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How to buy gifts that people actually want (willpatrick.co.uk)
351 points by willpatrick 45 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 271 comments



Best gift advice I give regularly:

Keep a note on your phone (doesn't matter the app Apple Notes, Google Keep, SimpleNote, Drafts, etc) with a header for each person you want to get a gift for. Throughout the year whenever you hear them say "I love X author" or "I'm getting into Y hobby" then add a little note under their name. These can be as simple as "Coconut La Croix is their favorite seltzer flavor and brand" to as complicated as "They have complained about a slow computer that you know you can upgrade the ram/ssd" and the list goes on. Then when it come time to decide on a gift you have reflect back on our list.

It's incredibly helpful for me and led to gifts that have been very appreciated and used over and over. I think back to a dog seat cover I got for a friend after hearing them talk about taking their dog hiking a lot. They called me about a month after they got the gift out of the blue and said something like "I've used this dog seat cover tons of times already and it makes taking the dog so much easier". That cover was less that $30 easy but it was more impactful than if I had spent $100 on them. That same person I got 3 months of BarkBox for them at one point and I heard about how much they enjoyed that for multiple months after the last box shipped and every time I went over they would talk about "Our dog loves this one toy that we go in the box".


It's really good advice if you're only doing this once per person, but you want to be a bit more careful that it doesn't lose its effectiveness if you want to be able to do it multiple times. Not sure if this happens for other people, but I know when I've gotten gifts based on my comments, I've sometimes started watching what I comment on with that person, which has affected my comments thereafter... not because the gifts turn out bad, but because there's frequently a non-financial reason I hadn't gotten those things myself earlier. e.g., maybe I feel it's just not worth anyone's money, I don't have room for it, maybe I feel it's a waste of resources, etc.

So I feel like to make this work well you really have to know the person well to know why they haven't gotten the gift themselves already. One category of things where I think you can avoid the above problem easily (at least I have when I've tried it) is consumables, especially edibles. If you know your friend loves to eat something, then you can always buy them more of it; it's really hard to miss here. On the other hand, if you buy them something else, you might not know what the implications are. For example, if you know their computer is low on RAM and you buy them memory... you have no idea if they might've (say) only been putting it off because they plan to get a new computer anyway. Though, I guess is this easy to solve—just ask them on the spot why they haven't gotten that thing yet.


This is an excellent point, and I’ve been on the other side of it. Just like you said, you end up not wanting to comment on anything because you’ll end up getting it as a gift.


I spent about 2 months researching tents because I wanted to start camping with my daughter. I had a strict set of requirements and I didn't want to bite the bullet til I was sure I'd gotten the right one.

My dad asked my wife what to get me for a birthday present. She knew I was tent shopping so he got me one. I don't want to sound ungrateful because it was a lovely gesture, but I also could have just picked the first one on Amazon that looked good. I didn't do that because I wanted a specific thing.

I don't want to return the tent because it's a present, I don't have space to store 2 tents and I don't want to use the one he got because it doesn't have any of the features I wanted in a tent.

Anyway, now I don't tell anybody when I'm planning on buying something like that.


Personally, I haven't implemented this though I know I should... but I came across this idea in Robert Heinleins Double Star as a reference to Farley Files.

In essence, Farley was Roosevelts aid and kept files on everyone he met so before meeting them again Roosevelt could cram study and "recall everything about them" like they were a close personal friend.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farley_file

For some reason this is how I think of Google/FB/et al keeping info on people.


This is very interesting and something I've been playing around with in my head. I keep "chasing the dragon" when it comes to note taking apps/approaches. I've played with everything from NvAlt+SimpleNote (for iOS), Evernote, Notion, Drafts, Editorial, Obsidian, and more. Most recently when I was experimenting with the Zettelkasten notes system (in Obsidian) I got the idea that I would want to do exactly what you talk about and have a "note" per person where I could store trivia, gift ideas, birthdates, etc.

Unfortunately I either don't fully understand Zettelkasten or I am paralyzed by indecision on where I split my notes and how I organize them. I guess I'll just continue using Drafts as my "brain dump"/"all text starts here" until I can find something better that is lightweight and works across iOS/macOS.


I have the same issue with organizing my notes. On the mac, I have recently started using agenda (https://www.agenda.com/) and am really liking it. You can easily link notes to dates, events, and other notes. You can export notes and sync through iCloud or Dropbox.

The free version already gives a lot of useful functionality and they have an interesting payment model in which you unlock all current features (and updates over the next year) with a single payment. Hence you could use it as a subscription or simply pay once if the new features are not yet worth it to you.


You sound like me.

Have you found any note taking mobile apps that can also sync with Dropbox to be edited as plain text files? I do most of my note taking in vim on my laptop, but when I only have my phone I'm reduced to use simplenote and Google Keep and can't easily access my normal notes.

After 15 years of searching I haven't found that seemingly simple combination of features.


I was playing the note chasing app game, too. I eventually settled on the native iOS/macOS notes. I like it because I don't get paralyzed by trying to perfect the organization of my notes, and it syncs across my devices as expected.


A while back someone posted to HN a tool for creating things just like this. In some places it was derided as “single player Facebook” but I could see it being very helpful for a person who sticks with it


Well, if it's good enough for politicians, the FBI and CIA, every HR department since the 60's, FAANG...

Why not for individuals too?

I like the notion of "single player facebook". It casts Facebook as being an MMO and then that yields clan raids imagery of identity politics and so on. It's damn near perfect!


I'd be curious if anyone knows what this tool may be or if it still exists?


https://www.monicahq.com/ is the one I recall, I bet searching for personal CRM will turn up others in the space


This reminds me of a video I recently watched comparing Sherlock Holmes to a software developer.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OUZZKtypink

Holmes apparently kept detailed notes on every case but would otherwise forget the details until he needed to go back to them later.


"Apparently" makes it sound a bit like Holmes was something other than a fictional character, composed only of Doyle's beliefs about what would make an entertainingly eccentric genius. It's not even what Doyle thought would work!


Reminds me of the story about David Rockefeller. https://clay.earth/story

p.s. AFAIK the Clay app is just vaporware


I was having this same problem, I always felt unprepared when it came time to give gifts (Holidays, Birthdays, etc). I ended up building a simple app for myself that let me take notes for my closest relationships throughout the year. Once it’s gift giving time I now have a list of ideas already built up.

I call it a PRM, essentially a personal CRM. I worry it sounds inauthentic to treat personal relationships like a CRM, but it’s really focused on my own internal reminders and preventing forgetfulness for people I care about.

If that resonates, the app link is here (basic, free, local data only): https://apps.apple.com/us/app/prim-relationship-manager/id14...


There was actually a big thread about this category of software earlier today: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=25270001


I seem to get stuck on the splash screen, the "Get Started" text doesn't show on the screen as I'm on the smaller iPhone SE (1st generation), and therefore I can't seem to click to be able to continue.

BTW, if you ever need a feature idea, I think that being able to add a small collection of pictures (perhaps up to about 9 images) for each person would be pretty killer.


Thanks for pointing out the screen size issue, I’ve just submitted a new version to allow scrolling for smaller screen sizes. Hope you can try the app out when Apple approves!

I like the images idea. I was imagining I could integrate with the iOS photos app - then your photo memories could be seamlessly linked to your contacts. The mobile focus opens up many integration possibilities.


There's a lot to unpack here. I think a much better method is to recognize that if you have trouble figuring out a gift for a person, you either haven't put enough thought into it, or you don't know the person as well as you might like.

> "I love X author"

This is fine as long as you realize they probably own all of author's works and maybe even pre-ordered the latest release. Find something unique (signed copy? first print? copy signed by the author's rival? rare statuette of their favorite character?) and gift them that instead.

