2010 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Buying people what they want or need

On my side of our family, we don’t celebrate the holidays the way other people do. We usually end up buying presents for each other when needs arise, instead of waiting for the calendar to turn a specific date.

For example, when my mother’s computer bit the dust this summer, we celebrated Christmas in July by chipping in part of the purchase price for her to get a new laptop then. When the holiday catches up on the calendar, she’ll have an additional stocking stuffer gift to open, and will have been enjoying the big gift she really wanted for six extra months.

This doesn’t work extremely well with children, especially younger children who don’t yet have a full understanding of time. However, young children aren’t usually quiet about the things they want. Whether they’re writing letters to Santa Claus or screaming it at the top of their lungs, it’s not much of a secret. It’s easy to buy kids one or two things they want since you know exactly what those items are.

Figuring out what adults want, though, might be more complicated. So, I recommend doing what we do in our family and simply ask the person what they want or need. You may not choose to do this for everyone — surprises can be fun — but if you’re buying a large gift, it’s nice to get someone what they want or need.

On my husband’s side of the family, everyone keeps an Amazon Wish List. We’ve all installed the Universal Wish List Button, so we can include items on the Wish Lists from any online retailer, including individual sellers like those on Etsy. These lists are especially helpful when buying for the younger cousins who were into video games last year, but are all about football this year. There aren’t any questions about sizes or team preferences or if the gift will be appreciated. No one expects you to buy from their list, but it’s a great resource for ideas when you’re the gift giver.

As part of the Practical Presents theme of this year’s Gift Giving Guide, we believe buying people what they want or need meets every definition of practicality.

17 Comments for “2010 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Buying people what they want or need”

  1. posted by Dorothy on

    I think it’s essential to give people what they want or need. It’s the essence of clutter to give someone a tchochke they’ll feel obliged to display or need to get rid of.

    I have a bit of a reputation as a good gift giver. The essence of the exercise for me is listening. Every so often someone will let slip a remark that’s a clue to their want or need. You then mentally file that bit of data away until the next gift-giving opportunity. Here’s an example of a gift I just bought for my sister-in-law, a young, newly-married woman. Our family are good cooks, and Megan is just learning to cook. She’s made several pound cakes this year and that’s now “her dessert”. When I was at her house a couple months ago she had the pound cake she’d made that day on an inexpensive glass pedestal cake plate with a dome cover. When someone remarked on it she said she’d borrowed it from a friend. So recently when I drove past an outlet mall I checked at the Mikasa store and they had one Gorham crystal cake plate at a deep discount. I was able to afford a really lovely cake plate and Megan will now have her own.

    Despite the anecdote above I think it’s important to avoid “permanent” gifts unless you’re SURE it’s something the person wants. Much better are “experience” gifts — something that can be consumed/enjoyed/used up. But even here, avoid the generic and avoid assuming your taste is the same as everyone else’s. For instance, scented candles and soaps are popular gifts, but I’m pretty particular about how my house smells, so I only use certain products. The gifts of that sort I receive are usually headed for the donation box.

    For older people, one thoughtful gift is to pay for something they need/want regularly. For instance one Christmas I pre-paid my dad’s newspaper subscription for the following year. A box of note cards is a trite present for the older women in your life, but becomes more useful if you place a Forever stamp on each envelope, or simply enclose a book of stamps.

    Also I like to give the best of something modest rather than a poor-quality example of something “bigger”. Better a silk slip than a shoddy dress.

  2. posted by KR on

    What I do for our anniversary is keep a running list of things I’d like but don’t feel I should pick up right now. 6 months prior to our anniversary I give my husband the list, with my sizes on it. He doesn’t have to use the list, but this way he knows the general idea of what I’d like and doesn’t have to guess at what size I am.

    We both also pay attention to comments we each make. And picks up gifts based on that.

    He sends me links to items he likes throughout the year, and I save them in a folder. But again I don’t have to use them. This past year I surprised him with a cooking class – featuring Margaritas – his favourite drink. He was surprised, and still talks about how great of a gift it was.

    When we lived further away from my family, we would often receive some gas money as a gift, so we could afford to travel to visit. It was the perfect gift at the time for us.

