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♥ & $: Get Gift Giving Right

The last time my husband surprised me with a gift was Christmas 2008.

I had mentioned how much I loved the leather jacket a girlfriend was wearing and he got it in his head to buy me one just like it. He spent days searching stores, combed the Internet, and even called my friend to find out where she bought hers. On the morning of, after the children had torn through their packages, my husband handed me a large box with reindeer wrapping. He watched expectantly as I opened it. I still remember the look of dismay on his face when he realized I hated it.

Poor husband.

And, it wasn’t the first time he had lovingly tried to find the perfect present for me. Over the years he has given me all kinds of thoughtful, well-meaning gifts, all of which I have eventually returned. A designer purse, a gold cuff bracelet, dresses, necklaces … I even returned the diamond ring he gave me for our fifteenth anniversary (it was gaudy and far too expensive).

I know I sound ungrateful and spoiled. But the truth is, I don’t care about gifts — at least not the kind you buy. This makes me a bit of a Scrooge around the holidays, but I know I am not alone. Here are some of the reasons people hate giving (and getting gifts):

  • They are a waste of money;
  • They are filled with expectations and the potential for disappointment;
  • They reflect a materialistic society;
  • They are not good for the environment;
  • They don’t tell someone you love them.

Let me repeat that … they don’t tell someone you love them.

In truth, gifts can be a poor substitute for the depth of our feelings and that is the real reason so many hate to give and to get gifts. A 2006 study of nearly 500 college students by Professor Sunwolf at Santa Clara University explained the shadowy side of gift giving.

 “Any gift may match or diverge from a receiver’s relational goals (whether the relationship is one of business, family, friendship, or romance). At the same time, each receiver has life experiences both receiving and giving gifts, (some of which may have been with this particular giver); prior experiences will presumably have included both successful and failed gifts. As a result, a gift receiver interprets a gift through a cloud of conscious (or unconscious) gift comparisons, hopes, standards, and values.”

Giving and getting gifts is deeply weighted in so much more than what might be on the surface. It is for this reason that the holidays can be such a time of tension between couples. Often, like my husband, we struggle to find just the right gift only to discover it is way off the mark. The problem is not the good intention, the problem is in not understanding what makes our beloved feel most loved.

I learned all of this and more when I read Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages. In short, the author argues we each experience love in our own unique way, but those ways can be distilled into five expressions or “languages”:

  • Physical touch: I feel most loved when we hold hands, kiss, and make love.
  • Words of affirmation: I feel most loved when you tell me what makes me special to you.
  • Quality time: I feel most loved when we spend time together.
  • Acts of service: I feel most loved when you do special things for me.
  • Gifts: I feel most loved when you surprise me with gifts.

No one is exclusively one language; we are all a miniature United Nations. However, one or two dominant languages surface to enable us to experience love. These are also the ways we tend to show our love. However, in our consumerist world, we have been trained to think gifts are the truest form of showing our love. For some people getting gifts does just that. But for many of us, gifts leave us cold.

Once my husband and I figured out our individual love languages, showing our feelings has become so much easier. My husband is an acts of service guy. He loves it when I go out of my way to do something just for him. If I take his ice hockey skates to get sharpened or buy cards for him to send to his mother for her birthday he thinks I am the best wife ever (yeah, he is easy to please). Me? I am a physical touch/quality time gal. I love it when my husband reaches over to steal a kiss and date night is my favorite night of the week.

The good news is gift giving has gotten so much easier. For our recent anniversary, he didn’t give me an expensive piece of jewelry. Instead, he gave me the perfect gift; a trip to Italy, together.

As we head into the biggest buying season of the year, think about what would truly make your beloved feel special. It might not be that diamond earring set. Perhaps, she’d rather open a little red box with two plane tickets or a booklet filled with coupons for acts of service. His heart might soar reading a love letter detailing what makes him special  or perhaps he’d like to open a box with a negligee and a note promising a long night of physical touch. It doesn’t take much to get creative once you can speak their language and it can save you time, money and effort.  Most importantly, it can save you from that feeling of disappointment, sadness and even anger when the gift you give is not received in the way you intended.

Published or updated on December 5, 2012

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About Lisen Stromberg

Lisen wishes she had money under 30, but she didn't. She had credit card debt, a husband with nearly $200k in school loans, and a job that barely covered the rent. Today at 50, she's made some, lost some, and learned a lot along the way. She had a successful business career, started and ran a non-profit, opted out and then opted back in. Now, she's an award-winning writer who focuses on issues important to women, men, and families. Read her personal blog, follow her @LisenStromberg or become her friend. Email her at lisen (at) prismwork. com with your ♥ & $ questions and concerns.


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  1. Shawn L. says:

    Great post. I’ve felt myself moving away from the “material gifts” and moving towards sentimental or personal gifts (e.g. a planned night in the city or a night of making dinner together). I think, personally, it was a goal I’m trying to reach in my personal life that made me realize I appreciate the memories of a night spent together more than an electronic item that i’ll use for a year or two which will then become obsolete. Or remembering how much we laughed at the movie we saw more than ill remember the video game I no longer play or traded in for another one down the road. It’s almost like a “return on investment” view of the gift. Gifts that last forever add much more value to a relationship than gifts that end up breaking or being thrown away/donated because they no longer fit. If we’re going to spend the money, I’d rather have it last forever.

  2. I have a post on exactly this topic kicking around in my head right now – I’ll link back to yours when I write it! Mine will probably be more of a rant, though. My husband refuses to tell me what his love language is (I think this is some sort of relationship test…?) but mine is quality time and gifts are a 0. So we don’t give each other material gifts but spend money on experiences together.

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