My feelings on giving gifts can be best summed up by Cher Horowitz: “‘Tis a far, far better thing doing stuff for other people.”
There is something so incredibly gratifying about thinking of and getting someone the perfect present — one that’s appropriate for your relationship, is the right price, and feels somewhat special. But guess what? Finding something that fits all three of those categories is really freakin’ hard!
But over the years — thanks to my large family and gift-happy friends — I’ve come up with some foolproof present-buying strategies so that I’m not empty-handed and hopeless in mid-December. Here are some of my best tips:
1. Pay attention to what they complain about.
This may say something about me or the people I surround myself with, but I get a lot of gift inspiration from folks who whine about things. Like, when my dad moaned that he can never find a working pen to use, I got him one that also came with a little built-in screwdriver, because why not? Gifts that solve a regular problem in someone’s life are highly underrated, and if you are the one solving their problems, then you’re basically their fairy godperson.
2. Like a good party, presents can be themed.
If you’re buying presents for a bunch of people — your immediate family, your friend group, your coworkers, etc. — thinking of individual gifts for each person can get old real fast. My sister came up with a great solution to this problem a few years back, when she decided she would pick a theme, and then get a present for each member of our family based on the theme. One year, she got us all subscriptions to different magazines she thought we’d like. The next year, she found a book for each of us based on our interests. Doing things this way made life way easier for her, and we all still felt understood and loved. Some other themes you could go with are subscription boxes, edible gifts, candles, socks, puzzles, a specific genre of book (like non-fiction), board games, mugs, car-related items, and calendars.
Themes can also be carried over from year to year, or you could stick with the same theme for one person each year. My coworker Rachel told me that her grandmother is super hard to shop for, but she loved a particular type of coffee that Rachel bought her from a local store while living in Texas — so every year, she just gives her the coffee. Getting someone the same thing each year is a whole different class of special because it becomes a sort of shared tradition, and they always look forward to getting the thing. No disappointments, no problem.
3. That said, don’t limit yourself to doing all your shopping in one store if it doesn’t *really* make sense.
Sometimes, you can hit up one store for all of your gift-getting needs, and that’s great. But you can’t just say, “I’m going to go to Dick’s Sporting Goods to buy all my presents this year because they’re having a crazy sale,” because not everyone likes Dick, or sporting, or goods!!!!! Sure, shopping at a bunch of different places might be inconvenient for you, but this isn’t about you. Do what you can to streamline the process, but in the end, if you have to go out of your way to the holiday market to find that perfect handmade elephant ornament, then find the time to do it.
4. If you can’t make a theme work, try giving yourself some other arbitrary rules.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but boundaries are actually helpful if giving gifts isn’t your forté. So you could give yourself some ground rules, like “experiences are for birthdays, physical gifts are for the holidays,” to help narrow down your search. If you’re getting someone multiple presents, try narrowing the exhaustingly wide field by getting them 1) something to wear, 2) something to read, 3) something they lust after, and/or 4) something they need. (Or whatever categories best fit them/their situation.)
5. Make like a gift-giving student, and take notes.
Maybe you’re browsing in Williams-Sonoma and your friend freaks out about the mini Le Creusets. Perhaps you’re texting with your mom and she references her friend Carol’s amazing new fleece robe with a tinge of jealousy. Write it down! Set up an alert for when it goes on sale! After all, making someone realize you actually listen to them might be an even better gift than the actual thing. (Unless it’s a mini Le Creuset. Nothing is better than that.)
6. Buy early, and buy often.
I’ve gotten into the habit of buying a gift the second I spot it, and then storing it in a specific box in my apartment until the holidays roll around. I mean, unless it’s food, presents don’t have expiration dates! That novelty 30 Rock mug for your personal Jenna Maroney will be just exciting even if it’s been waiting for its big moment for a few months. And let me tell you, being able to cross someone’s name off your gift-getting to-do list early is one of the things that make me feel like a incredibly responsible adult, which is rare and good. And! It’s also a great way to save money on gifts and not feel broke in December.
