Are we spending too much on gifts?

by Sam ’16, Evelyn ’17 and Maggie ’18

Birthday-Gift ONLINE2

Car ’17 staff illustrator

Isabel ’18 grabbed some candy, a small journal and fuzzy socks off the shelves of a Japanese dollar store. She was shopping for her friend’s birthday party and wanted cute gifts that her friend would like. When she arrived at the party and watched her friend open the gifts, Isabel started questioning her present because she hadn’t spent as much as others had. Even though Isabel said she was happy with her gift and the fact that her friend really liked it, the pressure of realizing how much others had spent made her feel as though her present wasn’t good enough.

Gift giving has been a perennial concern for teenage girls. Dean of Student Life Regina Rosi said she has noticed the pressure to spend more on gifts increasing in recent years.

As the standards for gifts rise, so does the question of what a ‘meaningful’ present is. Marlborough students are questioning whether the meaning of a gift lies in the amount it costs or the thought put into it. Numerous girls have expressed difficulties in finding the right present for close friends without spending more than they feel comfortable with.

What is the origin of the pressure to spend on gifts? How do girls experience this pressure? What can be done to avoid spending too much on presents?


The pressing question of what makes a gift meaningful is one that many girls answer differently. For some, the meaning of a gift is heavily influenced by its emotional value and creativity, while, according to a survey sent out by the UltraViolet, a third of the Marlborough community find that expensive gifts hold more meaning than their creative counterparts.

One girl who feels that expensive gifts hold meaning is Niki C. ’18.

“[I look for] money and emotional value [in a gift]…if it comes from the heart I’m willing to accept it, but if it comes from the wallet, it’s even better,” she says.

Niki C. acknowledged that there is a delicate balance between price and meaning because some girls don’t have the money to spend on gifts, and according to Niki C., that’s fine, as long as the girl puts in effort.

Other girls say that price shouldn’t play a role in how meaningful one finds a gift.

“Price isn’t necessarily what matters, it’s more what comes from your thoughtfulness,” Emma ’18 said.

Isabel agrees with Emma and realizes the effect a personalized, original gift can have on the recipient. When Isabel was in second grade, she planned to move, and her best friend at the time made her a scrapbook of all of their memories together.

“I still have [the scrapbook] and it’s kind of falling apart, and I’m not really that good friends with her anymore but it’s still a special moment,” Isabel said.

Emma shared a similar experience in giving a gift. When she was in eighth grade, Emma gave her friend a personalized picture frame for their annual Secret Santa to avoid asking her parents to spend money on an expensive gift. She was shocked when she received a Juicy Couture bracelet in return and didn’t know how to respond to the pricey gift.

“I was happy with my choice [to give a personalized gift], but it made me a little bit uncomfortable because it made me think that I should have spent a little bit more,” Emma said.

Kyra ’18 agrees that the meaning of a gift is not determined by price, but she still tends to spend more than average on presents.

“As a general rule of thumb for me, I end up spending a lot on gifts – it’s one thing for your two close friends, but it’s another thing for not as close of friends, to be spending 75, 85, 100 dollars…Also, I just personally feel uncomfortable getting someone something that I don’t think is adequate because everything is so expensive,” Kyra says.

Niki B. ’18 felt pressure to reciprocate the generosity of a friend, who would take her out to a barbeque or an amusement park every year. In trying to show appreciation, Niki B.’s initial reaction was to look for gifts in a higher price bracket. Unfortunately, buying a more extravagant gift meant that she would have to spend money that she didn’t have. After mulling it over for a while, she decided that she didn’t have to buy an extravagant gift in order to return the generosity and instead could buy a personal gift with a lot of value.

“It’s better to come up with something from the heart and not something wildly expensive…Gifts with sentimental value are the ones that really count and the ones that your friends will remember,” she said.

Despite all these students saying that it’s the thought that really counts, there is still pressure to get a fancy gift because people do not want to disappoint their friends.


