Should you give practical or luxury gifts this holiday season? [Study]

Key takeaways:

  • 61% of people prefer a useful gift this holiday season
  • Luxury gifts were considered most appropriate when celebrating retirement
  • A useful gift is considered luxury once you spend $397 or more
  • Partners expect a minimum of $980 to be spent on a luxury gift
  • The useful gift deemed most memorable for positive reasons was a coffee maker

As you age, your wants are likely to change. Instead of the latest sneakers or expensive jewelry, maybe you need a new fridge or your vacuum needs replacing. With these changes, preferences and appreciation of gifts may shift as well. At what age do useful gifts such as small kitchen appliances or home improvement tools start to be appreciated, and for which special occasions are they an appropriate present? Is there a correlation between income and desire for luxury versus useful gifts?

For a more complete picture, we surveyed 1,009 gift-givers and giftees to determine if there was a certain etiquette one should follow when buying gifts for parents, partners and other loved ones. At what price point does a useful gift become luxury? Keep reading to ensure the gifts you give this season will be positively received.

Holiday wishlist

As the holiday season quickly approaches, we asked respondents what gifts they would prefer to receive.

Infographic on preferences for luxury or useful gifts

When opening a gift, the majority of respondents (61%) hoped they would find something they could use. Gen Zers were also of the same mind, and were the most likely to say they prefer useful gifts this holiday season.

One out of 5 respondents craved the finer things in life as well as did most Gen Xers and millennials. Some, however, enjoyed a combination of both luxury and usefulness. Women and baby boomers were the most likely to report wanting to receive combination luxury-useful gifts.

Respondents were asked to define what gifts make up the categories "luxury," "useful," and "useful-luxury." Below are the items respondents categorized as best for the useful and luxury gifts:

Top 5 Useful Gifts

  1. Clothing/Shoes
  2. Small appliances
  3. Major appliances
  4. Food/alcohol
  5. Cosmetics/beauty

Top 5 Luxury Gifts

  1. Jewelry
  2. Experiences
  3. Clothing/Shoes
  4. Cosmetics/beauty
  5. Tech/electronics

Gift preferences by gift category also varied by gender and generation. Women and baby boomers said the best useful gifts were clothing, shoes and small and large appliances. Men agreed with this list for the most part but preferred experiences over large appliances. Both women and men said the best luxury gifts included either experiences, jewelry or clothing and shoes.

The most useful gifts for Gen Xers and millennials were clothing and shoes, small appliances and food or alcohol. Gen Zers voted the best useful gifts as clothing and shoes, cosmetics and experiences. For luxury goods, baby boomers, Gen Xers and millennials were in solidarity. They desired jewelry, experiences and clothing and shoes. Gen Zers again put cosmetics at the top of their best gift list, along with experiences and clothing and shoes, for luxury gifts.

Gift preferences even differed based on income levels. Those making between $60,000 and $80,000 annually were most likely to want useful gifts. Individuals with higher incomes of $80,001 to $100,000+, were most likely to desire luxury gifts. Meanwhile, respondents with incomes below $40,000 preferred luxury-useful gifts.

For the right occasion

Generally, significant life events or successes are accompanied by something special from friends and family members. Depending on the celebration, certain types of gifts may be considered more appropriate than others.

Infographic on age when people started appreciating certain useful gifts

Results showed that 27 was the age when most respondents wanted to start receiving useful gifts. This coincides with the average marrying age for Americans. As newlyweds settle down, they may also start a family or move into a new home. For both baby showers and housewarmings, useful gifts were considered the most appropriate option (68%), probably because they help equip the recipients for the next chapter of their lives.

All but one of the life events we asked about were more likely to be rewarded with a useful gift than a luxury one. The exception was retirement, which the majority of our respondents felt required a luxury gift (43%). As of 2020, 40% of retirees solely relied on Social Security for income. However, at an average monthly payment of $1,543, this alone is not sufficient for a comfortable retirement, so many may no longer be able to afford these luxuries on their own.

Infographic on parents preference for useful or luxury gifts

We also explored parents' perspectives on receiving useful versus luxury gifts from their children. Eighty percent of parents thought it was appropriate for their kids to give them a useful gift. Top useful gifts for moms included clothing, large appliances and small appliances. The top useful gifts for dads also included clothing, but differed with the inclusion of experiences and self-care products. Eleven percent of parents appreciated any gift from their child, with no strong views either way. Nevertheless, 9% of parents viewed useful gifts as inappropriate, and dads were more likely than moms to feel this way.

Gift-giving and price tags

Aside from celebrating the milestones listed above, we explored additional situations where it was deemed acceptable to gift something useful. But at what price does a useful gift become luxury?

