28 February 2011


I live in the most materially prosperous nation in the world, and it strikes me as odd some of the etiquette around gift-giving.

I just had the experience of having my first baby exactly a week ago, and leading up to the birth my wife and I decided that we didn't want many gifts. We have a very small apartment with plans to move in three months. The major things we needed were donated by friends and family, such as a car seat, changing table, bags of used clothes, and a bassinet. A few big ticket things we bought ourselves, such as a new couch ($500), rocking chair ($150), dresser ($80), and pump ($240). My wife and I are pretty well off financially so it wasn't particularly burdensome to get these. The greatest burden was not the cost of small things, but the birth itself cost around $10 thousand, in our case with a $3 thousand deductible. Outside of those things, a diaper bag, some onesies, and lots of diapers, there's not much else that is needed for a newborn for several months, at which point we would move anyway. With this in mind, we registered for a few things and then asked for gift cards if people felt the need to get gifts. 

Here's the thing about gift cards: they're just a bad idea. Over 25% of gift cards are never redeemed. Let me repeat that, over 25% of gift cards are never redeemed. For the companies involved, this is just free money. About $8 billion a year of free money. When they are redeemed, it's a guaranteed sale at their store with the cash provided up front, months in advance, so the company earns interest on the cash for as long as the card is held. In this scenario, why not give a person cash instead of a gift card? It lets the recipient buy anything anywhere. The only reason a gift card should be given in place of cash is if the giver wants to restrict where the money is spent, similar to how food stamps can only be spent on food. It's the kind of thing you would give to people begging on the street so they can't buy booze with your money. In our case, the biggest cost was meeting our deductible for the birth, and gift cards couldn't be applied towards it.

Among adults it would be very rare to know exactly what someone needs or what they would buy, so when gifts are obliged to be given, most people opt for gift cards instead of guessing or spending time shopping for something that might just be returned for something else. So at a gift exchange (Christmas, Ayyam-i-Ha, birthdays, etc.) you'll see a lot of gift cards passed around. Since gift cards are just a bad idea, it would be best to just give cash. But then at Christmas time you would see John give a card with $40 to Jane, and Jane give a card with $40 to John. What's the point then? Exactly. 

Now we've come full circle back to where we started. If you don't know what the person needs or wants, then no gift needs to be given. The social requirement to give gifts, especially Valentine's day, are mostly hyped up by commercial propaganda flaunting a huge lie, a lie that says happiness comes from purchasing material things. Affection should not be measured in gifts.

Then to top it all off, there is a social requirement to write thank-you cards for every gift at a wedding or baby shower. My wife and I chose not to send thank you cards after our wedding and were berated by family members about how rude that was. I remember thinking, "I would rather not get a gift than have to write a thank-you card."

I have four young nephews, and this year my sister-in-law asked me not to get her kids any toys for Christmas, since they're house was overflowing with toys already. She suggested that I take all the kids to a children's museum and playground instead, which I did two months later. I thought this was a great idea, because it was spending valuable time with kids, instead of buying them a plastic toy.

Back to my story. My wife and I tried to spread the word that we don't really need anything in particular for the baby, that we registered for some things, that nobody should feel obliged to get us anything, and that gift cards are better than "stuff" cause we would be moving before most of anything would be useful. I would have said "cash" instead of gift cards, but one step at a time. 

Of course, even from people to whom I explained this quite well, we received all kinds of things. One person was actually offended by the idea of not getting us a gift. Some people got us multiple gifts on different occasions. The new grandparents got us gifts even after we specifically and directly told them not to get us anything, this is true for both sides of the family.

We did get a few things that were clever, which we wouldn't have thought of otherwise, but we received tons of clothes, toys, books, and blankets that we were doing our best not to accumulate. We also got a lot of gift cards at a variety of stores. A lot of the presents were great, and we appreciated all the stuff that we would use months and months in the future, and we understand that people wanted to show their excitement and affection, but I feel like social tradition just beat us at a game of chess. 

Here are some of the conclusions I learned from this experience.
1) Materialism pervades American culture, even among people who should know better.
2) Some people misinterpret gift-giving for true affection. 
3) Gift cards are better than most presents, but cash is much better than gift cards.
4) Pay attention to financial need. Some couples are swamped with the cost of a new baby, some aren't.
5) The best gifts were things on our registry, or things that were not purchased, such as a used changing table, used baby clothes, hand-made things, etc.
6) Flowers are a great present in general. Partly because most people wouldn't normally get them, they're beautiful, and they're temporary.
7) What I really appreciate is time with people. I enjoyed the baby shower because I got to see tons of people and celebrate. After the birth I really enjoyed getting visits and people bringing us food.
8) Babies are incredibly cute and totally worth it. She's sleeping on my lap right now.


  1. I am intrigued by your post, and agree that materialism pervades the American culture in particular and many other cultures in general, but I am not sure I agree with your thesis regarding cash/gift cards. While it might be more practical in the scenario just described, I think that there is something to be said about the thought behind the gift and the motive in which it is given.

    Clearly in a scenario like this it is important to listen to the recipient regarding what they want, as the gift-giving is an 'obligatory' part of cultural tradition. However, I think that often giving cash or giftcards requires very little thought and if anything is more materially based not less than a well thought out gift (notice I didn't say just any random object). If I were to see something, or were inspired to make something, that made me think of you, and would help you or bring you joy, and connected it to you on a personal level then that would certainly be better, and less materially motivated, then handing you cash without any thought, just buying your loyalty/friendship/devotion. Even you admitted that there were a few gifts of things you hadn't thought of that were useful.

    I agree though that I just shouldn't default to giving you stuff that you don't want or need, but at the same time if gift recipients write off any 'material gift' as just that without thinking of the spirit and motivation of the gift giver than that would be a sorry state too. I know you are talking about this particular scenario in which gift-overload is a potential problem, and that if the purpose of the gifts to new parents are to help them be able to support the baby then the givers should be attune to what kind of support is actually needed.

    However I just wanted to make sure this kind of thinking wasn't used to judge gifts in all scenarios. You spoke of the beauty of flowers, which others might see as a 'waste' because of their temporal nature. It would be meaningful for you if I saw a beautiful flower and picked it for you, but it could be devastating to someone else who would rather see the flower living and not killed for mere enjoyment (theoretically).

    I guess my point is not all material objects given are given out of materialism, but I agree that we need to be careful of just defaulting to giving junk because we are culturally programmed to.

    And I agree with the outcome of your scenario which is this, if it is too hard for someone to put time and effort into picking out the right gift then cash is better than giftcards, and both are preferable to just picking out something to have something to give, and if the giving of the gift is to fulfill a cultural requirement (like a wedding or baby shower) then we should respect the recipients instructions regarding gift giving.

    But a well thought out gift, given out of the blue, will still trump cash in my heart any day, because it means the giver knows me, has thought of me, and connected me to the gift they are giving and it becomes more than just some object.

  2. Gift giving is wonderful. I love receiving and giving gifts, although I don't give gifts very often. More often I like to "treat" friends to food, movies, etc. Stuff we do together. I also love to receive these, especially if I'm short on cash.

    Speaking of cash, it seems like many other cultures, especially eastern cultures, have no problem giving money, and when I think of these cultures I think of them as sincere, affectionate, and generous, and not because they give cash, just as a correlation.