I Love You, Dad (but $35 Less Than Mom)

Do Americans buy more expensive gifts for Father’s Day or Mother’s Day?

On Sunday, Americans will show their fathers how much they care by showering them with special meals, handcrafted cards, and, of course, carefully picked presents—barbecue sets, ties, that new putter he’s been craving. The question that gnaws at all fathers and mothers about these presents is: Do our children love Mom or Dad more? Put it in raw dollar terms: Do we spend more for Father’s Day or Mother’s Day?

Those who think dads are better-loved find support in the theory that the sorts of things we buy for our dads—tools, electronics—are more expensive than the sorts of things we buy for our moms—brunch, flowers. (A corollary to this theory says that women, the main buyers on Father’s Day, are more enthusiastic shoppers than men, the main buyers on Mother’s Day.) A few surveys support this hypothesis. Ebates, the online coupon store, for instance, queried shoppers and found that they spent more on Father’s Day than Mother’s Day by a significant margin—$144 to $82.

But that Ebates study and the few others like it are clearly flawed. Ebates surveyed only online shoppers, even though most of us still visit brick-and-mortar shops to buy cards and gifts for our parents or loved ones. Ebates also seems to have surveyed a small number of self-selecting consumers—the site does not provide its methodology online—ginning up wonky numbers. For instance, the site says that Delaware shoppers spent a whopping average of $491 on their dads last year. That implies one lucky Wilmington dad got a Maserati, and that we should look for sounder surveys.

The National Retail Federation, the most reliable source for these sorts of statistics, insists that Mom still reigns supreme. It reports that in 2011 consumers planned on spending more on their dads than ever before—an average of $106.49, up from $94.32 last year, for total spending of $11.1 billion. But mothers still get the bigger haul, with the average shopper shelling out $140.73 in 2011 for total spending of $16.3 billion. (Spending on both holidays has now fully recovered after taking a hit during the recession.)

NRF data also indicate that moms get more expensive individual items than dads, too. Both parents most frequently receive cards as gifts, with the average shopper spending $5 to $10. But people purchasing “consumer electronics or computer-related accessories” for Dad report that they plan on spending an average of $67.20. People purchasing the same class of goods for Mom spend an average of $94.91. And mothers frequently receive pricey items like spa treatments and jewelry (average price tag: $84.09). Dad’s tools, ties, and gadgets are cheaper.

Still, the gap between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day spending is narrowing, in no small part because of the advertising dollars retailers spend to remind us to celebrate both parents equally.

Since its founding, Father’s Day has always been the beta holiday—created as an analog to Mother’s Day, and never celebrated with as much fanfare, attention, or money. (Even today, 83 percent of adults celebrate Mother’s Day, versus 76 percent for Father’s Day.) Contrary to common belief, Hallmark did not invent either holiday. “While we’re honored that people so closely link the Hallmark name with celebrations and special occasions, we can’t take credit for creating holidays,” the company’s site notes. “Congressional resolutions, proclamations, religious observances, cultural traditions, and grassroots leadership by ordinary people create these special days.”

It was not capitalists, but pacifists who developed Mother’s Day in the 1870s. It became a nationally recognized holiday in 1914 and a major commercial affair shortly thereafter—much to its forebears’ chagrin. Father’s Day really took hold only in the 1910s, and was not formally recognized until the Nixon administration. Throughout its history, retailers—particularly men’s clothiers—have nudged consumers to give equal respect to Dad. But the spending gap did not really start to close until the 1980s. Over the next few years, the NRF expects total spending to continue to even out.

Until then, dads have cold comfort. Sure, they beat trick-or-treaters by more than $50. And they also trump grandparents, secretaries (well, now administrative assistants), and bosses—the NRF doesn’t even bother to track spending for those Hallmark holidays. But they are still trailing moms by $35 and valentines by $10.