Stop exchanging holiday gifts? Why most of us would gladly bow out

Last Updated Dec 11, 2017 11:41 AM EST

Susan Arpin prides herself on being an excellent gift-giver. The public relations executive takes time to search for unique, meaningful presents for her loved ones. Yet, last Christmas Arpin struggled to find items she thought would delight her family.

"Nothing felt special. I would think, 'do they really need this?" she remembered. Arpin's ambivalence stemmed from having moved right before the holidays, an activity that brought her face to face with all the stuff she had accumulated over the years. She didn't want more.

In November, Arpin texted her three adult children to say the family should forgo gift giving this year and instead meet up at her lake house next summer in Leesville, South Carolina. "Everyone agreed. They are all on budgets," she said, noting that her two grandchildren are (not surprisingly) exempt from the no-gift policy.

Arpin may seem like a heretic in a season where a barrage of ad campaigns, glitzy retail displays and news stories touting the latest must-haves join forces to make shopping feel more like a requirement than a choice. The truth is, many if not most people would simply rather forgo the hassle.

Nearly 7 in 10 Americans said they would skip exchanging gifts this holiday season if their friends and family agreed to it, according to a recent survey conducted online by Harris Poll on behalf of SunTrust Banks Inc. The poll of about 2,000 adults also found that 43% of people feel pressured by the holidays to spend more than they can afford.

"People like to give but sometimes their hearts are too big for their budgets," said Brian Nelson Ford, a "financial well-being executive" at SunTrust Bank.

Ford said he wishes that more people would have a conversation about eliminating holiday gift-giving. "It can be liberating," he said. "It can help people understand that their friends and family feel the same way they do."

Gabriella and Fred Brewington, a retired couple in Edgewood, Maryland, said their family's decision to stop exchanging gifts resulted from a desire to use the funds earmarked for presents in a more meaningful way. About two years ago, one of their four children suggested making one big donation to the American Cancer Society to honor two relatives who had died from the disease.

"Everyone thought it was a good idea," Fred Brewington said, noting that the family is fortunate enough to be able to buy what they need so while receiving a token from a relative is nice, it wasn't necessary.

Gabriella Brewington said the rite had become superfluous as it had been reduced to swapping gift cards. "I give you a gift card, you give me a gift card -- what's the point?" she asked, although noting that the four grandchildren (again, unsurprisingly) continue to receive presents.

Arpin isn't a fan of gift cards, saying they show a lack of thought and imagination, even after her daughters had given her one in recent years. "The giving was feeling forced," she explained.

Arpin said she'll likely use part of the roughly $2,000 she'll save by not giving gifts to her three children and son-in-law to help them purchase airline tickets for the summer reunion.  A quarter of those surveyed by SunTrust said that if they didn't have to buy gifts, they would use the money to spend time with family and friends.

"I'd rather just have us all together," Arpin said.