Money: The most consistent Christmas gift of all time

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If you’re struggling to figure out what exactly someone wants for Christmas, consider this often-visited destination on shopping trips: the ATM.

Why you can’t go wrong with giving the gift of cash

Money is a present that’s always in season and never has a latest, greatest upgrade (unless the dollar happens to be stronger that day, of course). There’s no receipt necessary when giving it. And whatever its reputation as a gift, there’s a good bet that it’s more valuable to the recipient than many purchased goods.

‘Apart from the joy that givers get from choosing gifts and recipients get from receiving things, as a means of resource allocation, gift-giving is pretty bad,’ Joel Waldfogel, author of the book Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays, told Consumer Reports. Waldfogel, a University of Minnesota economist, estimates that individuals value presents bought for them about 20 percent less than things they buy for themselves. He bases the number on several surveys he’s conducted since the 1990s.

Read more: The best gift cards to buy & ones to avoid

Waldfogel grants that gifting money is ‘considered tacky in our culture,’ and he has his own criteria and suggestions for what constitutes a good present. And it’s not like buying gifts is an economics equation — Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton said that evaluating cash as a more efficient present than a specific good ‘is the sort of narrow view that rightly gives economics bad name.’ There are social aspects to gift-giving, including interpersonal relationships and tradition.

But that doesn’t make money an inferior present, necessarily. After all, it’s as versatile gift as there is. As Consumer Reports notes, it can be used for deep discounts on post-Christmas shopping, or put to some use that the gift-giver wouldn’t know. In the movie Christmas Vacation, the protagonist Clark Griswold plans to use his expected holiday work ‘bonus’ for a swimming pool in his yard. When he discovers his bonus isn’t money, but membership in an obscure club, he doesn’t take it too well.

Read more: Tipping for the holidays: Who and how much?

Point being: Money can be a safe gift idea, short of having any others.

If you’re concerned that greenbacks or a written check lack the aesthetic power of a typical Christmas present, consider some clever packaging ideas. It doesn’t just have to be cash inside a card. Embedding it with a candy baton is a kid-friendly idea, and using it as a bookmark inside a separate gift from the bookstore could work for an older recipient.

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