How to Buy Gifts That People Will Actually Want


If you received numerous lumps of coal last Christmas, your family and friends may be trying to tell you that the gifts you've been giving them on their birthdays and holidays leave a lot to be desired. Rather than punish yourself for being tasteless, thoughtless or cheap, realize it's more likely that you are merely confused and need some help in picking out the perfect gifts for your family and friends. What you need is a crib sheet on how to shop, what to buy and what not to buy.


  • The point of gift-giving is to show that you care, so if it's obvious that you haven't put any thought into the gift at all, there's no point in giving it.

    Listen to the recipient. The next time the two of you are watching TV, make a note of all the things he gets excited about during commercials, or pay attention when you are window-shopping together or even when you're just chatting. People are always unconsciously rambling about stuff they want, and if you make it a point to listen closely, your job of finding out what he would like will be greatly simplified.

    Ask someone close to the recipient. If you're not usually around to listen to her talk about the stuff she wants, call someone who is--her best friend a sibling or a parent--and ask for a list.

    Ask the recipient. Some people don't mind if you directly ask them what they'd like for a present. But ask only if you think the recipient will be comfortable responding.

    And don't forget: Those who claim they "will love anything you get them" or "only want your company" or "don't want anything" aren't necessarily telling the truth.

Shop Defensively

  • Shopping for presents can be fun, especially if you're already a big fan of the activity and know exactly what you're doing. But if you're the type who hates shopping, buying gifts can be incredibly frustrating.

    Buy the gift well in advance. Many a shopping expedition has failed because the giver didn't allot enough time for it. If you shop at the last minute, you can run out of money and time. Get a wall calendar, hang it in a place that you'll see it; mark down all the gift-giving occasions--birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. Whenever you get invited to a special event, mark it down immediately.

    Look up the date that is two weeks before the event and draw a big red "X" through it. This is the day you will start your shopping--not start thinking about what to shop for, which you should have done already. Go out on this day and really look for something to get the recipient. One exception: If you're shopping for gifts in honor of end-of-December festivities, start right after Thanksgiving.

    Even if you don't find something within the first couple of days of shopping, you'll have at least ruled out certain stores or ideas. You should have the gift purchased (or mail-ordered) a week before you have to give it away.

    Stock up on generic (but appealing) gifts. If you happen to spot a wallet sale or you can save on bath stuff (like soaps or lotions) by buying in bulk, stock up on these items. However, don't give these backup gifts to close friends or relatives you see on a regular basis. Chances are, you'll be giving them gifts a lot, and it'd be awful if your best friend ended up with matching wallets for his birthday and Christmas.

    Keep a list of who you give these generic presents to. You don't want to make the mistake of giving someone a great "one-of-a-kind" jewelry box, then giving her sister the exact same jewelry box two months later.

    Shop with someone who knows what she's doing. Some people just seem to be born with a shopping gene: They ask you a few questions about the potential recipient and instantly pick out a great gift at a great price. So if you normally hate shopping, bring one of these folks along. Their experience will find you bargains and steer you clear of purchasing presents that no one in his right mind would want. If you're lucky, your shopping sidekick will get so caught up in the activity that she'll end up taking over, and all you'll have to do is follow her around.

    Buy online or from a mail-order catalog. You'll have to plan in advance to do this, because it usually takes five to seven days for packages to be delivered (with some gifts, it could take up to eight weeks).

    Chip in with someone: Many people would prefer one nice gift over five lackluster ones. This is also a great option when you'd like to get a really nice gift. For instance, you and your sisters can chip in and send your parents on a luxurious cruise as an anniversary gift.

Stay Away From These Gifts

  • Yes, there is such a thing as a bad present. Avoid dumb awards. Unless your father actually thinks he's the "Number One Dad," don't mock him by getting him one.

    Avoid purchasing clothes unless you've seen the recipient try on and put back a specific item of clothing because she didn't have the money to splurge on it. Chances are, you'll get the wrong size, style and/or color, and the recipient will be forced to wear the thing once in front of you, then proceed to tuck it in the back of her closet and hope you forget about it soon. If you're set on clothes, you're much better off getting a gift certificate.

    Avoid presents that can be offensive. You might think you're doing good by giving your overweight coworker an ab-roller for Christmas, but you're not. Think about what your presents say before you hand them over.

    Avoid presents you want for yourself. Just because you want a remote-controlled monster truck doesn't mean your mom will appreciate it, especially when you ask to borrow the truck right after she takes it out of the box.

    Avoid generic presents. Even though they are given often, mugs are never good presents, except for people you barely know. The same goes for $10 in lottery tickets. In other words, stay away from gifts that say nothing except "I have no clue ... so here."

    Don't give people pets. There might be a reason the recipient doesn't have a dog or cat. Pets are a big responsibility, and it's a bad idea to push the recipient into that position without warning. Stick to sea monkeys or perhaps a fish if you insist on giving something live.