> "I'm getting into Y hobby"

This can be a minefield. If you personally know something about the hobby this can work. But if you find yourself saying "The minimum wage employee at Best Buy told me this widget was the best one", you're gifting an obligation to use what might be an inferior product or one that doesn't meet their needs or expectations. It might even be one they ruled out for themselves. Additionally, researching widgets might be one of the things they enjoy about their new hobby.

> "They have complained about a slow computer that you know you can upgrade the ram/ssd" and the list goes on.

This is the key refinement of your gift-tracking idea. You've leveraged what you know about the world and about the person to gift them something they want or need and may not even know is possible to get for themselves.

> I think back to a dog seat cover I got for a friend after hearing them talk about taking their dog hiking a lot.

I was on the receiving end of this exact gift and it is one of the gifts I appreciate the most to this day.


>This can be a minefield. If you personally know something about the hobby this can work. But if you find yourself saying "The minimum wage employee at Best Buy told me this widget was the best one"

I've heard people talk about this online. For example, someone getting into record collecting being gifted the cheapest turntable available on Amazon or in a high street fashion/trinkets store that not only sounds bad but may even damage the records. A waste of money if the recipient is already saving up for a good turntable or already has one. Slightly less worse is receiving an original pressing of an old record but not taking enough time to read about the quality it's being sold in.

You can't exactly tell the gifter you spent 10x the cost of a Crosley on a phono preamp alone :)


Gift cert to Amoeba records.


Authors have rivals? What is an example of rival authors?


Alex beam wrote a book about two: The Feud; Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson and the End of a Beautiful Friendship.

https://www.amazon.com/Feud-Vladimir-Nabokov-Beautiful-Frien...


Nassim Taleb and Philip Tetlock, for modern examples.


Hemingway and Fitzgerald hated each other.


Yep, this is the best idea I've also ever had (not sure where I learned it from many years ago - likely a friend) when it comes to gifts. It takes years of practice, but even if you miss half the "hints" given to you, you're still doing really well once you get a couple years worth of notes together.

Even those "iffy" gifts the first time you hear them turn into huge winners years later because you remembered and happened across it somewhere.

Also one other rule I learned from a friend I've lived by now for around 5 years is that whenever I see something I think someone would like - I simply buy it and gift it right then for no reason in particular.

Gift-giving holidays used to be a severe anxiety ridden period for me because I never "got" why we had to exchange these silly things and would panic at the last minute, but now that I've started the above practices my loved ones know even if I miss a birthday or Christmas here and there I'm still thinking of them. When I reframed it into "I saw this thing I thought you'd really enjoy" vs. "I went to Target on xmas eve and panic bought something after 2hrs of looking" it got a lot more fun.


> Throughout the year whenever you hear them say "I love X author"

I thought of this, but one risk is that if you know they love the author, they probably already own the book. And if they don't love the author, you're back to "will they like my gift?".


You don’t have to limit yourself to the author they love. Quite the contrary, it’s a good opportunity to expand the person’s selection.

Ask them what they love about the author. Not only does that make you a more interested friend, it gives you valuable information when looking for a gift. Ask online (or the sales person at the bookshop) “what do I get for someone who likes author X for reasons Y” and pick what resonates.

As (another) bonus, it shows the person you care enough to do your research and not just get what would’ve been on their wish list anyway.


My parents did me a great favor when one year they got me a book on Richard Feynman. I was very much into his stories and trying to understand his perspective on physics for a long long time after.


That's totally fair and this is a hard one I'll admit. I've done it for when I know there is a new book coming out that they might not have on their radar or I will ask friends/family of the person if they have the book. Not a perfect system and probably not the best example.


Bookstores often let you return and credit it to another purchase. Good reason to avoid online I suppose, unless they can streamline that.


I started this as a habit last year - it has totally changed my gift giving. I think the recipients value the gifts more because they're more thoughtful and it's made the weeks leading up to Christmas much more relaxed.


100% agree. It’s removed most all of the stress. I started doing it for my partner and then slowly added in his family, my family, and my close friends. My gifts are way more thoughtful now and fun to give, and from the feedback I’ve heard, more fun to receive as well.


For even less stress, buy gifts throughout the year and hold onto them until Christmas.


Also related, make a note of people's sizes (shoes, hats, whatever). Very often, I find myself looking at a dress and thinking so-and-so would look great in it but I can't buy it because I have no idea what size they wear.


Ohh, good idea! I have a couple sizes down but I really should remember to get those for everyone.


This means they get stuff they once made an offhand comment about, rather than stuff people think they might like. I once bought a book by a certain author and liked it as a kid), I then got books by that author for the next few years.

If I was "getting into Y hobby" I'd probably research my own tools for it, and would hate if someone bought something random, e.g. I'd hate if someone bought me a random RAM module. How do they know what speed, or how many slots I have?

consumables like Selzer (or cologne) are pretty safe, somewhat although boring gifts. It's better if their favourite X if also something that's expensive enough that they don't buy it frequently anyway.

That said, I often see cool items that I think "that would make a cool gift", that's what to make note of.


Yeah, that's the trick. You want something that intersects with "stuff I know person X is interested in" and "stuff that I know enough to make an informed purchase on and X probably doesn't already have". And consumables are a good way to solve the "doesn't already have" problem.


I have mixed feelings here.

On the one hand, I like this. I really like this. You really have to either care about others, or to be willing to invest sustained energy over time to thoroughly counterfeit that social signal, but either way, it's probably a delight to get that kind of thoughtful gift.

On the other hand, the gifts I treasure the most are totally useless.

One of my dance partners got me this god-awful pink apron, and it is, and by a wide margin, the single ugliest thing I own.

It is also thin enough to act, less as a barrier to staining liquids, and more as a sort of a specialized grease-distribution device, ensuring that an oil splash will cover more of whatever I happen to be wearing than would be possible via direct impingement.

But the thought behind that apron demonstrated a very deep friendship, and I have yet to find something suitably hideous to give in return.


Definitely good advise, but it made me wonder, how much gifts people are giving or differences in gifts culture, that makes such lists necessary?

Myself, I grew up in a family that always did some variant of secret santa for Christmas and within my social circles since adult age birthdays are for the most part giftless beyond the people invited covering e.g dinner/drinks.

Pretty much all gifts I haven made in years were either for children or people I’m really close with.


Just do not forget that they may have bought those things in the meantime. At the time you buy the gift, they may already have it. This is important to note.


I was going to post the same advice. I haven't had trouble coming up with gift ideas for family/friends I see regularly since doing this.

Also, thanks for referencing BarkBox. I wasn't aware of it before.

Edit: As an additional benefit, if you start doing this people will shocked that you remembered some offhand comment they made so they think you're a much better listener than you actually are.


In that particular case, you heard words and took a relevant action; in my book, that made you a better listener in reality, not just in appearance.


Can confirm this idea.

Got my mom a pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones since she was asking about headphone recommendations earlier. That was definitely a gift that worked out and I think she's been using them for the last three years now.

I also got my dad an iFixit toolkit for Christmas after he saw mine and asked me to order him one if I was ever going to order from that particular store again.


+1 I have been doing this for years. Makes life so much easier. My father in law is getting new grill tongs because he was complaining about the short ones he has this summer.


Been doing this for a while and it's so simple yet so effective. Also fun to just scroll through and remember things about people you love.

My gift / interest lists are also a big driver for my pipe dream of a personal CRM or PSA. Would ideally have something like this built in.


Yes! It’s also great to keep smaller ideas like their favorite fast food place or if they like to get their nails done at a certain place. I use it for Christmas/birthdays but also just random gifts that can be smaller.


> my pipe dream of a personal CRM or PSA

That sounds like Monica HQ: https://www.monicahq.com/


Or Ruby Receptionists: https://www.ruby.com/


If somone is really into something, it might not be specific enough to know what that something is... They might already have that gift idea or it might suck according to them even if it is exactly for their hobby or whatever.


I've been doing this for a couple of years and can vouch that it works.


