How to Spend: Add It To Your Wishlist

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A screenshot of some of my 2019 wishlist items.

It is terribly hard to get a gift for my brother or my father. If they want something, they get it for themselves within a week or two. By the time a holiday comes around, neither of them want anything.

In contrast, I am the easiest to shop for. I practice the wait-a-week principle and often end up waiting years. I am constantly photographing items rather than buying them. In general, I am avoiding any purchase I can possibly avoid. My surface-level wants accumulate. It makes it easy to find a good gift.

Some gift giving is a social expectation. It tests the relationship. For example, for couples who are dating seriously, the message is much more important than the medium. Give a book the other person despises, and you have revealed how little you pay attention to your loved one’s opinions. But a pair of gloves, with a heartfelt note saying, “These will keep your hands warm when I’m not there to hold them” would show your affectionate side. Or perhaps the receiver doesn’t like romantic mush, and you are expected to know better.

In other cases, we acquire a new identity through the ritual of gift giving. Birthday, graduation, wedding, baby shower and retirement are all examples of American gift-giving rituals that literally change people’s identity, advancing them forward from a liminal state. In America, the ritual of the gift changes your identity by forcing society to acknowledge they transformed you and literally gift you a new way of being treated.

Long ago, we adopted the rituals of the Victorian gift economy where gift giving was understood as a moral act. The perfect gift in our culture communicates immaterial sentiments. The ability to find the perfect gift and demonstrate your intimate knowledge and love is rare.

However, I agree with my mother that the only burden an ordinary gift needs to bear is sending the message: “I have not forgotten you. You still matter to me and I love you.”

Because of that, wishlists, registries, or even not-so-subtle hints are powerful tools to aid us all in thrift for the average gift giving occasion.

Even though I am extremely frugal and miserly, gift giving is one of my main demonstrations of love and my favorite budget to spend. When someone has a wishlist or gift idea list, I feel empowered not only to get them something they have said that they wanted, but to extrapolate and deviate from the list to get them something else I imagine they want.

When I first got married and assumed the responsibility for buying gifts for my husband’s family, I did not know very much about their material preferences. My initial gifts were just okay. When I got to witness the present opening, I tried to learn from what others got them, but many of the family members were floundering on getting great gifts. However, after I shared my wishlist with them and convinced my husband to make a wishlist, eventually most family members made their own wishlists. Now, I am learning what kind of things each family member actually likes. This improves my purchases both because I actually know a specific example of a thing they want and because I am able to extrapolate from the types of things they wish for to more things they would likely enjoy.

In this way, on the giving end, gift wishlists enable me to exercise thrift, avoiding much of the so-called deadweight loss and delivering as much of the cost to the recipient in value. And on the receiving end, gift wishlists are also one of my primary methods of exercising thrift.

When I want something, I add it to my private “Wait a Week” list. Once I have waited long enough that I have decided to buy it for that price, I ask myself, “Do I need this right now or would I be just as happy waiting?” If I don’t need it then, but I want it enough that I will buy it eventually, then I move it to my shared wishlist.

This shared wishlist has a static link. Once I share the link with family, they can save it and return back to it holiday after holiday without needing to ask for the link again. This means that if a friend wants to randomly get me a thank you gift, for example, they are able to visit my wishlist all the same and gather ideas.

On that shared list, the item might wait longer either until someone else buys it for me, it goes on extreme sale and I buy it for myself, or I realize that the time has come that I want it now.

Making a wishlist filled with specific items helps ensure that the gifts from others are things that I truly appreciate and desire. It eliminates deadweight loss. I added it to my list because I was going to have paid that much for it anyway, so someone else buying it for me is as valuable as the amount they paid for the item.

To some, the surprise of gift giving is part of the joy. For these people, knowing what you might get takes some of the joy away from the present. The response turns from “Thank you so much! I didn’t even realize how much I wanted one of these!” to “Ah, I see, you got me that.”

I sympathize with this because I love the joy of receiving something I didn’t even know existed but absolutely love. That’s one reason that sometimes, I add something that is just a concept to my wishlist.

For example, right now, I’m interested in getting a pair of nighttime headphones. I love listening to podcasts as I fall asleep (Revisionist History is my favorite), but I also like lying on my side which makes earbuds uncomfortable. I know many nighttime headphone solutions exist, but I don’t know anything about them and don’t want to have to research them all. I don’t need new headphones right now. My old ones still work. But I’ve thought about it for several months and would love to have more comfortable ones. Rather than researching to find a specific pair, I have added the entire concept and all my preferences as a note on my wishlist. Someone who wants to get this for me would be able to do the research necessary to find the perfect gift for me. This would mean that I would get to have the surprise of receiving an item I’ve never seen before combined with the guidance that I will actually appreciate it.

Another way of helping out potential gift givers while still being surprised is to add ideas to your wishlist that are types of things you always appreciate. For example, I enjoy beautiful paper products like decorated pads of paper, cute post-it flags, and useful clipboards. I can add that concept as a note on my wishlist and just leave it there year after year. In this way, the specific product will always be a surprise.

Some people criticize this method of making a wishlist because it can result in your mom buying you socks off your wishlist for Christmas. Socks may be genuinely what you want and need, but these critics think you should buy your own socks and leave Christmas gifts as something extra-budgetary or less essential. However, I would argue against that opinion.

If you don’t use your wishlist to save things you actually want for the price they are sold at, then you are using your wishlist to save items which you either don’t actually want or believe are too expensive. If you don’t actually want them, then they are purchases which should have fallen away during a simple wait-a-week. Instead of the item you didn’t really want, you could have received an item you did actually want if you’d just managed your wishlists better.

If you believe that the item is too expensive, then anyone who purchases the item for you is losing a portion of what they spend to deadweight loss. If they spent $100 but you would have only paid $50, then their gift feels like only a $50 gift to you even though they paid twice that amount to give it. This is economically destructive. If you had listed items you actually wanted for the prices, then more real value would have been retained.

For this reason, a wishlist with socks, sink strainers, and car parts alongside the books, games, and movies can be amazingly powerful. It is a force of thrift both for you to defer your consumption and for your family and friends to ensure that all the value of their gift makes it to your heart.

Screenshot of product images from assorted Amazon listings.

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Megan Russell has worked with Marotta Wealth Management most of her life. She loves to find ways to make the complexities of financial planning accessible to everyone. Her most popular post: The Complete Guide to Your Washing Machine