Should people exchange gifts at all at traditional gift giving holidays such as Birthdays or Christmas?: A deliberately controversial post

I know we just had a deliberately controversial post, but Mel’s comment got us thinking.  Specifically the parts where she writes:

I guess I don’t really see the point of gifts for adults. Either you have the money to buy yourself something when you want it (or the ability to save to get it), or you don’t but there is the expectation that someone else should spend their money on you for something you want.

Later she adds this about kids:

Our kids are saving all of their money for a big trip when they’re in high school, as Josh and I did when we were starting high school. I want them to have that experience of travel, so I feel okay purchasing toys and such now. Again, I rarely do it on their birthday. It’s more that they express that they want X, and if I think it’s a sound purchase, I get them X. In that way, they are never disappointed.

So that’s actually two potentially deliberately controversial statements there if we add them up.

First:  Should we give gifts to adults at all?

This one is a hard one.  Over the years the number of adults we exchange gifts with has gotten smaller.  We have stuff.  They have stuff.  We’ve moved, they’ve moved, we’ve met a lot of other people with whom we are at the same level of intimacy and we couldn’t possibly give gifts to all of them.  And so on.

DH and I don’t really exchange gifts, but #2 and her DH do.  This partly matches our different financial situations — DH and I share finances and #2 and her DH have more separate finances.  Except DH will often do something for me for Christmas and my birthday– like he’ll do some icky chore we’ve both been putting off, or he’ll buy me something I’ve been wanting out of his allowance (often sleepwear), or he’ll do something that makes me cry like turning my name into a poem to hang on the wall.  I suck at reciprocating.  We also bake cakes for each other on our birthdays.  And it is true that we could do these things at any point during the year, but it really does take one of these standard gift deadlines to, for example, clean out the shower grout.

I would be perfectly fine stopping gift exchanging with DH’s family, though I would have to come up with some other way of delaying purchases given that they have pretty well learned just to buy things off my Amazon list (though DH’s brother always ends up getting me duplicates because he doesn’t buy them directly off my wishlist, and my SIL is especially good at picking things off my list that say “lowest” priority or, the one time nothing is labeled “lowest,” giving me a generic item that isn’t on the list and gets given directly to charity*).  I would also be fine stopping gift exchanging with my sister who refuses to use my amazon wishlist because it is too impersonal and then demands to know what I want instead.

#2 and I have exchanged gifts for many years.  There are three reasons for the gift exchange over the years.  1.  Back when we started we were both poor and I, at least, had a guilt thing about buying myself stuff I really wanted.  So near the end of the holiday season, we would both sweep in and buy books on each other’s wishlists that said “highest”– maxing at just enough to get free shipping.  2.  At other points one or the other of us will be making real money while the other is still in school/unemployed/on leave/etc.  In those cases, the rich one would sweep through the amazon list and the poor one would send thoughtfully curated used books (like Ex Libris or a biography of Dorothy L. Sayers).  3.  Imposing our preferences on the other person.  You will own this book because I say you will.  Mwahahaha.

I like giving gifts.  I like giving gifts that make people happy.  Mainly though, if I’m being honest, I like imposing my preferences on the people I love (or at least who I like).  Gift giving is a time that I can indulge in that whim in a socially appropriate way.  There’s also a small element of charity with some of our gift giving– holidays are a time that we can write a check to badly off family members and they can give us something nominal in exchange (like fudge).

Receiving gifts is a bit bittersweet.  I love getting stuff off my amazon list from #2 or from my family or DH’s parents.  I love getting thoughtful stuff from DH and the kids.  But… we’re doing a lot better off financially than DH’s siblings and I’d rather they kept their money, especially if we can’t give more than we receive in terms of dollar amount.  I just do not understand the large amount of gift-giving that their family does each year.

So I guess bottom-line here is that I don’t know.  Among people who know each other and can afford it, these special times work as a nice way to be nudged into thinking about doing some gift giving.  Some people prefer no gifts at all or prefer to give “whenever” gifts.  But “whenever” gifts can be uncomfortable if they’re extravagant because the reciprocity aspect can be confusing.  So who knows.  With adults, you do you and be gracious about others doing what they do.