Interesting that they didn't really touch on what I consider the hardest part of buying for someone: domain expertise.

If I am known as 'into' something, then the likelihood that someone who isn't also into that same thing will come up with a good gift is shockingly low. I bake bread, for example. A book of 100 bread recipes is basically dead weight to me. I have a friend who is really into knives of various sorts. Even though I'm happy to drop a couple of hundred dollars on a gift (they've been super generous to me in the past), I'm not able to pull the trigger because I feel like the facebook-ad-quality-knives are almost certainly not what they would value.

Although... I suppose the point of the article on this point is that if I just asked my friend, they would receive the value of the gift (since I would just be proxying the purchase for my friend, and gifting them the cash). So my refusal to do so is just me maximizing for my own selfish gift-giving goals. Interesting.


Since I know about knives, I would buy them a knife.

If I was an accomplished bread baker, I would give them a couple of loaves each week for a month -- unless I knew they had a dietary issue.

Don't buy a book about programming for a programmer; do buy the best book on programming in Python for a kid who shows interest.


You can, but if you consider knives an uninteresting kitchen tool, then you have just given them a $300 knife that they will feel bad about every time they use it open a can of beans.

btw: if you do know about knives, please hit me up at my email address and let me pick your brain a bit.

[Edit: my email address wasn't in my profile. fixed, but I'll reach out to folks shortly, thanks!].


Part of knowing something about knives is in selecting the right tool(s) for the users. I'm not going to buy a 200mm gyuto for my parents; I got them a set of [chef's knife, bread knife, paring knife] that is miles better than what they had and still holds up well because I know it's only going to be sharpened when I come to visit.


On the flipside, it can definitely portray a quality on the item - it's not just a $300 knife, but a $300 knife that Jim picked out, and Jim window-shops knives when you walk by his desk. Because Jim picked something he knew about, he knows how to give a better gift.

I'm a big fan of giving the best gift you uniquely know how to give, and failing that something broadly useful or consumable.


> feel bad about every time they use it open a can of beans.

There are no words for this.


Anyone opening a can with a knife should feel bad about it.


I mean, you have a knife and you have a can. You need to open said can... You _will_ use the damned knife.

Less of a problem nowadays, since it seems most cans have pull tabs. But the metal of the cans is usually far more malleable than the knife, and if you have a work knife, it isn't unreasonable to do so.


I have a nasty scar down my finger from opening a bottle with a knife, I’d advise against using knives like this.


Spoons work great though!


Different kind of bottle but I've pulled a damaged cork with a 3.5 inch deck screw and a pair of pliers before. Worked great.


Email sent. Knives have been a hobby for a long time. Got to spend some time, when I've visited the US, in workshops of Chad Nichols damascus, Vegas forge, Tom Krein and Brian Fellhoelter. Great fun.


Hey I don't see your email address in your profile but I know a bit about knives and would be happy to answer any questions


I do know a bit about knives. Your email address isn't in your profile. Mine is in mine; feel free.


Yeah. There are also indie crafters at that price point with high-quality products.

It's much harder with knowledge material.


When possible, this is when gift cards are great.

My niece is an aspiring artist, and rather than trying to find out what art supplies she wants/needs, I got her a gift card to the art supply store that I know she shops at.

Of course, "when possible" is a key word here. Not every store sells gift cards, and sometimes the well-known stores aren't the best deals. Like, I might be interested in making fun electric gadgets, so a gift certificate to the Adafruit might seem like a good idea, but I tend to prefer to buy my stuff from Aliexpress or Banggood because the prices are significantly lower.

> I suppose the point of the article on this point is that if I just asked my friend, they would receive the value of the gift

Simply asking really is the best course of action logically, but the idea of gifts being thought up on your own has been so romanticized.


Honestly I'm not a big fan of gift cards. The point of gift giving is to show you care, and gift cards feel like you're just trying to fulfil a social obligation without putting much thought into it.

I'd rather use them as a last resort, for people I don't know so well.


I think it depends on how you give it to the person.

Think about giving someone a generic gift card without any other information vs. "Hey, I know you're looking to get into art but honestly I have no idea what type of supplies you want, so here's a gift card to buy what you want from xyz art store".

I know when I was a kid getting a $50 gift card for some toy store that sold video games was the best thing ever. Your Aunt may have good intentions but she probably doesn't know what games you like but you sure as heck appreciated the gift because it translates to something you really like that was enabled by the gift giver.

I think the card being specific to 1 store also really helps personalize the gift. You can be sure the person will enjoy it instead of maybe feeling guilty about how they should really use it for every day living expenses.


Totally! A Modulor (big art store) gift card would force me to buy things I don't usually splurge on. An Amazon gift card would imperceptibly reduce my next order.


I'm also not a huge fan of gift cards as logically, gift cards are cash with restrictions, which is worse than cash, and cash isn't a good gift, so by transitivity, gift cards aren't a good gift.

The only time I use gift cards are when it needs to be reimbursed as a business expense.

Personally as a gift receiver I much prefer receiving things that I couldn't have gotten myself, and preferably edible. Simple homemade desserts are great.


I used to think this way about gift cards but as I've gotten older I've had a bit of a change of heart - when I get cash (or a big shop gift card like Amazon) I often end up using it towards basic living expenses that I would have purchased anyway, like groceries or cleaning supplies (even though I'm not in a situation where that is strictly necessary). This is really no fun, and possibly the reason cash is considered a bad gift.

I think the sweet spot for a gift is something I would enjoy but would be unlikely to buy for myself (or in the case of experiences something I normally wouldn't do often), as you pretty much said. But a safe way to achieve this IMO is something like a gift card to a nice restaurant or a spa. Of course you still need to know your target though.

Kind of reminds me of the Netflix problem, the large pool of choices can make none of them seem particularly exciting.


I still prefer gift cards, because they entice people to use them on non-essential things. I'd throw a 50€ on top of the pile, but I'd use a 50€ gift card for something nice I wouldn't buy otherwise.


Cash is a great gift for everyone who isn't so rich that gifts are pointless. The war on cash is US corporate consumerism pushing people to waste money.


I have a lot of hang-ups about gifts, largely because of the way this cultural ideal of the "thoughtful gift" plays against a personality more preoccupied with ideas rather than people and relationships. And so, rather than merely "fulfill a social obligation", I largely found ways to avoid it altogether.

But now I think that was a foolish dismissal of social obligation. It really is the act itself that has the most significance, less so the content. To wit, the article's advice that in most cases, cash is fine.


I dunno. I know any number of woodworker friends who are tickled pink to get e.g. Lie-Nielsen gift cards so they can get what they want for themselves once they accumulate enough. I think this perfectly nails the point of the article though, about how the giver has different motivations than the receiver.


I know it's somewhat taboo to give cash, but surely cash is better than a gift card (with a note to spend it on their hobby, if you like)?

If the gift card value is too low to get the treat that I wanted, then I feel obligated to spend more money than I would have; if the gift card value is too high, then I have to buy things I don't want. Or I wait until I actually need the gift card (as I suspect most people do), and risk the gift card expiring or being lost.

Cash creates none of these issues. I have always felt much more loved when I receive cash with a personal note, no matter how much cash it is.


The problem with that is, when someone receives cash, they will often feel the responsible thing to do is save it. Pay down their bills or add to their investments or whatever. Or even if they don't need the money, just adding it to the bank account and forgetting about it will often be the default action, even if some suggestion came with it. But then it's just a drop in the bucket, and they don't really get to experience the pleasure of a gift. The nice thing about a gift card is that they have to spend it, and so they can't feel guilty for doing so.

That said, some people might genuinely not want/need anything, and so might be happier with a token cash gift specifically because it doesn't create a responsibility to go buy something! I expect those people are in the minority though.


> The problem with that is, when someone receives cash, they will often feel the responsible thing to do is save it.

