Focus on the Giver, Not the Gift & Other Gifting Tips

Focus on the Giver, Not the GiftWhether you opted to sit out this Black Friday or have already been shopping for hours, there is no denying that the gift-giving season is upon us. While I’m not sure the perfect gift actually exists, I do finally feel comfortable and confident in my gift-buying strategy. Surprisingly, my planning has little to do with how happy I think the receiver will be while first tearing open the wrapping paper. Instead, I focus on things like practicality, utility, and memories to net much greater gifting results. 

Be Practical

As someone who is currently in the midst of a massive decluttering, I try to evaluate gifts for their practicality. No, I’m not the person who wraps up First Aid kits. But I do try to be mindful of the other person’s storage situation, lifestyle, and needs.

This year, I half-jokingly Tweeted that I was going to borrow a page from Oprah and do something to the effect of “You get a bottle of booze, you get a bottle of booze, booze for everyone!” While I may not fill up my entire sleigh with alcohol, I do opt for consumables, especially when I know the recipient’s favorite items. My in-laws love a particular craft beer that is sold out of state. I picked up two cases on our last trip to visit. My mom loves a particular toffee that is from her hometown, so we always order her a box. Consumables might not always be the answer, but I do think it pays to be practical when giving a gift.

Be Purposeful

I hope to give gifts that hold purpose or add value to people’s lives. That may seem like a lofty goal for a gift, but it is really about shifting your perspective. Instead of looking for that toy that will elicit the biggest smile but will quickly blend in with all the other all-too-similar toys in the toy box, opt for things that the receiver will likely use long after the occasion.

That friend who has impulse-purchased her way into serious credit card debit? I know she would love another pair of earrings, but for the past few years, I have opted for gas or grocery gift cards instead. Admittedly, the first time I made this switch, there was not as much fanfare as bedazzled jewelry or a new clutch had elicited in the past. But when she filled up her tank later that week, I received three text messages and a phone call to thank me for taking one thing off her plate. A purposeful gift may not be the most thrilling item to open initially, but it’s value certainly increases whenever the item is used.

Make Memories

Gift cards sometimes get a bum rap as impersonal or thoughtless, but they are actually some of my favorite gifts to give and receive. The same is true of Living Social or Groupon. My husband’s 30th birthday present was comprised entirely of Groupons for things — a massage, a car detailing, dinner at a beloved sushi place — that I knew he would enjoy but not necessarily spend money on. Giving people the gift of options and experiences can be one of the most thoughtful gifts of all.

Another way to look at gifting is to focus less on the gift itself and more on time. Go sledding. Spend the day baking. Check out a museum, explore a new bike path, or flip through old family photos together. Nothing has to change hands, but memories will be made and hearts will be a whole lot fuller.

Skip the Obligation

Gifting out of obligation is a terrible idea. Not only is the insincerity difficult to veil, it is usually incredibly awkward for all parties involved. The gifts don’t serve any other purpose than to simply check a name off a list are usually fairly generic and a general waste of money.

I do understand that it is difficult to be the first person to bow out. Sometimes the back-and-forth of obligation seems ceaseless until death or someone joins the Witness Protection Program. A few years back, I had a conversation to this effect with my best friend about a month before Christmas. We both decided that the best present we could give each other was to stop the gift-buying madness all together. Now, we simply schedule a lunch date complete with milkshakes to catch up the week before Christmas. Foregoing the obligatory gift in favor of an experience might not save me any money, but it certainly sustains my peace of mind and adds a richness to our friendship to no Lush bath bomb ever could.

Avoid Expectations

The only thing worse than gifting out of obligation is gifting in order to receive something in return. There is an inherent reciprocity in the notion of gift giving, but there needn’t be. If someone chooses to gift you with something, accept it graciously. Whether the giver spent more, the same, or less money than you did on your purchase is of little consequence compared to the fact that you were thought of. Be thankful for the giver, not the gift itself.