Infographic on gifting etiquette preferences

Overall, useful gifts were considered most appropriate when the recipient had talked about wanting or buying the item or had even explicitly asked for it. Women were more gift-conscious, listening to and noting a giftee's desires. As such, they were the most likely to gift something useful under these three scenarios. Men were more likely than women to gift something useful for holidays or birthdays, if the item was top of the line or they thought the other person could use it.

Useful gifts can become luxury when they cost exactly $397 or more, according to our study. However, different generations had different opinions about this threshold. Primarily still in school or new to the workforce, Gen Zers believed a useful gift became luxury at the lowest amount of $337. For baby boomers this shift happened at $357. Meanwhile, both Gen Xers and millennials agreed on $400.

When it comes to purchasing a luxury gift for your significant other, it turns out there is a specific financial expectation. Overall, partners expected a minimum of $980 to be spent on a luxury gift. Women anticipated luxury gifts with a larger price tag of $1,184 minimum; while men were content with a $795 minimum.

Appreciation of popular gifts

Individuals' varying needs, wants and interests leave myriad options for possible useful and luxury gifts. Our survey helped determine the most common gifts in each category and revealed how these results differed according to age and gender.

Infographic on top useful and luxury gifts received

Small kitchen appliances (53%) were the most commonly received useful gift. Due to the increased popularity of smart homes, many recipients were also given smart technology (34%). By generation, baby boomers were more likely to receive towels, linens and smart tech. Gen Xers frequently reported getting self-care items, beauty products and home furnishings. For millennials, the most common useful gifts were manual cleaning supplies and exercise equipment, while Gen Zers were the most likely to receive survival tools.

Infographic on top most memorable positive and negative useful gifts

Specific useful gifts were most likely to be appreciated at different ages: self-care/beauty products at 15 years old, small appliances at 25 and home improvement tools and home furnishings at 30 years of age. However, on average, it wasn't until 25 that respondents began to appreciate useful presents in general. On average, luxury gifts were appreciated earlier at 22 years old.

Jewelry and watches (54%) were the luxury gifts most frequently received. Women were more likely than men to receive expensive home goods, alcohol and large furniture. Meanwhile, men were more likely to receive expensive electronics and personal care items. Both groups were equally likely to receive cars (23%), and there was a near tie for jewelry and watches (37% for women, 36% for men).

All the feels

Whether a gift creates positive feelings or negative ones, memorable gifts can bring tears to one's eyes.

Infographic on top memorable positive and negative useful gifts

Vacuums were among the top five most memorable useful gifts respondents had received. The other gifts in this category were cars, coffee makers, laptops and watches. The useful gift that generated the most positive sentiment was a coffee maker, enabling recipients to create one of America's most popular caffeinated beverages in the comfort of their own home.

Most often, useful gifts led to positive feelings like happiness (51%) or excitement (24%). However, poorly chosen presents may not go down so well. For example, the most negatively perceived useful gift was a feather duster. Although helpful, recipients were likely to have hoped for something else, leading to feelings of confusion, disappointment or even annoyance.

Respondents' negative memories of useful gifts focused around circumstance and often mentioned "at the time" or "time," possibly meaning they were simply too young to appreciate something they would now. On the other hand, 101 mentions of "needed," 85 mentions of "really" and 72 mentions of "wanted" were included in positive recollections of useful gifts.

Becoming gift-conscious

A certain level of finesse is required to become gift-conscious, i.e., anticipating a giftee's needs and wants in order to give a present that's memorable for all the right reasons. The majority of respondents preferred useful gifts and began appreciating them at 25 years old, although this varied based on income. Useful gifts proved appropriate for big life events, such as marriage or moving, while luxury gifts were thought to be more appropriate for celebrating retirement. Luxury gifts were first appreciated at a younger age of 22. However, recipients were less likely to want them this holiday season—demonstrating that a good gift is not always defined by the amount spent, but by the amount of thought behind it.

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Methodology and limitations

We surveyed 1,009 people on their perception of useful and luxury gifts. Respondents were 51% women and 49% men. Twenty-one percent of respondents were baby boomers, 32% were Gen Xers, 31% were millennials and 16% were Gen Zers.

All averages were calculated to exclude outliers. This was done by using the 5th and 95th percentile.

To help ensure that all respondents took our survey seriously, they were required to identify and correctly answer an attention-check question.

These data rely on self-reporting by the respondents and are only exploratory. Issues with self-reported responses include but aren't limited to exaggeration, selective memory, telescoping, attribution and bias. All values are based on estimation.

Fair use statement

Want to help spread joy this holiday season? We encourage you to share this article to assist others in finding memorable useful or luxury gifts that will be appreciated by their recipients. All we ask is that you do so for noncommercial purposes and link back to this survey.

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