It's too early to think about Christmas, but I'm doing it anyway.
With a large family and enough in-laws to fill a bus, picking a name out of a hat is the best way to avoid having to buy everyone a Christmas present, and to avoid getting 50 inexpensive gifts that will end up lost in a closet within a week. You spend more money one one gift for one person, instead of a little bit of money on a lot of knickknacks that adds up to a larger sum.
Lolligift, a Web site based in Seattle, has an even better solution.
Instead of spending $10 or $20 on a gift that doesn't stand out -- a tie, a clock, a spatula -- the giver and the recipient would better appreciate one large gift from a group of people.
"It's the thought that counts," Lolligift co-founder and president William Lai told me in a telephone interview. "But the money is really wasted for the gift giver and the gift recipient."
Here's how the group gift buying service works: You want to get a gift for your parents, so you set up a gift pool on the Web site saying that you want friends and family to get together to buy them a gift certificate at a spa. You invite other friends, either via e-mail or by sharing the URL for your gift pool, who then put money into the pot with a credit card. Once the amount is raised, a check is sent to the organizer -- you -- who can then go buy the gift certificate or whatever it is everyone agrees to buy as a gift.
Passwords are needed to get into the gift pool, so the recipient can't stumble upon everyone talking online about what they're getting.
It can be used for holidays, weddings, baby showers, graduations, fund-raising, gifts for teachers and office parties. What teacher wouldn't want a group gift of a spa treatment instead of 32 packages of cookies? Then again, a personal note from each child might be the best gift they could receive.
"In general, we found there's a lot of wasteful spending in gift giving," said Lai, adding that paying $10 for something that someone will soon throw away is a waste for both sides.
He said he expects Christmas to be popular for the Web site, but that so far popular events have been office parties for a baby shower, and weddings.
Instead of going from desk to desk begging co-workers to donate to someone's retirement party, you can do it online with e-mail. Getting a check or cash from co-workers can be difficult, while a credit card should make it easier to give, Lai said.
Using Lolligift is free while it's in beta mode, although credit card fees apply. So far the site doesn't have any ads, although some may be added, Lai said. They're also working with Amazon.com so that Amazon's customer wish lists can be viewed on Lolligift, and thus someday fulfilled.
Beyond saving money by allowing givers to pool their money, Lolligift's goal is to help eliminate the ecological waste of gift giving and all of the cheap junk and packaging that often goes into small, inexpensive gifts, Lai said.
If it keeps me from getting a porcelain frog, I'm all for it.
Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Reach him at www.AaronCrowe.net
Instead of giving a cheap, lousy gift, pool your money and upgrade