New Holiday Tradition: Buying Yourself a Gift

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Gift exchanges are so inefficient. Unless everyone’s picked out presents via gift registry, there’s a decent chance someone will receive an unwanted gift—which amounts to a waste of time and money. And if everyone’s picked out their own gifts in advance, and there’s not much surprise or thought involved, the idea of a gift exchange is something of a charade. Why not just have all parties buy gifts for themselves? In some ways, this appears to be happening already.

‘Tis the season of giving—to the person you love most (you!). Last year, surveys of holiday shoppers revealed a noticeable rise in “self-gifting.” Leading up to the 2010 holiday season, 57% of consumers said they’d expected to splurge on a personal gift for themselves. That’s up from 52% the year before.

This year, even more shoppers say they’ll be celebrating during the deal season with a little bit (or a lot) of self-indulgence. According to a National Retail Federation poll, 6 in 10 holiday shoppers this season will be making “self-gift” purchases—intended to be kept for themselves or their families, not given away.

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What’ll they be self-gifting? The usual stuff: TVs—lots of TVs, apparently—along with clothes, home goods, etc. Pretty much anything that wouldn’t wind up under the tree or handed over during a gift exchange would fit the category. The NRF reports that not only are more consumers likely to self-gift, they’re more likely to be spending more on themselves:

The average person will spend approximately $130.43 during the holiday season to take advantage of sales and discounts on apparel, electronics, home goods and other items for themselves or a family member, up from $112.20 last year.

Part of the reason for the rise in self-gifting is that, in theory at least, consumers have been holding back from spending for months, if not years, as the economy’s struggled. Shoppers are sick of scaling back, and all that pent-up demand is translating into more purchases at the mall.

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Viewed one way, the rise in self-gifting might indicate that consumers haven’t learned a whole lot since the recession. Shoppers are using credit cards more, which will inevitably result in more people struggling to deal with credit card debt. On the other hand, however, consumers seem to have been biding their time in order to make purchases strategically: They knew to wait for seasonal discounts on TVs and clothing, and now that the deals are upon us, they’re buying.

To some extent, self-gifting is impulsive as well. An NRF executive talked to AdAge about how impulse buys, self-gifting, and seasonal deals are related:

“Everything we’re seeing indicates there are more impulse purchases than a year ago, that we’re going back to 2006, 2007 levels,” said Ellen Davis, VP at the National Retail Federation. “We’ve talked to a lot of people who are saying, ‘it was such a good deal, I couldn’t pass it up.’ Certainly that’s something that’s been absent in the past few years.”

What does the self-gifting trend mean for a season traditionally known for charity, unselfishness, and regular old giving-type giving? Self-gifting may not be replacing gift exchanges, but it appears to be becoming an annual ritual, along the lines of wreaths on front doors and candy stuffed in stockings on Christmas morning.

(MORE: Gift Registry for Everyone: Why Surprise Presents Are a Bad Idea)

Some insight courtesy of USA Today:

“During the holidays, we traditionally think of it as a season for gift-giving,” says NPD Group Chief Industry Analyst Marshal Cohen. But self-indulgence is quickly becoming a “new tradition.”

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.