Cautionary Tales – The Company That Cancelled Christmas

9th December, 2022

More than 100,000 families – many of them amongst the poorest in Britain – put money aside for Christmas gifts and other seasonal treats in a savings club called Farepak. It wasn’t a bank, and it wasn’t great value for money… and it went bust. Kids went without toys, and festive dinner tables were left bare. 

Why would someone put their hard-earned money into such a scheme? And what does it tell us about the way we often view Christmas as a time for frenzied spending? 

Cautionary Tales is written by me, Tim Harford, with Andrew Wright. It is produced by Ryan Dilley, with support from Courtney Guarino and Emily Vaughn.

The sound design and original music is the work of Pascal Wyse. Julia Barton edited the scripts.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, including Mia Lobel, Jacob Weisberg, Heather Fain, Jon Schnaars, Carly Migliori, Eric Sandler, Emily Rostek, Royston Beserve, Maggie Taylor, Nicole Morano, Daniella Lakhan and Maya Koenig.

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Further reading and listening

Much of Joel Waldfogel’s research on the economics of Christmas is gathered in his brief and witty book, Scroogenomics.

In describing the Farepak case, I’ve relied on reporting by Anna Burnside in The Sunday Times (16 December 2007), Steve Bird in The Times (15 November 2006), Chris Tighe in the Financial Times (11 November 2006), Adam Jones in the Financial Times (16 November 2012), Rupert Jones in the Guardian (18 April 2022) and Rob Sharp in the Observer (19 November 2006). The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, along with Unison, interviewed Farepak customers after the firm’s collapse. Penelope Visman’s letter was published in the Financial Times on 30 December 2006.

The academic research on the different perspectives taken by givers and receivers is:

Francesca Gino, Francis J. Flynn, Give them what they want: The benefits of explicitness in gift exchange,
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Volume 47, Issue 5, 2011.
Francis J. Flynn, Gabrielle S. Adams, Money can’t buy love: Asymmetric beliefs about gift price and feelings of appreciation, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 45, Issue 2, 2009.

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