SPUG: Give from the heart — or don't give at all

Illustration by Emily Marcus
Story by Amy K. Stewart
(Standard-Examiner correspondent)
Tue, Dec 20, 2011
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I’m gettin’ nuttin’ for Christmas … but not because I’ve been bad.

This year, my family has decided to forgo a hefty segment of our traditional gift-giving rituals. The decision is mainly for budgetary reasons, but also due to holiday stress.

Sometimes, traditions become worn-out. It never hurts to examine a ritual and ask why it started, why it continues — and whether everyone agrees that it is still a positive event or practice.

My family is axing our name drawing, since my siblings and I have grown apart geographically. The ritual has turned into a boring exchange of mailed gift certificates.

We are also eliminating an extended-family gift exchange that has mushroomed out of control over the years. It began with a family dinner at a restaurant with my parents and siblings, along with my aunt’s family. We would each make a homemade gift or treats for the other 10 or so people. We kept the price around $5 to $10.

I gave up making homemade gifts years ago and simply turned to Costco for help. But decades and many marriages and children later, the number of “gift needers” has grown to about 25. You do the math — yep, that’s up to $250, plus the individual dinner bill.

I was disappointed with my family’s Scrooge attitude at first, but now that Christmas is growing closer and I haven’t started shopping — or stressing — I’m starting to think paring back on the “useless gifts” is a good idea.

Someone else also thinks cutting back on gift giving is a worthy decision – and has done considerable research on the subject.


Ellen Litwicki, history professor at State University of New York at Fredonia, gave a lecture at Weber State University a while back. It was titled “Be a SPUG: The History of Useless Gift Giving.”

What is a SPUG? It stands for Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving. The society was formed in New York City in 1912 and lasted through World War I.

“There was a turn-of-the-century movement in America for people to limit gift-giving. It was an effort to rein in materialism and also take on labor reform,” said WSU history professor Susan Matt.

The main idea was to put a stop to the custom of women having to contribute up to $25 for their work supervisor’s Christmas present. The employees thought it was essential to donate for their chances of promotion — or even to keep their jobs. Most of the women earned $10 a week.

SPUG’s goal was for the women to save their money and use it for a fun and healthy vacation outside the city, since employers didn’t give paid vacation back then. However, for many workers, it was simply money they needed for food and rent.

The society also wanted to curb the trend of giving trinkets or gifts to co-workers. The goal was to limit the gift giving to family and close friends and for the gift to be meaningful. It should be given with your whole heart — not given because it’s a requirement.

A gift should never be exchanged without sentiment, society leaders stated.

The SPUG movement caught flak from merchandisers. Members were labeled “Scrooges,” although others supported their idea — including President Teddy Roosevelt, as well as Anne Morgan, the daughter of financier J.P. Morgan.

Gifts gone awry

Litwicki has been researching the historical significance of gift giving since the late 1990s. Her book “America’s Public Holidays” was published in 2000 by Smithsonian Institution Press.

In her book, Litwicki delves into various gift-giving traditions that have blossomed over the years.

“I’ve always been flabbergasted by bridal gift registries,” Litwicki said. “It seems strange to tell people what gift you want. It doesn’t really feel like a gift if you write it down and tell someone to give it to you.”

However, Litwicki does point out there is a level of convenience and practicality for gift registries, as well as Christmas lists.

Gift giving began to get bigger in the late 1800s when increased production of goods came about with the Industrial Revolution. Similarly, today’s economy is dependent on consumer spending. If people aren’t spending, then it hurts our economy, Litwicki said.

It does appear people are spending more this year on holiday items, despite the economy.

Litwicki’s best theory is people are tired of keeping a budget for so long and have grown weary of meager Christmases.



People don’t need to cut out everything in order to trim their holiday budget, says Alena Johnson, who teaches family finance at Utah State University.

Drawing names with family and friends is a great place to start. Doing a service for someone is another good paring-down idea, Johnson said.

“That’s even more thoughtful than a gift, anyway,” she said, adding it could be anything from doing computer work to making a meal for someone.

Another idea is to put money aside each month throughout the year and then have a set Christmas gift budget. This will prevent debt and hold people to their budgets, she said.

Katrina Whitney, 43, of Ogden, said she and her husband, Michael, plan on cutting back this Christmas. They just moved from Seattle and have been experiencing unemployment. They have been shopping sales and thrift stores for gifts. 

“Also, if something is on sale, I pick it up throughout the year and store it. By the time Christmas comes around, I’m done with my shopping and on budget,” Whitney said.

Johnson likes to teach the “step-down principle” for budgeting. It’s simply paring back a bit — but not sacrificing too much. For example, if your family usually goes to a movie and buys popcorn, candy and sodas, try going to the movie with no snacks. 

More steps down would be: Go to a matinee, wait for the movie to come to the dollar theater, get the movie through Netflix or rent a DVD — or borrow the DVD from a friend.

To use the step-down method for Christmas, instead of having a holiday party and providing all of the food, simply make assignments or do a potluck instead — or just do snacks, Johnson said.

“You can ‘step down’ on holiday decorations, on travel — most anything,” she said.

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