A Guide to Holiday Gift-Giving: Making It Merry & Meaningful

Sam Ngooi Life with Money

The holiday season is here! Or rather, major retailers would have you believe it has already been here.

This year, giants like Amazon, Target, and Walmart “moved Black Friday up to early October,” giving shoppers access to “highly anticipated … deals six weeks ahead of Thanksgiving.”

This may be good news for some: the “most wonderful time of the year” has been extended to three months (that’s a quarter of the year, for those keeping track).

But for others, holiday shopping can make the season of giving busy and stressful.

“Being obligated to give, and worrying about how people will react, interferes with the happiness we typically feel at the pure act of giving,” according to Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton.

While nearly 7 in 10 Americans would skip exchanging gifts if their loved ones would agree, we’d like to share a few ways to make holiday giving a bit more merry and meaningful—without saying “bah humbug” to the custom altogether.

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Set Reasonable Expectations

Last year, 36% of Americans incurred holiday debt, averaging $1,249. Rather than worrying about holiday spending after the fact, take time to reflect on your expectations and financial goals.
An early conversation with people in your gift-giving circle can help align expectations around the number of presents, cost, or type of gifts.

Asking, “How do we want to handle gifts this year?” can generate creative gift arrangements, such as pooling money for larger gifts or taking a vacation together.

Shop Thoughtfully
Retailers spend millions to get shoppers to spend more. For example, one-day and limited-time store credit impose pressure on customers to buy things they wouldn’t otherwise.To avoid getting sucked in, recognize sales tactics and stick to a list, then research the best deals.
Give Intentionally

Research shows that gift recipients are more likely to value an experience or activity over material objects, due to the memories and stories generated by the experience (“Remember that time when … ?!”).

A personal note or token gift (think: a pair of hiking socks in advance of a camping trip) can further enhance the excitement and anticipation that make experiences more appreciated than material gifts.

Interestingly, people also feel happier when they receive something they’ve asked for, rather than a surprise. Practical, homemade, or timesaving (i.e., services) gifts are also well-received, provided some careful considerations are made about the recipient’s likes, wants, and needs.

Finally, charitable gifts on someone’s behalf tend to produce the most happiness when they have a well-defined purpose and a way to report back to donors on their impact.

Get Kids Involved

One effective way to reinforce values within families is to discuss the meanings behind holiday traditions and the feelings elicited by giving and receiving gifts.

Ron Lieber, author of The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money, notes that involving kids in the gift-choosing process allows parents to encourage family values, such as matching funds allocated to homemade or philanthropic gifts. In addition, a holiday budget helps kids practice money management.

Savor Gratitude

Expressing gratitude can strengthen positive attitudes in the brain and increase happiness and satisfaction. Throughout the gifting process, it’s okay to enjoy the feeling of making someone you care about feel appreciated.

Similarly, communicating your appreciation for the work that went into a gift spreads the good cheer and strengthens your relationship with the gift-giver.

Focus on Values

Reflecting on values and priorities during the holiday season serves as a reminder of what gift-giving is all about: creating special connections and enriching our relationships through caring, kindness, and empathy towards others.

Taking time—either individually, with friends, or as a family—to think about this deeper meaning can help refocus the reason behind the rituals of the season.

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Wishing you a merry, meaningful, and stress-free holiday season!