That's not my experience of giving, receiving, or observing other people giving and receiving cash as a gift.

Most people seem (to me) to feel the responsible thing to do is to use the money in the way that the giver wanted for them.

Anecdote: My friend who was saving for a house received gift money from her grandparents. Despite the money being useful for her savings, she went and first bought a kayak with it, because that was more true to what her grandparents wanted.

If the giver says "please spend this on your hobby" then it seems to me that the money gets spent on that hobby - likely more effectively and perhaps more often than a gift card does.

Giving a gift card might force the issue, but that's not a good thing.

If someone needed that money to cover their rent this month, and is resultingly able to buy themselves something for themselves the next month, that's an awesomely good outcome. A gift card in that situation would be upsetting to the point of damaging.


Certainly I agree that if someone is in real financial hardship a gift of cash is going to be better than a gift card. As for the more general case, my anecdotes differ from yours—I expect that there are plenty of people who fall into both the prefer-cash and prefer-card categories.


Would you (personally) prefer to receive a gift card?

This thread seems to be full of people indicating that they would prefer to give a gift card against other people indicating they would prefer to receive cash (which precisely matches the parent article's points).


I consider gift cards to be the worst gift. You’ve just obligated me to shop somewhere where I might not need to shop, or now I have to remember I have this gift card and use it. I like to travel light, and have less things on my mind.

You’ve just given the merchant an interest free loan that they can invest, instead of giving me cash which I could have invested if I wanted. Or spent if I wanted.


In my opinion as a gift receiver and a gift giver...

Cash is the best thing for adults or anyone old enough to pick something out on their own. Gift cards, if you already know someone was going to spend their own money somewhere anyway, are an OK way of displacing cash they were going to spend anyway (and often perceived as more socially tolerable).

Kids meanwhile? Ask the parent, it's OK to bring an idea of your own to that parent, or just get a theme, but ask the parent. That allows for co-ordination of who's getting what type of gift and also helps get the gifts that the parent will let the kids have.

This xmas / fall gifts season (various birthdays) a brand of magnetic edge building walls (piccaso tiles, I think?) was the rage with some family I gave gifts to. I hope they like the mother-load hoard of tiles that are in the que for Xmas.


I have this problem often. I want very few things, I can easily afford everything I want, and the things I might want fall into two categories:

1. I already know the most about the thing and have already found the one that either maximizes the utility/price relationship or maximizes utility below my price sensitivity threshold.

2. I don't know the most about the thing yet and have therefore not decided what I want.

The problem with the first is obvious: I either already own the thing or am about to, so the gift becomes just a cash transfer, and I don't need or want cash transfers from my friends.

The problem with the second is less obvious until you know that I dislike owning things and only choose to own things when they meet the first category.

So what's the answer for people with enough money and interest to buy good things for themselves?

Don't buy them utility gifts if you aren't more passionate than they are.

Buy them only weird sentimental things and quirky consumables that don't have to meet a personalized utility threshold. A small piece of artwork that comes with a note saying "This made me think of you" carries sentimental value and will make the receiver think of giver every time they look at it. A weird chocolate with ants inside will be weird and fun and it won't matter if it isn't the best weird chocolate with ants inside.


> Buy them only weird sentimental things ... A small piece of artwork that comes with a note saying "This made me think of you" carries sentimental value

It is incredibly hard to do this without giving someone a burden. The recipient often feels an obligation to keep obviously sentimental gifts, even if they hate them (that piece of art your dear aunt gave you).

Or maybe worse when the receiver loves dust collectors, and has a horde of clutter that you have just added to.

Certainly you are inviting them to reciprocate with something sentimental, which now you can’t throw away even though you have no place to put it.

It can be done, but you have to be really in tune with their tastes or listened carefully to what they like (e.g. I love some artists, but can really hate some of an artists oeuvre or I might not have a suitable place for it, so it is hard to pick something for me).

> and will make the receiver think of giver every time they look at it

Sometimes that could be selfish (depends on relationship etcetera).


This.

As a minimalist related to borderline hoarders, I dread gift-giving occasions. When I give what I would want, it's considered stingy and sparse.


The sweet spot is consumables that will improve their life, but that they don't feel like spending money on. Let them indulge in quality food, candles, wine, clothes, tools, etc.


On this note, don't buy things that are squarely in the recipient's domain of expertise unless they have stated exactly what they want.

I like photography and outdoors and I'm extremely picky about my gear in both, and definitely do NOT want others picking out gear for me that I will end up never using.

On the other hand, do buy things that are in your domain of expertise that the other person has shown interest in learning about.


Hey Afton! Yes, I definitely should have talked more about this. I got close to it once or twice, but it's an omission to be sure. (I have a friend who's big into cycling and is, therefore, impossible to buy cycling gifts for because nothing will cut the mustard.) Basically, I a) wasn't able to find much in the way of research that supported what I wanted to say and b) fumbled this point and should have found a way to stick it in there somehow.

But then again I had no idea it would hit the top of HN. I'll be more careful next time!!


Nah, you made a thing and put it on the internet! Thanks for doing that. The fact that I didn't find it a complete and exhaustive body of work on the topic absolutely shouldn't be interpreted as a criticism of the article.


Oh dude thank you. Nothing prepares you for hitting the front page of hn when you fully expected it to just disappear. Heartrate through the roof and the sudden 'oh shit!' of wondering whether the article was truly up to snuff or not!


I think you absolutely could just ask. Once you get over the need for surprise, the hand-off can still be a moment of delight. It's just a different sort of delight: it's the one you are anticipating because the thing you were excited about is finally arriving.


Yes, this is the problem with gift giving something a person is “passionate” about— that passion means they probably already have the things they want and likely also has strong preferences you are unlikely to know anyways.

I find buying a shared experience is better— a meal, dessert, golf, spa, etc. You get to spend time together, you get the benefit too, and it will not tend to be more memorable than some random gift.


My wife hates this. Everything I want that I can afford, I already own. Anything I want that I can't afford, I shouldn't be receiving as a gift from someone else. That leaves the only remaining case of "things I don't want". So duplicate gifts, expensive gifts, or bad gifts.

This puts us into the category that the article states you don't want to be in: guessing for things the other person wants (but doesn't know they want). this works great for me and my wife. it becomes an adventure of learning about each other. Not so much for aunts/uncles/etc. Cash, or nothing is fine. I feel worse about getting some knick knack that gets thrown out than just getting nothing.


I think the best gifts are things you want, can afford, but haven't (quite yet) been able to justify.

Up-thread people are talking about $300 knives. The vast majority of users here can 'afford' a $300 knife; that doesn't mean it's easy to justify or feel good about though.

But receiving a $300 knife? I'd be giggly and excited and I'm not even 'into' knives. (I mean, they're tools, I have some decent ones, but they support interests rather than being the interest.)


I'd be sad about the huge waste. That's why a gift should only be a surprise on the when, not the what.


>That leaves the only remaining case of "things I don't want". So duplicate gifts, expensive gifts, or bad gifts.

You're forgetting consumables. Surely you spend your time doing things and in the process of doing those things you consume other things.

"I have way too many zip ties"

-nobody ever


Your post really struck a chord with me because I'm the type of person that likes to give books as a gift.

As the type of person that would totally give a book of 100 bread recipes to someone that I just know "bakes bread," I'm wondering if you think there are book gifts that someone could get you using that mindset and just a little more thinking about depth of domains.

One doesn't need to know anything about baking bread to know that a recipe compilation book is a beginner gift and not something you'd give to someone who has any sort of domain expertise. Similar to how I'm not giving any of my SE friends the Computer Science for Dummies book.

I guess what I'm trying to ask is... would a book about baking that isn't basic be a better gift? Even if it isn't particularly something you would have gotten yourself. Examples off the top of my head include a biography about a famous or obscure baker, an in depth book about the science behind baking, a hyper focused book about history of baking techniques, etc.

