An Economist Ruins Christmas Gift Giving. . . Maybe

Friends, Christmas is less than a week away! Hopefully, you’ve finished all your shopping. If not… I wish you luck this weekend out with fellow procrastinators.


With the spirit of gift-giving in the air, there are two key ways to think about the gifts you pick out for friends and family: efficiency and signaling.


If you’re really behind, there’s one gift that’s super efficient, and you never have to worry about whether it fits or not. In the words of Randy Moss – Straight Cash Homie!

Giving cash allows your recipient to use it however they desire.


Maybe your recipient is one of those “really hard to shop for” people. Perhaps they’re struggling with an unanticipated expense – like having recently had to buy a new car because they hit a deer. Maybe they’re that friend or family member who only has big-ticket items left on their Christmas list. Or, perhaps, you’re like my dad and just really hate shopping.


In my slightly-weird economist’s opinion, cash is a perfectly acceptable gift for all occasions — birthdays, Christmas, weddings (just ask any of my friends who’ve gotten married in the last couple years). However, it arguably suggests that you put very little thought into what you’ve given.


Which brings me to the signaling aspect of gift-giving.


For many, part of the joy of gift-giving is the thrill of the hunt to find *the perfect gift* for their friend or family member. You know what I’m talking about — that one thing that you see, and it immediately screams THIS PERSON! It’s the kind of gift that shows that you either really know, or really have been paying attention, to the person that you’re giving the gift to.


If you think back on your own giving and receiving experiences, I’m sure you can think of that one particular instance that really stands out. Maybe it was a big-ticket item, but I’m willing to bet the price tag was rather trivial. Regardless, this particular gift absolutely captured the fact that your friend or family member totally understood your “you-ness.”


I’ll offer up an example of my own with a little backstory: My friend Rachel was traveling back to DC from a summer workshop at Michigan State University. Along the way, she stopped in the traffic nightmare known as Breezewood, PA and sent me a text saying that she had picked up a gift for me and would bring it when we met up at the baseball game that evening.


The gift? A bottle opener with a Pittsburgh Penguins logo on it! Never has a gift better captured that a friend understood two of the things that brought me the most joy during a given period of my life – hockey and craft beer. It’s been a little more than 5 years, and I’ve moved more times than I care to count, but I still have that bottle opener, and I smile and think of Rachel every time I use it.

So, if you’re not done with all your shopping but are on top of things today or tomorrow, I think Jeffy Claus (aka – Jeff Bezos) and his trusty crew of Amazon elves can bail you out with that sweet, sweet Prime shipping by Christmas Eve – with just enough time to spare for you to get everything wrapped.


However, if the spirit isn’t really moving you to shop this year, feel free to use my logic to feel just fine about stuffing a card with the green stuff or writing a check. . . and then maybe include a thoughtful suggestion like the Kitchen-Aid stand mixer, just to signal that you thought a little bit about what your recipient might do with your ultra-efficient gift.


Jessi Troyan, Ph.D. is the Development Director for the Cardinal Institute for WV Policy.