A sociologist discusses giving money and gift certificates as gifts

The history and social significance of money is more complicated than one might think. One sociologist, Viviana Zelizer, has written a lot about money including pieces about how life insurance came to be seen as “moral” in the 19th century and how women’s earnings were seen as extra money rather than part of a household’s finances. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Zelizer tackled a subject that often comes up at the holidays: is giving money or a gift certificate an acceptable gift?

It turns out that both the economic realists who give money as presents and the traditionalists have history on their side, because this is a debate that began back in the early 20th century. As the consumer society expanded and Americans began giving more Christmas presents to more people, money emerged as an acceptable gift. Christmas money, according to a 1912 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal, “supplies dearly cherished wishes, adds small luxuries, prevents worriment and gives opportunities for helpfulness as no other gift does.”…

We can’t all be as clever as Lou Eleanor Colby, but buying a gift card that restricts what the money can be used for is just another way of distinguishing gift money from regular money, and a way for givers to demonstrate their intimate knowledge of what the recipient likes and cares about.

The key here seems to be the significance behind the money or gift certificate: is it simply a cash payout (and writing a check or withdrawing money from an ATM can be a fairly normal and heartless event) or does it have thought behind it (meaning it is a gift certificate that matches one’s tastes)? I know we have had these discussions in my family with people coming down on various sides.

But as Zelizer points out in this op-ed, this was a particular historical process that had to occur. Businesses, particularly those catering to women, had to create a safe space for a gift of money or a gift certificate. Gift certificates do not have inherent significance – it must be endowed with such by the society, the giver, and the recipient.

Personally, I would accept both cash or gift certificates. But they do have separate meanings: cash tends to go into a larger pot of money and gets lost while a gift certificate, say to a bookstore, helps keep that money destined for books or music or DVDs. I would also expect that the younger generations have less difficulty giving and receiving money or gift certificates.

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