Frugal Bagel's Anti-Gift Guide Gift Guide for Unknown and Difficult Recipients
When you come up blank on gift ideas for some of the folks on your list, you may be tempted to look to marketing. There’s no shortage of gift guides online, or sections in stores marked “Gifts for Her!” Or “For the Serious Outdoorsman!” Hold up before you hit the “buy” button. I’m highly skeptical of gift guides, gift packs, and anything marketed as a gift.
If it’s so great, why is it being marketing as a gift and not just, you know, a product?
Marketing something as a gift is like admitting, “I know you don’t actually want this for yourself - who would? - but maybe it’s okay for somebody else?”
Lukewarm appreciation is the best case scenario
Items marketed as gifts tend not to be objectionable, but they’re just kind of bland. Nobody’s going to be over the moon about them. They’re the material possessions equivalent of Applebee’s. Nobody wants to go to Applebee’s, but maybe you’ll settle for Applebee’s if you’re at a work lunch or something and you don’t want to suggest anything you actually like for fear it’s an acquired taste that not everyone else has acquired. It’s nobody’s first choice but nobody’s going to be horrified.
Strangers are not in the best position to help you connect with people in your life
Generally the best way to come up with a great gift is to think about the recipient: knowing them as you do, what do they want? What would they enjoy? What is their guilty pleasure? Now, how is some generic gift guide writer, who has never met your friend or family member, going to do that emotional work better than you? Probably they can’t, unless you are getting presents for people who you don’t really know all that well, or for people who are notoriously difficult to buy for because they don’t want anything, or for completely unknown recipients (like in a charity gift drive or office gift swap).
Not that those aren't legit gifting quandaries. So...
What should I get when I don’t know what else to get?For those difficult cases where "what do they want?" fails you, here are some other ways to look at the “what should I get?” question before you resort to premarketed gifts.
Something you want
If you want it, at least you know someone does, so you won’t fall into the trap of getting something nobody really wants. I still only remember one gift from my 14th birthday - a friend I wasn’t even all that close to handed me a copy of Jimi Hendrix’s “Axis: Bold As Love,” eagerly adding, “If you already have that one, I can keep it.” (I didn’t have it, and I kept it! Sorry not sorry.)
Best For: People who have similar taste to you own, or are in a similar stage of life; gift swaps where you might end up with it yourself.
Potential Pitfalls: Carelessly applied, this approach can end up making you look like a child with no theory of mind. “Grampa definitely wants this toy dump truck!”
Something you have (that you love)
It’s easy to overlook things you already own and take them for granted, but tried-and-true day-to-day objects can be a rich source of present fodder. Think about those things in your life you have absolutely locked down: have you found the perfect travel mug or bath towel? Chances are if it’s perfect for you, it will be perfect for other people in your life. Not only do you know these things are genuinely want-able and useful, but you know that your particular iteration has the potential to spark joy.
Best For: Anyone whose lifestyle is similar enough to yours that they’re likely to enjoy similar stuff. When the items in question are utilitarian, you have a pretty open field. Even if your friend has never mentioned wanting bath towels, most people can use something like that.
Potential Pitfalls: As with anything, just scan your brain-files to make sure it’s not an absolute mismatch. Like if you recall them ever positively mentioning that they couldn’t be happier with their current bath towels, or they don’t use towels but simply air-dry.
Food and drink
Everybody needs to eat! Your instinct will be to get something a little more fancy and expensive than usual so it doesn’t scream “I bought this at Stop & Shop,” but continue to avoid premade food-based gift baskets, which have the same problems as other types of “giftables.” (Genericness and “just okay”-ness.) Use the tricks above - get foods for others that you either want yourself or enjoy routinely and have totally locked down. “This is the best hot cocoa, hands down.”
Best For: People who don’t want physical stuff, hedonists, gift swaps where you might end up with it yourself.
Potential Pitfalls: Food can be tricky when there are allergies and restrictions at play. Stick to giftees whose general dietary habits you know (Do they have major allergies? Are they vegetarian? Vegan? Kosher? Recovering alcoholic? Diabetic?) For gift swaps, you probably don’t need to get something that every participant can eat (since only one person will end up with it), but check the rules and just to be safe, stick to nut-free.
Read a good book, listened to a good album, or played a good video game this year? Share it! This is especially great for indie media because the creators are more impacted by additional sales, and because your friends are less likely to have already heard of it.
