What Did You Get For Christmas Last Year? Introducing the Freakonomics Personal Gift Registry

We need your help for an upcoming Freakonomics Radio segment. It’s about deadweight loss — the economic inefficiency that comes about when, for instance, someone buys you a $50 gift that you value at, say $10. That’s a deadweight loss of $40. Especially in an economy like this one, who wants to spend lots of money on a gift that the recipient doesn’t value?*

Here’s where you come in. We want to gather some data for the radio show, and potentially interview some of you as well. The idea is simple: in the comments section below, please describe some of the past holiday gifts you have received, using the form below. (Feel free to give us data for as many gifts as you can recall.**)

Giver: ____________________
Gift: _____________________
Cost (estimated): ____________
Value (to me): _____________

But wait: we want to give you a gift as well. In order to avoid future deadweight loss, we’re proposing a new Freakonomics Personal Gift Registry. Why should newlyweds and expectant mothers have all the fun when it comes to registering for gifts? Shouldn’t all of us be allowed to let people know what we really want?

So, in addition to filling in your deadweight loss data in the comments section, go ahead and tell the world what you really want this year. List as many gifts as you want; again, here’s a form to cut and paste:

What I want from [GIVER X]: ________
Cost (estimated): ___________________
What [GIVER X] would probably give me otherwise: ________________________
Cost (estimated): ___________________

Now all you have to do is send Grandma this URL, and you’ll never get another reindeer-and-snowman muffler again.

Thanks in advance, and happy everything.

* Thanks to the economist Joel Waldfogel, the holiday season is always a fun time to think about deadweight loss. Waldfogel wrote the seminal 1993 paper “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas,” and last year he published the book Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays. We also touched on the topic in a Times column about gift cards.

** I am sorry this blog doesn’t accommodate an easy fill-in form to handle these data but — well, it doesn’t. Do your best.

Shaun G

You can use Google Docs to create a simple form. I've created one using the questions above:



Giver: Best Friend
Gift: Hockey Tickets
Cost (estimated): $265 each (2 Tickets)
Value (to me): $30

I recieved "on the glass" seats for an NHL game. Unfortunately for the giver, they paid $265 for these tickets. I frequently attend games, and can scalp tickets for $15 each, and just move down to the exact same seats (unsold "on the glass"). Unknowningly they were trying to be extremely nice, but I could have replicated the gift for 1/20th of the cost.


Tell me about it (I will for obvious reasons stay anonymous):

Giver: My girlfriend
Gift: Girly-looking "man-purse"
Cost (estimated): 150$+
Value (to me): eh.. 20$

As for the second part of the question;

What I want from my girlfriend: NHL 11 videogame
Cost (estimated): 40$
What my girlfriend would probably give me otherwise: Something like a man-purse
Cost (estimated): 150$+

Alex in Chicago

Giver: Grandmother
Gift: 3 Sweaters
Cost (estimated): $150?+? They are wool.
Value (to me): $0, perhaps negative value because they take up space?

What I want from Anyone: Cash or Paying for a service I already am paying for
Cost : Variable
What Anyone would probably give me otherwise: Irrelevant
Cost (estimated): More than $0

I buy everything I need or want when I want or need it if I think its worth more than the money I'm paying for it. I also have cash on hand, thus there is nothing of small enough value that I could receive it as a gift that I value more than the money paid for it.

John Craig

Giver: Father in Law
Gift:Black and Decker Sander
Cost (estimated): $50.00
Value (to me) %0.00
It's been 5 years and I've never used it.

Andreas Moser

That's why I put up a wishlist of books that I would like to receive: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/books-my-wishlist/

Jacy Breil

Giver: Mother in Law
Gift: Jewelry (her taste, not mine)
Cost (estimated): $50 - $75
Value (to me): $2-3

I've always wondered what the value is for Goodwill (where the bad presents are eventually donated).
The in-laws could certainly save everyone some time, and donate a check to Goodwill straight away.

