as your knowledge was special, and not generic.

Time rather than money

No gift expresses yourself more than time. A gift which is hard to choose and takes time says more than a gift which cost a lot. Most personalization requires time. Photography can be a great source for this — do you have a series of photos of the person, or places they love, that you could make into a slideshow or poster?

In addition, we all have too much stuff already, so don’t just give more “stuff” that they have to bring out when you visit. Unless they have a weight problem or a drinking problem, unusual foods and drinks that you enjoy can be a good expression of yourself. Of course, stuff you made yourself is even better.

Sometimes ya gotta break the rules

This is not the only way to give gifts. And nobody will figure the perfect gift for every person every time, not even close. This is just a direction to go, in opposition to what is most marketed — “impress them with how much money you were willing to spend on them.” And while your gift should be an expression of your personality, it would be wrong to think this means that gift giving is all about you, the giver. Rather the message is that it’s about both people.

In addition, many of these rules don’t apply to gifts to young children. First of all young children may not yet be able to understand an adult’s expression. And unlike adults they don’t have all that they want. They are easy to impress and very grateful.

Still, with children, look to gifts that you particularly enjoyed as a child, or in particular gifts which changed your life in a positive way. Did a football turn you into an athlete? Did a microscope make you a scientist? Pass it on.

My favorite kind of gift

My favorite gifts to give are consumables: food, drink, books, music, pictures, flowers, cards, psychotropics, time,... They remind me of the temporary nature of life, that we all burn in the end.

Some of us celebrate that in a dusty yearly revelry with fire, gifts, art and participation of all sorts, all temporary things. Its even a temporary city and semi-autonomous zone. I most definitely spend more time, money and energy on gifts for that last week in August than I do in December.

Consumables generally express an investment of your own time. Your time spent cooking, your time to evaluate some bit(s) of information, your time spent writing a blog post or reply, or the product of any other creative effort. Even just spending time with someone can be gift enough alone.

They tend to have more sentimental value and meaning. Its less about the monetary cost of something and more about the experience the gift brings. Gift culture is not a zero sum game and that's what makes it so rewarding.

I think the ethos of Burning Man spreads with us, spreads as we share our experiences and have shared experiences and through gift culture. Life is the first and most precious gift we were given.

Thanks for your gifts Brad, of sharing your creative work, your photos and thoughts with us!

Question about gift cards

Hi Brad,

Thanks for your critique of the gift card - agreed, mostly!

What if the gift card also had some kind of a heart & soul. In other words, what if it was redeemable for retail, cash, or you could donate any/all of it to great non-profits (National Parks Foundation, USO, etc). Would love your thoughts: tangocard (dot) com

Michael

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