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The Three Cardinal Rules for Father’s Day Gift Giving

Homemade I Love Daddy sign
Courtney Weittenhiller—Getty Images

Dads like being acknowledged, but they can do without elaborate displays—and certainly don't want money being wasted. Follow these rules and you'll be OK.

Su Young Kim, a 30-something owner of a salon in California, was surprised by what her father asked for as a Father’s Day gift. “He said that if I was going to waste my money on something he didn’t need or want again this year, I might as well just give him the cash and save us both some trouble,” said Kim.

Most fathers aren’t quite as blunt, but according to my annual anecdotal survey of dads, they pretty much want what Kim’s dad wants. Not cash, necessarily, but for their kids to not waste their money.

No wonder Father’s Day is the tiniest American gift-giving holiday, accounting for $12.5 billion in consumer spending this year, according to the National Retail Federation. Spending on Mother’s Day, by contrast, was estimated at more than $20 billion.

And no wonder Father’s Day can be a frustrating holiday for gift givers. Most want to surprise, delight, and honor their dads, for good reason. Instead, however, too many sons, daughters, and spouses end up either spending too much money, getting something off the mark or silly, feeling guilty because they didn’t put in much thought or effort beforehand, or some combination therein. To avoid the pitfalls, here are three cardinal rules, endorsed by dads, for fool-proof Father’s Day gift giving:

1. Keep it Simple

This year, and every year that I’ve surveyed fathers, what I hear is that their identity as fathers doesn’t mesh well with lavish Father’s Day celebrations. It seems there’s something unmanly, or “undadly,” about being pampered. Dads pride themselves in providing for others, and they can feel uncomfortable when the tables are turned.

Even though most dads downplay the significance of Father’s Day, there is nothing more important to them than being fathers. According to the 2014 Dove Men+Care Dad Portrayal Research Study, 94% of American fathers prioritize their families over their careers, and three-quarters say they organize their lives around family so they can spend more time with their children. So, regardless of how “undadly” it feels to be celebrated, fathers are likely to feel hurt if they’re not feted on our national day devoted to fatherhood.

Dove also posted this video celebrating dads that made me cry, and then made my husband cry when I made him watch:

How do you balance the need to honor dads without going overboard and making them feel uncomfortable? The solution is to keep it simple. Katy Short, a financial advisor and mother of two children under 5, wrapped up her brilliantly simple Father’s Day plans in one sentence: “We’ll give him lots of kisses, some cologne he wants, and then we’ll dance.”

2. Spend Wisely, Not Wastefully

When I ask dads what they’d like for Father’s Day, many start their response with something they want that’s in the best interests of their kids. “I want my son to get a job,” is a common answer, usually followed by laughter or eye rolling. “I want my kids to be happy,” is another one I hear regularly.

Or like Kim’s father, they respond in a way that essentially says they want their kids to spend their money wisely. Evidently, fathering doesn’t take a holiday. In some ways, the gift a son or daughter picks is a measure of the lessons they’ve learned (or not) from their father. When you spend wastefully on Father’s Day, dads are likely to think that they’ve failed to teach you to not spend wastefully. Your dumb spending reflects poorly on their roles as fathers, even if what you’re spending money on is your dad.

Most dads are gracious when receiving gifts. But when handed presents such as flashy sunglasses or expensive cufflinks, they are probably thinking something along the lines of What did I do wrong? Didn’t I teach this kid about the value of a dollar?

It’s not that dads don’t want budget-busting lavish gifts—they just don’t want them from you. Instead, if your father has been needling you to read a particular book or try a sport, make a Father’s Day gift by showing him you were listening. Then wrap it up in a bow by asking him to discuss the book or play the sport with you. Above all, for heaven’s sake demonstrate that your father has done a good job raising you by not wasting money on something he doesn’t need and will never use.

3. Be Thoughtful

This is the golden rule for all gift giving, of course, but it applies big time for Father’s Day. For the most part, dads want to feel appreciated, and to spend some quality time with their families on Father’s Day. When pressed for an actual gift they’d like to receive that costs actual money, the top choices I hear from fathers are typically celebratory events like sharing a special meal together or tickets to a ball game. Evidently, kids know their dads pretty well. Of those who are purchasing gifts for fathers (or husbands on behalf of younger kids), the top two categories are greeting cards that thank dad for all his does (63%) and special dinners or outings where the crew can be together and have fun (43%).

Russell, a father who preferred not to use his last name for fear of offending his less-than-perfect gift-giving son, summed up what he wants and what he thinks most dads want this way: “It has to be something personal. They have to spend time thinking about what their dads would really like, or spend time with them–like making a breakfast in bed or spending the day fishing.”

Russell got a gushy handmade card and a bottle of wine from his adult daughter last year, and he said both were perfect because they were so incredibly thoughtful. His daughter had taken the time to learn about wine, and had researched his tastes to pick out just the right bottle. And Russell told me that he still has the gushy card – along with every other one he’s received since his daughter was old enough to draw.

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Kit Yarrow, Ph.D., is a consumer psychologist who is obsessed with all things related to how, when and why we shop and buy. She conducts research through her professorship at Golden Gate University and shares her findings in speeches, consulting work, and her books, Decoding the New Consumer Mind and Gen BuY.

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