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Moms still hold the heart (and purse) strings on Father's Day

ASU economics professor says Father's Day will reach record spending but won't outpace Mom's holiday

Young girl holding a gift behind her back
June 15, 2023

Dads are great, but moms are special. That’s not just a sentiment — it’s reflected in the amount of money that will be spent on the upcoming holiday.

Father’s Day will be celebrated this Sunday, June 18. It’s a day honoring all fathers, grandfathers and father figures. Gifts will be given, bread will be broken and sentiments will be shared.

It emerged decades after Mother’s Day and became a federal holiday in 1972. It has always lagged Mother’s Day in more ways than one, especially where it concerns the almighty dollar. It’s not a gulf, but there has always been a tendency to spend less on dad.

Father’s Day spending is expected to be $25.9 billion in 2023, compared with $35.7 billion for Mother’s Day. That’s an all-time high for both holidays.

ASU News spoke to Lee McPheters, a research professor and director of the JPMorgan Chase Economic Outlook Center in Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business, to discuss the history of Father’s Day, what are the go-to gifts this year and why we tend to fork out more for Mom. 

Man in grey suit smiling

Lee McPheters

Question: What is the origin and timing of Father’s Day, especially compared with Mother’s Day?

Answer: In the period after the Great Depression, the establishment of Father’s Day was heavily endorsed by retail interests in response to the commercial success of Mother’s Day. However, the resistance to commercialization inhibited congressional action on official approval for many years. It wasn’t until 1972 that President Richard Nixon finally signed a law that added Father’s Day to the list of official holidays, nearly 60 years after President Woodrow Wilson had established Mother’s Day in 1914.

Q: Father’s Day isn’t and never has been as economically robust as Mother’s Day. Why do you think that is?

A: Father’s Day lags Mother’s Day on several indicators, including total spending. According to the National Retail Federation, Father’s Day spending in 2023 is expected to be $25.9 billion, compared with $35.7 billion for Mother’s Day. However, it should be pointed out that these figures are all-time record highs.

Part of the explanation for the difference is surveys showing that nearly 85% of people spend on Mother’s Day, while only 75% participate by spending on Father’s Day. And average spending is less for Father’s Day, at $196, compared with Mother’s Day at $274. A more profound question is why fewer people would opt to participate in Father’s Day in the first place and why they spend less. The answer is outside the expertise area of economists but likely has something to do with the powerful biological and even cultural links that children feel to their mothers.

Q: What goods and services are typically given on Father’s Day?

A: The most frequent gift for Dad is a card. A recent survey showed Father’s Day is fourth in number of cards sent, behind Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. The stereotypical gift for many years was a new tie, which has been replaced by other clothing types, such as Hawaiian shirts. After cards and clothing, the most popular Father’s Day gift is an outing, very often tickets to a sporting event. Other types of gifts have increased also. In particular, personal care items (and) gift cards have doubled since 2010. While flowers are the second most frequent gift (after a card) for Mother’s Day, flowers or jewelry do not make the list at all for Father’s Day.

Q: What are some other trends you are seeing?

A: Father’s Day spending in 2023 is projected to be up by 15% over last year, which is a significant increase, even after adjusting for inflation of about 5%. A recent study from the U.S. Census found that 32% of fathers now described themselves as “a regular source of care” in child rearing, up from 26% a few years ago. It just might be that greater involvement in childcare is starting to pay off for Dad when Father’s Day rolls around.

Q: Are there any other interesting research findings on holidays?

A: Looking at trends for the three most popular holidays around this time of year, the participation rates have remained essentially stable for Mother’s Day (85%) and Father’s Day (75%) during the past decade. However, the participation rate for Valentine’s Day has dipped from two-thirds to one-half of respondents. All three holidays have emotional overlays affecting the participation decision, and for each, there is the risk that failure to participate with at least a card sends a negative message.

From an economist’s perspective, it may be that the decline in recognizing a significant other for Valentine’s Day is linked to the doubling of single-person households since 1971 to nearly 40 million or 29% of all households. As academics love to say, “More research is needed on this important topic.”

Top photo from iStock/Getty images

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