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‘Tis the Season: 5 Principles For Spending Your Money Wisely During Holiday Gift Shopping

The holiday season is full of things that will test your relationship, like navigating office holiday parties, having to be friendly with the in-laws, managing your credit card balance, and dealing with kids’ unreasonable demands. Any of these can put stress on your relationship, but perhaps the biggest relationship challenge is picking the right gift for your partner. As we’ve discussed before, there is a science to gift-giving, but fundamentally, as the giver, you must decide on the best way to spend your money. When your partner unwraps your present (or, for the gift-wrapping challenged like me, simply lifts it out of a bag), how can you assure you’re getting your money’s worth?

Data from a large-scale national survey shows that we generally overestimate money’s effect on most people’s life satisfaction and happiness.1 Given that money doesn't buy happiness to the extent that most people believe, what should you spend your hard-earned-cash on this holiday season when buying a gift for your partner? A team of researchers reviewed previous studies on this topic to determine how to spend money to maximize happiness.2 Several of their principles provide insight into the best gifts to buy this holiday season.

Principle 1: Give Experiences, Not Stuff – Giving things is okay, but the person receiving those things gets used to them, or what psychologists call habituated, quickly. A new 60-inch TV looks really big when you first get it, but it quickly becomes “normal” because you recalibrate your expectations about how big a TV should be. Instead, if you bought your partner a weekend trip to the city, the experience provides a set of memories that will last a lifetime.

Principle 2: Give the Gift of Anticipation - If you’re going to follow the first principle and are planning on buying your partner a special trip or vacation, schedule it for 6 months from now. Now, you may think a holiday gift trip should occur close in time to the holidays. However, by waiting a few months your partner not only gets the joy of learning they are going on a fantastic trip, but also gets to enjoy looking forward to it for several months. All of that anticipation makes the trip that much more enjoyable.

Principle 3: Focus on Giving Quantity - If you’re trying to decide between getting your partner one big present or several little presents, a few smaller gifts are the way to go. By giving several gifts, the receiver’s enjoyment extends over a longer period of time. One very expensive handbag produces a lot of joy, but a stocking stuffed with several smaller items like earrings, a scarf, lipstick, and tickets to the movies goes a long way.

Principle 4: Use the Right Information to Pick a Gift – Finding a gift that your partner will actually like can be difficult. To make the proper choice, you can either rely on your own thoughts and intuition about your partner’s likes and dislikes, or you can rely on what large numbers of others say. For example, if your partner enjoys watching movies, how will you know which DVD or Blu-ray to get? You could go with what you think your partner would like, or you could see what movies others like by going to a site like RottenTomatoes.com, where thousands of viewers and hundreds of critics weigh in on a movie’s quality. Although you may have your doubts about the merits of a maudlin film like Before Midnight, you may be better off basing your decision on ratings from the 27,000+ website users. 

Principle 5: Give to Help Others Rather than Yourself – Rather than by for yourself, or even your partner, spend some money helping others. At some point in your life, you get to the point where anything you really want, you already have, or you simply purchase for yourself. When the holidays roll around, there isn’t anything you really want, but your partner now feels obligated to get you something. This principle suggests that instead of buying your partner something they won’t use or clothing they won’t (or shouldn’t) wear, you should find ways to use your money to help others get things they want but can’t buy themselves. Based on these findings you may want to pay more attention to those street corner Santas ringing bells, giving trees, or tots in need of toys. Looking for other giving opportunities? Check out http://www.charitynavigator.org.

Getting your partner a gift is an investment. You’re giving a bit of your time, a bit of your energy, and perhaps more than a bit of your money. By using these principles, you can help make sure that your gift achieves its desired goal, which is to maximize your partner’s happiness. 

If you’re still looking for other gift ideas, we’ve got you covered. In previous articles, some of the best gifts for your relationship are ones that announce your relationship to the world, erotic photos, or simply exactly what your partner asked for. One last bit of non-scientific advice about spending too much money on things: as Tyler Durden, a member of the club whose name we may not speak said, "The things you own end up owning you." So this holiday season, rather than spending your money on a bunch of material possessions, perhaps it’s time to use a little science to help you spend your hard-earned money in a way that actually leads to happiness. 

If you're planning on getting something on your partner's wish list, consider supporting ScienceOfRelationships.com by shopping on Amazon.com via this link (or Amazon.ca here). Please also consider giving yourself or others the gift of science this holiday by downloading our book here.

1Aknin, L., Norton, M. I., & Dunn, E. W. (2009). From wealth to well-being? Money matters, but less than people think. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4, 523−527. doi:10.1080/17439760903271421

2Dunn, E. W., Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. D. (2011). If money doesn't make you happy, then you probably aren't spending it right. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 21(2), 115-125. doi:10.1016/j.jcps.2011.02.002

Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.

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