Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays

You would have thought that a book entitled Scroogenomics, which has been published in a recession and exhorts us to give up buying presents this Christmas, would do so from a spirit of, if not outright meanness, then at least heartfelt thrift. But Professor Joel Waldfogel instead uses a rather arch economic formula to explain why giving presents is a complete waste of time.

It goes something like this: if you choose to buy something for yourself, you buy something that suits you 100 per cent. It will probably be worth more, in terms of satisfaction to you, than its cost price. But if you are given something by someone else, there is no guarantee that you will value it above the price that has been paid for it. Because you might not like it. By this reckoning, Christmas, which foists unwanted pomanders and socks on everyone, has become a gargantuan waste of money.

How can we rate the satisfaction of a gift given, however? The professor has done the work for us. He got students at Yale to list all the Christmas gifts they had been given, and to estimate, first, how much they cost and, second, how much they thought the gifts were worth. The second figure was only 66 per cent of the actual worth of the gifts. "So gift-giving would have destroyed at least one-third of the value of the items transferred as gifts," trills the professor, who I'm glad is not on my Christmas list.

Well, knock me down with a paper hat. My 11-year-old daughter probably paid more for the Cath Kidston envelopes of bath salts she gave me last Christmas than I would have rated them, in monetary terms. Was I delighted with them? Of course I was. Were they a "consumption mistake" by my daughter? Of course not. What the professor has failed to grasp is the profound joy that gift-giving brings.

Waldfogel acknowledges that present-giving to our nearest and dearest might hit the spot, so let's keep going with presents for the spouse, and the kids, but give cash, if we must, or donate to charity, for everyone else. Which is all a bit dreary, is it not? Surely one of the pleasures of Christmas is turning up at someone's house with a jar of something unexpected. So what that the recipient probably wouldn't have paid £30 for that Diptyque candle? And now, if you will excuse me, I must go and buy some mis-matched presents.


Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays
Joel Waldfogel
Princeton University Press, 186pp, £6.95


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Rosie Millard was previously Arts Editor for the NS and a Theatre Critic. She was the Arts Correspondent for BBC News for 10 years and is now a broadsheet columnist. She lives in London with heaps of small children, which may partially explain her love of going to the theatre.

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Boy George