How To Spend: Take A Photo Instead

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A gag gift sign spotted at a beach shop in 2007. The photo was free to take and easily more enjoyable than a purchase.

My family loves traveling to Duck, North Carolina on vacation. In the Outer Banks, there is a strip of the road that has a wide variety of stores to which we often make at least one trip during our vacation. At a minimum, someone wants to go out to purchase another book at the Island Bookstore.

Many of the stores are filled with gag gifts such as t-shirts, key chains, or other paraphernalia with funny or interesting slogans.

It is easy to find yourself browsing the store when you spot a t-shirt with a phrase that you easily hear your friend saying. Your friend isn’t there. You can’t share it with her. If she were there, you’d share it with her. You imagine that it will make her smile. Or perhaps it will make everyone else smile to see you give it to her. You wonder if you should get it for her. It could be a bonding moment together. It would let her know that you were thinking about her while on this trip.

Gift giving is a wonderful practice, but gag gifts often are not appreciated as much as they cost. Gag gifts are the quintessential example of what economist’s call “deadweight loss.”

The ability to find the perfect gift and demonstrate your intimate knowledge and love is rare. Studies suggest that for every $10 you give in gifts, as much as $3 gets lost because the recipient would not have paid as much as you. This disparity is called deadweight loss.

Knowing that some value may be lost in the purchase of gifts, it is wise to give yourself pause when buying a gift for someone else, especially one that cannot be returned or exchanged.

For this reason, when I am in a store and tempted to buy a gift for someone else, I take a picture of it. Sometimes, I’ll simply save the photo as a gift idea. Other times, I’ll text them the photo right away. “Thinking of You,” I’ll write and send then the picture.

If I am online when I am tempted by a gag gift, I save the item to my private gift idea list for that individual or email them the link so they can see the item.

Sharing the photo with my friend, rather than purchasing it, communicates my sentiments while permitting my friend to make the decision on whether the item is worth it to them. If I purchased the item for them, I might inadvertently burden her with the obligation of keeping it.

However, simply sending them the photo or a link to the item is a quick and easy way to avoid making a purchase. It gives me something to do. It empowers me to remember the purchase idea and perhaps even find a better or cheaper version of the item later. And, best of all, it gives me something to share with the people I love.

I also do the same thing when I am enticed by an item for myself. For me, I am tempted to impulse spend the most when I am browsing a bookstore. I am a hoarder of knowledge. I love to know that I have the means to know something.

When I see a book that likely has information I want to know one day, I’m tempted to buy it, even if I do not have time or reason to read it yet, just so I can have it on hand and remember that it exists. Now though, instead of buying it, I simply photograph the cover and send it to my email. Later, I save all the information to my own saved books list.

Taking the picture gives me a sense of ownership over the item, a small emotional high similar to acquiring a new item. In this way, I’m able to experience some of the joy of buying the item for free.

Photo by author, Megan Russell.

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Chief Operating Officer, CFP®, APMA®

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. She is the author of over 800 financial articles and is known for her expertise on tax planning.