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  • Writer's pictureBridget Sullivan Mermel CFP(R) CPA

Buying Gifts Part Two: Give Better Gifts

Updated: Mar 4, 2021

Do you ever struggle with how to give better gifts? There is a lot of research that tries to help. Bridget and John discuss more tips on giving better gifts.


Buying Gifts Part Two: Give Better Gifts

John: Last time on Friends Talk Financial Planning, we talked about gift-giving strategies. This week, we're going to take your gift-giving to the next level and talk about advanced gift-giving strategies.

Hi, I'm John Scherer, and I run a fee-only financial planning practice in Middleton, Wisconsin.

Bridget: And I'm Bridget Sullivan Mermel, and I've got a fee-only financial planning practice in Chicago, Illinois.

John, I want to mention again why I think this is so important. And that is because I'm interested in money and meaning, and happiness, too. And buying gifts and giving gifts to people is where the action is from a meaning standpoint. It's really the #1 way that you can spend money for more meaning. And so it's something that I've done some research on and given some thought to. So that's why I think it's…

And it’s something that not that many other planners really talk about. So we try to get people to stop spending money, not spend it. But I'm trying to help people send it more effectively.

John: I love that idea of applying meaning to the gift-gifting. That's what I really got from our last discussion about this is: you have to do these things. And I kind of feel obligated sometimes. And I remember you saying, “Well, Yeah, that's part of being in a relationship, having a friendship” or like, “No, it's part of maintenance of a relationship.”

I thought, “Of course, all these years I've never thought about it.” So I'm excited to hear more. And as you talked about having meaning, using your money for meaning, and that's where gift giving comes in, that was like the lightbulb when I just heard you say that. So tell me a little bit more about that connection between those two.

Bridget: Well, like we said, the first way to give gifts for more meaning is to give somebody something they want. Because again, that's saying, “I see you.” You know, I hear you. Okay? And that's meaningful to people, and it feels good.

The next way -- and this is what I want to talk about today -- the second biggest way is to give somebody something that you like. So this is saying, “This is me.” And that is a very meaningful thing. It's like calling somebody and asking them to do something. You know, it's a bid, like you're saying, “Hey!” It's a bid for connection. It's riskier, but it ultimately is a more… people find it more meaningful, and it helps bring a relationship closer, even if the other person doesn't like it. And generally the gift-receiver likes these gifts less than the gifts that they said they want and that they ask for. But it helps the relationship more.

John: What a dichotomy, right? It helps the relationship more, or it can do that, even though the receiver doesn't perhaps appreciate it or enjoy it as much. I wanted to stop there, because I think it was really significant, the ideas, just those two things you laid out there, Bridget.

What's the #1 thing that you talked about last time? Give a gift that somebody wants? Look at their list, right? We were talking before the show. My kids have been putting together their Christmas list for Santa. It's on the list. And then the other thing, it's good to give a gift that I like to my friend, to my spouse, whatever. And that's just such a different, almost the opposite view of how I've always thought of this.

If you tell me “Here are the things I want for gifts,” it seems too easy. And I don't naturally want to do that. I think “That's so dumb,” right? And in fact, no, that's exactly on board. I'm hearing you. And if I get a gift that I want to get, I think, “Jeez, I shouldn't do that either. Like, that's selfish.” And no, that's sharing myself with the person. It's just so counter-intuitive. This is really valuable information, to think about things in a different way.

Bridget: Yeah. And I'm going to get some new lights for Christmas, too, by the way.

John: Put it on your list!

Bridget: Yeah, exactly. Well, one of my friends did put together a list of, like, “This is what you need.” There's a risk here, though, right? And it could cause a rift. Right? So that's what you're risking, the other person being like, “I didn't want this. I don't want this.” Rift! So how do you mitigate the rift?

And there's 2 strategies to help mitigate the rift, or the possibility of a rift. One is, if you want to give it on one of these socially acceptable holidays, give multiple gifts. We talked about that last time, too. The other way is to give it out of the blue. So gifts out of the blue are great, very low-risk. You're really reducing the risk, because the person compares it to getting nothing. They were expecting nothing. And they got something. So they’re happy!

John: So on my birthday, I'm expecting a gift because it's part of our social contract. But the third Tuesday in October, or whatever it is, I'm not expecting a gift. So it's compared to not getting anything. Then there's more excitement, regardless of the actual gift itself?

Bridget: Right! Exactly. Because they're comparing it to nothing. They're comparing it to getting nothing. Unless it’s really bad!

