This holiday season, $16B will be wasted on unwanted gifts – it's time for a new approach

The numbers are a retailer’s dream, but a consumer’s nightmare.

The average American will spend $1,250 this holiday season on gifts, travel, and entertainment.

But 28 percent of shoppers are entering the holiday season still paying off debt from last year’s gift shopping! Over 50 percent will overspend their holiday budget or not set one at all. And consumers who go into debt over the season will take on an average of $1,054 in new debt.

These numbers might be acceptable if the gifts we were buying and the possessions we were accumulating were actually increasing the happiness in our lives. But that’s not the case.

Over half of us will receive unwanted gifts this year – a staggering $16 billion wasted on unwanted gifts. Eighteen percent of gifts are never used by the person who receives them and 4 percent are immediately thrown into the trash!

Why? Because we already have more than we need. Look around. Our closets are too full, our drawers won’t shut, and some of us can’t park our cars in the garage because it’s so full of stuff. Families already have everything they need. If they didn’t, they’d stop at Target on their way home to pick it up. More possessions in our homes will not increase our happiness this holiday season – or in the months following.

Not to mention the wasted time, energy, and stress we add to our holiday season shopping for the perfect (or even just acceptable) gift.

It’s time to find a new approach to gift giving.

Now, before you write off this article as mere bah-humbug, trying to snow on your Christmas parade, hear me out.

I’m not against gift giving. As humans, we’ve exchanged gifts to communicate love, respect, and appreciation for thousands of years. We see gifts being given on the very first Christmas.

I’m not arguing that we should stop giving gifts. But I think we would all benefit by adopting a new approach.

First, let’s focus more on “needs” and less on “wants.” In the early 1800s, Christmas was celebrated by wealthy families gifting food and drink to those in need. But in the mid-1850s, families (fueled by retailers) began turning the holiday inward. By 1890, children were lining up at department stores to present their wish lists to Santa.

We can reclaim some of these origins of Christmas gift giving by focusing more on giving to those in need and less on those who already have too much.

Second, we can set reasonable expectations. We don’t do our kids (or ourselves) any favors by promising the entire toy catalog on Christmas morning. When we build up Christmas morning to an unattainable expectation, everyone is disappointed. For the last eight years, we’ve given our children three gifts on Christmas morning: one thing they want, one thing they need, and one experience to share with the family. This has become our Christmas tradition. And, in my opinion, it is more memorable and tradition-establishing than a whole pile of who-knows-what under the tree.

We can also set new expectations among our extended families. Countless families have decided to forgo exchanging gifts among the adults. I don’t know a single family who has ever regretted the change. Most welcome it. They just need someone in the family to be bold enough to suggest it.

Third, shop for clutter-free gifts. Adopting a new approach to gift giving doesn’t mean we need to abandon gifts altogether. Simply narrowing down your search can be stress reducing. Think consumables (wine, anyone?), experiences (concerts, meals, free babysitting), and higher-quality gifts rather than increased quantity.

Lastly, embrace traditions that feed your soul. Traditions help us celebrate and honor recurring events in our lives. Traditions should not detract from the season, they should draw our attention to the underlying reason for the season. We’d be wise to reevaluate the cultural, family, and personal traditions that have become part of our holiday celebration. And choose only those that serve us by adding value.

I am not anti-gift. Instead, I am for focusing on the things that matter most.

A new approach to gift giving would provide all of us more opportunity to focus on the important things in our homes, in our families, and in our holiday season.