When it comes to gift-giving, I like to buy gifts that are exciting, maybe something that the recipient wouldn't necessarily buy themselves because it's not practical.
In fact, I so enjoy finding the perfect gift that I even have secret Amazon gift lists for my family members. When I come across something I think they'd like, I add it to their list for future gift-giving occasions. (Sound crazy? I got your crazy. I also have a “Gangsta Wrap” Pinterest board full of gift-wrapping ideas, so who's crazy now? Oh yeah, still me…)
Anyway, many years ago, buying the perfect gift often meant I'd spend more than I should. For instance, when my best friend had her first baby, I went a little overboard with the cute baby clothes, buying pretty much everything at retail price. Designer retail price. The parents reading this are laughing, because they know that those fancy baby clothes were only worn for a couple of months before baby outgrew them.
These days, I'm smarter about buying gifts on sale, with coupons, and picking things that will last. But I still go for the exciting gift, the one that the recipient would love to have but wouldn't buy for themselves.
And according to a recent study, that's the wrong approach to take. Not only am I spending more than I need to, but I'm giving a less desirable gift. Gasp!
Recipients don't want the exciting gift
The fancy, exciting gift is actually not the most desirable one according to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research (PDF). And we're giving that fancy, less desirable gift because we're focusing too much on the recipient.
Wait — what? Weren't we always taught to think about the recipient and what he or she would like?
“The problem is that you create distance by focusing on the recipient too much,” says Ernest Baskin, one of the authors of Why Feasibility Matters More to Gift Receivers than to Givers: A Construal-Level Approach to Gift Giving. “Because you're thinking more abstractly, you'll tend to choose gifts that are more desirable and weigh practicality less.”
Hmm…sounds a lot like those fancy baby clothes I gave my friend. So why do we over-focus in the first place?
“We think that by concentrating on the other person, we can give the best gift,” says Baskin. “But the problem is that although you have good intentions, you're not thinking about long-term effects.”
The study authors also say that we give fancy gifts to try to make our friends happier and because we think that the exciting gifts will make them like us more and show just how much we care.
The problem is that it's not the fancy gift that accomplishes those three things. So what kind of gift does make recipients happier, make them like us more, and show that we care?
It's the practical gift.
Why practicality matters
In the study previously cited, the authors measured the trade-offs between desirability and practicality in gift-giver and gift-receiver preferences.
For instance, they looked at a scenario where a gift-giver knows the gift-receiver loves Italian food and wants to buy them a gift certificate to an Italian restaurant. Does the giver choose a gift certificate for a fancy restaurant that is an hour away or a nice but lower-rated restaurant that's five minutes away?
The authors' research shows that the gift-giver leans towards the fancier restaurant, while the gift-receiver would prefer to receive a gift certificate to the restaurant that is closer to their house. “The receiver cares about expenditure of their time, and so they prefer the one that's closer,” says Baskin.
And it's not just expenditure of time that recipients think about. They also consider how long they'll be able to enjoy the gift. “Think about giving flowers,” says Baskin. “Givers go for the most wonderful, beautiful bouquet, but the most beautiful flowers often die within a few days. The less beautiful ones might last a week.”
Thinking about myself as a recipient, it makes a lot of sense. For example, when I got married almost six years ago, we received a lot of gifts from our very generous friends and family members. And today, it's the most practical gifts that I'm still using every week, if not every day. The water glasses, the simple white serving platter, the Pyrex baking dishes. Sure, the fancy champagne glasses are beautiful, but they're so beautiful that they stay safely hidden away in the dish cabinet. Also, I don't drink a whole lot of champagne.
As a recipient, I really appreciated (and still use) the practical gifts.
So if you tend to buy the exciting gift over the practical one, how can you change your gift-giving ways?
Instead of focusing entirely on the recipient, the study found that you should actually take a minute to think about what you would want if you were the recipient.
“Think, ‘If I picked this for myself, what would I like?'” says Baskin. “You'll choose something more practical, and wind up giving a more desirable gift if you take step back and ask yourself, ‘Is this the kind of gift I would want?'”
For instance, in the Italian-restaurant example, would you want to drive an hour to use the gift certificate? “That hour would be a pain to drive, especially if there's traffic,” says Baskin.
Thinking about my baby gift example, if I had I asked myself what I would want if I were a first-time mom, I would've probably given my friend bottles and blankets. (Which brings up another point — maybe I selfishly bought fancy baby clothes because they're a whole lot more fun to shop for than boring baby bottles!)
But, I've learned my lesson, you guys. After interviewing Baskin, it just so happened that I needed to buy a bridal shower gift for a friend. Normally, I'd want to buy something exciting for the kitchen like a mandoline or nice wine glasses. But taking Baskin's advice, I thought, “Let's be practical here.” I pulled up the bride's registry online, and I immediately knew what I'd buy: a cast iron skillet. Practical, super affordable, incredibly durable — it's a kitchen workhorse. My dad has used his cast iron skillet for decades, and my husband and I use ours almost daily.
When the bride-to-be unwrapped it, she was ecstatic. She also wants detailed instructions on how to season it and wash it. And I have to admit, it was actually fun to give her something practical, knowing that that gift would likely be used in her kitchen for decades to come.
So now I'm curious, what's the “fanciest” gift you've ever received, and what's the most practical? Which one made you happier?
Author: April Dykman
As a freelance writer, editor, and blogger, April Dykman specialized in personal finance, real estate, and entrepreneurship topics. Her work has been featured on MSNBC, Fox Business, Forbes, MoneyBuilder, Yahoo! Finance, Lifehacker, and The Consumerist. Now she does direct response copywriting but, in her free time, April is a wannabe chef, a diehard Italophile, and a recovering yogi.