John: Yeah, right. Be careful, right. Bridget, so if I give a gift that I like, how does the recipient like… how do we communicate that? And I'm just thinking of my personal experiences that “I know that I've like this, so I'm going to give it to you.” But I don't always necessarily say, “Hey, here's something that I really enjoy.” I get it, because I thought, “Well, I know I liked it, so I think you might.” So and that connection there, how is it…

Bridget: Usually there’s a conversation about it. Or, I'm thinking about this gift that one of my friends, whose mom is from Sweden, gave me. And it's this Swedish doll, a Christmas thing for a mantle or something. It's not at all something that I would buy for myself or that is even in my realm. But it's obviously from her, obviously something that would mean a lot to her.

So usually, if you get a gift that has nothing to do with what you want, you realize it's probably something that the other person, likes. And so if you want to make it more meaningful, you can tell them, “This is why I bought it for you. It's something that I really like.”

John: I think that's a really interesting thing. And I was thinking of a different twist on that. But as the gift-giver, being mindful of what that gift means. If it's something that I like, and I'm giving to you, just to be aware that that's a way that of deepening our relationship. So sharing that, maybe, is one thing to pay attention to.

And the other thing that I'm feeling in this conversation is that as the receiver of the gift, to be thinking about that, same thing. Hey, this is not on my list of things, but okay, because of this conversation, I can think, “Oh, is this shining a light into my friend or whoever the person is that's giving that gift.” And just to be aware of that, maybe as a really important takeaway from this.

Bridget: Right. Absolutely. So another thing I wanted to talk about is money as a gift. And perhaps gift cards would go into this category, too. Because gift cards are kind of the same in that is a defined amount. So with money gifts, money gifts are great if you're an older relative and you're passing down the wealth. And it doesn't have to be a huge gift. But it's like, I've got more money than you, and I'm older, and I'm in your family. And so it's just like an inheritance kind of thing.

Money or gift cards as a gift doesn't work as well with peers or friends or people that are siblings, because it's like, there's no… maybe if it's like a gift card to go to a specific restaurant, that might work ,because it's like, “Here, you're going to try this.” But with all that being said, I love Starbucks cards. So anybody…

John: That’s always on the list, right?

Bridget: Yeah, it’s always on the list. So it’s just because the implication is passing it down. The other thing is that there's always, with most gifts, there's a reciprocity assumption. So if I give somebody something, a lot of times, they feel obliged to give something back to me. And so if it's like a dollar amount, it's like, Here's $20, you're going to give me $20??? And so it's taking this veil of mystery away in kind of not a good way.

John: Yeah, it's interesting. So those different levels, different generations, like as I'm hearing, the same level, that's not great, but going from older to younger sort of a feeling.

Bridget: That's the way to go. And well appreciated.

John: Well, it's interesting. One of the things we always try to do here is to circle back and say, “Okay, what are the takeaways from our episodes here?” And I think I said it before, but that idea of being aware, the awareness of what these gifts mean and sort of the underlying meaning is one of my big takeaways. If I'm giving a gift and getting something that's on somebody's list, it shows that I heard them, not that I'm lazy in gift-giving.

Bridget: Right, exactly.

John: That's a feeling, right? And if I don't… in the absence of that, giving something that I like is not selfish, but it's sharing part of who I am with the recipient. Those are the two really big things.

Bridget: Yeah. I've got a few more random tips for difficult people. Okay, Here's 4 tips first.

First, replace something they recently lost. My husband just lost glasses, but then he found them. I don't know. Second is a homemade gift. Third, nostalgic or commemorative. So commemorating.

John: What does that mean?

Bridget: Well, this goes back to -- and we talked about it a little bit -- like a picture of you together with a nice frame.

John: Yeah.

Bridget: Okay. The date of birth of the person from the newspaper of their choice, that's something you can buy. A puzzle that has their place of birth, or, you know, like you can get these geography puzzles that have a map of where they were born or where they live now, that type of thing. So those are all like commemorative nostalgia.

And then the last is going with a group, lower your risk! And then you can get a bigger price point, too.

John: Yeah. Kind of like diversification in your investments, right?

Bridget: Exactly!

John: Spread out the risk.

Bridget: Exactly! Spread out the risk! So those are my main tips for today, gift-giving part 2.

John: That's great. Well, thanks so much for sharing. I really love all the research and the thinking behind these things. I think it's really meaningful.

And for our viewers, if you're interested in this sort of financial planning that's holistic and really not just about the investments, both Bridget and I are members of the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners. You can find them on the web at And we have advisors all across the country that do this sort of planning for their clients.

Thanks so much for sharing, Bridget. And until next time.

Bridget: Yeah. Happy holidays!

At Sullivan Mermel, Inc., we are fee-only financial planners located in Chicago, Illinois serving clients in Chicago and throughout the nation. We meet both in-person in our Chicago office and virtually through video conferencing and secure file transfer.

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