A Family of Gift-Maximizers

(Photo: Jimmie)

A reader/listener from Oregon named T.K. writes in, having heard us talk about holiday gift-giving in our “Have a Very Homo Economicus Christmas” podcast:

Guys, thought you might be interested in a couple of econ-related oddities from my family at Christmas time. The first occurred this year. I am single and my brother and step-sister are both in relationships. My parents bought gifts for the boyfriend and girlfriend, and once I found out that they were planning to do that, I asked for my “share” of the boyfriend/girlfriend pool. I just wanted to be sure my take was the same as what my brother and his girlfriend, and step-sister and her boyfriend were getting. My parents obliged, so even though I am single, a few more Christmas gifts under the tree for me:) Don’t know how other families handle this issue, but it’s working beautifully in my family.

The second oddity is that my stepdad is quite fond of “buyouts.” Over the last decade, we have tentatively planned eight vacations away from home and executed exactly two of them. Each year, my mom gets really excited about going someplace new — it was Belgium for a while; Hawaii; Bend, Or., just to name a few. The way it works is this: my mom finds a place, my stepdad decides he doesn’t want to go. To get my brother, stepsister, and me on board with not going, he offers us a lump-sum payment. He knows that whatever the vacation, it will cost him two to three times the actual lump sum after we’ve paid for lift tickets, beer, surfing, whatever we dream up to do. It’s hard for people in their 20s and 30s to turn down a lump-sum payment to not go on a vacation, and the buyouts are usually pretty healthy. My friends are extremely envious of the family buyouts, and I’m proud of my family for being economic realists. Cheers to another great year.

How would you like to be a member of T.K.’s family? Do you find his stepfather’s buyouts clever or repugnant? And finally: if you had to buy T.K. a gift based on his note, what would you get him?




I would get him whatever his "share" was in coal! What a ridiculously selfish thing to say to your parents. It really isn't surprising at all that he doesn't have a girlfriend.

As far as his stepdad goes, he should just forgo the payments and take his wife on a nice vacation without T.K., that should save some money. Greedy ingrate.


WAIT A MINUTE – don’t you see what’s going on here? Sure, someone’s being greedy – it’s mom and dad!

Dad: Hey, honey – what do you say to a little vacation to Hawaii?

Mom: Mmmm, sounds romantic – if only we could leave the kids at home.

Dad: So let’s leave ’em.

Mom: But wouldn’t they be hurt if we go off someplace fun and abandon them?

Dad: I know – Let’s pretend that this trip was all YOUR idea, and that I hate it. I’ll get them to side with me, partly as a favor to me, and partly to get some small compensation. You pout, but give in. Then, later on, I say that you insisted on going -- alone if you had to – and I capitulated just to keep you company. We’ll have the time of our lives, and all the while our bratty kids will be laughing about how they skunked us out of some pocket change. Everyone’s happy. Whatdaya say?


it may take 2 to tango- even tho the stepdads behavior is reprehensible, there may be a reason why he doesnt gel with the family which may originate from the other members...


He sounds like a greedy bas*ard to me. But the only difference between him and me is that he does something about it.


First of all, those aren't "buyouts" - they're bribes. I don't necessarily consider them repugnant, but I don't understand why his mom tolerates them. If nothing else, she should proffer bribes of her own to get the kids to commit to the vacations.

I would not want to be part of this family. They seem to treat each other not as family, but as transactors. I grew up with some of this (I paid interest on loans from my dad) but most of it was to teach me to be just and responsible. This, on the other hand, seems to be a family that values corruption and the power of a strong lobbying position.

I think T.K.'s ideal gift combo is (1) surveillance equipment, and (2) a book on the Watergate scandal so he'll know how not to get caught by his parents or siblings.


I'd get T.K a copy of the book, "101 Most Expensive Vacation Destinations!" with an author's dedication written out to his mother.

And then I'd ask for a share of the resulting proceeds.


I don't get the argument for having a "share" equal to that of the other siblings. My parents buy gifts for both me and my boyfriend because they like him and consider him a member of the family, not because we come as a "set" and they're obliged. He's not getting something at the expense of me, it's just an *additional* gift.

And I value my vacations and travel way *more* than the cost of the trip! No way you could buy those experiences and time with loved ones from me for a bargain...


He's a greedy little opportunist. I wouldn't buy him anything.


I decided to vote against you, mom, even though you were "super excited" about Belgium because the money meant more to me than your feelings.

