How to give great gifts

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10 December 2006

I like giving gifts. I like it a lot. (It seems to be one of my love languages.) Like most things I care about, I want to be good at it. In this case, I’ve learned a few rules for how to be good at it, and Mom’s post below has inspired me to share them.

Some of this is basic stuff; some of it will help you choose gifts that will succeed wildly. Either way, following these rules will help.

In order of importance:

Put some energy into it

If you only follow one rule, let it be this one. When choosing a gift, make sure that you take the time to do it well. It doesn’t matter exactly what you give or how you give it, so long as you care about it and work (even just a little) at it.

Be thoughtful about what you’re giving

Give gifts that actually reflect the recipient’s individuality. Give something that relates to their life or their situation, or that involves something they care about. Personal gifts demonstrate that you put some energy into choosing the gift.

Give something they want

This one is subtle: give something that the person is actively thinking about or wishing for. A gift that everybody likes is much less exciting than a particular thing that the recipient really wants.

Give something they wouldn’t get for themselves

The gifts that really make people happy are the ones that are just out of their reach. Giving them something they want but weren’t going to get for themselves is almost a sure-fire way to make the gift a success.

Be sincere in your presentation

The actual presentation of the gift is at least as important as the gift itself. Depending on the situation, you may just need to take the time to wrap it or you may need to work some magic and make the presentation truly exciting. Either way, use your preparation, words, and actions to indicate that you are giving the gift because you really want to, and not just because it’s the right thing to do. This ties back to “it’s the thought that counts” – the “thought” is expressed more by your presentation than by the gift itself.

Give something useful

There are a lot of gifts that seem like a good idea when purchased but then end up in a drawer or closet, forever. Such gifts aren’t as effective as gifts that end up in frequent use, over a long period of time. Take the time to consider whether your gift will have staying power.

Note: flowers, art, and charitable donations all break this rule (somewhat), and yet they can all be great gifts. That’s why the rule is near the bottom :)

Don’t give money

It’s almost impossible to give money and live up to all the rules above. Instead, if you can’t do something better, give a gift card to a store that will let the recipient get something that meets the rules above. Be careful, though, that they don’t end up buying socks when what they really want is a sweater.

Happy gift giving!

  1. Matt says:

    Great post. You always wind up getting the boys something that’s a real hit, and I (still) have no idea how you actually pull it off. The crayon truck, the lego wagon, the brio track pieces, the trumpet, Nelson (the giraffe blanket)... it’s so rare that I actually remember stuff that people give, but every one of those gifts just hit the spot for the kids and are still in active use today.

    The problem I have personally, is that I really and truly don’t like to receive “stuff”. I’m not a good recipient at all – it makes me uncomfortable. Weird, huh? I feel like I have to compete, I don’t like people spending much money on me, I don’t find that I’m wanting for anything tangible, and I’d so much rather see Christmas giving be about the kids. There isn’t a hidden agenda here or anything I’m trying to say to you between the lines – I’m just posting this because I’d never really given it too much thought before, but your post gave me (see, a gift I can receive well) pause to actually consider it.

    So, what I personally like violates some of your rules – I like consumables. Stuff that doesn’t last – stuff that has to be renewed. Stuff that doesn’t make me feel obligated to use or get in my way or clutter up my life or my house! I’m not talking fruit cake here – more like quality time (another love language, though not my primary one). I’d much rather go out to dinner or go to a show or catch a movie or travel or just get together and play games than receive an actual physical gift. Or, maybe that is a type of gift. All I want for Christmas is an experience – a joyous memory – something you can’t buy online. But too many people (myself included) think of wrapping paper and bows instead of love and thoughtfulness when it comes to Christmas.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. Nathan Arthur says:

    Brilliant reply – thanks! I understand your comments about “stuff.” If you look closely (and maybe you already have), the only rule that actually implies “stuff” is “Give something useful,” and it intentionally makes the point that it’s not always a valid rule. The rest of the rules all apply equally well to the gifts you like.

    I thought about elaborating that point in the original post, but decided that I preferred keeping it simple. I’m glad it ended up here :)

    And either way, I’ll remember what you like!