  3. posted by Adventure-Some Matthew on

    I keep a running list of things that my wife mentions. This way I always have some ideas for gift-giving holidays. I also keep a list of her various clothing sizes in my phone, so that I know what size to get her whenever the opportunity arises.

    This year my family is doing a secret Santa exchange. We all wrote down a few gifts that we wanted, all under a certain dollar amount. Then we put our names into a hat (along with the list) and whoever we drew, that’s who we buy for. We only have to buy a few gifts and already have a detailed list to work from.

  4. posted by Jessica on

    The best thing my family ever did as far as Christmas gifts are concerned, was finally getting to the point where we just tell each other what we want and then buy or make people things they want. My stepdad likes hand knit socks, so I knit him a pair every Christmas. It’s not a surprise, and really, it’s kind of boring, but it’s more important to me to give him something he wants than to give him something I want to give him. There is a lot of what I call “selfish giving” around the holidays. You give the gift you want to give, rather than the gift the receiver wants. And giving selfishly is another form of giving clutter.

  5. posted by E~ on

    I vote for experiences too. It was so much more fun than anything in a box to do the North End Italian Tour in Boston! Or the indoor skydiving, or hawk flying, or…

    my husband thinks my family is insane for having lists but it saves no end of hurt feelings – like when I said get me a snuggy in any color but pink – and what did he get- hot pink – immeadiately re-gifted after several arguements over not listening – I say I feel I spend too much time watching TV – he gets new TVs – oh dear more hurt feelings

  6. posted by Rachael on

    This is something I’m trying to help my in-laws implement. They are on a fairly limited budget, but my mother-in-law really likes giving several gifts, which means I end up with five or six smaller gifts that I will never, ever use – like last year’s kitten stationary or the holiday-jello-themed cookbook I’ve already seen for this year. I had my husband give her the names of two knitting pattern books I really like and tell her I’d much rather get ONE of those than several other gifts. We’ll see if there’s any progress!

  7. posted by L.M. on

    My family is very practical. We have always asked each other exactly what we want/need and get them that. And we are more likely to ask for things we really “need” – like a new pot or pan for the kitchen! Yeah, super practical! Maybe too much so. But that is us! For surprises we just do little stocking stuffer type things. Then I married my dear hubby – and his family is total opposite: All gifts should be a surprise. They never ask what you want/need. And a practical gift is an insult! “Gifts” should be more frivolous things. Sigh.

  8. posted by Kari on

    We tend to do “family gifts.” One year it was replacing the disintegrating kitchen cabinets (custom cabinets to match our 1929 originals and new counters). This year it is a trip to Greece (our 30th wedding anniversary is 12/27 and my husband’s family is from Ikaria, a small island where we will spend our time; I’ve never been so this will be a chance to meet “the family”). For us, it is so much nicer to make purposeful decisions about “gifting,” rather than buying bits and pieces we don’t really need.

  9. posted by Another Deb on

    As the family ages, we are removing the obligation to buy anyone anything. My side has been doing this for a few years and my MIL has made the same request this year. It has made for a relaxed holiday and we spend the time with the family doing the things we like to do. No stress and hurt feelings and NO “future-garage-sale” items! We only buy for the little children.

  10. posted by Volker on

    I totally agree. But there’s every year the same problem: I usually don’t want or need anything.

    Same with other members of my family. Every year the same questions: what to give them, when they have everything they want or need…

    Or if you don’t want to buy anything from their wishlist because you know exactly that in 2 weeks it will end as clutter ;-)

  11. posted by Anita on

    I’m with Dorothy — spending time with people, listening and remembering save you from needing to ask for a list and coming across as an “I don’t have the time or patience to come up with something on my own, so just tell me what you want” type of person. Then, depending on how urgent the need is, either wait for the next gift-giving opportunity or surprise them sooner.

    Example: for the past month or so my boyfriend has been complaining that his laptop overheats too easily to be held on a lap, and that his mouse (that he got because it was the smallest one he could find) is too small. So for Christmas he’s getting a laptop cooling pad that can also be used as a lap desk, and a nice big mouse.

