Gift-giving is an issue that I have personally wrestled with since childhood… Even at an early age I had the tendency to look at gift giving with a highly critical eye. Perhaps it was something about the way in which my family participated in this pressured ritual, or perhaps my opinions were something developed without link to my own familial traditions.
I should probably start off by saying that it is wonderful to give gifts to people. When you can afford to do something special for an individual, it can brighten their day…. at times, a small gift that is given to an individual is something that they will hold on to for a lifetime, remembering the thoughtfulness and generosity of the person who gave them the gift. Gift giving can be a beautiful way to say “thank you” or “I love you” or “I am so appreciative of all that you do.” Gift giving is a great facilitator for discussion, collaboration, and interpersonal interchange.
Yet, like so many things I discuss on this blog, gift giving can (and often seems to) get out of hand. I personally believe that the consumer culture of the US has gone completely out of control and there has been an over-abundance of gift giving. I believe that if people (particularly children) receive too many gifts, too many things, they start to lose the understanding of value, of delayed gratification, of responsibly saving their money and not going into debt. I am appalled – and I mean APPALLED by the sheer numbers of people who will go into debt in order to make sure that their children’s rooms are fully stocked with the latest toys. My question is……. “do they really need all that cr@p???” My first daughter was the first grandchild in the family and she was definitely spoiled with an abundance of toys. She did play with a lot of them, but there was simply NO WAY she could play with them all. In fact, in the end we donated many to a local preschool and were pleased to know that the toys were finally being put to good use and played with on a regular basis. Kids have full rooms of toys they do not have enough time to play with. Is it worth it? How many people out there have kids with overflowing closets but no retirement funds?
I think the biggest problem fueling this unhealthiness is the reality that too many people today have equated money with love. If I love my child, I HAVE to buy her the latest toys. If I am loved, then the people who love me better buy me something to prove it, whether or not they can afford it. When I was 16 my parents had a rough financial year (they were prone to them off and on). When I suggested that, in lieu of exchanging holiday gifts we should write notes to each other about how much we appreciate each other and exchange hand-made items, it was as though I suggested we all head to the forest and drink cool-aid together…… My parents just could not fathom not having our family exchange gifts on Christmas morning…… honestly, they seemed to need the gift exchange much more than my siblings and I did. The message was a dangerous one, though. It seemed to say that the gifts HAD to come, even when the money was not really there (therefore you can spend money you do not have if it is for a gift, and you even should)………. and something hand written or made is not necessarily good enough to create a new healthy family gift giving tradition.
I wonder what would happen if we stopped feeling that we had to purchase gifts on birthdays, holidays, etc. How much debt would be eliminated in the USA if people no longer felt pressured to purchase gifts they cannot afford? What would happen if we valued gifts less and personal exchanges of words more?
I worry as well that the gift-giving craze has added to our children’s inability to delay gratification. When I was growing up, if I wanted something I had to work for it and save up. When I had enough money I would buy the item and cherish it, never letting it out of my sight. I learned the value of saving for something and of delaying gratification. Imagine if Americans (well, the ones in debt anyhow) learned to not purchase one thing unless they have the money to cover it……. imagine if they FIRST had to put money away for retirement and only after they did that, could they spend whatever they had left….. Imagine if Americans were not allowed to accumulate credit card debt. During the recent financial crisis we have weathered world-wide over the past few years, people who live in countries that refuse to allow large credit card debt have done better than consumers in the USA who are able and encouraged to open a credit card for each day of the week.
I do NOT believe in giving gifts one cannot afford, but I do believe in giving and generosity – a gift can be a card, a poem, a song, or a batch of cookies – it does not have to be something that causes you financial hardship, and, in fact, it shouldn’t. I would even go one step further and wonder if a person does have debt to pay if they should be giving anything other than a card until their own personal debt is paid off. How would you feel if you knew your best friend was giving you a book/ CD/ or DVD at the expense of not paying of outstanding debt? I imagine that, if you cared about your friend, you would feel terrible and would rather have your friend pay off their debt than buy you a present that will ultimately lay to rest on a shelf for the next fifteen years.
Love your friends and family, show them with your actions… you do not need to show them with your pocketbook if it creates a hardship for you.
Today, 285 days ’til 40, I will remind myself to constantly express my gratitude to those whose presence enrich my life. I realize that gratitude can be expressed in more ways than gift giving… I hope you do too.