Do You Still Need a Last-minute Holiday Gift?

Larry Cornett, Ph.D.

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If you've waited until the last minute for a few of those holiday gifts, there's no need for despair. It may help to think differently about how to give to your loved ones this holiday season.

I've been watching people endlessly complaining about trying to buy a PS5 for the past few weeks. Of all of the things to worry about right now, buying the latest electronic toy probably doesn't rank high enough to take to social media and vent about it.

Sure, it looks like fun, and I was briefly tempted to get one for my family. But, I decided not to join the consumerism rush for them this year.

It's not like I don't love gaming, either. I started playing video games at the youngest age possible — for me. That meant being lured towards the very first Pong machine I saw in a bowling alley.

I still remember thinking, "What kind of sorcery is this?"

I rapidly became addicted and spent most of my teen years scraping together quarters to play any and every game I could find. It slowed down in college for many reasons. Studying, work, girlfriends, and the fact that games started costing $1–2 per play.

Fast forward to the holidays when my children were young, and I bought them a Nintendo GameCube one Christmas. It was for them. Right… I may have purchased extra controllers so that I could teach them how to play.

We’ve had a variety of upgrades over the years. But, the Wii U and PS4 are feeling a bit long in the tooth. Such is the nature of electronic stuff. It becomes outdated the moment you open the box.

Last week, we were doing some late holiday shopping, and the Christmas ads were in full force. Of course, a PS5 caught my eye.

I paused and caught myself starting to justify the purchase for the holidays. But then a little voice in the back of my head asked, “What are you doing? Do you really want to encourage this? Why do they need this?

I moved the cursor off the ad and clicked away from the temptation. It’s already been a long journey to step off the consumerism escalator. But, if you stay in this culture, the addiction is always a credit card swipe away. I still feel the urge to buy, thanks to decades of messaging, peer pressure, and positive reinforcement.

"Buy more stuff and you’ll be happier!"

It lurks in new places

Over the past few years, I’ve become aware that most material possessions are a trap. They don’t provide the joy you expect. Instead, they often bring stress, regret, and unhappiness.

When people ask me what I want as a gift for birthdays and holidays, I’m usually at a loss. I don’t really need anything.

I don’t even want anything. It’s why I usually end up with consumables (e.g., coffee, chocolate, nuts) or experiences (e.g., spending the day together as a family on the beach or hiking).

I didn’t realize the urge to buy something would crop up again with gifts for others. Part of the problem is that it is easier. The material goods are in your face everywhere. The other part of the problem is that I want to give my children things that I didn’t have as a child. I don’t want them to go without.

I’m still working to recognize that I’m simply passing the same stress and unhappiness on to them with a material purchase. Those things become less valuable over time. They break. They get lost. They get stolen.

I’m slowly learning to give gifts that have more meaning. It’s a lot more work to do this. It isn’t a simple toss in the shopping cart and swipe of the card.

You have to know what they value and really need. You have to know who they really are and who they want to become. You have to recognize the long-term value and think of the return on the investment (ROI).

I bet that thinking about gifts this way sounds weird to many of you. I didn’t think of it this way for most of my life either. It even seems a little weird writing about gift-giving this way.

But, what better expression of love is there than buying someone a gift that you know they will remember fondly forever? What’s more loving than showing someone you believe in them, and you’re investing in their future success, happiness, and fulfillment?

The gift of experiences

I’m probably not telling you something new with this. The research is clear: we are happier with experiences than with things.

The gift of an experience can be the obvious ones that come to mind, such as skydiving, hot air ballooning, driving a race car, and wine tasting tours. But, they can also be gifting someone back their time to spend a day doing whatever they want, knowing that something on their “to do” list is being handled (e.g., running errands).

Research has revealed that people who spent money to buy back their free time experienced greater life satisfaction. In fact, folks who tend to value time more than money generally have a better overall sense of well being. So, the gift of an experience that returns time may be just what your loved one needs more than anything else.

What is it about experiences that make them better than material possessions? The psychologist in me can’t help but think about loss aversion, the sunk cost fallacy, and how long-term memory and emotion are intertwined.

Loss aversion

Someone can’t steal your memories. Ok, maybe they can in science fiction movies, but not in real life. However, that lovely laptop can be stolen from your dorm room. You can drop your smartphone and shatter the screen. The higher the cost of the material possession, the greater your fear of damage or loss.

Now you need something to lock it away. You need security systems to protect it. You need the ongoing cost of insurance to shield you from a potential loss.

But, the memories in your head are safely your own. They are valuable treasures that you can reflect upon and enjoy for the rest of your life. If you want to give someone a gift that they will value for the rest of their life and never fear losing, give the gift of an experience.

One of our sons is a bit of a daredevil, and he’s always looking for new and exciting adventures. So, one holiday we decided to get him snowboarding lessons as his big gift. We dropped him off for his lessons in the morning and returned late in the day to pick him up. He was tired but glowing from spending the whole day on the mountain.

