Rules help gift givers avoid holiday minefields

The holidays are upon us, which means my wife and I must review our Christmas gift-giving rulebook.

The first rule is simple: When buying for each other, we set a dollar limit and try to get as close to it as we can. The dollar limit is always modest because we both agree we don’t need more things.

As a matter of fact, our ongoing, long-term home project has been to rid ourselves of those objects we no longer need, no longer like or no longer feel any obligation to keep. My challenge as well as Becky’s is to find interesting and surprising gifts that are useful, will be enjoyed and will have some meaning for the giftee.

Buying a useful gift for a spouse or significant other can be a real minefield if you are not on your most sensitive toes. Everyone knows a story of some poor sap who bought his wife a vacuum cleaner and stuck it under the tree and how he paid for that mishap.

According to our gift-giving plan, a “useful” gift would be one that a person might not buy for him or herself but would come in handy if it were available. I’m thinking of the small pocket knife that that I once received. I use it all the time to open packages and so on.

Of course, usefulness is in the eye of the giftee. When you are 7 years old, the last thing you want is a grandparent who gives you clothes for Christmas. The little one rips open the package, sees that it is a six-pack of underwear, mumbles the obligatory “Thank you,” then reaches for the next gift with the hope that it is something fun.

“Buy only presents that are fun,” probably needs to be in our Christmas rulebook under the chapter “Gift-Giving Guideline for Grandparents.” The suggestion to “Keep a running tally of each of the four grandkid’s gifts so that they come out equal” would be in the same chapter.

We all hope the gifts we give will be enjoyed by the giftee. Some people gather wish lists of what the intended recipients would like. Some gift-givers seem to operate in a yearlong list-gathering mode, attuned to any hint of what the receiver would appreciate as a gift. Others gifters go with their gut and take a spur-of-the-moment chance that they have found the perfect thing for the person in mind.

Economist have, as you might expect, studied gift giving, and some have developed a rather depressing metric they call “deadweight loss.” It works like this: You give a $100 present to someone who doesn’t value it at that price. Had you given them the money they would have bought something they consider a full $100 value.The difference is the deadweight loss of the gift.

That’s probably why nearly one-half of Christmas present recipients in the U.S. received at least one gift card last year.

Other scientists have studied gifting and discovered more positive results. One study was designed to measure the sentimental feelings people attach to gifts they receive. Part of the study compared the value subjects placed on items they bought versus a gift they received during Christmas. Over time, the self-purchased items lost value while the value attached to the received gifts increased.

Turns out people develop and carry sentimental feelings for certain gifts even if they aren’t exactly what they would have bought for themselves. But we already knew that, didn’t we?

I’m guessing most people have gift-giving rules even if they are only vaguely formulated. Becky and I have more or less worked out our rulebook. Now comes the hard part for me: locating just the right something that she will find useful, pleasurable and filled with meaning.