The Expectation of Gifts

Last week in my post Back to Basics Minimalism, I mentioned briefly that here in the South we find ourselves living in a culture that places an undue value on gifting. A few readers asked for greater explanation of this observation, which prompted me to think a post on the topic might be interesting (or even enlightening). So here goes…

When my sister and I were growing up, gifting was pretty much reserved for the holidays. For Easter, we knew the Easter Bunny was going to bring us a basket full of chocolates and maybe a stuffed animal. For our birthday, we might get that “one thing” we’d been wishing for for the past few months. And at Christmas, all manner of boxes could be found under our tree. To say the least, the holidays were special for us, and I believe part of what made them that way was that we didn’t get presents or treats or rewards every day. In fact, I can count on one finger the number of times I went to the store with my Mom and came home with a new toy for no reason.

Not once during my childhood did I ever feel poor though. We had everything we needed and then some. We had bicycles and baseball bats, a closet full of clothes, a cabinet full of food, and an Atari. And because I’d never been taught to expect something more all the time, I always felt like we were set. I like to think I was a pretty contented child.

A lot of people poke fun at the words “family values” but I believe that knowing what my parents thought, felt, and believed played a huge role in shaping my own ideas – then and now. They taught me to give freely, not necessarily of things but of my time and talents, and to appreciate every single gift I was given no matter what. I learned very early on that gifting wasn’t about picking up some random last-minute item at Walmart. And it definitely wasn’t about your own expectations at all.

My grandmother in North Carolina lived off my deceased grandfather’s social security and the tiny bit of income she made selling eggs, pecans, and vegetables to her neighbors, yet every year she made sure all 7 of her children, their spouses, their children, and their children’s children had a Christmas gift – even if it was pair of socks. My parents could have taken these little trinkets and made light of them or perhaps even let me toss them aside in favor of my new Cabbage Patch Kid, but they didn’t. They made sure I knew the sacrifice that my grandmother made and what it meant to her to give this gift to me. More importantly, they did it in such a fun and thoughtful way that I came away with a lifelong appreciation of the effort – not the object – being gifted.

And I think that’s what bothers me most about gifting today. Somewhere along the way, things changed. Parents stopped teaching their children to value the effort and allowed them to focus instead on the object. Children are allowed not just to request what they want for gifts but to expect those things will be given to them and worse, to react poorly when they don’t get what they expected. We call this behavior a “sense of entitlement” but children aren’t born with expectations. We teach that to them and inevitably they grow into adults who still expect to receive everything they want and continue to react poorly when they don’t.

I’ve seen different versions of this behavior everywhere that I have lived but here in the South it seems far more extreme. Gifting is a priority and not to gift somehow means that you are not meeting your responsibilities. There’s this unspoken expectation of gifting that extends beyond just proper etiquette and there’s almost always no appreciation for the giver or the gift. Here are a few examples:

  • A friend of mine’s mother gave her a list of acceptable gifts she wanted for Mother’s Day.
  • One of the families we help from time to time with groceries, skipped paying their cable bill in order to buy Easter gifts for their infant daughter because they didn’t want to disappoint her or their own parents.
  • My niece’s boyfriend asked me last week to borrow $10 to buy a Mother’s Day gift to give to her from the baby. I said no. Why? Last year, they borrowed (and never repaid) $75 to buy Christmas gifts which, three weeks later, we later found in the trash.
  • A woman I grew up with recently told me that she takes out loans every holiday – from Valentine’s Day to Christmas – to make sure her kids get everything they want. This same woman also said that she once signed her children up for charity gifts (ie. Angel Tree) even though she had already spent more than $600 on gifts herself.
  • My friend’s 14-year-old grandson will not come visit her unless she buys him a video game. (She created this expectation by bribing him as a child to do things he should have been doing in the first place – like taking a bath or brushing his teeth.)
  • A Facebook friend of ours bought his daughter a Lexus for graduation because it was what she was used to and she just “couldn’t drive anything else”.
  • We were recently invited to a graduation party by a friend of a friend. Since we did not know the graduate, we declined, and were promptly told that we could just give money instead.
  • Similarly, another friend said that she was expected to buy a birthday gift for her grandson’s girlfriend’s son even though she was not invited to the party. They even told her what to get. 
  • And yet nother friend of ours gave her step-granddaughter $50 for Christmas. The granddaughter left the money behind after saying, “What can you buy with $50 anyway?

These are just a few of the things Angie and I came up with when chatting about this over lunch today. There have been a lot more behaviors that we’ve simply observed – like the long lines for layaway every year at Walmart, the parents who give in rather than hear their kid throw a fit for a toy, or the sheer number of payday loan places in our small town (there are 14 by the way). I’m sure these things happen everywhere, but like I said before, it seems way more prevalent and brazen here than anywhere we’ve ever lived. And it’s really sad.

