No presents

Trickle-down bah-humbug is this holiday season’s policy

Go ahead: Make this kid cry.

Go ahead: Make this kid cry.

Here’s another reason to buy nothing for the holidays: Shopping is bad for the economy.

For years, we’ve been told that retailers would suffer, thereby causing great economic repercussions, if we didn’t spend like fiends on Christmas gifts. The problem, according to Joel Waldfogel, a professor of business at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, is that our annual gift frenzy doesn’t make much economic sense.

As a thoroughly Christmas-impaired person (my upbringing as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses meant that I didn’t celebrate even the pagan traditions associated with Christmas until my early 20s), Waldfogel’s work makes a lot of sense. I’ve never really understood the practice of buying items for other people when you’re not sure what they need or want.

In fact, Christmas shopping seems like one big, expensive guessing game.

My lovely wife has tried to teach me how it works: Decide who you’re buying for, then wander around shops and malls until you find something that seems like it will make them happy. I get the idea; making people happy seems like a good thing.

But Waldfogel’s research, detailed in a lovely little book titled Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays (Princeton University Press, $9.95), indicates that, in terms of the amount spent, our gifts don’t bring much happiness.

In fact, Waldfogel’s research indicates that holiday gifts lose 75 percent of their value as soon as we buy them.

That’s right, the recipients of our gifts—even if they like the gift in question—would have spent only 25 percent of the gift’s price if they’d been shopping for themselves. So we’re spending too much, and, as often as not, we’re not buying any happiness.

Waldfogel does make some suggestions. Gift cards, a growing segment of the gift-giving market, could come with a visible expiration date and the specification that any unused portion will go to a named charity, thus ensuring that good value will come of money spent, and that money unspent will also bring value. Big-ticket gifts can come with “naming” rights, like those universities use to fund everything from stadiums to chemistry buildings; this means that mountain bike you’re buying in April is actually a Christmas gift from granny, and everybody knows it. He also suggests buying specific gifts only for those people you know really, really well (like your own small children, who are sure to be delighted and will make your gift giving worthwhile).

I’m not really a Scrooge, but the only gifts I buy are for my wife (and even then, I suspect I miss as much as I score). The nieces and nephews all get gift cards (and they’ve been much happier with those than with my previous default gifts of books). And the rest of you?

I’ll be making fudge soon. That way, I get a benefit, too.