Gift Giving Tips

In my family, gifts are a given. We go overboard during the holidays, and we give all year round. However, I understand that this is not the case in all families: some have less money to work with, and some families don’t have the same traditions surrounding gifts.

I’ve noticed that there are a lot of gift giving ideas, normally in the form of lists. But if you’re like me, you only rarely find something on those sorts of ‘gifts for girlfriend/boyfriend/mom/dad/sister/brother/etc. lists’. They’re either too generic or too specific and they take way too long to comb through. My suggestions are less about finding the perfect gift for you than about cultivating a creative, thoughtful spirit so that you can come up with a gift yourself. Discovery is always better than being told what to get someone, and hopefully these tips will open you up to discovering the perfect gift for EVERYONE on your list.

1. Listen

Most of the time if you listen to people carefully you’ll have a good idea what they want during the holidays, and indeed at any time of year. People are pretty good at dropping hints. Children especially are very vocal about what they want (as are parents who are talking about what their children need/want to other adults). Even if you can’t get them what they want down the toy aisle one month, make a note–an actual physical note–about what they were looking at, the kinds of things they were interested in and so on. This applies to all people, it doesn’t help you to have the perfect gift idea because of a hint someone dropped if you don’t write it down.

2. Watch

You know people better than you think you do. If you’re buying someone a gift, it’s most likely because they’re important to you in some way. Even if it’s someone you know less well, chances are you’ve seen them around a little bit. You probably know what colors they like to wear most, the kinds of food they like to eat, the jewelry or accessories they wear, the sports team they prefer, and so on.

If there are people you go shopping with on a regular basis, you’ve probably seen what they linger at and what catches their eye. Thoughtful gift giving is not about pulling something totally random out of a hat, it’s about seeing what people want and giving it to them when they don’t expect anyone to have remembered.

3. Start Early

If you are watching and listening all year long, then you’ll probably have ideas well before the holiday rush. It’s great to have December roll around and already have gifts in your secret hiding place. When you find things, get them, they won’t always be around when you need them. Keep a record of what you’ve gotten and how much you’ve spent so you don’t go over budget. Starting early keeps you from getting panicked and having to go to the mall at the last minute with all the holiday-crazed people. It also lets you shop around and find the best deals before finalizing a purchase.

This tip especially applies to homemade gifts. Whatever amount of time you think a project is going to take you, triple it and start then. Homemade gifts are great, but only if you have the time to complete them.

A card I found on vacation for my great aunt. It was painted by a local artist.

4. Always keep your eye out.

This is related to the above tip, but you don’t know how many times I’ve found the perfect thing when I wasn’t looking for it. Every person on your list has a style and personality that you’ve had in your life for years. When you start exercising the “this looks like so-and-so” skill, you’ll never go back. You don’t have to buy everything that speaks to you, but you should start keeping an eye out. This doesn’t have to be an active practice, it’s probably something you do already and just need to listen for.

When I was sick, Paul got me these colorful daisies, skittles, and colored pencils so I could have a cheerful, colorful day.

5. Be thoughtful all the time.

Like any skill, gift giving improves the more you practice it. The more you listen and find things, the more you give “just because” gifts, and the more you’re happy with what you’ve given, the better at gift giving you’ll become. You’ll find that the more ideas you use, the more will come to you. Like any creative gift, you become more creative as you create–the well doesn’t dry up.

Being thoughtful also means being personal. I don’t keep a drawer of gifts because even a last minute gift should still be personal and special. There are a few go-to gifts I give a lot, but I always try and think of the unique personality of the person I’m giving to. Jewelry, books, and baked goods are some of my favorite gifts. These are lovely no matter what, but when you take the time to really think about the person in question, these gifts become so much more special. Think about the kinds of things you give a lot, and now think about where you buy them. Maybe you like to give soap or candles, clothing or handmade goods. Knowing where to get the gift you want is sometimes the hardest part of getting a personal gift. If you know the best places to buy the things you like to give, it makes that part so much easier.

