12/12/2013 02:42 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2014

Is Holiday Gift-Giving Collective Insanity?

$46 billion. That's what the National Retail Federation estimated the value of holiday merchandise returns was in 2011. They also found that 35 percent of gift recipients returned an unwanted Christmas gift. Yet according to a Consumer Reports survey, shoppers planned to spend about 21 hours buying and wrapping holiday presents.

These numbers tell me that we spend a lot of time and money on gifts that may not be wanted or appreciated. Whether we give out of obligation or to show our love, I believe we want to give good gifts. Sadly, we're often falling short.

You know that saying about the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? Are we willfully engaging in collective insanity every holiday season? There have to be better ways to spend our time and our money -- and to give gifts that are actually wanted, needed or appreciated. Here are some ideas:

Make a Difference. Did you know that 14.5 million American households had difficulty providing enough food for their families last year? And around the globe, over 3 billion people live on less than $2.50 per day. It's hard to fathom for the average American, whom Accenture projects will spend over $600 just on Christmas gifts this year.

You can have a direct and meaningful impact on people in your community or around the globe if you spend some of the time and money you have budgeted for holiday shopping on helping others. Consider volunteering in your community -- a school, senior center, hospital, shelter, or other organization -- or put some of the money you would put toward gifts toward donations to a favorite charity. Not sure where to start? has over 70,000 volunteering opportunities listed on their site.

Focus on Experiences. Several studies, including one by Ryan Howell at San Francisco State University, have shown that experiences lead to greater and more lasting satisfaction than possessions. And what can be a more precious gift than our time? Organizing shared experiences with those we love -- whether it's tickets to a game or performance, an outing to a museum or a meal, or just a hike or a bike ride in the outdoors -- can be memorable, fun and lasting for everyone involved.

Think Like an Economist. While we all feel the pressure to give at the holiday season, Joel Waldfogel, an economist at the University of Minnesota and author of the book "Scroogeonomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays," believes that gift-giving often results in a misallocation of resources. In other words, the amount that's spent on a gift does not generate an equivalent level of satisfaction. One clear solution is to give gift cards. While gift cards may not be terribly personal, wouldn't you rather know that someone derives 100 percent of the intended satisfaction out of your gift?

Give Meaningful Gifts. Giving to a child this year? Skip the latest trends and toys, chances are they'll be forgotten in a few weeks, or even hours. You have a great opportunity to put your money toward something lasting by contributing to that child's college savings plan. Did you know that the average student loan debt for 2012 graduates was $29,400? The economic slowdown has really impacted how much parents can save for college, and many put it off until it's too late to save a significant amount. Making a contribution to a child's college savings plan may not generate instant gratification, but it's one of the few gifts that will have a positive, life-long impact on that child.

In fact, I was inspired to start GradSave when my goddaughter was baptized. I couldn't think of a more meaningful gift than a contribution to her college savings fund, and realized that others probably felt the same way. Since then, GradSave has helped thousands of families across the country "crowdfund" their child's college savings by making it easy for their relatives and friends to give the gift of education.

Are you surprised by the amount of holiday returns? Are you doing anything differently this year to reduce waste and add more meaning to the holidays?