Girls say a variety of factors, including expectations of wealth and reciprocity, create pressure to spend more on gifts. The pressure to live up to the assumption that Marlborough families are wealthy and the fear of not meeting the standards set by other girls’ gifts play into gift spending.

Rosi and Isabel agree that extravagant parties make the pressure to buy expensive gifts even higher. Parties outside of school range from sleepovers and beach hangouts to paintball games and dinners at nice restaurants.

“Five, ten years ago, a typical birthday party would be having your friends over, you’d have a sleepover, get pizza or takeout, watch a movie, eat junk food and call it a day, and maybe for a sweet 16 you might do something a little fancier,” Rosi said. “Now it just seems like [for] any birthday…you have to continue to have a tea or a lunch or a dinner or a Dry-Bar makeup extravaganza.”

Marlborough’s private school atmosphere also plays a role for some students in the pressure to overspend on birthday gifts. Nellie ’17 says there is an assumption at Marlborough that every family is well-off financially and able to spend freely on gifts.

Sometimes these types of assumptions lead girls to make requests for birthday presents that aren’t affordable for their friends. For example, when a friend of Isabel once asked for a variety of expensive gifts for her birthday. The girl’s birthday party was at a resort hotel in Palm Springs, which made Isabel feel even more pressure to buy the expensive gifts the girl had requested. Even so, she and her friends decided not to ask their friend to lower the price range.

“We didn’t understand why she wanted such an expensive gift, [but] we thought it would be rude on our part to ask her to choose something less expensive,” Isabel said.

In order to afford the pricey gifts, Isabel and her friends decided to pool their money together instead of each buying individual gifts.

According to Marlborough School Counselor Emily Vaughn, the burden to spend on expensive presents can be anxiety provoking, especially because so many girls at Marlborough see people giving gifts to their friends.

Perceived pressure to spend on gifts, however, may sometimes diverge from the true expectations of birthday girls. Many girls said they do not have high-price expectations for their birthday gifts.

“I’ll be happy with anything, or nothing,” Lila Puziss ’17 said. “Just that they put in the effort is nice.”

single present ONLINE2

Natalie ’16 staff illustrator


Marlborough girls can avoid over-the-top gifts by using their imaginations to find creative and personal gifts that will not clean out their bank accounts. One such creative idea would allow an entire friend group to get involved in a less expensive, charitable gift-giving endeavor.

12th Grade Level Dean and math instructor Alison Moser says that the best gifts she has ever received haven’t been worth much monetarily. She added for the holidays a whole friend group can get together and agree to only spend a small amount, like five dollars, on each other’s’ gifts and use the rest of the money you would have spent on each other to go shopping together and get presents for a family in need.

The options for creative gift giving are limitless. For birthdays, Puziss says that her best creative present ideas come to her between 12 and 24 hours before the party.

“Always a good default is funny books, like novelty books,” Puziss said.

For some, the homemade option is best, as homemade gifts can offer a personal touch that otherwise be missed. All school Vice President Olivia ’16 has had great experiences with receiving personalized gifts.

“One time my friend got [me] a nice picture of our friend group and framed it and then had all of my friends write nice things on the mat around the picture,” Olivia said. “It’s also a great idea to make a video of a bunch of friends saying nice things about a person for their birthday,” she suggested.

Many in the Marlborough community have found success in easing pressure to spend on gifts by setting spending limits, making homemade presents and finding gag gifts that are in line with a friend’s personality. These more personal and creative gifts are often the ones that people remember most.

Members of the Marlborough community expressed that it is often easier to get personalized gifts for close friends because they know so much about each other’s interests. Moser said that sometimes the hardest part of gift giving is finding the time to find the perfect present. By putting in the time for a close friend, Marlborough girls can either make something special or find the perfect creative gift that won’t cost too much and that they will always remember.

Nellie agrees that a special gift is one that is personalized. She recalls a gift of jelly beans that was linked to an ongoing joke that the gift-giver owes her jelly beans.

“[The jelly beans were] from Rite Aid I mean I don’t care that it was from Rite Aid, I care that it was meaningful,” Nellie said.