Maybe trying to gain some domain expertise in something your potential gift receiver is interested in - in order to give a better gift - is a gift in itself?

Here's a quick way you can get some functional domain expertise in knives to give a better gift to your knife friend (if you want). Depending on if they're into knives as collectibles or for use, I'd suggest finding out which brand(s) your friend favors and then picking up a used knife in a discontinued model from that brand on ebay. Worst case scenario they have it already but even then I bet they'd still value the gift.


It's not perfect, but depending on how much you know about them, probing niche areas of their interest can work out.

A book of 100 basic bread recipes is nearly useless for an experienced baker. A book of "authentic Mozambique bread recipes" though - that might be very interesting to them because it broadens their knowledge within their field. It's even better if it connects to them in a personal way - a family connection to Mozambique, or traveled there, etc.

It's not foolproof, but it's a big improvement.


in all likelihood, this person knows way more about bread and bread-related items than you do. if it's bread related and costs less than $20, assume they either have it already or know about it and don't want it.

I find it's usually not a good idea to buy someone this kind of present unless you're willing to just ask them exactly what they want. instead, why not select something that you know a lot about that could still be useful to them? last christmas I set up backblaze on my mom's NAS (which I built for her several years ago) and paid for the first few months of service. my mom couldn't care less about the nuances of cloud storage providers, but she's quite happy to be paying a fraction of what a 10TB google drive subscription would have cost.


With comment about in-depth book about bread I remembered this: https://modernistcuisine.com/books/modernist-bread/ 25 kilos, about 2600 pages of book...

What happens if person isn't that interested on the subject after all... Maybe a book might be a good one, but still total overkill. And maybe even harmful if subject isn't ready to invest even more...


My intuition would be to not give a book on baking bread, but on something tangential to bread baking...

like a book on brewing or other kinds of fermentation!

Something that connects with their expertise but is new to both of you.

If somebody is into knives, maybe gift a course on blacksmithing or some japanese whetstones.


> or some japanese whetstones

I bought a set of diamond sharpening plates this summer after having had a cheap Arkansas stone for several years.

Night and day difference.

I can actually get things sharp quickly and consistently now.

Since we're on the topic of gifts, if someone out there is thinking of a sharpening setup as a gift, can't recommend diamond plates highly enough.

I bought a 300 / 600 / 1200 grit set off Amazon for I think $100


A good coarse stone makes all the difference. I have a 220/320 grit diamond plate for flattening my water stones, but it does wonders for making sharpening knives non-onerous.

Woodworkers might be interested in the Norton water stone starter set of 2 combo stones 220/1000 and 4000/8000. The 220 wears out of flat so quickly it's useless, but I have the diamond plate anyhow. The 1000 and 8000 are great. The 4000 is a little soft, and you'll replace it before the others. Personally, I'll be replacing it with the Shapton equivalent in another year or two.


I completely agree the 300 grit plate is what makes all the difference.


I've never heard of these diamond plates. Do they take away a lot of material? My whetstones are 2000/6000 grit.


I use diamond plates to flatten my whetstones mostly, because masochism.

They're also great on blades. You wanna look for DMT / Dia-Sharp. All the big online knife shops should have you covered here (epicurean edge, etc)


As a recipient of a blacksmithing course I'd like to say it was one of the best gifts I ever got. But it's a pretty expensive gift.

But I've also been given knives a few times, and I loved most of them. It's not like you can have too many knives.

I'm not sure what I'd do with an extra set of whetstones though.


I've been blacksmithing long enough to have arguably too many knives.


Or unusual bread supplies could be cool. Like flour made from ancient grains and/or ground with a traditional stone mill, etc.

For knives, a nice grind stone or knife oil could be useful.

I think splurge hobby consumables is a great way to go.


Eh, not always. Every knitter I know would murder you if you bought them more yarn, even nice yarn, even though they knit frequently. They already have three bins full and are running out of places to stash it.


Tyler Cowen has an interesting perspective on giving books as gifts: https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2018/09/he...


That post seems to be referring more to donating used books rather than buying a book for someone as a gift.

Seems like a different topic entirely to me, but maybe I'm missing something.


This is quite frankly ludicrous, and speaks to an unintentionally humorous pomposity.

It's quite literally impossible to estimate the potential utility of another persons leisure time. But part of the joy of gift giving is trying to figure out what they might enjoy. Just as part of the social game of gifting is to see what others think you might like. It's a way of opening up to new experiences granted by people who know you. Ideally scaffolding perspectives and pleasures that appeal but were outside what you'd normally enjoy. An unread book can always be regifted, and it takes a sociopath to regard a gifted book as an insult.

Sure, if your goal is to maximise the utility of every moment algorithmically, this might seem wasteful. But you're also very likely not any fun at all, and have few people to gift.


If they are interested in cooking you can buy them a top pepper mill from Kickstarter. Maybe for the next Christmas though.

Its from the things that would be great to have but i cannot justify the cost.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/mannkitchen/mannkitchen...


this comment reminds me of homer buying marge a bowling ball.


What do you do if you genuinely don't want anything?

It seems like people don't believe you and keep harassing you asking for what you really want, and then get really frustrated when you keep saying "No, really I don't want anything". Then they either respect your wishes and don't get anything, but seem to harbor some kind of resentment against you in their heart, or they get some random garbage you don't want and call you ungrateful when you don't like it.

Really the greatest gift of all would be some kind of exemption from this custom so I don't have to go through this twice a year.


Ask for food. You always need food. They can make it themselves, such as a favorite recipe, which will make it special to them. Or they can buy something that they like and think that you might like, which conveys a connection between you.

If it's good, you get a great memory. Even if it's not, it's soon gone, and not weighing down your life.

There are some who have rigorous diets or otherwise don't want their routine disrupted. This advice won't work for them. In that case, try an event, such as a day out (though the winter solstice may not be the best time for that, especially not during a pandemic).

But in a wide variety of cases, food does everything you want a gift to do. It's something personal that doesn't become a burden. And it can be done for a reasonable amount of money or time.


Food is pretty good. But its not perfect, I don't want a bunch of, say, chocolate since I'll eat it all and feel bad.


Ah, but that's the best thing about being given food, you can share it with other people in a way you can't with other presents. In fact I often find the person who gave me the food will be really up for trying whatever it was with me.


Wine or coffee is my go to.

Both have a long shelf life, so even if we have plenty on hand currently, eventually we’ll get around to enjoying it.

They also both come in at lots of price points: from affordable to fancy.


Father's Day became a lot easier when I was enough to buy liquor, cigars and fireworks.


One of my better gift requests was a bunch of exotic fruit. Only problem was that the gift givers didn't know where to find that. Still got to try some new tasty fruits.


> What do you do if you genuinely don't want anything?

Exactly that, people react offended when I say I don't want anything. Nowadays I ask for coffee, or beer. You end up with kilo's of coffee beans, and enough alcohol to get you killed. But, at least it's not more stuff.

Who needs random stuff? Most people don't, so they make up lists and do shopping for each other. It's a waste of time to me.

Kids want stuff, and don't have money, so presents are wonderful and exiting! But why would you want gifts for adults? They even made it a ceremonial obligation at specific moments like birthdays or Christmas,

A spontaneous gift can be fun, someone who knows you well can buy you nice serendipitous gift. But Christmas shopping.... horror! :)


People often want symbolic things whose main purpose is to remind you of that person, like ornaments, a card or a personalized home-made thing. I know someone who embroidered a Thor's hammer picture for a friend who was a fan of those comics. It wouldn't have mattered if it was somehow inaccurate - it showed they were important enough to spend time on - proof of work maybe?

I keep little trinkets that people have given me. It's nice to see them every now and then.