#2 says, for me it’s really just fun to give and get gifts.  I have money to buy my own books, but it’s a nice treat when someone buys them for me.  I like finding a gift that fits the person I’m giving it to, something I think they’ll enjoy that they haven’t thought of.  I also find it sweet and wonderful when people donate to charity in my name, particularly charities I support such as kitty ones or child’s play.


Should we batch up children’s gifts for standard gift-giving holidays (birthdays etc.) or should we give them throughout the year when requested by the child?

This probably depends on the family, but I like batching up the gifts so they’re only given at Christmas, birthdays, and to a small extent Easter.  (Though my MIL does send small presents somewhat randomly throughout the year.)   In the same way that my amazon wishlist keeps me from spending throughout the year, the hope is that getting presents later at specified times will teach them patience and give them the ability to delay their wants when they are older as well.  Anything that they want sooner, they will need to use their allowances on, possibly saving up to buy.

I realize this is an empirical question and I have read precisely zero research on the topic, so who knows.

So there, that’s our second deliberately controversial post about gifts.

*Every year I fight the suspicion that my SIL doesn’t like me and convince myself that it’s just that we have really different tastes.  Every year it is a fight.

What do you think?  Should we get rid of adult gift giving entirely?  Should children get gifts throughout the year or only at specified times?

Secret Santas and White Elephant Games Aren’t Frugal: A deliberately controversial post

One of the common suggestions for how to get holiday expenditures down is to suggest a Secret Santa or White Elephant exchange at the office or family gathering.

For those who aren’t in the know, the Secret Santa is where you put everybody’s name in a hat, and then each person pulls out a name.  You are only shopping for one person.

The White Elephant is a gift exchange in which you bring in one gift, usually something humorous that nobody would want, wrapped in a package.  Then a game is generally played in which each person picks a package from the pile or exchanges a package with someone who has already picked a package.  (This is involves a lot of crying/screaming when it’s played at children’s parties.)

Jimmy Fallon mentions the problems with Secret Santa in this clip.  Even when there’s a spending limit, these never seem to work out well.  If you don’t know the person, you’re likely giving them something they don’t want.   Chances are pretty good that in any pairing, either someone who doesn’t know you will get you or you will get someone you don’t know.  So you’ll end up with junk you don’t want or you’ll give someone junk they don’t want.

The White Elephant is even worse– you have to buy something that is actually already junk and bring it in.  Sometimes the rules state you bring something from  home that you already own but don’t want, but if you own it and don’t want it, then why do you still have it?  On top of that, sometimes the junk is truly junk, and sometimes the junk is actually something nice.  More often though, some number of people bring actual gag gifts that get a laugh and then take up space, and some people bring things that are pretty nice, making others (who didn’t get the nice gift) feel jealous or (who followed the rules) uncomfortable.  In the end, most people end up buying crap nobody would want and taking home crap they don’t want.  It’s a very American sort of game.

I seriously dislike both these games and would rather not participate.  I don’t see the point in anonymous reciprocal gifts.  I don’t like being forced to give things to people who I don’t know very well who don’t need stuff.  I’d rather keep my money and buy my own junk (or not buy it, as the case may be).

What suggestions do we have?  We suggest that offices not have these kinds of games, and that if they do choose to have them that they be voluntary and neither explicitly nor socially mandatory.  As for families, we really think it’s better that if someone is worried about money that adults not exchange presents at all rather than having one of these silly exchanges.  But that’s just us.  We still exchange presents with everybody.  Maybe the joy some families get from having different senses of humor than we have outweighs the annoyance of crap being exchanged.  Maybe it’s worth it to some families.

But it still isn’t frugal.  At least, not as frugal as not participating would be.  Still, if this is the only option for not having a full gift exchange, it’s better than nothing.

What are your thoughts on these kinds of gift exchanges?  Do you participate?  Have you participated?  What’s your philosophy on anonymous gift exchanges?

