Why are Americans spending less on holiday gifts?
That is the question behind my latest Bloomberg column:
The research is clear: Americans are becoming less generous over the holidays. Not to sound too much like a Scrooge, but this is not necessarily a bad thing.
In 1999, Americans said they planned to spend $1,300 (converting to 2020 dollars) on holiday gift giving. In 2020, that amount was about $800. These numbers are based on Gallup data, but retail sales figures show a broadly similar pattern. From 1935 through 2000, gift-giving tended to rise with disposable income. Since 2000, gift-giving has fallen as national disposable income has risen.
…One hypothesis is that Americans are simply getting less generous. Yet charitable giving is robust, so that’s probably not right.
An alternative possibility is that Americans are too rich for gifts to make sense. It’s not only that billionaires are hard to buy for; the rest of us are, too. You might think your friends already have most of the important things they need, so how can you buy them something meaningful at the margin? This logic doesn’t hold for all Americans, but perhaps the higher earners account for a big enough share of the gift-giving total that it exerts a downward pull on the numbers.
The cheeriest scenario — again, speaking strictly as an economist — is that Americans are realizing that gift-giving often doesn’t make much sense. If you give me a gift and I give you a gift, neither of us is quite sure what the other wants. We might both be better off if we each spent the money on ourselves. Under this hypothesis, Americans are not becoming less generous, they are becoming more rational.
Another rationale for gift-giving is that it tightens familial and social bonds. Perhaps it does, but it is not the only means for doing so. More and better communication — which has also become cheaper and easier over the last two decades, with email, texts and cheaper phone calls — may make gift-giving seem less essential.
There is also the possibility that we, as a society, have lost that “Christmas spirit,” whatever that might mean. After all, secularization is rising and churchgoing is declining. Christianity is less central to American life. Whether this social development is all good or bad will of course depend on your point of view.
What do you all think are the likely causes here?
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