I spend all year not getting myself things so that I can let others get them for me for Christmas or my birthday. But this is exactly the point that the article seems to miss: there's basically no such thing as a good gift for a lot of people. The only things I want I either already have or are so high-price that I wouldn't want someone else to buy for me (and frankly I can do without those). No amount of advice can change that sorry fact for the would-be gift giver.

The exceptions are things I didn't know I wanted until I was given it, maybe I didn't know it existed. And some consumables, like nuts and chocolates.


I too hate being bought stuff that I don't need or want. Honestly I have too much stuff as it is, and nothing I already own needs replacing. The idea of yet more stuff entering my life, creating needless waste is actually a little distressing. I'm lucky to be in that position or course.

Ask for consumerble stuff, food, drink, that sort of thing. I like interesting beers, cheeses, that sort of thing. Think about the sort of things you like and ask for "posh" or "interesting" versions of it. It gives people an opportunity to exercise their gift buying powers, but whatever they get you will be gone once you consume it.


My family have always been happy to make a donation on my behalf to the good cause of their choice, perhaps that might work for you?


My family does an email thread where everyone posts gifts ideas... I'd actually really want the donation, but I don't want to say that publicly for fear of seeming "holier than thou" and ruining other people's fun.


I just have a webpage with the title "Wishlist" that lists a bunch of charities I like and explains I don't want anymore stuff.

I never tell anyone about the list, but friends have told friends and everyone figured it out.

I was elated when someone donated blood as my wedding gift.


Interesting, care to share that site?


I sympathize. I wish there wasn’t such a hardwired need to give. What I do to avoid getting any random crap gift is to always ask for either a bottle of wine or for a book they think I would like (I’ll usually request it not be another pop-psychology book). That way they can feel good while giving a gift and there is a decent chance I’ll enjoy the gift.


I myself am annoyed by receiving useless gifts just because it is an expected practice of the occasion, so I've developed a behavior where I generally don't ever give gifts out of expectation --birthdays, holidays, etc.-- and instead just give gifts when I think someone needs, really wants, or I think they would like something they aren't going to buy for themselves for one reason or another. Sometimes it's because they don't have the money, sometimes its because they know they lack the domain expertise to choose appropriately, and sometimes it's just because I think they'd enjoy whatever it is (usually books, movies, or meals).

People seem relieved that they don't have to buy me anything on "special occasions" and don't seem to mind that I don't buy them anything either. Although there probably was some resistance to that at first, I've been doing it for so long that I don't remember.


just ask for socks. it's the socially acceptable way to opt out of the gift giving ritual.

you need socks, you can safely assume nobody is going to blow too much money on socks, and whoever really wants to give you a gift gets to feel like they have given you something you wanted, and you don't have to get into the whole "no really, i don't want anything" debate.

food is also a good option, but there's always the risk of putting somebody who really can't cook in the awkward position of feeling like they should. anybody can buy socks, and there's no pressure that socks should be homemade.


Oh please, no, never socks.

I own 100+ copies of exactly one type of sock so I never have to hunt for matching pairs, and when one sock goes bad, it doesn't automatically cause another paired sock to be wasted. I abolished sock pairing a long time ago in college.


> or they get some random garbage you don't want and call you ungrateful when you don't like it.

If you don't like a gift the etiquette is not to say "thanks I hate it" but to gratefully accept the gift and pretend it's awesome. Receiving a gift is not all about you, it's equally for the giver. Research shows there are huge benefits to giving gifts, so pretending you like it is a gift in itself.


That's the problem. Pretending to be grateful just encourages more waste of materials and effort, creating an Abilene Paradox. A card is better than a bad gift. In the long run, honesty creates better relationships than seething resentment toward a disrespectful gift giver.


This really should be the top comment. The ones above it try to give suggestions, but miss the main point: most adults don’t need anything, and further, don’t want anything.

I think there are a few people that are just really into giving gifts — maybe they also love receiving them?

But it seems like most people just don’t.


Ask for consumables


This is perfect, because there are good options at virtually every price point for virtually every recipient. Beer, wine, tea, coffee, golf balls, tennis balls, olive oil, vinegar, stationery, art supplies, etc. These are especially good gifts to ask for, since you can clear up any questions they have (do you only use a particular brand of golf balls, etc.) and people like the feeling that every time you use the gift you will think of them.


Agree. Relatedly, services, like massage. Or a few months of flower deliveries. Or for the practical, home cleaning or car detailing. Generally, stuff the giftee might not get for themself.


Truth, including gift cards for things you already use. Already pay for spotify? Ask for a year gift card. It makes the other party happy and you can do something else with the money.


More socks are always nice.


Right! As an adult, I'm sure into the socks that I didn't want when I was younger.


Ask for hard drugs. :D

Kidding, of course. Gift giving really is often more about satisfying the giver's compulsion to do something for you. It's so that they can feel good.

The other suggestion about a charitable donation is good here, because there's a low bar for effort and they get the satisfaction.

I'm like you, but mostly because I buy for myself anything I want and don't hope that others will do for me. I'm also a screwball, so when people probe me for gift ideas, I challenge them.

I'd tell them things like: Learn a new language. Do that thing you've always been meaning to do. Go after that X you've always wanted.


Experiences can be a good candidate, particularly if the're shared between giftee and gifter. As always, the devil is in the details.


For my birthday I used to say that I REALLY don't want anything. Many people didn't respect the wish.

So now I ask instead to donate to a foundation I selected, any amount, and only if they feel like donating.

It works for everyone: me (finally not gifts), them (they feel they put their effort), and the good cause.

Wouldn't work for Xmas, though. So I ask for drinks & edibles.


If it's an option, just don't have an opportunity to be given gifts. Make it clear you literally don't want a gift and make them find a moment to give it to you if they insist on going against your express request. This isn't always an option, like if there's a Christmas party with an inviting-looking tree, but it can be on a birthday organised out of the house.


This is an opportunity to ask them to donate to a charity on your behalf, if they absolutely must get you something. Or you can ask for something less tangible, like a board game night or something.

This doesn't solve the problem of you being expected to get gifts, but it does give you a productive way to direct other people's energies.


Pick a charity or ask them to pick one to give in your honor.

Or ask for some food you like.

Or anything you can exchange locally at a store you like.


Ask for them to donate to a specific charity on your behalf.


The worst, IMO, is getting something that's similar to what they asked for, but not quite, and the distinction matters.

When I was 10, I really enjoyed Monopoly with my friends, but my parent's set was missing pieces and just overall in bad shape, so I asked for a new Monopoly set for Christmas. My grandma bought me Monopoly Junior, which was an entirely different game, and I was actually upset by it.

Years later, when 3D accelerator cards were coming into existence, I really wanted a 3dfx Voodoo card, since so many games required Glide (OpenGL and Direct3D hadn't caught on quite yet) which was a 3dfx proprietary API, and instead I got a Rendition 2200.

The article mentions considering what YOU want, but that can backfire. My dad loved electronic gadgets, and wanted to buy me a GPS device in 2010. I had to show him how pointless that could have been since I already had an Android and had Google Maps in my pocket. A few years ago, he bought me this weather monitor that attaches to the roof of my house, with a little tablet-like display to put on my wall or whatever, and it never left the box. Why would I need this $100 device to tell me the current conditions when I can just pull out my phone?


Sorta off topic but those local weather stations are great in my opinion. Your phone app is usually much less accurate compared to the weather sampled in your backyard. They even predict local conditions pretty well. When I was cycling daily it was so helpful knowing exactly what gear to wear, whereas the weather app was hopelessly inaccurate.


Around the age of 10 as well, a parent asked me if I was excited about the new PlayStation and if I wanted one for Christmas.

I made it painfully clear that I would still much prefer a SNES, and wasn't so bothered about a PlayStation.

It turned out that they had already bought a PlayStation before asking me (I'm sure they were sold out everywhere when I was asked), and so I got a PlayStation for Christmas.

Which was great! In theory.

But, overall I felt such a desperate disappointment that I hadn't been listened to.


