A Classical Approach To Gifting Culture

Questions.  As a blogger, there’s always people asking questions about our story.  Most of the time the questions are simply people doubting our story is real.  Others simply jump to conclusions based upon what they see (or don’t see) in our monthly expense reports.

One question I’ve encountered multiple times is around the culture of gift giving:

“Hey Mr. Tako, Why do I never see you listing gift expenses in your monthly expense reports?  Don’t you give gifts?  It seems like every weekend I’m taking my kid to another kid’s birthday party.  It’s normal to bring a gift.  Combine those gifts with Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other holidays, and it feels like my monthly budget for gift-giving is $200 every month.  How do you avoid it?

Indeed, we don’t often have gift expenses cluttering up our expense reports.  The answer to this is quite simple really…


A Recent Birthday Gift

To be clear, the Tako family lives in the same “gifting culture” that the rest of North American and many European countries do.  We also have relatives that live in Japan — where it’s a cultural norm to bring a gift every time you visit someone’s home or meet-up with a friend.

So, we’re very well versed on the cultural norms around gift-giving.

Most people simply buy gifts.  It’s quick and easy, but also a little impersonal.  The cost can add-up quickly if you have an active social life however.

What’s our solution?  We try to make gifts instead.  Maybe this is a little old fashioned, but I actually prefer it over buying gifts.  (More on this later)

Here’s a recent example:

Last week a friend invited us to a birthday dinner party.  She was going to be covering the cost of the dinner party, so it would be culturally appropriate for us to bring a gift.

Rather than succumb to the sirens call to spend, I set my brain to work on the problem.

This friend is a sophisticated foodie that loves to throw dinner parties and serves really delicious food. (A good kind of friend to have)  Usually other adults just cop-out and buy a fancy bottle of wine or pickup a gift card for her on occasions like this.

Not me.  In this case, I thought a dirty old piece of firewood would be an appropriate…


OK, OK.  I’m mostly kidding!  I did manage to clean things up and turn that firewood into this nice cheese board/serving platter.

cheese board

This friend has passion for throwing fancy parties, so I thought something like this might make a great gift.  It feeds right into her passions for food and parties.

(The party hasn’t happened yet, but I’ll find out later this week if she likes it.)

I wasn’t joking about the piece of firewood — It really did come from a firewood pile, which made this gift completely free.  The dimensions are 12 inches by 19 inches, making it fairly large piece.

You might also have noticed wood has a very unusual grain — it’s a spalted maple with a fiddleback grain (that’s those fancy tiger stripes).  This is not something you can find at Home Depot.

cheese board 3

Not to brag, but if you were to buy a fancy board like this off Amazon or Etsy, the prices range from $50 on the low-end to over $123 on the high-end.

It cost me nothing more than a few hours in the garage.



OK, I know what your going to say next — “That’s great Mr. Tako, but who has that kind of free time?  I certainly don’t!  You only have free time because you don’t have a job.”

Well, I reject that pathetic excuse.

Honestly, I don’t have more time to create gifts than anyone else does.  I have two kids to take care of, a blog to run, I cook meals, clean the house, and do most of the grocery shopping for our household.  I’m a busy stay at home dad that also tries to exercise regularily and get a reasonable amount of sleep.

My time is limited just like everyone else’s!  I simply choose to spend it productively instead of wasting it.  But feel free to spend your time watching Netflix or playing video games, and then cry about “not having enough time” in the comments below.  I don’t mind.

In total, I put around 6 hours into this gift — It was a quick project that took a couple hours every night over the span of three evenings.

You see, spare time is just an illusion — I make time to create gifts because I enjoy the process of making things.  I plan ahead and slowly whittle away at a project until it’s done.  A couple hours a day is all I have.  Simpler gifts (like the one featured here) might take a couple of days, but larger projects could take weeks.

For big gift-giving events like Christmas, I actually start months in advance to get them all done.  (Yes, I already have this year’s Christmas gifts prototyped and planned.)


Tools & Materials

The next bit of whining I usually hear is along the lines of “You’re lying to yourself Mr. Tako — you aren’t accounting for the cost of tools and materials.  Tools aren’t cheap.  If you account for those things, your cost of creating gifts is actually quite high.”

