The real cost of gift giving – part 2 of 3

Who wants to buy something special for their child, partner, relative, friend or colleague at this time of year?

Almost everyone does, giving gifts is a powerful signal of who we value in most cultures.

It’s a thoughtful idea too, given how tough 2022 has been. We’ve had record increases in the cost of living with inflation at 7.3 per cent, coupled with the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) cash rate moving from 0.5 per cent to 3.10 per cent.

This has driven the standard variable home loan rate to 7.44 per cent, compared with 4.55 per cent at the start of the year. More and more Australians are suffering mortgage stress, and this is set to continue well into 2023 with Economists predicting more rate raises by 75 basis points.

It is however important to note that if we are not aware of our underlying financial stress at this time of year, advertising pressure can trick us into an expensive false reality: that our usual safe spending limits don’t apply when buying gifts for loved ones.

It’s sad to think we actually believe that the price of gifts should be in proportion to what people mean to us – and yet our national gift-giving habits suggest we overlook the damaging realities of money stress at the checkout.

Megan McArdle, writing for Bloomberg, argued: “there is a higher logic to the gift economy … that mandates we keep giving and receiving objects of dubious value”.

Gift-giving, she wrote, was connected to “an innate human value called “reciprocal altruism” which makes the costs of gifts “a maintenance fee for your relationship”.

But real-life problems are created when altruism is all about money.

As well-intentioned as gift-giving is, the Christmas rush to buy gifts is sometimes only ‘generous’ financially and not necessarily generous emotionally.

How often is our gift something the recipient really needs and will use?

Think about the concept of ‘re-gifting’. It has arisen as a response to people rushing to buy unnecessary presents for people.

How often will that extra gift, or a last-minute gift, improve a loved one’s life?

Office and friendship group ‘Kris Kringles’ fall firmly into this category. Sure, they seem like harmless fun, but how often do people buy something of real value?

Is a ‘joke present’ really a bit of a waste?

Too often, we believe we are “too busy” to learn and understand our colleagues’ – and even our loved ones’ – real wants and needs.

When we go into this kind of autopilot thinking, we may be setting ourselves up for financial stress and its many impacts on our relationships and our work.

Financial stress can also make existing anxiety and depression worse.

Research by Joseph Goodman (from Washington State University) and Sarah Lim (from Seoul’s Centre for Happiness Studies) found people commonly buy material gifts over experiential gifts, despite the fact that recipients often feel happier receiving experiences.

Material gifts are those we can touch while experiential gifts are those that create a memory.

So, gift-giving becomes a stressful problem which we solve with money – by buying the latest expensive gadget, a heavily-marketed ‘luxury’ or some kind of timeless status symbol. Or some kind of disposable trinket that gets a laugh when it’s opened – and is never thought of again.

Here are some examples of ‘experiential’ gifts:

    • Book a group activity with family and friends – from an art class to a virtual reality game;
    • A camping trip (without all the luxuries!);
    • Book a mini adventure – from sailing to skydiving or even rock-climbing;
    • Tickets to a live music concert – any genre;
    • Go dancing with friends;
    • Send someone a hand-written letter (no, really); and
    • Host a dinner party and base the menu on your loved ones’ favourite ingredients.

If it sounds mean-spirited to question gift-giving, that’s not the intention here. Only narcissists and debt collectors (and the occasional teenager) believe it’s better to receive than to give.

Gift-giving can be important and it can help create feelings of wellbeing in important people around us. It can be a panacea for the very self-centered existence people in western nations live.

The problems raised here are not about gift-giving per se, it’s the headless chook race that gift-giving can resemble – and the financial stress and strain placed on many of us.

According to Australian Retailers Association, Australians are to spend $63.9 billion in the pre-Christmas sales period (November 14 – December 24), which is up 3 per cent on last year.

Add the costs of Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthdays, weddings and anniversaries, and various other retail frenzies and you can see how gift-buying has become a major driver of the retail engine in Western economies.

Of course, it’s a double-edged sword: retail spending is celebrated each year as a measurement of the strength of the economy. To some degree, it’s an accurate reflection.

But at a personal level, buying gifts for everyone beyond our means will cause personal financial stress and all the issues that come with that.

Debt consistently shows up in surveys as a leading cause of financial stress.

It’s now also widely known personal money problems consistently show up in research as a major cause – if not the major cause – of stress in general.

The links between financial stress and poor mental health are well known, but recently the physical symptoms are being acknowledged and links to serious physical illness are emerging.

In the United States, the company Four Seasons Financial Education surveyed 511 employees in a national study and found disturbing correlations between financial stress and health problems.

The respondents rated their level of financial stress, then the prevalence of health issues between the two groups was compared.

People with high financial stress had a higher reported incidence of health issues across all nine illnesses identified – heart attack, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, infertility, gastrointestinal issues and sleeplessness, migraines/headaches, and memory loss.

“The greatest disparities were found with anxiety and depression between these two groups,” the study findings said. In the groups with lower financial stress, 19 per cent reported depression and anxiety, but amongst the more financially stressed respondents, 55 per cent were depressed and 68 per cent had anxiety.

When the survey responses were further broken down, into the very highest and lowest levels of financial stress, people under extreme financial stress were five times more likely to have memory loss issues, more than three times as likely to report depression, and nearly twice as likely to have anxiety.

They were also twice as likely to have gastrointestinal problems.

Debt is a major cause of financial stress and the search for an answer has become a popular google search term in its own right, with variations of ‘how do I relieve my financial stress?’ common.

If you’ve tried all the usual advice and methods, it might be time to investigate a new approach, or at least, new tools to supplement what you are already doing.

In the final part of our series on the real cost of gift-giving, we look at how mindfulness can help reign in over-spending and the financial stress that often comes from increasing your debt burden at this time of year.

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