Budgeting | Personal Finance | Article

Let’s Stop Secret Santas Already

by YuanDuan | 20 Dec 2018 | 5 mins read

After receiving five bottles of cologne, five Christmases in a row, I began to think, perhaps I should improve on my hygiene. I also realised that I receive the worst gifts from my distant relatives. Generally, people who do not know me well.

People close to me, emotionally and physically, know I never use perfume.

I still remember the pain of the gift-receiving process, from my aunt urging me to ‘open now lah!’ to the performance I have to give upon unwrapping the present – a smile that never quite reaches the eyes.

“Wow. Thanks.”

Then, after an appropriate amount of time passes – usually a year or so – just enough to ease the feelings of guilt, I toss the bottles in the trash, mostly unused.

But ’tis the season we are put in the exact same position as our distant relatives. Where we all get to be a secret Santa, and are forced to buy a gift for someone we are not close to, such as a colleague whom the only interaction we have with is a daily smile and nod along the corridor.

As the 25th approaches, panic sets in. What the hell do I get this person? We fall back to the safest, most generic and impersonal choices – a towel, hand cream… or cologne.

Christmas – The last thing propping up the photo frame industry

But it’s the thought that counts! You say.

I conducted a straw poll among my colleagues: what were the best secret Santa gifts they had ever received or gave? Many couldn’t recall any gifts, gifted or received. None at all.

So does the thought still count, when said thoughts don’t seem to matter enough to last? Hmmm.

A study conducted in Europe on Christmas gifting reflects this. It found that 10% of people forgot what they were gifted at Christmas. The same study also looked at what recipients did with gifts they received.

Fate of Gifts
25% regifted
14% sold
10% attempted return to store
5% returned to the sender (ouch)

Total: A gift failure rate of 54%!

15% of the participants actually felt unhappy after receiving their gifts. Unhappy! Which is the antithesis of gift giving. People actually felt less joyful after receiving them.

Deadweight Gifts

Why is gift giving so hard? The reason is backed by science, and that is, we do not really value gifts.

The famous study by economist Joel Waldfogel found that the perceived value of an object drops once it is presented as a gift. This drop is called a ‘deadweight loss’, in which we subconsciously subtract 10 to 30% of the value of a received present.

The bottles of cologne that I got? Each could have cost $50, but I theoretically perceived their value to be $35. Well, probably less, since I binned them.

You are just a horrible statistic spouting Scrooge that just wants to end a wonderful Christmas tradition of giving!

Well, yes. That said, I have received gifts that I cherish. On my 18th birthday, I received a leather wallet from my siblings to replace a tattered one.

“You are an adult now, you need a wallet fit for a man,” said my brother.

I remember the gift because what he said was out of the ordinary. We do not have that kind of relationship, you see. Although the moment was awkward, it remains a cherished memory because of the emotions associated with the gift. Furthermore, I actually needed a wallet.

So, I love gifts. Just not bad gifts.

But how many people, past our very immediate friends and family, know our daily habits or possessions well enough to make a call on what makes a good present?

Hence, office secret Santas are doomed to fail. Whenever I am forced to play the role of a covert bearded fat man in the office, invariably, I will always go, “What the hell should I get this person?!” I immediately know I am going to fail to gift anything meaningful.

I then default to committing a Christmas sin.

I gift cold hard cash, vouchers or gift cards. What’s wrong with good ol’ money, right? Heck, If I could, I would just Whatsapp them directly and ask what they want.

But of course, once we gather in the pantry to exchange our gifts, I know I get low-key judged for being ‘insincere’.

But hey, beneath the slight scowl on my recipient’s face, I know deep within their heart, they are thinking, “Well, at least I can use this to get something I really want.” And yet, despite the best of my intentions, I have been labelled, rather disparagingly, the “voucher king”.

So instead of inflicting people with a random gift they feel guilty about throwing out, let’s subsidize our secret Santa giftees with cash, vouchers and gift cards – effectively giving them a discount on purchasing what they might actually want, instead of meaningless stuff. In doing so, we may actually help alleviate their financial burden and isn’t that the greatest gift of all?