Time, Money and Chicken Fat: A Guide to Inflation Proof Gifts

If groceries, gasoline or cars were part of your budget this year, inflation has hit you hard. Now you may want to keep the gift budget under control. On the other hand, maybe you haven’t seen your relatives in a long time, and would prefer nothing less than to be generous.

So here’s a challenge – even a quest. Think of a way to surprise and delight your loved ones with gifts that cost no more than 24 months ago. This is not only possible; it can be rewarding for both giver and receiver.

I found some nice gifts that actually cost less than two years ago. Others you give now may increase in value over the years. And then there is the time you can offer to those who desire more of you – or relief for themselves.

“The most radical kind of gift is when you take something away,” says Eve Rodsky, author of “Fair Play,” a book about couples, time, tasks, and the conflict and resolution that comes with them. “Obligations. The Need to Cook. The demand to commute somewhere.” (Or take an arduous journey in her family to an animal fat renderer.)

So once the spread bird carcass goes into the stockpot, you’ve eaten the French silk pie with your bare hands and you’re staring at a season of gift-buying with soaring prices, think of the gifts of technology, travel, and time.

And schmaltz. Literal.

The few opportunities to pay less for good things are hidden in plain sight, just beneath the painful headlines about soaring inflation.

That figure of 6.2 percent from earlier this month marked the consumer price index rise over the 12 months through October, the largest jump in 31 years. Bad news, for sure.

But dig a little into the factsheets the Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes and you’ll find unqualified good news. The agency, which collects that data for the CPI, reports that prices in the “phone, hardware, calculators and other consumer information items” category have fallen 25.7 percent in two years.

A popular gift item within that category are smartphones. The Bureau of Labor Statistics started the price breakout there in December 2019. In the months that followed, prices fell by as much as 29.1 percent.

So maybe this holiday season is the time to forcibly upgrade the Luddite family. Or maybe it’s time to give in and buy a kid’s first phone. (If so, check out our Wirecutter category guide and consider a dumbphone instead of a smart one.)

If someone in your area likes to travel and is tired of being stuck at home, here’s some good news, too. The CPI includes a category of airfares, and prices have fallen 23.7 percent in the past two years.

Where could you send (or take) someone? Take a look at the data from the research bureau STR. I asked about a selection of popular destinations where average daily room rates have fallen by double digits over the past two years. It’s quite a list of attractive cities, including New York, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle.

Hopper travel app offers promising information about airline tickets. Highlights include a 16 percent price drop to and from New York and Newark airports in two years. The number of flights to and from the three airports in the Washington region has fallen by 10 percent.

However, if you’re thinking of flights, it’s worth pointing out that there was a price hike in the spring, which has since declined. You may want to act fast now that booster shots of confidence are available to everyone.

Some gifts can go up in value – and not just pristine Barbies that have to stay in the box or trading cards whose value goes down with every wrinkle.

In the long run, the stock market tends to rise. Money in an index fund is nearly foolproof as long as you leave it there for a few decades. Investing in individual companies is riskier, but even if the share you give falls, a younger recipient can still learn valuable lessons.

Less directly satisfying than the alternatives may be a contribution to the 529 college savings plan, but it’s no less valuable. I get it – the gift of a day’s adventure with a 6 year old niece or teenage grandson can create lasting memories. But imagine the gratitude that will result if the $100 you put into the pot each year means a 22-year-old gets those first student loan payments after graduation.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t give up your time, arguably the most precious resource you have.

If you work from home and so haven’t been commuting, you may have more on your hands — assuming you’re not one of those employees handing over your future commute time to your employer. But even if you are, there are probably people on your list who would value your hours even more than you do.

This sort of thing can be an unexpected pleasure. Tim Kasser, a psychology professor emeritus at Knox College and the author of the classic money-and-feelings book “The High Price of Materialism,” had elaborate time-coupon rituals with his wife and two sons. A particularly excellent one was the “Drop everything and play with me now, even if you happen to be working” coupon that his sons were able to redeem.

The gift of time comes in many forms. One of his sons, Dustin, a picky eater, handed out an “I’ll try four new foods” coupon. Mr. Kasser cashed in when he served watermelon juice and a chickpea dish—meaning he didn’t have to spend time making a second meal if Dustin approved of the new kitchen.

Mr. Kasser did the same for his wife. At one point, he took over one of her least enjoyable jobs: washing the reusable plastic bags. More than a decade later, it’s still there.

For Ms. Rodsky — whose next book, “Find Your Unicorn Space,” is about the search for uninterrupted time for creative and other happiness-making pursuits — the plastic bag gesture is exemplary on at least three levels.

The first is that it is a good example of taking as giving. Second, the best thing to do is often take away a task that gives neither meaning nor happiness to the person currently doing it. (You should now know what that is for your spouse. If you don’t know, ask.)

After all, it wasn’t a one-time thing—Mr. Kasser took on the long-term job. Ms. Rodsky said her husband gave her a similar gift by eliminating paperwork for her and filling out dozens of forms a year for their three children. She didn’t rejoice at his efforts on this front in our conversation, but she came close.

Mrs. Rodsky has another idea for a gift that her husband can give someone he loves. She mused about her mother-in-law’s kugel, a dish that requires her to commute an hour in Los Angeles traffic to prepare for the special fat the recipe calls for. It’s made exactly that way by a certain butcher, so Mrs. Rodsky’s mother-in-law swears by his schmaltz.

Does Mrs. Rodsky’s husband have more time on his hands than his mother? New. But does Mrs. Rodsky suspect her mother-in-law would appreciate her son stepping out to obtain the precious fat—a task they call the “lard run”? Sure.

As many of us are getting back together this holiday season for now, consider all the ways you can give. Perhaps the best gift is a little schmaltz.

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