Consider These Gifts

  • Here are some fun present ideas categorized by how much money you have, how funky your friends are and how much creativity you can handle.

    Expensive presents:

    Lessons for something--golf, drums, swing dancing or glass blowing. Just be certain the recipient has expressed an interest in the subject and can fit it into her schedule. Look up the lessons in your phone book, or check out local newspapers--you're likely to find special deals around the holidays.

    Massagers: It's always nice to feel pampered (see Resources).

    Tickets to a big event: Is your recipient a big fan of hockey or Broadway or a certain musical act? Check out what's going on in town close to the present-giving occasion (or slightly thereafter) and get tickets. You can fork over the pair or keep one of the tickets for yourself and accompany the recipient.

    Cool furniture/house stuff: The idea here is hammocks, paper lanterns and artwork, not a porcelain German shepherd statue (unless the recipient collects porcelain dog statues). Just make sure your present fits in with the recipient's decor.

    Funky presents:

    These gag-ish gifts are good for laid-back people with a sense of humor--but you might consider getting these presents in addition to a serious gift.

    Chia pet: We're not kidding; some people find these somewhat kitschy and funny. Make sure your recipient is one of these people. Visit the official Chia website for the scoop on how to get one. (See Resources.)

    Dart board: They're entertaining, strangely addictive and surprisingly cheap. For a bonus, attach a picture someone the recipient's hates right in the center.

    Website domain name: If your recipient is HTML savvy (or the paranoid type who wouldn't want anyone else "owning" his name), purchase a name-based URL.

    Anything from a novelty store: From naughty card games to farting nun dolls, there's something for everyone at the corner novelty store. Just don't go overboard with this stuff.

    Presents from the (frugal) heart:

    A collage or a scrapbook that you fill with pictures and mementos of your relationship with the recipient.

    Cookies, cakes, muffins or anything else that's fattening and says, "I like you enough to bake for you!" Invest in some icing in a writing tube and decorate your gifts with little messages.

    A coupon booklet filled with IOUs, like "IOU one laundry washing" or "IOU one trip to the movies." Don't include anything you'll regret later.

    Homemade artwork--only if you're good at art. Not even your mother wants another one of those macaroni-covered cardboard picture frames.

    Plain presents:

    The following presents are generic enough to apply to a lot of people without being too generic (like the aforementioned coffee mugs).

    Journal: Pick out one with a cover that will interest the recipient.

    Stuffed animal: Get a Ty Beanie Buddy or a Gund.

    Chocolates: Invest in an elegant box of Godiva chocolates, or if you're strapped for cash, go with those gooey (and cheapy) Ferrero Rochers.

    Gift certificates: Contrary to popular belief, gift certificates are not always a cop-out, especially for people who like to shop for their own stuff. Also consider getting a gift certificate from the local beauty spa for a day of pampering.

    Personalized stuff: Make sure you get the recipient's name spelled right. And no "his and her" monogrammed anything.

    Gift baskets: They don't have to consist only of shady-smelling cheeses. Buy an inexpensive basket and stuff it yourself.

    Liquor: Who doesn't like a nice, stiff drink every now and then? Make sure you're sending bottles to those of legal drinking age.

    Board games: Games like Scattergories, Twister, Taboo and Pictionary can make great presents, especially when you're giving them to friends or family members with whom you get together often. Keep in mind that some games come in special editions, which allow you to appeal more closely to the recipient's interests.

    Magazine subscriptions: If you happen to know that the recipient buys issues of a certain magazine, get her a subscription. Rather than go through the expense of purchasing a copy yourself to score one of those subscription cards, go to a newsstand, pick up a copy of the desired magazine and shake it until a card comes floating out, or order the subscription online.

Gifts for a Siginificant Other

  • To ensure that your sweetie will still love you after the holidays are over, heed these following gift-giving rules:

    Start off slow. If you begin the relationship by dipping into your savings to buy your honey the pony he's always wanted, you're in trouble. Every present after that will have to be larger animal, or it'll seem like you're getting cheaper and less romantic. So while you shouldn't start off with a pack of gum, hold off on anything big until your relationship is at least six months old.

    Don't give her something you want. Your girlfriend doesn't want that pair of wrestling tickets, and you know it. And girls, the same goes for those box seats at the ballet. The only exception to this rule is when guys buy lingerie for their girlfriends. Research her size and preferred color carefully (ask her friends, not her mother) and invest in expensive material.

    Choose an activity rather than an object. Consider spending the money on a carriage ride through the park, dinner at a really fancy restaurant or an amusement-park visit.

    Cook, especially if you don't do it often.

    Communicate with each other. Just as you're struggling to find stuff to buy your significant other for the numerous gift-exchanging occasions that pop up (like Valentine's Day, Christmas, birthdays and anniversaries), your better half is probably struggling just as hard to figure out what you want. So give him a break and drop lots of hints. You'll benefit, too, by getting something you want.

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  • Photo Credit a gift image by Sandi Chetwynd from
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