Six Tips for Giving Great Gifts

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For the last few years, I’ve put together a holiday gift guide, but this year, I thought I’d try something different. I’m posting these actual gift-giving tips for a few reasons: (1) because doing that scavenger hunt and putting together those collages takes way, way too much time, (2) because I can’t actually post any of the gifts I’m planning to purchase without ruining the surprise, and (3) because your friends and family probably want to receive gifts you picked out, not me. (Well, maybe not so much that third reason — I’m an excellent gift giver, and I bet your friends and family would love getting gifts from me. :))

I knocked out a big chunk of my Christmas shopping this weekend, and while I was at it, I made a few mental notes about how I choose gifts. For me, gift shopping is much, much different than shopping for myself, so most of the shopping tips I normally dole out do not apply. Obviously I’m posting this list in time for the holidays, but I think these ideas work for all occasions — birthdays, anniversaries, showers, weddings, etc.

Anyway, here it goes. How to become the best gift giver your friends and family are acquainted with (unless they’re acquainted with me):

1. Make a Budget

The first thing I do when shopping for gifts is figure out how much I want to spend on each person, and I write it down where I can keep a tally of how much I’ve spent as I shop. I don’t do this because I’m not generous — I do it because I am generous, and sometimes I go overboard. Shopping for gifts should be fun, and it shouldn’t put you in debt for months afterward. As I’ve become more financially stable over the last several years, I’ve gradually increased my shopping budget for my family members. For my friends, I do my best to stay within a reasonable dollar range based on previous gift exchanges with each person. I do this to make sure I don’t overextend myself, but also because the last thing I want to do is make a friend feel awkward, which sometimes happens if one person spends a whole lot more money than the other. If I do go over my budget for the perfect gift, I try to prevent any awkwardness by saying (or, even better, writing in my card) something along the lines of, “I saw this, and I thought it was absolutely perfect for you. I really, really wanted you to have it, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I think you will.”

2. Give Something Special

It’s important for gifts to be thoughtful and useful, but they should also be special. By special, I mean something that the person wouldn’t have necessarily bought for him or herself, perhaps because they would never have thought of it or because they wouldn’t have been willing to splurge on it. A gift is something shared between two people, and it’s a win-win if the giver appreciates the gift just as much as the recipient…because spending money on gifts you personally dislike isn’t very satisfying at all. It’s also good practice to focus on quality over quantity when gift shopping because crappy gifts have a tendency to turn into household clutter or end up in the donation pile. That’s best avoided by purchasing useful items of the highest quality possible in your price range.

Here are some examples:

  • I have a friend who sits on old bath towels at the beach. If I splurge on some extra cute, colorful beach towels for her, I know she’ll use them; they’ll remind her of me because she knows I love the beach; and they’ll also be something special that she wouldn’t have spent money on herself.
  • If I’ve got a $30 budget, I’d prefer to spring for a top-of-the-line $30 amazing-smelling body lotion in a gorgeous bottle, rather than purchase a gift set of three average body lotions for $9 each. The $30 lotion is more likely to be treasured, displayed on a dresser and ultimately used, whereas the $9 bottles are more likely to end up in the bottom of the bathroom cabinet, never to be seen again.

3. Do Some Research
Almost everyone has some kind of social media account these days. Pinterest is an especially good tool for doing a little investigative research prior to choosing a gift. Those who are easiest to buy for might have a “Wish List” board, but even those who don’t may have boards that offer up clues as to what they enjoy and what types of things are important to them. You might pick up on some favorite brands, favorite colors, favorite foods/wines/beers, etc. Facebook and Twitter might not offer quite as much insight, but it’s always worth a peek, and these two offer up the ability to private message a significant other, family member or friend of your target to see if you can get some hints about what he’d like.

Here are some examples:

  • Perhaps you notice on Facebook that your friend and his wife just exchanged anniversary gifts — he got her a beautiful red handbag, and she bought him a black wool coat. The perfect gifts for these two could be a pair of new winter scarves — one that goes with his black coat, and one that has a bit of red in it to go with her new bag.
  • Whenever I look at my friend Heather’s photos on Facebook, I remember that she always wears these multi-colored plaid rubber boots on rainy days. I might consider giving her a collection of cute umbrellas — one of each color in her boots. (No, Heather. I did not get you umbrellas for Christmas.)
  • Maybe you see that your friend keeps pinning bar carts to her “Home Inspiration” board on Pinterest because she wants one for her dining room. A book of cocktail recipes or a few bar accessories may be great gifts to compliment her bar cart once she gets it set up.

