Mother's Day: The gift Mom really wants (you can't buy it)

Mother's Day spending will reach $20 billion this year, according to the National Retail Federation. But the Mother's Day gift most moms say they want isn't available in a store. 

Matt Sayles/Invision for Huggies/AP Images/File
Rebecca Gayheart and her daughter, Billie, are seen at Huggies Snug and Dry and Baby2Baby Mother's Day Garden Party last year. Most moms would prefer time – time alone if the kids are still at home, or time with children after they’ve flown the nest – in lieu of gifts this Mother's Day.

I got some good intelligence from my sister last month when we were shopping for cards for our mom’s birthday. “She really reads them,” Karen told me. “She likes the sappy ones; she hates the ones that are funny.”

That mirrors the ethos behind Hallmark greeting cards, maker of about half the Mother’s Day cards you see on the shelves this week. “On Father’s Day, you can say, ‘Dad, all you want is a sandwich!’ or ‘Dad, you nap a lot,’” Tina Neidlein, a Hallmark greeting card writer, told Bloomberg. “But if you make fun of your mother, she’s going to cry. And you can’t even make fun of that.”

Mother’s Day this week celebrates its 100th anniversary as an officially recognized holiday in the United States. Shoppers are expected to spend nearly $20 billion this Mother’s Day, according a survey by the National Retail Federation. Cards are, by far, the most popular gift to give our mothers—good news for the card industry, which has been taking on the chin in recent years due to the explosion of e-cards.

Here’s the top gifts everyone else will be buying Mom this week, according to the NRF. But what Mom’s really want won’t cost you a dime.

Most popular gifts for Mother’s Day

  1. Greeting cards. More than 81% of shoppers will pick up a greeting card for Mom.
  2. Flowers. This will be a busy week for florists, too, as two-thirds of consumers surveyed plan to contribute to the estimated $2.3 billion spent on flowers and bouquets.
  3. Brunch or dinner. Get your reservations in early—you’ll be fighting for table space. More than 56% of the people surveyed will be going to a restaurant to the tune of $3.8 billion nationwide.
  4. Gift card. Don’t know what to buy Mom? Many people—43% of those surveyed—punt on a decision and just get a gift card from her favorite store.
  5. Clothing. About a third of shoppers surveyed “will look for spring sweaters and blouses, spending a total of $1.7 billion on apparel and accessory items,” according to the NRF.
  6. Jewelry. Bring on the bling—nearly 32% are planning to shell out an estimated $3.6 billion of jewelry for Mother’s Day.
  7. Spa. More than one-fifth of shoppers plan to give a personal experience gift like a day at the spa.
  8. Books and CDs. Nearly 20% of us will get Mom something to listen to or read.
  9. Housewares or gardening tools. Items for the home and garden are popular among 18.2% of Mother’s Day shoppers.
  10. Gadget. Personal electronic devices, such as smartphones and iPads, will be purchased by 13% of shoppers, for an estimated $1.7 billion in sales. That’s down from $2.3 billion spent on mother for gadgets last year.

BUT! Higher price does not equal more love

Here’s a common misconception when shopping for gifts for a loved one: the higher the price, the better the gift, the more I love you. Unfortunately, research shows the affection that may drive you to spend more on a gift doesn’t come across to the one unwrapping the presents.

“Gift-givers assume that more expensive gifts convey a higher level of thoughtfulness. Gift-recipients, in contrast, reported no such association between gift price and their actual feelings of appreciation,” researchers at Stanford University found in a 2009 study. A word to the wise when shopping for Mom: Just ask her what she wants. And more often than not, the answer will be time—time alone if the kids are still at home, or time with children after they’ve flown the nest.

That’s why author Liz O’Donnell argues the holiday should be moved to Monday so that moms can be officially off the clock—at home and at work—while kids are at school and husbands are out of the house. “I asked working mothers what they wanted for Mother’s Day and I can assure you, it wasn’t brunch, flowers or jewelry. The top responses: alone time, a break, time with my children,” writes O’Donnell, founder of website, Hello Ladies. “Let us nap, join our kids after school for some one-on-one time, read a book, relax.”

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