  3. Matt says:

    I’ve been thinking more about this (curse you and your posts!) because I think this has made me realize that I’m probably a very ungrateful receiver. My mom’s love language is also giving, and she is just extravagant about it. I’ve come to appreciate that it brings her joy, but last Christmas was downright embarrassing. She knows us well and gets wonderful gifts that meet all your criteria – she spends months doing this, and she is so happy to watch people react to what she gets them. But, she goes too far. When we bring over one meager sack of gifts for them, and have to take 5, yes FIVE, trips to load the van back up with what she’s given us – it’s just embarrassing. When we give the kids each 3 nice gifts, but they go to grandmas and get 15 each, it’s just too much. And it doesn’t just stop at the kids – she’s a grandma and is entitled to give her grandkids every good thing – but Beth and I both wind up with giant armfuls too. Most of it stuff we like and will use – but all of it together is over-the-top and is what inspired my previous post.

    In response to your response, I guess I was also considering the “Get them something they wouldn’t get for themselves” rule as one I wasn’t so sure about. If you get me something I wouldn’t have gotten myself, <b>you’ve spent too much money!</b> If you get me something I would’ve bought myself, chances are it’s too mundane to want to give. Or, I’ve likely already bought it. So, I guess I don’t really mind “stuff” as much as I implied in my last post. I just think consumables wind up being a safer bet.

    But as I was thinking more about it, money isn’t the only thing that makes a gift out of reach. If you’re at an arts festival or street fair or traveling through Europe and see something that makes you think of someone else, that’s a candidate for a good gift. The gift is out reach because the receiver isn’t able to be at that particular place at that particular time, but if it’s something they would have wanted, then that probably works well. I’m still thinking about it all, but I think I’m closer today to having a fully baked notion of what I believe.

    (PS – Your Textile help is broken – probably due to your new tag interpolation.)

  4. Nathan Arthur says:

    Seeing your side of the argument, I think it’s up to you how many gifts your kids should get, and your mom should respect your wishes.

    The other reason people don’t get things for themselves is that they don’t think it’s a good use of their money. For example, Cedar Point prices are outrageous these days, and even though you want to go you might decide that you’d rather buy a couple of new CDs for yourself. In that case, I could buy the both of us Cedar Point tickets, without spending too much money, and I’d have also covered your biggest ‘want’ (quality time).

    Wow, that was a good idea. I just might have to use it :)

    Yes, Textile help is broken, but it’s actually a bug in the textpattern site. If you look at the url for the link, it’s at It’s the source of yet another of my frustrations about textpattern these days.

  5. Nathan Arthur says:

    Note to everybody getting updates via email: you’ll notice that comments now appear in the emails that are sent out. Hopefully that will make the repeated emails more bearable :)

    (For the geeks out there – this is possible because of a new feature in my plugin. Woohoo!)

  6. Beth says:

    Though I think we may already have a world record in comments posted from us to you I haven’t participated yet on this one… first of all, you and Krissy both (especially as a pair) are absolutely fantastic at this. You could go into business together as personal shoppers. If I had any extra, I’d definitely pay you money to take care of my Christmas shopping for me. You’d have to gather a lot of information though about who you’re shopping for. But hey, you’re good at that. Secondly, having already bought your Christmas gifts, may I just say that your excellence at finding the right thing makes it really difficult to feel good about what we give you! Now having read the post, it’s going to be even harder! All I can say is just ask Krissy what shopping with my boys is like. And just because this post provides me the excuse to express this sentiment: Finding something that removes stress or simplifies someone’s life is a fabulous way to make them happy. That’s what I want for Christmas. And I am not talking about scented lotion or aromatherapy anything. Many would think that what stresses me the most is my kids, but it’s not. (Please don’t take away my kids for Christmas – at least not for more than a few hours!) I would absolutely love to receive a gift of a pre-paid house cleaning session, or one of those people that can come in and organize my basement and help me deal with the clutter down there. Or a gift card that will help me get a new refrigerator or washer and dryer. There. Now I feel better. Like I got to sit on Santa’s knee again. Thank you Mr. Arthur Claus!

  7. Nathan Arthur says:

    Woohoo! World record!

    Thank you also for the compliment – it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. Note, however, that we have no idea what we’re getting for any of you this year, so I’ve now also set the bar super-high for us… damn. Either way, it’s the giving that we like so much, not the getting, so please don’t worry about it :)

    But it’s good that you published a list: things that reduce stress and/or simplify your life. I’ll noodle on that.

    Merry Christmas, all!

  8. Giving not gifting says:

    I like the attention to the “presentation.” we often forget this, looking for the perfect “thing.” but it is the act, the process of giving, that is ineffable and memorable, when it’s done right! thanks for the insight into that. and I’m with your friend – consummables (ie delicious chocolates or belgian beer) are always my favorite too!

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