Giver: Father in Law
Gift: Team Sports Jersey for sport we don't watch
Cost (estimated): $50
Value (to me): $20 - Makes a great Cleaning Rag!

There's a level of unintentional value there..


It's only a deadweight loss if you assume the utility of the giver = the utility of the reciever. In this transation the reciever always comes out ahead, (unless it is a truly awful gift with negative value) How is the giver's utility measured? is it dependent on the recievers utility? What if the reciever just lies and says they love it? If the giver buys something as a gift I have to assume that they value the act of giving that gift more that the price of the gift. So where's the loss?

Personally, I love to get gifts I value less than the price. There are lots of things I would love to have, but not enough to shell out the $150 to buy it. Most of my wedding registry was chosen with this principle in mind. If the value to me is greater than the price, I would have bought it already.
I think Hammercher Schlemmer is also aware of this principle.

The best gifts though, are the ones you didn't realise you would enjoy so much until you got them.



Giver: Mother-in-Law
Gift: Mary Englebreit sewing kit
Cost (estimated): $25
Value (to me): $0; I donated it to goodwill the next month


Giver: Grandmother
Gift: Rent the Musical on DVD
Cost (estimated): $15
Value (to me): -$7.25 (minimum wage), because I had to spend an hour finding somebody who actually wanted it so that people wouldn't make fun of me for having a musical


Giver: Husband
Gift: Jar of Baconnaise
Cost (estimated): $5
Value (to me): At least $20 - not only is it vegan, kosher bacon-flavoured goodness, but I get tons of mileage out of telling everyone what wacky gifts my husband gives!


I realised I had started doing this to other people, so now I started using sites like yournextpresent and amazon to buy them a book or a dvd they will actually like rather than the random stuff I got before.


Cash or gift cards = almost no DWL
anything else almost all DWL


Giver: Wife
Gift: "Memento" VHS tape
Cost (estimated): $3.50
Value (to me): $0

She thought she was getting a really good deal on a DVD when she bought the movie online. She was a little surprised when it arrived at our home. We don't have a VHS player so had no way to watch it.


Don't you feel that by prefacing the question in the manner that you did, you will receive a skewed result? People know what you are looking for and therefore are looking for situations in which deadweight losses occur and most likely the most atrocious examples of deadweight loss. Is this your intention?


Amazon has a "Wish List" feature, which anticipates your idea of registering for gifts. The giftee can set the list up so that they don't know when an item has been purchased (but if someone else tries to purchase the same item, they will be alerted that it has already been bought).

Amazon even allows you to add items from other retailers (using a "Universal Wish List" button), so you are not limited to items on their site.

I use it for my gift list each year, and haven't had to regift anything for ages!


This is a good idea. How about extending the survey to include the deadweight losses in:

Farm subsidies
Public education
Municipal parks
National parks and forests

nat day

Giver: Mom
Gift: Kitchen Cart
Cost: ~~75
Value: 0 (stored in crawl space along with previous year's knife set, and previous year's toaster.

Keep telling her not to buy anything, but she insists. Plus, she can't afford it which drives me crazy.

We have a household full of stuff and are moving toward family xmas vacations instead of presents. No more stuff!

Hunter Gardner

Here's something interesting: I can not remember one, not ONE, present I got for Christmas just last year. Well that's a lie, I do remember one--it is the same present my sister has given me for the past few years: my favorite rum-flavored cake that my father's neighbor use to make.

Before she passed away, she left the recipe with my sister. It is delicious, but also has a large amount of value. A cake within itself shouldn't have much value, I mean it is literally a one-shot, consumable good... I eat it and don't get another one until next year. But what makes the cake special is that it reveals the true sentiment of gifting in the first place: it really is the thought that counts. Emotional value > Monetary Value.


Giver: Husband
Gift: Book - Biography of a photographer I admire
Cost (estimated): $25
Value (to me): Either $0 since I like getting my books for free at the library, or, $100's he paid attention to one small comment in October.