I wonder how many kids asked for an Xbox One or PS4 for Christmas in 2013 and got an Ouya.


Your examples all speak to attending superficially to another persons request or interests, then half assedly following through. My parents did the same thing, alas.


Basically, deciding you aren't worth the X you want, and buying the cheap version, aka "we have X at home; the X at home.."-meme.


The paper he cites, Waldfogel's "The Deadweight Loss of Christmas" omits one of the most valuable results of gift exchange. Namely, it only considers the intrinsic value of the object give, and not any goodwill or pleasant feelings that the mere act of giving and receiving itself provides.

In other words, by focusing purely on the material value of the object given, the paper systematically undervalues the benefits of the entire act itself.

Waldfogel himself noted this in a follow up.


Yes, and in particular, the deadweight loss has value because it is deadweight loss. "I paid $100 to ship this $10 thing that you could have gotten yourself on Amazon for $10" is another (admittedly strange) way to say, "I care about you so much that you having $10 is worth $110 to me."


That sounds more like “I care about you having this $10 thing more than you having $110, $10 of which you could use to buy that thing while still having $100 leftover.”


Removing yourself from the equation is so important. The most recent gift I bought I thought was completely stupid, but it was something someone close to me had abstractly mentioned wishing it had existed (cell phone controlled tea kettle). I openly mocked them for wanting something I found idiotic and told them at the time they were a lazy bum and suggested buying my sensible cheap manual kettle. But I made damn sure to find one, and a power converter to make them happy.


Buying comical gift is one of the values of gifting. A gift is a sort of communication, in a way.


This person is a robot or something. They're missing the most important component of value of a gift -- that the value of something is higher when it's a gift from a loved one. If I have a wireless charging dock or a rhyming dictionary or an umbrella that I really love, I love it 2x more if it was a gift from my wife and 10x more if it was a gift from my kids.


> the value of something is higher when it's a gift from a loved one.

There's pitfalls with this too. A loved one bought me a genealogy DNA kit - because I do tons of genealogy.

But I also do IT security for a living. DNA databases are a magnet for powerful bad actors and submitting my DNA to one would introduce new risk to me and my family members. This loved one lives in a world where this sort of risk is invisible to them. There's no simple way for me to explain it to them.

Now this DNA kit just sits here, right along with my guilt.


Ugh, I have almost the same issue. I think I'll regift it to someone who understands but doesnt care. Have you looked into the genetic squencing offered at education places/third party businesses? They are a little more expensive (starting at $500, I think.)


> Have you looked into the genetic squencing offered at education places/third party businesses? They are a little more expensive (starting at $500, I think.)

For genealogical purposes? I haven't considered it. A bigger picture is I'm not sold on the usefulness of DNA testing in general. Comparison testing shows a lot inconsistency.

Most of the lines are fairly well filled out anyway; the big exception is one great-grandfather I'm stuck at. I figure some new records will come to light one day.


Oh, no, sorry, I'm only interested in testing for health reasons. It would indeed be fairly useless for genology except I guess to get a real picture of your overall heritage.


Right, and that's touched on through the value of increasing social cohesion... But if the gift was a rubber chicken instead of a wireless charging dock, it falls into one of those "that's very nice!" categories.


I think it's not just increasing social cohesion either. It's also that we like owning things with a story. It becomes a Christmas souvenir basically.


The worst is receiving a gift that’s worse than nothing at all. If I buy you a book and you don’t like it, you’ll be put in an awkward position if you don’t read it and I ask about it. If I buy you a painting and you don’t like it, you will be put in an awkward position if you don’t hang out. If I buy you photography lessons, you might feel obligated to attend even if you don’t want to.

But if I buy you a bottle of wine, best case you love it, worst case you regift it. If I buy you a gift card to a local restaurant, best case you go there excitedly and order starters and desserts that you may not normally treat yourself to. Worst case, you’ll find SOMETHING decent on the menu. Or even just order takeout. When getting a gift, I always like to think what’s the worst case scenario if the person really doesn’t like it.


Last year, the adults in my immediate family put a limit on how much we'd spend on each other for Christmas. I think we picked around $20/person, when in the past we probably spent $75-100.

This has been good for us, mainly because it lowers the pressure of gift exchanges. There's a big difference between giving (and getting) an unwanted $10 item compared to an unwanted $50 item. The limit removes emphasis from the material value of the item and puts it more on the thought behind the gift.

Generally, I think gift-giving culture in the US is out of control and largely doesn't benefit the giver nor the recipient.


When I turned 18 (youngest member in my family), we decided to stop giving Christmas gifts altogether. That in itself is the best gift ever! While everyone around me is scrambling to get all their Christmas shopping done and stressing out right about now, I can sit back and totally relax.

Overall the article depicts a way of life that has become very foreign to me. All the presents I gave (and received) for birthdays in the last few years were a card + flowers/whiskey, and they were always well received. Alternatively, the birthday parties were picinic-style where everybody brought some dish and there wasn't any expectation of other gifts.


Since around the time of the Great Recession, my siblings, parents, cousins, etc., and I agreed to give gifts to each other only via one of those secret Santa methods with a limit of $40/gift. This has made things so much easier! We only have to gift something to a single recipient, making it less costlier, simplifying the gift idea hassle, and allowing us to focus less on the "shopping bonanza" and more on just enjoying our time together, etc.

I can't recall exactly why we started this "tradition" during the Great Recession but it was my Mom's idea...the funny part is that one might assume that one of us was hit by the recession (e.g. job loss, etc.), and that's why we started it...but thankfully none of us was negatively impacted. So, it wasn't because of any impact to any family member. I wonder if my Mom was just being prudent ahead of time? In any case, these secret Santa things are a good idea, not just for friends but also for family!


Honestly, it's just getting harder to participate without buying a bunch of junk. In my family we're keeping the tradition going, but the gifting part is getting harder as we're getting older. The stuff we want is becoming increasingly utilitarian so we don't want to wait, we'll just buy it on the spot. I'm planning to convince them to do either a secret Santa or a white elephant gift exchange next year.


This is a good idea. A "white elephant" gift exchange is another alternative, though with gifts that are desirable and not just amusing.


It's especially fun to try to find gifts that are both terrible and awesome, like the box of 1-foot extension cords.

(One the one hand, it's a box of one foot extension cords; on the other, you quickly realize you need one per stupid power brick or unnecessarily weird shaped plug.)


I've done "white elephants" at a former job (though i think they called it a "yankee swap"), and that was so much fun! It literally was the highlight of the office holiday party...not so much for coolness of any of the gifts but the fun of all the good-natured scheming! Fun times!


I agree. Choosing a cost limit is smart. People long for 'things' less and less, excluding the very poor or unfortunate.

Buying for loved ones should not be stressful, and should not be criticized. Setting a spend limit aids this.


But there’s also not many gifts I would want that only cost $20. Books, but that’s about it. A nice version of any material item seems to cost at least £30 ($40). What kind of gifts did people get?


I think people got consumeables (nuts, beer, wine, chocolates), media like books/movies, and a few practical things (e.g. my wife got a soil moisture tester because she's getting into gardening).

I agree that a lot of items aren't great at the $20 price point, but a family could pick any limit that makes sense for them. For us, we don't need many material items, so the lower limit seemed reasonable.

Personally, I enjoyed it because it felt like a shift away from the material value and towards thinking about what the person would actually enjoy.


Many years ago (probably about 20) my wife said she didn’t think we should give gifts to each other. Not Christmas, birthdays, anniversary, etc. Nothing. I thought she was crazy, but went along with it sure that she would see the foolishness and change her mind. Well, to my surprise it has turned out to be a fantastic idea. It totally takes the stress out of holidays and other times. If either of us wants something, we just buy it. We still do something to celebrate the occasion (go out to eat for birthday, go to bed and breakfast for anniversary, etc.), but we haven’t given each other a single gift in decades.