    Another example: last year, my mom was training for a marathon and was doing a lot of running and weight training, but not much stretching because she never got into the habit of it. She’s the type of person who will be more motivated by a class environment than by looking something up and doing it on her own, so I got her a pass to a yoga center, and she’s been loving it.

    Earlier this year, she got interested in taking some drawing and watercolour classes, but wasn’t sure where to look for them. So right now I’m looking into local art schools and community art classes, so I can give her a gift certificate for a class and some good drawing supplies to get her started.

    Maybe the people in my life are just exceptionally easy to shop for? I don’t know, but I find a little listening saves us all the awkwardness of having to poke and prod people for gift ideas.

  12. posted by Ginger on

    Most of the people in my life don’t really “need” anything so my gifts to them are more what I think they would enjoy. My parents don’t really want anything from me, but I made my dad a sweet lap blanket because I know he’s always freezing and my mom’s always cold. It matches “her” couches, so it’s the best of both worlds for both!

  13. posted by Anita on

    Also: on the practical gift vs frivolous gift front, generally the people in my life buy what they need as they need it, so it’s usually hard to find something purely practical to give them as a gift.

    Personally, the gifts I like most (in terms of both giving and receiving) are little indulgences that people want, but wouldn’t necessarily treat themselves to. That could be as practical as replacing the appliance everyone hates but “still works fine”, or as “frivolous” as treating an overworked and underpaid friend to a spa day and a set of their favourite bath salts and scented candles.

  14. posted by Lauren on

    I use the website Elfster.com for a Secret Santa gift exchange. It is great because you can upload a wishlist (just search any product and the website will come up) and add things easily, mark items for others as purchased, and it automatically draws names for the gift exchange so the person running it (me) doesn’t have to spend time figuring that out and knowing who has myself! It also remembers everyone for the next year and will not choose the same person 2 years in a row.

  15. posted by Deb on

    Someone mentioned elderly people, and having difficulties buying for them. It depends on where they live, but my next door neighbour uses public transport to get around, it’s her link to the world. This year, I’m getting her credit on her public transport card (Oyster card in London; Octopus card in Hong Kong, Go card in Brisbane).
    This is a no-clutter gift which I hope she’ll get a lot of use out of.

    One other alternative for the elderly is a gift certificate for your time. A lot of them have jobs they’re no longer quite capable of doing themselves, which you could help out with. Alternatively, you might be able to fund a couple of visits from a gardener, or a handy-person.

    Volker – can I suggest that you think about places you shop regularly? A gift card from one of those places would be a gift you’d appreciate, even if you’re buying stuff you would otherwise have paid for yourself. Where do you buy groceries?

    I’m also apparently ‘difficult’ to buy for, but am always up for a gift certificate from Baen, who have a fabulous free ebook service, and also have ebooks for sale.

  16. posted by Jen on

    We always use an amazon wish list for my son (4 yrs old), and send this around to the family. now that he’s old enough, we usually put a bunch of stuff on it ourselves, then let him have a look and add/delete a few things if he wants to. the only problem with it is that most of the family does not buy from amazon, so we have to manually manage the list and delete items as people alert us to what they have bought. (it seems they have not all caught on to the purpose of the list, nor to the fact that amazon is cheaper and more convenient than a physical store. but their gifts are still much appreciated ;) for my husband and i, it’s so hard for us to think of gifts for each other and for our parents that we usually go with “experience” gifts like restaurant gift certificates, concert/show tickets, etc. so that we don’t end up with a bunch of crap that no one needs or wants. i only wish that my parents would do the same….

  17. posted by Katie on

    My mom asks for a list but does not shop from it, and most of her many small gifts go to Goodwill. The expense and lost time, plus the burden to us as recipients, gnaws at me. I gave her one thing we wanted this year – something she loves shopping for – yet I know from my sister she has bought a bunch of other stuff too. It is do frustrating and I feel so mean! It’s like tough love. Both of us have talked with her (and with my dad) but every year it repeats. I feel we have tried to direct her behavior in a win-win compromise but it has not worked. I would love some pointers on how to have this conversation more effectively. Next year we want to say no gifts, we have everything we want or need, and if they wish, they can choose a charity to support in our names. Then I want to refuse to accept any gifts. What do you think? Does this seem cruel? Do we include the kids (7&9) in this?

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