This was a gift that came with no risk of loss. The skills he acquired that day permanently became his own. He built upon them again and again, with each new snowboarding trip. The memories of the day didn’t have to be locked away from thieves.

Sunk costs

Material possessions need maintenance, they break down, and they sometimes require repair. Any average car owner can tell you about the stress of ownership.

I know that my own experiences were beyond stressful. Every new repair cost me thousands. The more you “invest” in repairs, the more you fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy.

This is especially true of gifts. You have the additional stress and guilt that won’t let you toss a gift in the trash if it fails you and needs repair. It now has sentimental value beyond the actual cost of the gift. Your grandfather gave it to you, he passed away years ago, and now you can’t bear to part with it.

Memories of an amazing experience don’t require maintenance and repair. Experiences don’t need storage space. You don’t need to pack them up, find room for them in your moving truck, or a place to showcase them in your new home.

Warm and fuzzy

Memory is unreliable. We tend to fill in the blanks. The sharp edges become softer with time. That’s one reason that a chaotic event with a happy ending becomes a funny story over the years.

My experiences during Army Basic Training were no laughing matter at the time. But, my old friends and I enjoy sharing stories about it over drinks now and laughing at what was once painful.

Some memories even become magical when positive experiences trigger happy feelings. We may forget all of the details, but we will remember how we felt. We’ve all experienced a sensory trigger that will unexpectedly put a smile on our faces. A whiff of nutmeg instantly transports me to a 40-year-old memory of my great grandmother’s warm kitchen on a cold December day.

This is yet another reason that experiences make better gifts than material possessions. They age well. They become better with every retelling. They evolve over the years. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s why nostalgia is so powerful.

The gift of growth

One of the best gifts you can give someone is an investment in his or her future. You change someone’s life trajectory when you help them acquire skills, knowledge, and a new perspective on the world. I’ve had customers gift my career services to a friend or loved one in my own experience.

What better gift can you give someone than helping them escape a job they hate and find work that fulfills them? But, of course, I am biased. 😉

Your gift of growth doesn’t always have to be so lofty and far-reaching. Most of us have hobbies and interests that have nothing to do with our professional lives.

I enjoy woodworking, roasting and brewing coffee, trail running, and weightlifting. I love to learn more about any of these and continuously perfect my skills. I’m sure your friends and loved ones feel the same about their favorite activities outside of work.

Books

Obviously, books can be read for enjoyment. Gifting someone a book or two for fun is a good thing. All work and no play makes anyone a dull person. Reading for pleasure has been linked to numerous health and social benefits as well.

But, we’ve all read books that changed us forever. We never saw the world in quite the same way ever again. Those lessons became part of how we go about our daily lives. The things we learned have stayed with us.

But, here is a key point to remember. Don’t gift someone a book because you want to use it to change his or her deeply-held conservative or liberal views on something. That’s not how you express love or friendship.

Knowing what your loved one reads will help. Knowing their favorite authors is an easy path to discovering more books by him or her. If you’re feeling guilty about buying a physical book that requires natural resources and takes up space in someone’s home, eBooks are a wonderful thing.

I still have overflowing bookshelves and stacks of books in my office, but my Kindle has become a game-changer. It’s hard to beat instant access to thousands of books from one slim device that can rest near your favorite reading chair.

Courses and coaching

It has become easier to acquire new knowledge and skills than ever before in human history. Thousands of courses are available on hundreds of topics with a simple click or tap. Some do cost money, but a surprising number of courses are even free. Gifting a course is typically an easy process (e.g., on Udemy).

Coaching is another gift that can help a loved one take their career, skills, hobby, or favorite recreational or fitness activity to a whole new level. There are so many options: horseback riding, fly fishing, writing, weightlifting, public speaking, tennis, and even more general life coaching. Your local community colleges are a great resource for finding classes and workshops on a variety of topics.

This does require knowing your recipient well:

  • What are their hopes and dreams for the future?
  • What skills do they want to acquire?
  • What knowledge would help them become more?

Study abroad

This gift is a blend of experiences, learning, and growth. I include this example because it is fresh in my mind.

My son recently returned from spending a semester in Ghana with an amazing hands-on education experience. During his adventure, we stayed connected with him and saw what he was experiencing through the photos and videos she shared. It was a life-altering gift.

This is a big one, and it obviously isn’t appropriate for everyone. But, if you have a loved one in school, it’s an opportunity to take their education to a whole new level.

I know that international travel and working in other countries changed me. It made me see the world in whole new ways. Travel does broaden the mind.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” — Mark Twain

A lifetime gift

I’m not entirely opposed to owning material possessions. I don’t live in a mud hut cooking meals over a fire I started with two sticks. I enjoy well-made objects that can last a lifetime and even be handed down to the next generation.

It is more expensive to buy something that is handmade by a local craftsperson. Quality does costs more. Durability isn’t cheap. While this isn’t always necessary for every purchase, it certainly makes a difference for gifts.

