Giving gifts during the holidays is a wonderful tradition that can help unite families and friends. When we give in the right spirit, we remember that giving can be even more joyous than receiving. With all this love and generosity in the air, why do we often feel so much stress and financial strain this time of year?
Could it be that we focus a little too much on trying to fulfill everyone’s expectations – or at least our perception of their expectations – rather than truly giving from our hearts? Of course, we all want to find the perfect gifts for our loved ones because we want to maximize their happiness and minimize their disappointment. It’s nice to have some idea of what people would like, but where’s the fun in simply picking from a list of never-ending “pre-ordered” items, especially when you know there’s no way you could buy even half of what’s on the list and still call yourself a prudent parent or grandparent!
Be a Detective
Giving meaningful gifts doesn’t have to cost a fortune, and can be a lot more fun if you think of yourself more as a detective than an order taker. If we pay enough attention over time, we can easily discover on our own what would be the perfect gifts for our loved ones without even asking them.
Then they will be a lot more surprised (and hopefully more delighted) at what they get, and we might even get away with not spending so much money on junk they don’t need, and probably won’t even want after the holidays. Just be sure not to use this concept as an excuse to beef up the present pool with items they need but are sure to be disappointed by, like new underwear or socks (unless it’s Darth Vader underwear or Storm Trooper socks).
An Unexpectedly Meaningful Gift
You might be surprised to hear about one of the most memorable gifts I have ever received. When I was in college, my younger brother gave me an electric nose hair trimmer for my birthday. Did I ask for this gift? No way – I didn’t even know such a device existed! Did I need this gift? Absolutely, but until that moment I never noticed that my nose hairs were well out of bounds, and I have faithfully used that same device ever since.
I’m not suggesting that a nose hair trimmer would be the perfect gift for everyone. My point is that the best gifts often require a little observation, creativity, and perhaps even a little bravado. I probably never would have bought one for myself, but my brother changed my life forever through that simple yet thoughtful gift. Who knows, without it my wife might never have married me, I wouldn’t be surrounded by four beautiful children today, and everyone around me would still be thinking, “What’s wrong with that guy? Will someone please get him a nose hair trimmer?”
The Joy of Giving a Surprise Gift
One of my favorite memories of giving a gift also occurred during my college days. At the time my parents were very poor. They were trying to eat extra healthy, so my mother was spending a lot of time chopping vegetables for salads and soups, which was very painful because of some problems with her arms and hands.
That Christmas morning I surprised her with a big wrapped box. She loves trying to guess what’s inside before opening her presents, but after several minutes of hefting and gently shaking the box, she couldn’t imagine what it could possibly be. When she opened it, she screamed and tears instantly streamed down her face, which of course opened up the water works on my face, too.
It was a food processor, which would allow her to make salads and soups much more quickly, efficiently, and most importantly, without so much pain. It didn’t cost a ton, but certainly more than she could afford to buy herself at the time.
I think the reason this experience was so memorable for me is that I felt the true joy of giving more powerfully than I ever had up to that point. It was really fun to think of what would be a meaningful gift for one of the most important people in my life, without asking her what she wanted. If I had just given her a gift card for the same amount of money because I was afraid she might not like what I picked out for her, we would have missed that sacred moment together, and I would have no recollection of what I gave her that year.
Sometimes we get so caught up in worrying about whether someone will like what we give, or whether we’re giving as much as their friends will be receiving, that we miss out on the joy of giving and spend more than we really should. We could go bankrupt trying to buy everything on “the list” and still end up disappointing our loved ones. Focusing on what would be the most meaningful gifts, and giving out of love rather than out of obligation or fear of disappointment, are likely to improve the experience for both the giver and the receiver.
The Joy of Anonymous Giving
A portion of our giving efforts might do even more good and bring us even more joy if they are focused on others in the community with bigger needs than our own family and friends. I hold deep respect for people who give to those in need, especially during the holidays, because I know what it feels like to be the recipient of such generosity.
When I was growing up, we often didn’t know if we would receive any presents on Christmas morning because my parents couldn’t afford them. I can’t express the excitement and relief we felt when the doorbell would ring on Christmas Eve and we opened the door to find a big box of wrapped gifts with our names on them.
This happened several times during my childhood, but we never found out who did it. I hope these angels received even more joy for giving these presents than we did by receiving them. When I recently shared this story with my kids, my younger ones said, “Yeah, but didn’t you still get gifts from Santa?” Some questions are better left unanswered.
Whatever you choose to give this holiday season, and whatever you receive, I hope you find true joy in the process. Also, remember that the best gifts often don’t even cost a dime. The gift of your time, a listening ear, a thank-you note, or a warm smile in the right moment might improve someone’s life more than anything you could buy for them.
Adam Dawson, CFP® is a Principal at Capstone Capital and the author of Timeless Principles of Financial Security.
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