On budget constraints, endogeity, and interconnectedness: A deliberately controversial post

I was reading another mommy blog off a blog roll and came across an article talking about another article.  The original article made the argument, Fly-lady like, that if your life is a mess, then your bathroom floor is a mess, and to make your life less of a mess, you need to clean your bathroom floor because this is all interconnected.  Sort of a broken windows hypothesis for your life.

How do you know your life is a mess, asks the article?  The proof is whether or not the area behind your child’s car seat is sparkly clean.  Ignoring for the moment that that test says that all but the most OCD or wealthy enough to afford servants have lives that are messes, there are several logical and mechanical reasons that making a causal link from cleaning your house to cleaning your life doesn’t make sense.

Let’s start with the mechanical arguments.  As Laura Vanderkam is fond of noting, there are 168 hours in a week.  Every hour you spend cleaning behind the car seat is an hour you don’t spend organizing your paid work, your meals, your finances, your exercise routine, or anything else that people find worth organizing that makes them happier.  I’m guessing that area behind the car seat that is just going to get messy again ranks pretty low on most people’s priority list.  (Unless, of course an apple core got wedged there, then clean away!  But the example in the article didn’t include potential for rot or bad smells.)

Adding to the time-based mechanical arguments is research on willpower.  If cleaning is unpleasant, it takes willpower to do.  We have limited reserves of willpower that are replenished with sleep, rest, and food.  Willpower used on cleaning behind the car seat is willpower not used at work.  Or it is willpower to be replenished with sugar leading to unhealthiness.

Finally, even if there is a correlation between having a clean bathroom and feeling together with the rest of your life, that doesn’t mean that the clean bathroom *causes* you to have (or to feel like you have) the rest of your life together. There could be endogeneity.

Endogeneity comes in two flavors.

The first is reverse causality.  Here, feeling together would be the cause of the clean bathroom, not vice versa.  Maybe you have free time from being organized and good at delegating so you can clean the bathroom.  Maybe you’re so awesome at work and confident in yourself that you can easily hire a housecleaner.

The second source of endogeneity is omitted variables bias.  That means there is something else that causes both your bathroom to be clean and you feeling like you have your life together.  An omitted variable could be something like, being Martha Stewart.  Or having a really low sleep need and high reserves of will-power.  If you only need a few hours of sleep per night you have more time to do everything and to have a clean bathroom.  Or maybe having a partner who is supportive and enjoys cleaning– that could lead to both clean bathroom and the rest of life working.  (Just like having a partner who acts like an additional toddler rather than a caring and sharing adult can lead to messy bathrooms and unhappiness in other areas.)


Do you think that if you want to be perfect at one thing, you have to be perfect at everything?

Should you battle feelings of inferiority by putting other people down?: A deliberately controversial post

Here’s our premise:

We don’t think people should feel inferior to other people.

Using feelings of inferiority to attack other people is not cool (even if they never know they’re being attacked).

There’s no point in negatively comparing yourself to other people because (with only a few arguable exceptions) someone will always be better on any dimension or set of dimensions.  Instead, focus on what you like, who you want to be, and how you can get there from here.

On personal finance sites, people will often say things like, “The Joneses may have that amazing house, but they probably have lots of credit card debt.  They probably have no retirement savings.”

But you know, some of the Joneses value housing or cars or what have you and although they are on track savings-wise, they’ve chosen to spend their money on the things you can see rather than other things you can’t.

And what’s really mind-breaking is that some of the Joneses got lucky and have high incomes.  Some of them made good choices when they were younger and are reaping the rewards of that now.  Some of them just have more money than you do.

And that’s ok.  (At some level we might want to argue about higher marginal tax rates and less corporate welfare, but for your average Neighborly Jones that’s probably not a first order concern.)

Yes, it might make you feel better to tell yourself that they have debt and you don’t.  Or they are stealing from their wealthy parents.  You can look down on them and lose all neighborly feeling.  And forget about learning anything from them.

And what happens if you find out that’s not true?  That they really are on track financially.  Do you go back to feeling inadequate and inferior?

