Julia’s tips and strategies for gift-giving

I love buying presents for other people and would consider myself pretty good at it too. Gift-giving is one of my love languages 😊. For some reason, my mom finds buying presents really difficult and is pretty bad at it, so I wanted to write this post to teach my mom and other people who aren’t good at gift-giving the heuristics that I use. This post is going to be a combination of theory, tips, and general strategies, rather than me listing specific gift ideas.

To begin, what is a present (i.e., what distinguishes it from something you would buy for another person in a normal context)? And what are you trying to accomplish by giving this person a present? I think it’s really important to think through these questions for yourself before starting the process of picking a present.

Here are my answers: I think a present is a combination of both the present itself (e.g., a physical object, a future experience) and the symbolic gesture that is your giving of the present. The symbolic gesture is a token of your understanding of the recipient and their needs. For me, that’s the most important part of a present—the feeling of being deeply considered for by someone else, which is embodied in the idiom “it's the thought that counts.” For others (like me in middle school), the symbolic gesture isn’t as important, so they may be perfectly happy with receiving gift cards or straight up cash, for instance. A lot of other characteristics that I associate with good presents, like that they should be a surprise (i.e., not asking someone what specific thing you should buy for them) and that they should be special, come from this notion. One consequence of this is that I would rather receive a present that I don’t like that demonstrates thought and consideration (and that can be returned) than a present that I do like that I had to pick out myself. I’m not sure how many other people feel this way though!

With respect to the second question, I’m almost always trying to find a present that the recipient will use, and will be happy about receiving. The other positive outcome, that I’m sometimes fine with, is that they’re “not mad at” the present.      

Ok, so now that we’ve established a framework, we can move on to the actual tips and strategies. I would say that there are three general categories of presents:

  1. Things that person already needs - something that they already use or have, and need a new one of (e.g., skincare products, a replacement favorite pair of jeans or perfume, new pens or journals, gourmet food items). To figure out what these things are, just examine the “perishable” items that person regularly uses. For people you don’t know that well, this category could be difficult, especially since timing may be crucial.

  2. Things that person already wants - something that person is actively wanting but aren’t purchasing for themselves for some reason (e.g., an item that is out of their budget, something that they can’t justify purchasing, a new version/brand of something they already have). To figure out what these things are, you mostly will need to pay attention for repeated verbal/written cues. You could also examine their browsing behavior while shopping in person or online to see what items they want but aren’t purchasing for some reason. This category may also be difficult for people you don’t know well, but some people do post their wishlists online.

  3. Things that person would need/want - something that fills an existing or future need, and may be frivolous in some way (e.g., a portable power bank if their phone is always out of battery, a voucher for a new activity). To figure out what things in this category are, you should keep an eye out for signs of any needs that aren’t getting filled or filled adequately. This may come in the form of them complaining to you about a problem that they have (e.g., “Sorry I’m late, I can never find my car keys!”, “My neck has been really hurting recently”) or other things that you notice (e.g., this person is always complimenting this thing that I wear, this person likes to watch Popin’ Cookin’ videos on YouTube). From there, you can pick any item that can address that need or potential desire. I generally prefer to buy presents in this category, since it requires you to have a better (predictive) model of the person, and I feel like I can demonstrate the most care this way. Also it’s more fun for me! But I think this category is also the easiest to buy a “not bad” present for people you don’t know well.

These categories are just to guide your thinking, and I think they’re especially useful to consider in conjunction with your budget, because they can help you narrow your focus. For instance, if the person doesn’t have a lot of money to spend on themselves, buying them something that they already need is a nice way to guarantee that they’ll actually use the thing that you buy them. Alternatively, if they like to spend money on themselves, they probably don’t have that many things that they actively want that are in your budget, unless you’re a lot wealthier than they are.

Other tips and strategies:

  1. Think about general categories (things that person likes, hobbies they partake in, stereotypes about that person or their relationship to you). Sometimes it can be helpful to look up lists online to get your juices flowing. For instance, I don’t know much about middle-schoolers these days, but Googling “presents for middle school girl” can help me get a sense of potential ideas.

  2. Don’t feel like you have to buy them something in a specific domain, especially if you’re not familiar with that domain yourself. People like receiving all sorts of things, and you should be able to find a domain that you know something about that they would enjoy receiving a present in; it could even be something tangential. For instance, I don’t know anything about video games, but I do know about ergonomics.

  3. If you can’t afford to buy a present, or would prefer to give one that’s more “thoughtful,” then making something by hand is a really nice gesture. For instance, you could write a heartfelt letter or make a video of you sharing some of your favorite memories with that person. This could be accompanied by something small (e.g., flowers, candy, mini-sized products) if you want the present to seem more substantial.

  4. If you’ve given them presents in the past, it may be helpful to take a look at how those presents were received, and whether or not they were used. This can help you update on what categories of presents they prefer, and what areas they may be too difficult to shop for. For instance, if you buy them something you thought they would want but they end up not using it, it may be a sign that they’re very discerning about items in that category, and it would be easier to buy them a different kind of thing.

  5. The more time you have to think about what to get them, the better! This not only allows you to do more in depth investigations, but you can also be more discerning about the specific product you want to buy, and also potentially when and where to buy it. Who doesn’t love a good deal? You can either save money or buy the recipient more things for the same amount that you would have spent otherwise.

  6. If you can’t think of something specific, a subscription box for whatever they’re interested in is a present that they probably wouldn’t be mad about receiving. There are all sorts of subscription boxes nowadays, like ones for food, lifestyle, books, etc., and they’re available at many price points.

I've never really formalized my intuitions about gift-giving before, so there are a bunch of other considerations that I make that I am probably omitting. But I hope this helps some of you, and I may make an updated post (maybe with case studies) at a later date.


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