News Release

Protecting the nest egg: Special gifts have symbolic value

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Chicago Press Journals

Don't cash out Grandma's savings bond. Gifts passed on from one generation of family members to the next are worth more than their monetary value, according to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research. Those gifts carry the symbolic value attributed to them by the family's traditions, lore, and heritage.

It's not just stuff or money when it comes from a special relative or has a meaningful story behind it, writes author Tonya Williams Bradford (University of Notre Dame). Assets that have "symbolic value serve to nurture family ties from the past into the future."

Bradford found that gifts from family members have great symbolic value and are treated with care. Certain funds can be separated out as "special money" that has significance within the family. The author demonstrated that even gifts of assets, which can easily be appraised and sold, often become symbolic when passed from one generation to another, and that they are frequently treated differently than equivalent assets that were not received from a parent or grandparent.

"Labels are not only ascribed to gifted assets, but are transferred from past to future generations through family caretakers who nurture both the symbolic meaning and market values of the gifted assets," the author writes. She also learned that certain assets are often considered surrogate family members. She also discovered that families sustain their heritage by imposing hierarchies on assets.

Since baby boomers are presently the wealthiest generation in American history, they are expected to initiate the largest wealth transfer ever in coming years. Givers of assets may consider the ways they can help label and transform the assets into the more meaningful (inalienable) kind of wealth to better preserve the family legacy, while recipients may become more aware and observant of how they choose to nurture the symbolic exchange value of the gifted assets.

"These findings expand our understanding of and create new opportunities to examine how individuals employ a special form of possessions—inalienable wealth as assets—including how individuals choose to part with assets, a choice necessary for the well-being of all economies." The author concludes.


Tonya Williams Bradford. "Intergenerationally Gifted Asset Dispositions."
Journal of Consumer Research: June 2009.

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