The same kind of thing happens on mommy blogs.  The value-set is different than on pf blogs, of course.  Instead of houses and cars and retirement accounts, things like craftiness and cleanliness and “doing it all” (whatever that means) are the comparison sets.  But they say the same thing, well, this person with this pinterest page seems perfect, but there’s some area of her life that’s imperfect that she’s not showing me because she has to keep up her perfect persona.  (And the blogger saying this always posts the obligatory, “see my house gets messy so I’m not perfect” pic.  No offense to any blogger who has done this, but your house isn’t really messy.  Really messy is what you get when you don’t actually care if the house is clean.  And you shouldn’t have to pretend it is messy in order for people to like you.  You really shouldn’t.)

[Ah, you say, telling yourself that someone else has unadvertised weaknesses doesn’t hurt anyone… she’ll never know.  But the thing is, everyone else reading your comment gets the message that it’s not ok to succeed in all areas.  That we have to find and advertise weakness even where none exists in order to make people feel better.  It’s a way that patriarchy keeps strong women from achieving.  We’re always damned.]

We’ve posted on this topic before.   And I noted that I have work-friends who I admire who do everything I care about better than I do.  They’re amazing.  I could lie to myself and say their relationships aren’t as good or their kids aren’t as cute, but their relationships are good and their kids are cute (I do prefer mine of course, but that’s because I’m me and they’re my kids).  Heck, at least one of them is a great cook to boot.  For all I know they’re good at crafts too (who knows?  Not something we discuss at conferences.).  But I don’t have to lie to myself that they have hidden weaknesses.  Their amazingness about things I care about doesn’t diminish mine.  It just gives me something to shoot for (and means I have good taste in friends, and must not be completely obnoxious if they’re willing to hang out with me).

Finding our worth through comparisons of other people is never a winning proposition.  We are all amazing and growing in ways that are unaffected by other people’s accomplishments.  We all have our own preference sets that define what we care about.  We all have our own constraints that we’re working against.  We’re all different people with different starting points, different advantages, different preferences.  That’s a good thing!  There’s always going to be someone better at what we do, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be happy and proud of what we’ve accomplished or enjoy what we like.  Focusing on our internal locus of control is a much better way to lose those feelings of inferiority than trying to tell negative lies to ourselves about external things we can’t control.

The patriarchy wants us to feel inferior. We don’t have to listen to it. The first step is knowing that it’s ok not to. We don’t have to be worse than other people in whatever way just so they’ll like us.

Or maybe we do have to pretend to be worse than some people in order for them to like us… but maybe those people aren’t worth being liked by. Because who needs friends who want to tear us down instead of build us up?

So no, we don’t think that people should use feeling inferior as a reason to claim other people have weaknesses. That’s really only a band-aid solution to feeling self-confident anyway. It’s much better to stop doing the comparison to begin with, because there’s always going to be someone “better” at whatever it is you’re comparing yourself on.

Ok, Grumplings!  Do your worst (or best… whichever!). 

Losing touch with friends: Drama or No biggie: A deliberately controversial post

Occasionally we’ll see a blog post or forum post in which the woman (and it’s always a woman) complains that her friends have lost touch with her and that means they’re horrible selfish people.

All of our really good friendships are ones in which people go in and out with no harm no foul. People get busy, lose touch, and when we reunite it’s like we never left off, even if it’s been 10 years.

We assume the best of everybody we (temporarily) lose touch with and assume they’re assuming the same for us.  It’s just easier that way. If that’s not what’s happening, then no big loss. The only people in our lives who get to act offended and have us take that seriously if we unintentionally ignore them are our significant others, and for #1, my kids (in theory also my mom or my sister, but they’re pretty chill so I can’t imagine that ever happening). I should not be important enough to anybody else’s well-being for me being busy to cause them to take personal offense. It’s not like this is middle school or like we’re living lives of socialites with nothing better to do but create drama.

But I do know from reading the internet that there are people who take strong offense to other people losing touch with them (or not calling, or failing to answer a text right away etc. etc. etc.). Those people are far too dramatic (or, more positively, not laid back enough) to be my friends.  Which is probably best for everybody involved.

What do you think?  Should people take offense if their friends lose touch with them?  Do you?

Can’t vs. Won’t: A deliberately controversial post

One of Laura Vanderkam’s hobby horses is this idea that you should never say you “can’t” do something, just that you don’t want to make those trade-offs.