4. Localize It
Buying locally inspired gifts is a tactic I’ve been using a lot lately. Who doesn’t love being reminded of their home town, favorite vacation destination, alma mater or even a faraway place they’ve never been before? The key to making local gifts work is subtlety — as in, no “So-and-so went to St. Somewhere, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt” apparel, and certainly no touristy key chains, shot glasses or other such nonsense (unless you’re trying to be funny or your recipient is into that kind of stuff). When done right, locally inspired gifts are always well-received because they’re very thoughtful.

Here are a few examples:

  • My parents brought back some 100% Kona coffee from their trip this summer, which would make the perfect gift for a coffee-drinking, Hawaii-obsessed person (hint, hint).
  • A bottle of wine I recently discovered in Napa Valley accompanied by a wine opener or a cheese board would make a great hostess gift.
  • I picked up some pretty flamingo Christmas ornaments and dish towels when I stayed at the Flamingo in Vegas. They don’t say Flamingo on them; they just are flamingos. When I give them, I’ll say, “I thought of you in Vegas and picked this up for you at the Flamingo — isn’t it adorable?” I like to think a gift like this shows recipient she’s important to me because I keep her in mind even while I’m on vacation.
  • A few years ago, I gave my best friend’s little girl a few Jersey Shore children’s books, and she loved them! People don’t often think to buy themselves mementos from their home towns, so they make great gifts.
  • I’ve found that college grads who may be too old to stick decals to their cards always seem to appreciate the subtlety of a license plate frame.
  • A framed map of someone’s home town who has moved away would make a nice gift, too.

5. Personalize It
If you don’t feel like your gift ideas are very creative, personalizing an otherwise mundane gift makes a world of difference. There are thousands of items out there just waiting to be embroidered, etched and customized with all sorts of monograms, names, dates, birthstones, colors, etc. These days you can personalize pretty much anything, thanks to websites like CafePress and Etsy. There are a few things to keep in mind when personalizing gifts, though. First, custom items can rarely be returned, so be sure to double check spelling and confirm dates, birthdays, etc. before ordering. This would be another situation where Facebook may enable you to contact a spouse or parent of the recipient to confirm a date or find out whether someone’s middle name changed after they were married. Custom gifts also take a little more time, so plan ahead, and be prepared to order a few weeks before the holiday.

Some of my favorite personalized gifts include:

  • Monogram and name necklaces
  • Custom iPhone cases
  • Calendars and photo products (Who needs those dog breed calendars? Last year I made a calendar featuring photos of Diesel for J, and he loved it!)
  • Embroidered totes, men’s shirts, linens, etc.

6. Give a Gift Card
Gift cards are the easiest, quickest, least risky gifts to get your hands on, which is why they seem to have a reputation for being the last resort gift or the gift that lazy people give. I don’t necessarily agree — I think gift cards can be great gifts. They say, “It’s the thought that counts,” and the key to successfully giving gift cards is just that. You still have to think before you choose the gift card. If you just grab the Target gift card at the register, it’s extremely likely the recipient is going to use it for groceries, cat litter and paper towels. If you want your gift to be remembered, try to think outside the box a little.

Here are some great gift card ideas:

  • Choose a gift card to a restaurant you visit regularly that perhaps the recipient hasn’t discovered yet. Include a copy of the menu with some notes on your favorite dishes and drinks and the best nights to visit the restaurant.
  • With books, music and movies becoming more and more digitized, gift cards are unavoidable when giving the gift of entertainment. Give an iTunes gift card, along with a list of songs that remind you of the person you’re giving it to. Or give a Kindle-lover an Amazon gift card accompanied by a few suggestions about what to read on his or her upcoming vacation.
  • Purchase a gift card to a salon or spa. If it’s one you frequently visit, and pass along the names of your regular facialist or massage therapist. Go a step further — let the staff know your friend is coming in, and tip ahead to ensure she receives VIP customer service while she’s there.

I’d like to end this post with one of my all-time best gifts ever. I can’t take all the credit for it because I think it may have been my mom’s idea. In 2006, I got my hands on three dresses custom-made for my grandmother years and years ago. I posed for a photo in each one, framed the prints, and gave them to my grandmother. It was Christmas, but her birthday is in December, too — I think it was a birthday gift. Either way, the prints are hanging up at her house, and the they top the list of my favorite gifts given, for sure. 🙂

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If you’re still reading this, I hope you found this list helpful. This was a long post, and I really appreciate your dedication to becoming a gift-giving guru. In fact, I’ll make you a deal. If you read this far, and you still don’t know what to give someone, e-mail me, and I’ll help you figure it out. 🙂 (Or, you could always go back and check last year’s gift guides…)

Thanks for reading, and happy holiday shopping!

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