A decision tree for holiday gifting

‘Tis the season of giving and (frivolous) spending!

Sorry to be harsh, but you know what I mean: holiday gift-giving can get a little out of hand. (Looking at you, TV commercials where couples apparently surprise each other with new cars. Hmm WHAT?) People feel the pressure to give, regardless of whether the gifts serve a genuine purpose, and the world ends up with a whole bunch of gifts (and emissions) that turn up in the trash (and the atmosphere) in no time.

“But…I can always return it!” you might think. Not so fast! Recent news coverage suggests that only a tiny share of the stuff we return ends up back in the warehouse, due to the logistical challenges for retailers to handle large volumes of returns. UPS projects that 1.9 million returns will take place on January 2, 2020 – a day it has dubbed “National Returns Day” – marking a 26% increase from last year’s peak returns day.

Most returns do not end up back on the shelf. Image credit: chuttersnap via Unsplash

According to Optoro (a technology firm that helps retailers and manufacturers manage their returns or excess products), only 10% of the merchandise it handles successfully make their way back on the shelves. Others are sold to discounters and recyclers, routed to charities, or end up in landfills and incinerators. Optoro estimates that returns account for 5 billion pounds of landfilled waste in the US alone and an additional 15 million tons of carbon emissions.

Let’s begin tackling our massively toxic and wasteful gift-giving culture by being more thoughtful this holiday season. I’ve even made a handy holiday gifting flow chart – don’t mind me, I used to work in decision science. (Sorry about the low resolution; this cheapskate didn’t want to spend $14 for a software upgrade just to download one high res image). Once you navigate through the decision tree, I’ve got some gift ideas for you below too.

Boy, did I have fun with this one. (Made with Visme).

Ideas for non-physical gifts

  • A donation to the receiver’s favorite charity or political candidate (a friend of mine did this as one option on her wedding registry, and I thought it was pretty darn cool. Side note, the candidate did win!)
  • Gift a service that the person could definitely use: a gym/museum membership renewal, an audio book subscription, a massage, dinner at his/her neighborhood restaurant…you get the idea.
  • Event tickets (to a play, a concert, sports games, movies, etc)

Ideas for thrifted gifts

  • Books, cookbooks, maps, and records
  • Jewelry, popcorn maker, vinyl player, bubble gum machine, ya know, cool vintage stuff that the receiver can appreciate
  • Holiday decor (e.g., Christmas tree ornaments)
  • Other useful household items: quirky china and glassware, framed art, baskets, planters, vases.

Ideas for making your own gifts

  • Food: jams, cookies, breads, pickles, spice mix, fermented beverage (kombucha, soda), etc (better yet, put them all in a thrifted gift basket!)
  • Pampering gifts: bath salts, soaps, facial scrub, tea blends, candles.
  • Framed family photos
  • This Buzzfeed article has some wonderful ideas to turn thrift store finds into holiday gifts.
Image credit: by Kari Shea via Unsplash

A (nonjudgemental) note for folks who can’t afford to buy, make, or thrift gifts

Breathe. You are not a monster. Not gifting doesn’t mean you don’t love or value someone. It shatters my heart to hear that: according to one survey, 7 in 10 Americans are willing to go into credit card debt to buy holiday gifts; and another: more than a quarter of Americans expects to go into debt this holiday season.

If this sounds like you, this Nerdwallet article presents some helpful tips on taming holiday spending. But more importantly, ask yourself: why oh why must we torture ourselves this way? Who exactly are we benefiting through all of this spending, when many of the gifts end up getting returned anyway? As the Financial Diet wisely reminds us: “just because something’s on sale doesn’t mean it’s a good deal.” The consumer goods industry is banking on us giving into the lure of sales, don’t let it win!

This year, consider giving the best gift: being present with family and friends, enjoying precious time together, and having real conversations (in person or at least on the phone). Because most of us can all use more of that, and less stuff.

(Header image credit: Leone Venter via Unsplash)