Of course, usually people are using “can’t” as a short-hand for “could but I’d have to do all these other things I either don’t want to do or I don’t want to tell you about possibly because it’s none of your business.”

The basic idea makes some sense, the idea being that it gives you agency.  It isn’t that you can’t quit your job, you just don’t want to give up the income from your job and downsize your home etc.  From one perspective you can’t, because you can’t without giving up things you don’t want to give up, but from another perspective you’re not really trapped.  Maybe “won’t” instead of “can’t” will help you think about alternative things that will get you want you want.  In my world view you’ve already thought these things through, but I’m not a self-help guru… I assume people are already at their optimum unless they’ve told me otherwise.  Any changes I force on people are going to knock them off their optimum path.  (Though in some cases society may prosper with the change because of externalities, spillovers, and so on.)

But is agency always a good thing?

There’s a couple of books that summarize literature than includes research on the benefits of limiting choices.  Framing something as “can’t” rather than “won’t” means you don’t have to think about re-optimizing every time you’re faced with a choice.  For example, when I had borderline gestational diabetes, I said that I couldn’t have sugars or refined calories.  Now, of course, I *could* (heck someone with celiac can have wheat so long as ze is willing to face the extremely dire consequences), but I didn’t want to hurt the baby, have a c-section (because of my irrational fear of anesthesiologists among other more rational reasons), or whatever.  If I’d said, “I choose not to” (but could make another choice) or “I won’t” (but am susceptible to cajoling) that would have made it much more difficult to resist the temptation I was resisting every time I was offered something that would spike my insulin.  Now that the only negative consequence to eating refined carbs is me getting fat (and some longer-term unproven potential health consequences), it is much more difficult to mentally frame the choice as “truly can’t.”  So I eat more refined carbs, even though I know I probably shouldn’t and in time t-1 would choose to not be offered the potato chips in time t if I could.  Allowing the choice makes it much harder for me to say no when the opportunity presents itself.  Many other reasons how and why arbitrarily limiting choices can help willpower and happiness can be found in the book Willpower by Baumeister and Tierney.

The Paradox of Choice is another great book that talks about the benefits of limiting choice (or rather, the problems with not limiting it). We’re often happier when we’ve made an irrevocable decision and don’t have to think about it anymore, and what is “can’t” other than a signal that we’ve made the decision not to and we’re sticking to it.

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of sociology literature on how people react to “decisions” other people have made.  It turns out that people have much more sympathy towards people when they don’t think a choice has been made and a lot more blame when they think the person made an active choice.  For example, is homosexuality a choice?  Under LV’s definition it is– if only the homosexual person had a different utility function or budget constraint, he or she would be heterosexual!  When experimental participants are primed to think that homosexuality is a choice, they are more likely to think badly of homosexuals and homosexual causes (e.g. gay marriage) than when they are primed to think it is not a choice.  An enormous literature covers this finding across many different areas from obesity to welfare receipt.  Saying can’t instead of won’t is a way that we attempt to protect ourselves from the judgment of others.  So much the better if we can’t because our circumstances are different.  Changing to “won’t” in common parlance may hurt our interactions with other people.

On top of all that (or perhaps negating all that!), the idea that language changes culture is called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and you can read up on how it has been well and thoroughly discredited.  Everybody knows that “can’t” only actually means “absolutely can’t” in certain situations (“I can’t have children [because I am infertile]”) and has the addendum “given reasons I’d rather not go into detail about or are obvious” in most situations (“I can’t have breakable china until my kids are older”).  Most people are pretty good at context and know when they’re using the short-hand “can’t” rather than the absolute “can’t”.  Because the word “can’t” already encompasses a vast spectrum of meanings, only in rare cases could using won’t or don’t instead of can’t actually affect anything, in theory.

