When Dad Says ‘Don’t Waste Your Money’ on Father’s Day Gifts, He Means It

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Why is it that it’s so difficult to buy gifts for dads on Father’s Day? The answer, which many marketers and quite a few sons and daughters don’t want to hear, is that plenty of dads truly don’t want anything that’s bought in a store.

It’s at this time of year when lists of “Great Ideas for Father’s Day Gifts” are in abundant circulation. The truth is that most aren’t great, or even good ideas, though. Many of these gifts, in fact, will leave dad in a state of discomfort that the purchases were made, likely at full price—because someone or other decided that it was a “hot” Father’s Day gift item. And do you really want to make dad uncomfortable on a day dedicated in his honor?

There’s a peculiar challenge to the celebration of Father’s Day. As Detroit News columnist Brian J. O’Connor recently put it, “Father’s Day gift giving is fraught with peril.” Whereas the overarching point of Mother’s Day is basically to make a fuss as a display of well-deserved gratitude for Mom, Dads are generally uncomfortable—perhaps to the point of severe annoyance—when a fuss is made over them. There’s something unmanly, and particularly un-Dadly, about being pampered or showered with pricey gifts. Splurging on dad is a dicey proposition. O’Connor writes about the risks inherent in choosing a Father’s Day present:

Spend too much, and Dad will lecture you on the value of a hard-earned dollar (which, come to think of it, he might enjoy giving). Worse, dad could feel intimidated by a pricey gift.

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The Orlando Sentinel sought an academic’s explanation for why people go overboard for moms on Mother’s Day, but not so much for dads on their big day:

“I think people have stronger bonds to moms than they do to dads,” said Steve Kirn, director of the University of Florida’s David F. Miller Center for Retailing Education and Research. Also, men are generally considered tougher to buy for.

“What do you give guys?” he said. “A tie? Nobody wears ties. A golf club? You run out of ideas pretty quick.”

The predicament leads many to throw up their hands in frustration and give up entirely on bothering with Father’s Day gifts. A survey conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs for the shopping site RetailMeNot reveals that nearly half of adults (46%) say they typically spend a grand whopping total of $0 on Father’s Day presents.

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That seems just fine with many fathers. According to the survey, the most popular “gift,” chosen by 40% of dads, was “quality time with family (dinner, grilling, outing) for Father’s Day.” In a distant second place was a gift card, selected by 13% of dads. Well, actually the second-most popular option was for no gift whatsoever—chosen by 22% of fathers.

The message most dads are sending is this: “Please, don’t waste your money on me.” As a father and someone who knows his father pretty well, I can attest that we actually mean it.

Data released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) indicate that many consumers aren’t obeying this directive, however. The NRF’s latest survey states that the average person will spend $117.14 on Father’s Day gifts this year, an increase of 10% over Father’s Day 2011. That’s still below Mother’s Day spending ($152, on average), but many dads would tisk-tisk the idea that some $12.7 billion will be spent on Father’s Day.

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Dads probably won’t literally “tisk-tisk” out loud. That’s not a very fatherly, macho sound. Instead, what they’re likely to do is reply upon receiving, say, a new shirt is, “Thanks, how nice,” before the shirt winds up in a closet, where it will stay untouched and unworn, with the tags still on—next to other gifts in the same exact condition.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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