Last summer I celebrated my fortieth birthday. My wife wanted to really wow me with the perfect gift. She canvassed her male colleagues at work and they were full of suggestions: an expensive watch, the latest drone, or a Ferrari for the day (even the guys recognized some limits).
Gift giving can be fun and rewarding, but can also create anxiety about whether we're picking presents that please those we care most about. And we often miss the mark during the season. Economists estimate that between 10 and 30 percent of the value of a holiday gift is lost due to a mismatch between what we buy and what people want. To compensate, we buy the biggest, most expensive gift we can afford.
But does giving more really mean delighting more?
In my forthcoming book, Stretch, I explain that we are often distracted and held back by wants and wishes for more — more time for projects, more choices to pick from, and more money to spend. As alluring as this thinking is, it misses an important point: what we do with our existing resources usually matters a lot more than what we actually have.
For giving holiday gifts, this myth of more leads to waste and disappointment. Stanford University's Frank Flynn and London Business School's Gabrielle Adams examined the relationship between the amount of money people spent on gifts and the level of appreciation they got from the recipient. In one study, participants were asked to describe a recent birthday gift they either gave or received. Givers were asked how much they thought the recipient appreciated the gift. Receivers were asked how much they actually appreciated the gift.
For givers, the more they spent, the greater they expected appreciation by the recipient. But when the recipients were asked how much they actually appreciated their gifts, price had no influence on how much they liked them. In a follow up experiment, gift givers believed that expensive gifts signaled more thoughtfulness.
Let's take a different approach this year: give more by giving with less. Try cutting your gift budget in half. Expressing real affection without spending as much requires reflecting on why we care about or admire someone. That's the true thoughtfulness that has nothing to do with the price of a present.
As an added benefit of slashing your budget, you'll be more creative in your gift giving. In one study, a group of researchers asked participants to design a toy for a child using up to twenty items. Some participants received instructions that allowed them to use as many of the items as they wanted with an unlimited budget. Other participants were limited by a strict budget for the amount of items they could use. When two senior toy professionals, with no knowledge of the experiment, evaluated the toy designs, they rated toys designed in the constrained budget condition as significantly better than those with an unlimited budget.
There's another way to give more with less this holiday season. Instead of buying new, shop out of what's already in your closets, toy chests, or garages. Marie Kondo's book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, captivated millions of readers who resonated with her message of discarding all but the most essential stuff in our lives. Go one step further. Instead of getting rid of them, find a better home for them.
Re-gifting gets a bad rap because it's usually done secretly to dispose of the things we, nor anyone, really wants — the red sweater and heavy fruit cake! But think of how many treasures we own but no longer use that could bring delight and value to others.
Write a note explaining the history of the gift and why you think it'd be in better hands with the recipient. Spruce up the re-gifted item by combining it with a meaningful touch, such as a picture to accompany a frame, an appreciative message to the receiver to go along with a candle, or a handwritten story of the first life of the object and how you enjoyed it. Declare your workplace a regifting zone. Encourage your children to trade a toy with a friend. Do a household item swap with a neighbor or a clothes exchange with a friend.
In professors Flynn and Adams's research, they also find that people overestimate the distastefulness of regifting. People receiving a gift thought that offering it to someone else would be just as offensive to the original gift buyer as throwing the gift in the trash. The good news: the original gift givers actually preferred regifting over dumping it. The even better news: relaxing the social stigma of regifting encourages more people to do it. When participants were told it was National Regifting Day, the regifting rate climbed from 9 percent to 30 percent (the actual day is coming up on December 22nd).
Let's not measure the value of what we gift to others using cost, brand, or the places we shop. Even if we can afford the flashy items of this holiday season, connect more intimately with others by giving more with less. Our family and friends will welcome the thoughtfulness of a gift whose merit comes from its meaning, and not its price tag.
My wife ended up spending under $10 for my birthday for some nice stationary she used to write me a letter. Her incredibly meaningful words celebrated my first forty years and inspired me to think about the next forty. They also teach an important lesson. Giving with less is truly a gift worth giving — and getting.
Stretch is forthcoming from HarperBusiness and available for pre-order at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers. Being resourceful with gift giving is just one way that people stretch. Learn how to make the most out of whatever you have using the science of resourcefulness. With compelling studies and stories, Stretch shows how to succeed in business and life with what we already have. Learn more at ScottSonenshein.com.