Should I give cash or gifts this Christmas?

There are a number of surveys that attempt to measure the spending intentions of people in the run up towards Christmas. For example a recent study carried out by YouGov found that people in the UK planned to spend an average of £599 on presents for their family and friends. This represented a 5.8% increase on the previous year. Planned total spending on Christmas was estimated to be a staggering £22 billion.

Respondents to another survey, carried out by the hotel chain Travelodge, stated that on average they planned to buy presents for 12 people. This study also found that the average expected spend on each present was £28.70 – an increase of £1.70 on the previous year. A rather obvious question for anyone interested in economics is whether this is either a sensible or an efficient way of allocating resources. One way to think about how an economist might approach this issue is to ask yourself the following questions after you have opened a present on Christmas day.

• How much money do you think the person who gave you the present paid for it?
• Ignoring the sentimental value, if you had not received this present how much would
  you be willing to pay to purchase it?

Exactly 20 years ago the economist Joel Waldfogel posed questions very similar to these to a group of 86 students studying an intermediate microeconomics module at Yale University in the USA. On average the respondents to the questions estimated that friends and family had spent $438 on the gifts they had received that Christmas. Unfortunately their willingness to pay for these same gifts was $313 on average. Economists would argue that this is an example of economic inefficiency because the recipients’ valuation of the gifts – as measured by their willingness to pay – was only 71.5% of the price paid by the person who gave them the presents. This means that it is possible to make the person who received the gift better off without making the person who purchased the gift any worse off. This argument can be illustrated with a simple example.

Assume you have purchased a Liverpool football club shirt as a present for Sir Alex Ferguson and it cost you £50! Rather surprisingly Sir Alex likes the shirt but would have only been willing to pay £20 if he was buying it for himself. Imagine now that you have given him £50 cash instead of the shirt. This would not make you any worse off – your cash outlay would remain unchanged. However, Sir Alex would now be able to spend the £50 cash in a way which would give him far more satisfaction than the Liverpool football shirt would have given him. Sir Alex can therefore be made better off without making you worse off. The present in this example generates a deadweight welfare loss of £30. Waldfogel concluded from his later research based on a larger sample of people that, on average, people’s valuations of their presents is about 90% of the money actually spent on them. If this figure is accurate, it suggests that over £2 billion will be wasted in the UK this Christmas.

The size of the deadweight welfare loss depends on how well the person who is buying the present knows or understands the preferences of the recipient. The closeness of age, friendship or family relationship are all likely to influence the accuracy of this knowledge. Interestingly, Waldfogel found that presents from grandparents to grandchildren were the most inefficient: i.e. the difference between the recipient’s valuation of the gift and the price paid for the present was the greatest. The study also found that grandparents were more likely to give their grandchildren cash gifts.

Do economists always advise people to give cash as presents? Thankfully the dismal science can find some positive things to say about giving gifts. The previous analysis can be criticised in a number of different ways. It assumes that the recipients are perfectly informed about all the potential gifts that are available. If the person buying the present can find an item that the recipient was unaware of, then it is possible that economic welfare might be increased. It has also been assumed that the pleasure or value people obtain from an item is not influenced by who has purchased it. It may be the case that people place a greater value on an item when it is a gift from somebody else. In the previous example, perhaps Sir Alex would value the Liverpool shirt at £60 if you had purchased it for him as a present. The analysis has also ignored the possibility that the person buying the present derives pleasure from trying to find a gift that they think the person would like. Perhaps people feel a ‘warm glow’ when they see the happiness of somebody opening their present on Christmas day.

A final interesting economic explanation for buying presents is that they might act as an effective signal in a situation where there is asymmetric information. It can be argued that this is the case in relationships where people have private information about their true feelings towards one another. One way of communicating these feelings is by simply telling someone how you feel about them. However, this might not be an effective signal, as someone who does not have such strong feelings could say the same things as someone who does! However, by taking the time and trouble to buy someone a present that they really like, you are able to signal more effectively how you really feel about them. The signal can be particularly strong if the person buying the present really dislikes shopping. Just giving someone cash, or not taking the time to buy a present the person really likes, might signal that you simply could not be bothered to exert the effort because your feelings are not that strong. The potential consequences of giving your partner money are amusingly demonstrated in the following clip: The Economics of Seinfeld: What’s the right Gift to give; cash?

Perhaps giving presents instead of cash is an economically efficient way of dealing with situations where asymmetric information is potentially an important issue.


British households plan to spend £820 on Christmas YouGov (11/11/13)
Brits ‘to spend more on Christmas presents this year with average gift costing £28.70’ Daily Mirror (13/11/13)
Christmas shoppers hit the sales in biggest spending spree since the recession began Daily Express (15/12/13)
Bah, Humbug The Joy of Economics: Making Sense out of Life, Robert J. Stonebraker (22/05/13)
What many economists don’t understand about Christmas Quartz, Tim Fernholz (19/12/13)
The Economics of Gifts Greg Mankiw’s Blog (24/12/06)
The case against Christmas presents The Guardian (19/12/13)
Grinchonomics or how the Economist stole Christmas Economics in Plain English (16/12/10)
The true value of the 12 days of Christmas reveals giving cash may be the most cost-effective gift Perth Now, Jessica Irvine (21/12/13)


  1. Explain what is meant by the term ‘allocative efficiency’. Use a diagram to help illustrate and explain your answer.
  2. Draw an indifference curve diagram to illustrate the potential welfare costs of giving presents instead of cash.
  3. Assess whether giving someone a gift card is more economically efficient than giving them a present.
  4. Using a simple numerical example, explain how economic welfare could be higher if someone buys a present that the recipient was unaware of. What factors might you have to take into account when carrying out this economic analysis?
  5. Explain what is meant by the term ‘asymmetric information’. Provide a number of examples to help illustrate your answer.
  6. What properties must a signal have if it is to successfully overcome problems caused by asymmetric information?