I still have a quality pocket knife that my parents gave me when I was a young child. It’s probably 45+ years old, but I’ve kept it oiled, and it still works just as well today as it did back then.

I can’t stand purchasing something only to have it break, fail, or become obsolete soon after. I hate the game that modern manufacturers started playing a few decades ago. Appliances, tools, vehicles, etc. really were made to last in the “old days.”

I have solid steel tools handed down from my grandfather to my father, and now I use them. They still work well. They keep working even when the cheaper "junk tools" I’ve purchased more recently bend and break in my hands.

Many manufacturers now intentionally design and create goods using cheap materials with a planned “end of life” to increase their profits and extend the lifetime value (LTV) of a customer. It’s tough to make big profits if you create a high-quality item that can last forever, especially if you’re competing with cheaper goods from competitors who don’t care.

How easy is it to clean and maintain this item?

Complexity breeds frustration. Over the years of my adult life, I’ve owned a variety of coffee and espresso makers. They’ve all failed me at some point. Hard to clean. Impossible to repair. Finicky and fragile.

For the last decade, I’ve used a simple Chemex pour-over coffeemaker. No moving parts. Easy to clean. Most importantly, it does make amazing coffee.

I don’t want to give someone a gift that comes with strings attached. Who wants a gift that is a complete pain to clean and maintain? No thanks.

Can the owner repair this item?

Over the past few years, we’ve witnessed a backlash against complex sealed systems. The fans of the Maker Movement are tired of being told that they can’t crack open the items they own.

I know that I’m beyond frustrated with material possessions that I can’t repair on my own. I no longer want to be held hostage by someone else, hoping that they are honest with me about the necessary repairs for some failed device.

Or, even worse, the familiar answer of, “This can’t be repaired. It cheaper and easier to just buy a new one.

I don’t want to pass on the stress of this type of ownership with my gifts. I want my loved ones to receive something that they can easily repair, if necessary.

Can the item be easily modified and upgraded?

This is a plus, but it also comes from the Maker Movement. One way to avoid obsolescence is to purchase an “evergreen item” or one that can be easily upgraded.

My previous vehicle was a BMW that I didn’t dream of working on under the hood. Heck, I couldn’t even change the oil in the thing. I finally sold it.

I’m not a mechanic, but now I can do basic repairs on my old Toyota truck. It’s not fancy or complex, and that’s precisely the point. I’ve already modified and upgraded various components on my own.

I don’t want to give my loved ones anything that is an expensive nightmare to modify or upgrade. They shouldn’t have to worry about keeping a service agreement up to date. That’s not a gift.

If you’re simply aching to give a loved one a gift tucked away in a box and wrapped up with a bow, consider these three questions. Could this item last a lifetime? Could it even be passed on to the next generation? Is it relatively easy to maintain, repair, and service?

Skip the disposable gifts this year

It isn’t easy to shake off the easy consumerism that most of us were raised with our entire lives. I know, believe me. But, it is a worthwhile investment to take the time to think about gifts for loved ones from a different perspective.

Don’t make the excuse that spending money on junk helps the economy. Some of my friends have made that argument with me.

It’s ok to throw money away on disposable gifts because that ensures higher employment, right? Please, give me a break.

Giving some big faceless corporation your money is making the CEO a multibillionaire. It’s making the other executives and investors millionaires.

How much is actually going into the pocket of the average worker who hasn’t received a meaningful raise in years? You have no idea where your money is going. At all.

I would rather spend my money with local businesses, independent entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, and craftspeople. I would rather put my money straight into the hand of the person who handcrafted the gift. I would rather shake hands with the business owner standing right next to their children who are helping run the business.

When I buy high-quality goods and services from local business owners, I know exactly who I am helping with my money. It does cost more, but the quality is worth it, and the items do last longer. As my father says, you can spend more on a tool that will last you a lifetime or buy a cheaper tool that you’ll need to replace over and over and over again.

So, this holiday season, consider the lasting value a potential gift can provide for your loved ones’ lives:

  • Will it put a smile on their face for decades?
  • Will it help them learn and grow?
  • Will it make their lives better?
  • Or, will it only deliver a few weeks or months of fun and be replaced with feelings of stress later?

There are a few material goods that can deliver on that promise. I know that some gifts are simply practical and have a limited window of value (e.g., children outgrow clothing).

But, some gifts are truly useful things that actually do make life easier (e.g., high-quality tools). Great gifts give more value than they cost over the years (i.e., provide a high ROI).

However, it will always be hard to beat books, courses, coaching, and experiences. Why? Because these gifts can inherently change the recipient for the better.

Personal development is a gift that improves with time, accumulates more value, and can never be taken away.

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Larry Cornett is a leadership coach, career advisor, and business advisor at Invincible Career® in Northern California. He spent more than two decades in the tech industry launching new businesses, products, and services. He was a Product and Design executive at several tech companies in Silicon Valley; including his own startup, a product strategy and design consultancy, Apple Computer, Yahoo, eBay, and IBM.

Palo Alto, CA
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