And last but not least being thoughtful means being grateful. If you were given a gift, you should write a thank you note (unless it was during the holidays, people don’t normally expect thank you notes, but if you were given something extra thoughtful, by all means write one). If the gift was informal, the thank you doesn’t have to be formal (could just be a text or email), but if you were given a gift someone put effort into, you should acknowledge it.

6. Go small.

Sometimes you’re able to buy a great big present that’s absolutely perfect, but a lot of times that’s is a gift for a special occasion like a graduation or an important birthday. When you’re able to give generously, that’s great, but small gifts can be thoughtful and special too. Remember that people usually love to unwrap things, and several smaller gifts can be just as lovely as one big one. This is especially true for kids, who typically see gifts in terms of quantity rather than quality.

7. Make it yourself.

If you’re on a tight budget, or you just like to make things, giving homemade gifts might be the way to go. Before you start, make sure you have all the ingredients/supplies you need and maybe do a practice run before you dive right in. It may not look the way you though it would turn out, but the best part about a homemade gift is that it doesn’t have to be perfect.

That said, try and do your research and don’t get in over your head. You may not have done one or two of the steps required before, but learning an entirely new process might be a daunting task. If you’re thinking about trying knitting, painting, wood-working, or serious baking for the first time, make sure you give yourself ample time to learn the skill. If you’re having to learn something or buy lots of things to make one project, ask yourself (and be honest) about whether this is the start of a new hobby or if it’s just for the one gift (or even multiple gifts). If you don’t see yourself having a future in it, and it’s going to be more trouble than it’s worth, ask yourself if it’s not better to buy from a professional and commission something handmade. Etsy can be a valuable resource, as well as craft fairs and Saturday markets–you may even know someone personally. You can buy something homemade and help an artisan rather than get in too deep and start pulling your hair out.

8. Group Presents or Group Exchanges

The nature of this type of present normally depends on the exchange. Budget and the type of exchange will affect the outcome, but there are a couple guidelines that’ll help no matter what.

If you’re buying for more than one person, keep the items as similar as possible–definitely within the same budget. Keeping everything uniform helps your budget (buy in bulk) and prevents hurt feelings. You can personalize within that (maybe everyone gets a lotion, but there are different scents), but the more regular you keep it the better.

Always stay as close to the budget as you can. Don’t go too much lower (unless you got the item on sale and the value of the item was on budget) and definitely don’t go higher. Also, make sure you’re getting something you wouldn’t mind receiving, or, if you’re buying for children (like party favors) that it’s something your child wouldn’t mind receiving. This goes with the thoughtful tip again, but even a white elephant gift should have some sort of redeeming feature, even if it’s just humorous.

9. Wrap with Care

If you’ve put this much thought and work into your present, you should at least make a little effort with the presentation. You don’t have to spend much money to be creative with wrapping. You can reuse things you have in your house (I always save things like small boxes, plain gift bags, and I reuse tissue paper and ribbon), and if you feel like you need a gift wrapping station, choose papers that could be personalized with small additions like ribbon, but that could be used for many different occasions.

10. Give from the Heart

This is the most important part of gift giving, which is why I saved it for last. There are certain occasions when gifts are expected like weddings and birthdays and holidays, but regardless of this, gifts should be given with an open heart and with sincerity. Even if the process was frustrating, the receiver wasn’t grateful, or the gift was born of obligation, finding a way to give openly and freely is the most important part of giving. This means that you don’t expect a gift in return, or even a thank you note. It means that you don’t care how they choose to use the gift or if they decide to return it or get rid of it (if there are exceptions about this, which might apply if it’s a family heirloom or was expensive, those concerns should be discussed upfront). It also means that the gift is about them, and not about the audience it’s opened in front of. This can be really difficult–the most difficult part–but I promise it’s the most rewarding.

What’s the most thoughtful gift you’ve ever received?