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When everyone has everything

And what to do about it.

Illustration by John S. Dykes

AND SO WE FIND OURSELVES in the gift-giving doldrums: that exact midpoint between summer’s glut of weddings and graduations and the winter holidays. During the wedding and holiday seasons, more than half of the questions asked of Miss Conduct are about giving. How much to spend? On what? For whom? How do I avoid getting caught in an unwanted reciprocity loop?

Gift-giving is a universal of the human species. Psychologists aren’t even sure at what age children start to spontaneously give presents (from dandelions to drawings), because every culture coaches them to give and share almost from birth. Why then is the chore of choosing presents so . . . bloody . . . difficult?

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Giving gifts serves symbolic functions — cementing relationships, celebrating life transitions — as well as the practical one of providing people with stuff they need. And this is at the crux of today’s etiquette dilemmas: For the first time ever, most of us have too much stuff and not enough money.

“Having stuff” and “having money” were once closely correlated. They aren’t anymore. The market is so saturated with cheaply made goods that it doesn’t take much money to be set up with everything you need. (That anyone is likely to give you as a gift, anyway. You might need a car or a kidney, but you won’t find one in your stocking.)

My mother tells the story of seeing blood in her own mother’s footprints during the Depression — my grandmother’s last pair of shoes had worn completely through. If the banks collapsed tomorrow, how long would it be before you literally ran out of shoe leather? It would be years, perhaps decades, for me.

While we have consultants and containers and whole businesses devoted to helping us manage our stuff, our wages stagnate, the employed are urged to “do more with less,” and food and fuel prices continue to rise. The present-buying budget is pinched, and the soul of even the most generous giver grows Grinch-like when she realizes that the present she buys will probably end up classified as “clutter” rather than “keepsake.”

The Internet conspires to make gift-giving less rewarding, too, both by laying bare its economics and by making previously local goods universally available. A former beau and I used to take great pleasure in scouring bookstores for vintage and obscure treasures for each other. Those old titles are all on Amazon now.

Can gift-giving get its groove back? I think it can, and I encourage you to try out the following tips as you gear up for the holidays.

Give experiences. The best present is a cherished memory. Tickets to a concert, play, or sporting event make wonderful gifts. A friend gave her wife trapeze lessons for her birthday — something she won’t forget any time soon. If you usually exchange gifts with friends, suggest spending the money together on a fancy dinner or a paintball excursion.

But experience gifts are best given to people you know well (trapeze lessons are not a welcome surprise to everyone). So for others, give something that can be used up or passed on — such as a bottle of wine, a picture frame, or a set of spices. And buy these things in multiples; your creativity should be spent on gifts for close friends and family.

Finally, try to make buying the present as meaningful as giving it. Shop with friends and take a break for coffee or cocktails. Host a gift-making craft night. Shop your values by supporting the artists and performers whose work you enjoy, and the bakers, beekeepers, and booksellers who live near you. If any of those artists or beekeepers are your friends, buy from them instead of for them and give their goods as gifts. (They won’t mind.)

Giving gifts in the cash-strapped, tchotchke-stuffed 21st century is challenging. But with a little ingenuity, some holiday magic might still be within reach.

Robin Abrahams is the Globe Magazine’s Miss Conduct. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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