We have all had that moment where we had a hunch or maybe even jostled the box a little bit in advance to anticipate what we were about to receive. Maybe you received socks instead of a sweater or Tupperware instead of technology. The first year after my grandmother’s passing, my grandpa gifted me a bottle of green glitter nail polish from Bath and Body Works and a Snow White bath towel. I wanted roller blades. Almost two decades later, I still have that dried out bottle of nail polish, and I still can’t imagine a sweeter gesture than a sixty-something-year-old man awkwardly navigating the aisles of store that was filled with roll-on body glitter and Sweet Pea lotion. It’s entirely true. You won’t always get the gift you want. Most times, the gift itself isn’t even the thing that really matters.

So Tell Me…What is your home-run swing for gifting? Any tales of woe?



  1. One of my favorite gifts to give are a few of my favorite new recipes along with a gift card to a grocery store. It’s easy to get caught in a rut cooking, and a lot of people don’t feel like they can splurge at the grocery store very often. I hope that my gift will help inspire them and free them to do something special for themselves and their families.

  2. Well put. I especially hate the idea of gift giving based only out of obligation. I mean I really, really do. And this time of year happens to be the worst of it, too.

    No real tales of woe on our side – we just don’t give (or expect to receive) nearly as much any more. We enjoy time with the family and friends, and that’s more than enough of a gift as far as we’re concerned. 🙂

  3. I love that memory of your grandfather. What a great reminder. I always try to give something either memorable or an experience for the person. It makes living in Alaska and planning a date night in Omaha for my sister tricky, but it’s always a great challenge. 🙂

  4. Ohhhh my gosh, this story about your grandfather is so incredibly sweet…What a great example of gifts being about the giver rather than the gift itself.

    This is such an interesting idea, and I love how you explore it here. I find gift-giving to be immensely stressful, probably largely because I am trying to find a gift that the person will be impressed by (“Wow, what an amazing choice! This shows that you really know me!!”), and usually failing. I like this idea of focusing on practical gifts. It reminds me of this guy I used to know who would ask his family for batteries at Christmas because he knew they wouldn’t be able to pick out gifts he really wanted and, well, he owned a lot of devices that needed batteries.

    Oh, and in case anyone who knows me in real life is reading this: I would loooooove to receive a grocery gift card for Christmas, or any occasion. The excitement upon opening it would not be faked. 🙂

  5. I’m a big one for consumables in my gift giving: Booze & chocolate make up a good bit of my shopping list for adults.
    But you know the favorite gift I ever gave my parents? I hired a photographer to take some pictures of me, got dressed up and went to a park, and went on a two hour photo shoot. I printed out and framed some of the best pictures and gave them digital copies of the rest. Now, every year, I give my parents and Jon’s a photo calendar with all of the family. Cell phone cameras mean everyone takes hundreds of pictures every year, but hardly any one prints them out. Giving physical pictures, or customized photo gifts, can go over really well.

  6. We stopped gifting about 10 years ago and haven’t looked back. All that awkwardness is not missed. Human nature has trouble turning off disappointment and hard feelings. Extended family got on board pretty quickly. I think people just need someone to start the trend of just enjoying holidays for what they are and stopping the consumeristic madness. Now having said that, I don’t feel that way when it comes to kids. In my humble opinion, Christmas is for spoiling the snot out of them. If adults want to be spoiled, they can save the money they’d spend on other adults and just get themselves what they want. Handing each other lists is weird. Just keep your lists and get it yourselves. What’s with the staging??

  7. We stopped gift giving years ago except with my brother and sister-in-law. But we finally ended it with them last year. It was difficult since she has little family and enjoys giving thoughtful gifts, but it became obligatory for us to reciprocate. Mr G and I don’t exchange real gifts. He’s happy if I buy him shaving cream and I’m happy if he buys me a Kit-Kat bar, seriously.

  8. These are fantastic guidelines to follow for gift giving! This is exactly why both of my families switched to one person only/secret santa gift exchanges. 🙂 Prior to this, there was one year where my fiancé & I wanted to pick one experience the whole family could join in together. We picked a movie (Saving Mr. Banks), used our credit card points to purchase tickets for the whole family, then my fiancé designed our own personalized movie tickets. It was such a hit because we got to put our talents together & share a time out with one another!

  9. So many good tips. Consumables and gifts of experience are our favorite things to give, for all the reasons you said. Receiving a *thing* is a burden for most people — it’s something to transport home, something to clean or maintain, something that requires a home on a shelf or in a drawer. But special consumables or experiences that folks wouldn’t buy for themselves bring no extra burden.

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