Well, that might be true if I actually had any expenses for tools or materials.  Do you see any of those items in my expense reports?

Nope!  And there’s a reason for it.  You see, I have this philosophy around hobbies — they either need to be extremely low cost OR actually produce cash.  Not the other way around.

I actually source all of my materials from free sources.  In the case of wood, I even wrote a post about how to find free wood.  It’s not hard, there’s free wood practially everywhere.

Sometimes it’s as simple as seeing a fancy piece of wood in a firewood pile.  A treasure in someone else’s trash.

As far as tools go — well, I’ve written about that too.  Most of my tools were either free (hand-me-downs from my father, gifts, or freecycled).  In a couple of cases, I’ve purchased used tools at extremely discounted prices off Craigslist.

Finding free tools and materials doesn’t happen overnight.  It’s taken me nearly 10 years to amass the tools that I do have.  Most of them were entirely free.


The Triple Win

Over the years, making my own gifts certainly has had an incredible “pay-off”, but not in the way you might think…

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always made things.  It was a activity that brought me continual happiness.  I started out with paper, playdough and popsicle sticks and eventually moved onto more advanced things when I got older.

I did this primarily because I enjoyed it, not because I wanted to save money.

After awhile, I began to realize that making things for other people also made them happy.  It was a double win.  Saving a little money and being able to give a higher quality gift is just one more bonus.

Let’s call that a triple win.

So in a way, making your own gifts actually “pays off” at 3x.  Once when you make it, again when you give it, and one more time when you save some money.

When was the last time you could say that about a gift from the store?


[Image Credit: Flickr]

23 thoughts on “A Classical Approach To Gifting Culture

  • September 19, 2018 at 7:09 AM

    With the bounty of your garden I am sure a lot of your gifts are home grown produce. I love receiving a jar of homemade salsa or pesto sauce. I have been asked to return the canning jar after I have emptied it and I am always happy to do so. I do not garden but I do bake and I often make a seasonal loaf for the hosts to enjoy the next day.

    • September 19, 2018 at 9:02 AM

      We’re not big on canning, but yes we do give away plenty of garden produce! 🙂

  • September 19, 2018 at 7:12 AM

    Nice job with the cheeseboard. The pattern is really cool.
    We usually cop out and buy gifts from the store. The only parties we attend these days are for kids. What do you make for them?
    I’d love a woodshop someday.

    • September 19, 2018 at 8:58 AM

      Totally depends upon the kid, but swords, lightsabers and puzzles are popular for young boys. Mrs. Tako is also a very good sewer, and has made clothes, costumes, hats, and other things for the kids.

      She’s working on some stormtrooper armour right now.

      • September 20, 2018 at 5:51 PM

        This was totally what I was wondering lol!! Grown ups appreciate home made stuff but sometimes kids don’t, so thinking of those awesome ideas is great!!!!

      • September 20, 2018 at 6:02 PM

        Love the kids ideas – was wondering the same thing!!

  • September 19, 2018 at 7:45 AM

    I could not help but feel tremendous irony when I read this post. My wife and I retired early and with our kids grown and gone have a very flexible schedule. My wife, like you, is also a wood hobbyist, I’m one of the few guys on earth that buys my wife table saws and routers for her Christmas presents. I know how to work wood too since my dad was very skilled but I simply do not enjoy it. I did turn out a fine walnut piece on the lathe for her when we were dating that helped win her heart but I don’t enjoy it as a hobby. She was making a gift similar to yours out of oak firewood a couple of years ago. The wood kicked back, probably hit a knot, and mangled her finger. After some complicated surgery to rebuild it she has partial use of it again but it took her a long time to regain her high level skill at our shared favorite hobby of tennis. That particular gift, in addition to her pain and suffering cost us thousands of dollars and almost took away her favorite thing. Be careful around that saw Mr.T!

    • September 19, 2018 at 9:02 AM

      I’m sorry to hear about your wife’s accident. That’s very unfortunate. I’m glad she’s recovered now.