And in practice, it’s far more likely that even those rare cases are really reverse causality– a person has a defeatist attitude or just hasn’t thought of all the possibilities and unhappily says “can’t” because of that, not the other way around.  In those cases, the response should not be to use different language, but to think of why the person thinks it’s impossible.  The attack should be on the thinking, not on the words.  That’s not to say that positive restructuring from cognitive behavioral therapy doesn’t work– it does and there’s a large literature on it working.  In situations for which CBT is recommended, anxiety, depression, etc. then changing “can’t” to “won’t” or even “will” may be appropriate and effective, but that also comes with the introspection of what changes can be made.  It isn’t solely the change in wording, but a complete change in mental framing.

Obviously, not having pretty china is not a cause of anxiety or depression for most people.  When someone says they can’t have breakable china because they have small children, it’s pretty ridiculous to suggest that they reframe that, unless the person is really really unhappy about not having breakable china.  And if they are really unhappy about Corelle, they probably actually already do have breakable china or carpeting in the kitchen or what have you.  Because what problem is reframing “can’t have breakable china” as “choose not to have breakable (even though I want it)” solving?  Oh gee, now I have the agency to make different choices about my china than the choices I’ve already made, even though I already knew I was making those choices when I used the short-hand “can’t” rather than “won’t.”

Update:  There were many interesting and thought-provoking comments on LV’s post expanding on her complaints about wording choice but my favorite has to be this one from The Frugal Girl:

I think sometimes these discussions can be like when someone points out to you that a tomato isn’t a vegetable.
Ok, this is technically true, but no one’s going to put it into a fruit salad anyway, so what is the point?

So, bottom-line.  It’s ok to say you can’t do something even if what you mean is you’ve “chosen not to given your utility functions and your budget constraint”.  Only in cases in which you are really unhappy about the choices you’ve made or feel that you’ve been forced into should you go back and think more about how you can change them.  And don’t go lecturing people about their choice to use “can’t” instead of “won’t” unless changing that language is actually going to make them happier.  I can assure you that I derive no additional happiness from being told that I could have pretty breakable china if I just wanted it enough.  And the title, “Things I want but can’t have until my children are older” is much more fun than, “Things I may get if I still want them in the future when my children are older,” even if the latter is framed positively.   Seriously, this blog is called GRUMPY RUMBLINGS.  We have to rumble grumpily sometimes or we lose street cred.+

+Ignore the fact that from a cognitive restructuring standpoint, both phrases are actually positively framed indicating that I can have these things later even if I can’t have them now.  (Willpower also talks about the positive effect of noting you can have stuff later.)  We still rumble with the grumps.

Ok Grumpeteers!  Go!

Are PhDs entitled to tenured jobs? A deliberately controversial post.

We have argued before that academia is just a job.

We have marveled at how willingness to do math opens up a world of opportunities.  (Though not necessarily with a math PhD… but if you’re willing to do the same math as say, an engineer, you’re in better shape.  And hey, you can always take actuarial exams or maybe work for the NSA with that math degree.)

So… does the fact that you’ve suffered for 5-7 (or more!) years in a PhD program and gotten your hood and your diploma mean that you are entitled a tenure-track job?  What about your debt?  Your lost opportunity costs?  Are you entitled to compensation for that?

The fact is, there’s an excess supply of PhDs compared to the demand for tenure-track professors in most fields.  In fields where industry can absorb those extra PhDs at salaries higher than their t-t counterparts, that’s not so bad.  You can cry about your industry job all the way to the bank, so to speak.  In fields where the PhD doesn’t provide many additional earnings opportunities, that leads to a lot of unemployed and underemployed people with doctorates.  We end up with a lot of people being exploited as adjuncts in the hope that if they put their time in they can get one of those elusive tenure-track jobs.  People are willing through their actions to accept very little pay and bad working conditions simply because they hope it will lead to better employment later, and there’s enough of these people that it drives the cost of adjuncts down.

Sometimes you work hard and you take risks and those risks don’t pan out.  It would be nice if there were exactly the number of jobs available for the people qualified for them who wanted them and they matched up perfectly and paid well.   But not only are there differing demands for different skill sets, but some sets at the same skill level seem to be more likable than others.  People like studying the humanities.  There’s not enough demand for PhD level humanities skills to ensure all humanities PhDs a living wage using those skills.

So… are PhDs entitled to tenured jobs?  Is anyone entitled to anything besides life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?


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