Best For: People with similar taste to you, people who aren’t as cool and with it as you, people who don’t want physical stuff (if you share digital media)
Potential Pitfalls: There’s always the chance your friend has already experienced this media, but I find this is rarer than I think it will be, especially if I stick to indie stuff. There is just so much out there! Just make sure you’re not gifting it back to the person who actually recommended it to you. With digital media, consider if you think they have the means to enjoy it. It’s not that they can’t get a Steam account or the Kindle reader app, but realistically, if they don’t already have it set up, will they bother?
Give the gift of your time. Take your friend out to dinner, just the two of you. Take your family to see The Nutcracker. Or, offer a service (like a free tune-up if you’re a good mechanic, or the equivalent for whatever your talent is).
Best For: People who don’t want physical stuff, people you’re physically with at Christmastime, people who enjoy spontaneity and adventure, people who always complain “I don’t see you enough”
Potential Pitfalls: I find the experiential gifts hard to pull off except for people I know really well (that is, people who I already have plenty of ideas for). If the whole point is to put something under the tree for people to unwrap, this doesn’t really do that - unless you put theater tickets in a nice envelope or something like that. Surprising someone with an event that they need to set aside time for can be tricky unless you have someone very close to them to coordinate with, like a parent or spouse.
When either you or your recipient (or both) are morally opposed to material things, charity is your best bet. Make a donation in their name or simply make a donation and then make a little card for them explaining the donation. You can print out a picture from the organization’s website or just image-search for something related. Handmade cards are always a welcome bonus.
Best For: People who don’t want physical stuff, people who already have everything (including people whose taste is better/fancier than yours), anyone.
Potential Pitfalls: When morality is increasingly politicized, you may worry that any donation is making some kind of political statement. Some charity donations can seem like pointed slaps in the face: you wouldn’t want to receive a donation to a church camp as an atheist. But face it: you live in a bubble, most of your friends are going to be fine to actively positive about a Planned Parenthood donation. For those that aren’t, there’s always Unicef, Doctors Without Borders, or Against Malaria Foundation. If you have a family member who is so deranged that they take offense at the idea of helping kids with malaria, then they deserve to feel offended.
Child recipients may be disappointed without something to open, but I don’t think that’s a good reason not to give them charity gifts - I actually think charity can be especially powerful when children are included. It’s important to teach the next generation that we help others as a matter of course. To make the gift more enticing, you might add a small, inexpensive, thematically related book or toy: a copy of “The Lorax” with a Sierra Club donation, or a stuffed goat and a card explaining that you bought a family a goat through Heifer International. There's no need to stick to pre-planned gift combos, like those toy penguins you get when you symbolically adopt a penguin through WWF. I mean if you wanted to donate to WWF anyway, great! But if you'd otherwise choose another org, don't be swayed by the plushie: you can easily make the gift pack yourself with a donation to your choice of charity and $7 bean bag toy from your local toy store.
Make Your Own Gift Basket
I hesitate to tell you this because it is my top secret for great gifts. But here goes. One of my favorite gift types is a themed “kit” that I put together myself. This takes a page from the marketers’ book. Yes, it is fun to give--and receive!--a gift basket or gift pack with a bunch of little things on a theme. But marketers often use this as an excuse to throw together a bunch of trash that couldn’t sell on its own, and charge more than it’s worth. When you put together the kit yourself, you can control the details and ensure that each small item is something special in its own way, even if it’s quite inexpensive. Also, you can make an individualized kit that is far more specific and customized than some marketer’s idea of the type of “demo” your recipient falls into.
For many families, this is baked into Christmas in the form of stockings. I actually find stockings more fun than big gifts, to the point where I sometimes wish I could give stockings to my friends whom I don’t share the stocking tradition with. But it’s easy to do this on a one-off basis - just put together several small items in a gift bag (or even a stocking!) It’s fun when the items have a theme, like when I got my brother a “Detective Kit” complete with magnifying glass, Moleskine notebook, and disappearing ink (he was 34). But they don’t have to. One of my favorite gifts lately was when my wife went away on a trip and left behind a Luv Ya Miss Ya kit consisting of colored pens, Fritos, and York Peppermint Patties - all stuff you can easily get at the drugstore, but for me, they’re special indulgences!
Best For: People who go nuts over small, simple pleasures. I definitely fall into this camp, as do many children.
Potential Pitfalls: It can be easy to get carried away with your theme and actually spend more than you otherwise would, sometimes on things your recipient doesn’t even want (BUT THEY FIT THE THEME SO WELL). I suppose some adults might feel infantilized or perplexed by being given something like a Detective Kit. But most of the time, people are charmed: after all, holidays and birthdays are about feeling like a kid again.