      Unfortunately many hobbies can have very real consequences when things go wrong. Even in something as tame as tennis there can be very serious injuries. Be careful everybody.

  • September 19, 2018 at 9:25 AM

    Love the cheeseboard, great work! We’ve been doing more and more home-made gifts too. These gifts are way more unique than ones you buy from stores. 🙂

  • September 19, 2018 at 3:00 PM

    Wow you really are talented. I actually would buy that cheeseboard (actually I would use it for a cutting board, would it be suitable for that?)

    Woodworking is definitely an art form, I would love to learn how to do that and perhaps create my own items. Very thoughtful gift and I’m sure much appreciated (more than a cold gift from a store).

  • September 20, 2018 at 12:24 AM

    That is a great idea! In my case, getting the tools for woodworking would be way too expensive but I can definitely see other gifts that I can make. It is also much more thoughtful that just buying a random thing on the shop.

  • September 20, 2018 at 2:24 AM

    Sweet-looking cheeseboard. Probably good for cutting squid to make sushi too 😉

    I agree. Even when I worked full time I tried to make gifts here and there if there was something that really worked for a person and I was capable of making it. Gifts like that are far more special than something bought, I think everyone would agree.

  • September 20, 2018 at 2:50 AM

    Great idea, Mr. Tako! And not only that, it’s good for the environment too! I mean, do friends really need another thing you buy from the store that’s just going to end up in the landfill site anyway? Sometimes my gifts involving cooking a nice dinner or taking my friends out for a picnic. Works great and keeps shit they don’t need out of the landfill sites.

    Other creative gift ideas can include services for your friends they usually pay for. ie, doing a financial analysis for them, designing a website for them, helping them set up their new laptop, those kind of “skill” based gifts are really appreciated too.

  • September 20, 2018 at 9:34 AM

    You’ve got some serious talent there, Sir. Beautiful! I love your approach to gift giving. Thoughtful, hand-made gifts trump store bought stuff every time, in my opinion.

  • September 20, 2018 at 9:49 AM

    Nicely done, and excellent strategy for our gift-giving culture. My only worry is that rather than spending less, the recipient’s perception might be that you are spending more (if you measure everything you contribute). Folks who are sensitive enough to know how much your “free” gifts truly cost (and how thoughtful they are) will feel even more indebted. We’ve been trying for years to end the gift-giving arms-race in our family, so I worry Mr. Tako’s approach might start it back up again!

    The key is that you enjoy the creation – perhaps that brings the universe back in balance. But I’d feel pretty indebted to receive that cheeseboard 🙂

    • September 20, 2018 at 10:06 PM

      Hmm… I never thought about it that way before Paul! Something I’ll need to consider. 😉

  • September 20, 2018 at 5:58 PM

    I love receiving gifts from loved ones because it really shows they care enough to think outside the regular box and requires more planning.

  • September 22, 2018 at 5:20 AM

    You are very talented and that board looks beautiful, I would love to receive it as a gift.
    I think making your own gift is great idea and agree with most comments that it is very thoughtful.
    But while I understand it is the thought that counts, I have seen ‘homemade gifts” where sometimes you wonder how much effort was really put into it!
    Just food for thoughts, not all homemade gifts are created equal:)

  • September 23, 2018 at 8:40 PM

    I’m a knitter and quilter. I also garden, so I have plenty of scope for making gifts.
    Like you, I find it very satisfying.

  • November 13, 2018 at 7:34 AM

    Hi Mr. Tako or readers

    How would you handle Office Secret Santas? Mine is recommending a 25$ spend. Of course the e-mail says that you can advise the secretary if you don’t want to participate, but really you do. What are good cost-effective gifts?

    • November 13, 2018 at 9:41 AM

      Anything you can make or have unique access to yourself. Maybe that means baking a batch of cookies, making a cheese board, knitting an ugly sweater, etc etc.

      Almost everyone has unique access to certain skills and resources that others do not have. Share it!

  • November 13, 2018 at 10:55 AM

    Thanks! I don’t think homemade things would be acceptable at my work. But I just solved my own problem. I am going to purchase a 25$ gift card using my AMEX points.


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