Why less is more when it comes to gifts

I find that Christmas (and “the holidays” more generally) are massive goal crushers.  It’s hard to eat well, work out, meditate, or pack your lunch in the midst of all the extra commitments.  It is especially easy to spend way, way past your budget in December particularly when you secretly feel that overspending, in this case, is actually a virtue.

“I’m being generous and thoughtful towards the people I love,” you think, “so really, in this case, its actually better to overspend than to be overly frugal and risk seeming ungrateful.”

I hear you.  I was the queen of over-giving.  I wanted to be sure that the people I love knew that I valued them more than my money.  It took a long time before I recognized this comparison was fundamentally false.

As I’ve mentioned, my husband and I have  been working really hard in the past 5  years or so to pay down our debt and get our money in order.  A few years ago, after a year of making great progress, Christmas came along and CRUSHED us.  We spent more than twice what we had budgeted and much of the progress we had made that whole year was lost. It was tragic… and it was a massive wake-up call.

Since then I’ve been working to critically evaluate my assumptions and expectations to re-set my gift-buying mindset.  One such mindset is the strong belief that children, in order to experience the magic of Christmas, need to receive multiple, amazing gifts.

When we’re thinking about it, we all know that this isn’t true, right?  We know that Christmas is about the birth of Christ and/or time with our families expressing gratitude?  I mean, the Dr Seus cleared this up years ago, didn’t he?

But the lure of being the BEST. GIFT GIVER. EVER. is super strong.

But what if I told you that giving more gifts actually diminishes the impact of the gifts you give?  It turns out that giving a single (or very few) gifts actually makes more of an impact on the gift-receiver than receiving multiple gifts.  I wrote a whole article about this for Quartz, which I’m summarizing here for efficiency:

  1. If you give people multiple gifts they average the experience of all the gifts together. So if you give them an amazing gift alongside a mediocre gift, their memory of the amazing gift takes a hit from the less awesome gift.
  2. When we are presented with many, many gifts our expectations rise sharply.  We suddenly believe that we can get the perfect gift!  But we don’t actually buy the perfect gift, because that’s not a real thing, and so people are disappointed. Which is the opposite of the point, right?
  3. Over-giving (giving a really expensive gift when the expectation is for a much less expensive gift) seems like a guarantee for positive results… but actually people really, really dislike receiving an inappropriately large gift. Rather than feeling extra appreciated ,they feel bad about themselves and a little weirded out by you.

Again, you can see all the research and further explanation on Quartz but the takeaway is reassuringly clear: Though the desire to buy multiple, expensive gifts for our loved ones is honorable, the best option is to actually to buy a single, thoughtful, reasonably priced gift. This means that you and I can take comfort that our shopping lists need not double or triple in size.  Good luck getting everything finished up!

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