It just isn't Christmas if I don't receive the dollar equivalent of my siblings AND their plus ones. What a great Christmas carol that sentiment would be. I can't wait to teach my kids to be this selfish.

T.K. Keen, I pity you for feeling proud about this.


The whole "vacation buyout" thing reminds me of the letter that made the rounds of the internet a few years ago about getting paid not to farm: http://tomgpalmer.com/2008/02/04/not-raising-pigs/ (Original source unknown.)


I guess everybody is entitled to their own definition of "family." However, I find the entire family's behavior manipulative and unkind. I would love to go on family vacations for the simple fact that I'd get to spend time with my family. And isn't the point of giving gifts to show love and appreciation regardless of value? Wow!


I'm not sure I understand the logic of the first point. Is the author proposing that a couple constitutes a single entity and that he, as a single person, should be equal to that entity in gift value? That doesn't really make sense, since even if there is an economy of scale in couplehood, two still require more resources than one. Is he saying that he is saving up his future-girlfriend's portion until such time as she arrives to claim her "share"? I guess that makes a bit more sense, but seems pretty far-fetched. It doesn't strike me as "even" for the single sibling to receive an extra portion, which goes to the SOs of the attached siblings. An SO is a person in their own right, not simply an extension of the brother/sister.

All of which is somewhat moot, since requesting such a thing flies in the face of the meaning of the holiday. In my family, there are often years when one sibling's gift "value" far exceeds the others - either because of need or because there was just a particular nice gift that was available. It evens out over the years. And even if it didn't, does anyone really care?


Shawn Thompson

I think this T.K. character has gotten too used to being spoiled rotten his entire life.

Considering that their siblings in relationships are now likely buying presents for two sets of parents, and T.K. only one, receiving an extra 'share' makes sense. One might also consider the fact that the boyfriend/girlfriend in question are actual people for whom gifts are being bought, and not just an economic extension of the child.

This type of behavior might fly in a teenage advice column, but for someone in their "20s or 30s" to be pulling this type of stunt this late in life is unacceptable. If I had to buy T.K. a gift, the only thing I would find acceptable would be a charitable donation in his name, as it would truly be a shame to fuel his fire of immaturity.

I don't even want to get started about the vacation. It's one thing to know these type of people exist, but to see them comment about it as if there aren't some serious fundamental issues is very depressing. On the plus side, these feelings are greatly outweighed by knowing lots of people who treat holidays and vacations with the family as a time to celebrate and relax, and not just another economic transaction.

If I had to buy T.K. a gift based on his note, I would buy


David Stigant

>> it’s working beautifully in my family.

By which you mean "I'm blissfully unaware of the fact that the other members in my family think I'm a self-centered brat, aren't, in the least bit surprised that I don't have a girlfriend, and are too polite to say anything lest they disrupt the holiday cheer"

David Stigant

>> my mom finds a place, my stepdad decides he doesn’t want to go.

And your stepfather is a jerk as well. This whole story reminds me of the woman who was raised by an Ayn Rand enthusiast.


Mom likes the idea of going on vacations and wants to make stepdad go on them. Stepdad obviously doesn't like them - something I understand perfectly well - and wants not to go on them. Why is stepdad a jerk, and mom not? Seems like a perfectly symmetric situation: both want the other to submit to discomfort for their own pleasure. The only difference is that stepdad has discover how to get his own way.

(The obvious solution here would be for mom to go on vacation, with or without kids, while stepdad stays home.)

Lori Rogue

so i read today (as me and a coworker were having a debate on woman drivers being worse drivers or not) that there was a 14% increase in fatalities in woman drivers alone between 2000-2012. I would love to hear your opinion or research as to why you believe this is. I follow your podcasts and every one of your books and i am a very big fan!


I think the stepdad doesn't want to go anywhere because he is stuck with the costs. Why is that he should pay for adult children's vacation? Shouldn't the adult children pay their own way? If you have to pay to get your children to spend time with you, then may be they don't want to spend time with you. No need to buyout, the gift is "no vacation with you." The stepdad should take the mom to somewhere he and the mom both want to go using the buyout money.

For the present I would return T.K.'s original gift and split the money one less expensive, but more numerous, gifts. For example, trade in that coat for a pair of gloves and socks, wrapped separately.


So when all three siblings have children, if TK has two children, and his brother and step-sister each have one, TK's child should get only one half the number (or value) of grandparent gifts that his/her cousins get?