7. Look at their social media to figure out what they’re ~lusting~ after.
Finally, a way to get some use out of all the apps that find and store all of your personal data!!! Facebook would love to fill you on in the brands and companies your friend or loved one likes — all you have to do is hover over the “More” tab on their profile, click “Likes,” and voilà! A whole list of places they have an interest in! Better yet, take note of what they like and comment on when it pops up in your feed. Instagram and Twitter similarly let you spy on people, and if the person you’re shopping for is active on Pinterest, then you’d be a fool not to go to their profile and browse their pins.
8. Depending on the person, an experience might make for a way better gift than an object.
If you’re stumped on what to give someone, especially if it’s someone you spend a lot of time with or someone who isn’t into physical items, getting them tickets to something — anything — is a fantastic idea.
Some suggestions: Sporting events, comedy shows, brewery/winery tours, Broadway shows, movies, concerts, cooking classes, the list goes on.
9. Silly but meaningful tchotchkes are usually pretty great, too.
No one actually asks for a No. 2 pencil with a piece of emoji poop as an eraser, but when I got this as a lil’ gift to go along with the meaningful card I gave to a college friend, it just felt right. We joke about poop a lot, and she’s in school, so really, what other present was I supposed to get her? The point is, yes, there are a lot of expensive and/or useful gifts out there, but sometimes, that is not what the person and/or situation requires. If they can get a laugh, a hug, a tear, or maybe even some use out if it, then by all means, get them the $5 gag gift. No shame in that game whatsoever.
10. Don’t be afraid to show off a little bit of your personality.
Oprah’s Favorite Things isn’t just great because she gives away a bunch of $200 toasters (although that is a huge part of its appeal). It’s great because it’s a way for you to enjoy what Oprah enjoys. Because she’s sharing a little part of herself and what she enjoys, you get to feel like you are Oprah, minus a couple billion dollars. So if you’re known to evangelize your favorite book or blanket or socks, then go ahead and give it as a present. That way, you can quit asking them, “Hey, did you buy that super soft microfleece blanket yet?” and finally get to share the things you love with them.
11. Consider getting them something they wouldn’t buy for themselves.
Even in the age of “treat yo’self,” people have a hard time getting themselves the things they really want! Sometimes, it’s because of the price, but other times, it’s because they don’t have the time or energy to get it, or they just never get around to buying it. Enter: you and your gifting genius. Basically, treat them like they would treat themselves if they let themselves treat themselves. You know what I mean.
12. When in doubt, ask!
If you’re going to spend your hard-earned doubloons on a gift, you might as well make sure it’s actually wanted, yanno? The person you ask might surprise you by specifically telling you they’d love a puzzle, in which case, perfect! But they might also feel weird requesting something — even though they were specifically asked to — and you can work with that, too. Ask their family and friends for any ideas! And if they do tell you what they want, don’t be too stubborn to just get them what they ask for.
13. But it’s also completely ok if it’s not the absolute, most perfect gift ever.
Look, I put a lot of Leslie Knopian pressure on myself to get the most perfectly thoughtful present that exists, and this year, that resulted in an hour-and-a-half-long FaceTime with my mom until I finally determined the ideal items for my sisters. But the fact is, they only expected the platonic ideal of a gift because I shouted from the rooftops that I wanted to get them something really special. It’s just good to remember that gifting isn’t a competition, ok? You’re not competing with anyone else to find the ~best~ gift, nor should you try to out-gift yourself from last year. Chill. (The “chill” was more for me than for you.)
14. Most important: make them feel seen.
The best gifts communicate, “I see you and I get you.” A good gift can be practical, thoughtful, hard-to-find, nostalgic…whatever the meaning behind it, it speaks to your specific relationship with the person. Not only does the thought count, it’s everything. And believe it or not, it’s possible to make a gift seem deeply thoughtful, even if you only gave it about two seconds’ worth of consideration. So think about something that would fit right into their everyday routine. Think about something they love to eat, or watch on TV, or stay up until 3 a.m. Googling. Or think about something they talked passionately about recently. As long as it’s clear that you saw them doing their thing, and contemplated what they might need or want, you’re good. Now, go get shopping!