Gift giving should be a thoughtful, fun, and light-hearted experience. It should never been a stressful or forced occasion. To get there though, we need to loose the expectations – both as a giver and as a receiver. Minimalism has taught us much; the best of which might be this: the best things in life just can’t be bought.


Back to Basics Minimalism

Once upon a time, in another career, I led a campaign to get “back to basics” in the way we provided service to our clients. As our company grew from 80 to 800 employees we lost sight of some of the fundamentals of good business and made some simple processes way too complicated. I won’t bore you with the details of this little campaign (which involved a lot of flowcharts), but I will say that I never forgot the lesson learned from it: Simpler is always better.

We’ve lived in TN for almost 2 years now and in that time we’ve strayed from some of the fundamentals of minimalism. I know it wasn’t intentional. We didn’t go out and buy a whole bunch of stuff. We didn’t set out to fill our calendar with things to do. But over time, things happen. We adapted somewhat to the culture around us, a culture that values gift-giving at every occasion and likes to fill their days with more to do than can possible be done.

In short, life has grown a little bit too complicated lately and so it is time for our own back to basics campaign. Which is going something like this –

Basic #1: Declutter. On Friday, we launched a major decluttering effort in our shed. This project has been on our to-do list since January, when we decided not to keep the camping and kayaking gear that we haven’t used in 2 years. (Note- we still actively engage in both activities but we have enough gear to outfit a small group excursion and well, there are only 2 of us.) After an awful experience with Letgo a few weeks ago and no luck on Craigslist in finding real buyers, we decided to try an app called OfferUp. BINGO! This was just the boost we needed – everything we listed from the shed – EVERYTHING – sold that very day. We made $155.

On Saturday, we continued decluttering, cleaning out the bedroom closet and drawers. T-shirts we’d held on to for sentimental reasons – gone. “Good” socks that we absolutely hated to wear – gone. The broken $20 sewing machine that was going to cost more to fix than we paid for it – gone. It felt good! In total, we got rid of 61 items.

Basic #2: Unplug. On Sunday morning we turned off our phones. We made ourselves an amazing brunch – frittatas, fresh fruit, and a mixed berry muffin. We talked, we laughed, we read books, we planned meals for the week, and made a big pot of soup. As we continued our decluttering efforts, going through the kitchen cabinets, we found an unopened box of Borax. “Remember when we made our own laundry soap?” I asked. We reminisced for a moment about simpler times and decided to make a few jars of soap. This was a fun and easy project that did more than just give us a usable result – it reconnected us with some of our core values: frugality, resourcefulness, and sustainability.

Basic #3: Waste Nothing. Building on that momentum, Angie put a new compost bucket on the patio. We had stopped composting a few months back (in the winter) when my mom had declared it too muddy to trek to the compost bin. We recently ordered a new bin that could be kept closer to the house and on Sunday, we resumed our composting efforts.

Basic #4: Stop Buying (or in our case, stop accepting) Stuff. Thankfully we were both born without a shopping gene. On occasion we like to browse the thrift stores or REI but for the most part, we don’t have a problem with wanting “stuff”. We do have a problem with saying no. Just this week, my niece gave us a box of clothes to keep at our house for the baby and a high chair. My mom gave me 3 new shirts and Angie a pair of shorts. And we found a box of discarded items by the dumpster that contained 2 brand new blankets, still in their packaging, and a lot of nearly new picture frames. I’m happy to say that we only kept one blanket. We gave the rest of the box to Goodwill. The high chair and clothes went to my mom’s house, where they are needed, and we got rid of one item of clothing for each new item brought in. It’s one small success today while we continue to work on “no, thank you” for the future.

Minimalism is not a very common practice here in our area and definitely not one that is embraced by my family. I never imagined when we moved back to help out, that our choice to live simply would be such a bone of contention. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve been questioned or teased about wearing the same pants I wore the day before, for using a towel more than once, for not buying Angie a birthday card (let alone a present), for having only two sets of sheets for our bed, for being a cheapskate, and more. In fact, just the other day, I had to justify why I was getting rid of “perfectly good clothing”. I’m not criticizing my family. They are who they are, just like we are who we are. Which leads me to the following…

Basic #5: Be True to Yourself. I believe that this is the most important principle, not just of minimalism, but of life. You have to live on your own terms, doing things your own way, regardless of what others think or say, in order to be truly happy. Minimalism is no different. It is an individual journey toward one goal – creating more out of less. More time from less obligation. More money from less spending. More happiness from less stress. Being true to ourselves means remembering (and sometimes simply reconnecting) with the one principle that has guided us in our minimalist journey for the past 5 years – simpler is always better.