Gift givers and recipients frequently disagree on what constitutes a ‘good’ gift

This is the first story in a new MarketWatch series, “Gifts that pay off.” Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday between now and Dec. 25, we will look at gifts that could potentially earn the receiver money.

The holiday shopping season starts as soon as the Thanksgiving turkey is cleared off plates.

Americans are expected to shell out an average of $430 to buy about 14 gifts each, according to financial services firm Deloitte’s 2017 holiday spending survey. The marathon Thanksgiving and Black Friday consumer frenzy accounts for a quarter of all retail sales for the year, according to Deloitte. But much of the spending is for naught: Roughly $1 billion in gift cards alone go unspent. And that doesn’t take into account the money spent on all those unwanted gifts.

Our 2017 holiday gift guide features gifts that pay off. And not just stocks or ETFs, but gifts that help your family, friends and children be happier, get smarter, save time, and bring new opportunities.

MarketWatch is here to help. Our 2017 holiday gift guide features gifts that pay off — presents that may actually be good investments for the recipient. And by “investments,” we don’t mean just stocks or ETFs, but gifts that will help your family, friends and children be happier, get smarter, save time, and bring new opportunities.

Luckily, academics have been hard at work studying why we sometimes fail at gift giving and how we can do better. “If we can understand why people are making these errors, we can help consumers make their dollar go farther when they’re gift giving,” said Julian Givi, a marketing Ph.D student at Carnegie Mellon University who co-authored a 2016 paper on common gift giving errors.

Ahead of our new holiday gift guide, here are some of the big takeaways on how to approach this most socially treacherous season:

It’s the thought that counts — or is it? It’s better to just ask…

Forget the personality analysis and clue-dropping. When people ask for something specific, get it for them. Failing that, just ask. Givers sometimes disregard recipients’ stated gift requests because they think it’s more thoughtful to go out and find a more surprising present. But recipients generally prefer the requested gifts, according to researchers at Harvard and Stanford.

The alternative is far worse than asking. People tend to give their fathers neckties, tools and electronics, while they give their mom jewelry, clothes and perfume, experts say. With the MarketWatch “Gifts that pay off” guide, it may be eminently possible to avoid both. Robert Passikoff, founder and president of Brand Keys, says it’s best to avoid both. “There’s so much more to buy for a mother than a father,” he told MarketWatch.

Go ahead and be mushy: Sentimental gifts are a better bet than we think

Want a gift that someone will really appreciate over the long haul? Listen to your heart, not your head. “People often offer things with superficial attributes that the recipient is known to like,” Givi said. “I have a brother who likes Nike NKE, +0.10% so I’ll often give him Nike products because I’m certain they’ll be well-liked. But in reality what recipients actually want are things that are more sentimental.”

People get used to shiny new objects such as iPads, but the pleasure they feel about them diminishes over time — a concept known as “hedonic adaptation.” Sentimental gifts that remind the recipient of a special person or time in their life don’t lose their luster as much, Givi said. “Over time, you stay happy with them,” he said. Givers may be less inclined to give sentimental gifts because they consider them risky compared with more traditional presents that the recipient has previously liked, but it’s a leap worth taking, Givi said.

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