The only issue we have found is now we are uncomfortable giving gifts to other people. If I’m not going to give my wife (my best friend) a gift for Christmas, why would I give you a gift?


Oh absolutely. Nothing nicer than just buying a gift for your partner when you see something suitable, and not bothering with fixed dates at all.


Oh, you misunderstood. When I said that when we see something we want we just buy it, I meant for ourselves. We don’t buy each other gifts ever.


I've thought about this a lot, and the easiest rule of thumb is, "buy something consumable." Like chocolate, notebooks, wine, etc., that's one or two steps nicer than they'd buy for themselves. (Or than you'd by for yourself.)

They'll probably like it. It doesn't take up space. And, worst case scenario, it's trivially easy for them to share or regift if they don't like it.

Also, statements like, "Good Gift Giving Is Incredibly Important," are unhelpful and untrue. People already feel too much anxiety about gifts. The worst case scenario is that they don't like it. As long as your present isn't offensive, nbd.


I stopped celebrating Christmas back around 2010 I think? I told my family not to buy me anything, and I wouldn't buy them anything. My parents wrote my name on all the stuff given to nephews and nieces. My dad even offered to give me money and I refused it.

Since then, I've had the best winters ever. I don't consume. I don't fret about gifts. If I want to give something special to someone I love, I do it at another time of the year. It might seem grinchy, but I don't feel that way. I feel better about myself for getting away from consumerism.

I wrote this nearly a decade ago on shopping and gift giving:

https://battlepenguin.com/philosophy/perspective/shopping/


Maybe I'm an oddball, but due to a couple of "experience" gifts gone awry, I 'm scared off of them.

I got concert tickets for a birthday present, and the day before the concert, it was postponed due to the singer's illness, and eventually canceled.

Another time I got tickets to a baseball game on what turned out to be a rainy night. So I got to fight the traffic, pay for parking, etc, to sit through a rain delay, and eventually postponement of the game.

That's life, things happen, but now I find myself really iffy about giving or getting experiences.


That seems awfully short sighted. Sure, I think it is really bad to give/get an experience that you don't want (if someone got me tickets to a concert of a band I dislike, I would feel frustrated/guilty). But it sounds like very reasonable gifts that just didn't pan out. Do you not go to baseball games now because of that experience?


My method: I'm paying attention during the year what my relatives and friends are excited about, what they want and/or plan to buy and take a note. Once a birthday, Christmas or another opportunity comes, I only have to pick an idea from the list and actually buy it. Works perfectly. Telling them that you remember that they mentioned it is usually also great. I think it subtly communicates that you care enough about them to pay attention.


This reveals the joy of gift-giving. I had always shied away from trying hard to find a great gift. I was afraid I would give a terrible, terrible gift (I'm not great at receiving gifts). Someone I dated years ago had a talk with me about the joy of giving gifts and I've worked on improving. It's actually a lot of fun. A little listening and preparation turns you into a thoughtful gift giver.

I also find it quite satisfying to sneak around and ask family or friends about what we should get so-and-so. It doesn't always work out well but people appreciate you trying and sometimes you really nail it.


A few years ago I realized the most important part of gift giving is to devote some amount of time to really focus on a person and think about what they might want or like or need. In my opinion, this is the only part that matters, and if you take the pressure off of yourself for actually giving a great gift, sometimes you end up getting them something great anyway, because you're freed up to really meditate on them as a person.

Another tip is to pay attention to what kinds of gifts they give. Many times people just buy others things they want for themselves. e.g. my sister-in-law always bought women earrings, started getting her earrings to great effect!


This is why gift cards rub me the wrong way. I don't want 50€ to throw on top of the pile.


Buying a gift is such a 20th century thing.

Maybe reaching out to someone on phone or in person, every now and then, in times of happiness and despair, is a greater gift.

Dishing out money is the easy way out.


Perfect! The wealthy world has ascended the Maslow pyramid to the point that our itches are no longer scratched by material stuff. Isn't this the situation that spiritual people have been begging for for millenia?

Now it's time to move onto people's real problems: loneliness, hopelessness, etc.

For those people saying it's an American thing: yes, you're right--we've been on the wealth train for long enough that we've lost that urge to maximize everything. Do we need yet another item that becomes trash? No, we'd rather not waste the money and resources because it's no big deal to have yet another trinket around. And I'm sure the rest of the wealthy world will be with us on this before too long--maybe when a majority of their population didn't grow up combatting scarcity as kids.


Gift-giving remains a huge part of courtship in cultures all over the world. One's romantic interest often expects to receive tangible, material gifts, not mere chats or emotional support. Even if one lucks out with a romantic interest that doesn't demand those things, perhaps the romantic interest's family expects one to give those gifts as a sign of a seriousness and financial solvency.


I have a feeling that the practice predates the 20th century by quite some time.


You really need to do both with people you care about.


The value of the gift is not its price or utility measure, but attention and respect from the giver. I know that when a person gives me a gift, he/she shows an interest in my joy and happiness. That's just enough. I may use the gift the way it intended to be used to do a gift giver nice in return, even if I really don't need it.

Like parents like their children's birthday cards or seashell figurines not for beauty or worth, but for an effort to make them happy. Being that parent for everybody who gives me gifts making my life better.

The same is with my gifts: I am choosing them according to my idea of the person's taste and what will make him/her happy.

There are universal gifts of flowers (not a lot of people hate the idea of having a bouquet in their room), good wine/champagne/spirit (except for non-drinkers), something tasty (and not very unhealthy). If there is a discrepancy - a reasonable person will always give a hint to avoid the same mistake in the future.


The universal gifts you mention are all consumable. This is good; it's the Japanese style of gift-giving. Give something nice, luxurious, and consumable.

Fancy fruit/chocolate? Delightful to receive, and completely gone from your inventory without any feelings of guilt after consumption.

Fancy spirit/wine/beer? Ditto (only applicable if you know the person consumes alcohol and isn't a problem drinker of course).


People don't remember what you said. They don't remember what you did. But they'll always remember the way you made them feel.

And if you got them that showboat present that made everyone in the room scream in vicarious delight, you probably made them feel pretty fucking good in that moment, even if they never use it again.


From the perspective of someone who suffers from gift-choice anxiety, that was a useful article. (Kudos, too, to several commenters here, particularly @afton wrt domain expertise. This is so easy to mess up, especially buying for kids/teens.)

But - tangential, I realise - what about asking why we buy Christmas (or holiday) gifts, and especially with a scattergun approach: buy for everyone you know (family, friends, colleagues - driven in some cases by fear that they might have got you something but you haven't got them anything - it gets ridiculous), just because, er, xmas? (Comment here about power and gifts by @blueyes gave me pause for uneasy thought - genuine thanks for that.)

I spent quite a few years in places where Christmas wasn't a thing. In a couple of places, Eid was the big celebration, and the emphasis seemed to me to be on hospitality, a lot of food, loads of get-togethers, but not so much on presents. I sort of miss that - and miss the emphasis on charity in the run-up to Eid during Ramadan.

Perhaps we have lost something. I'm a fan of the poet Louis MacNeice. Here's an amateur animation to illustrate his section of Autumn Journal which starts, " A week to Christmas"[1], which I voiced quite a few years ago. (I can't find a stand-alone version of the text online.)

I am not religious, but the commercialisation of Christmas does make me uncomfortable.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fV5hOWChnE

Edited to add: another amateur animation (same software, now sadly defunct) of Tim Minchin's Christmas song "White Wine in the Sun", which celebrates Christmas from the perspective of an atheist, but which also abhors the hypocrisy of its commercialism:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vWQuDtxD2-c


What you describe is the most important part of Christmas for me. I don't think gift-giving should be the main event, but rather an extra after a lavish meal with the ones you love.


Stopped reading at 'Nobody Actually Likes Charity Gifts'

I understand the social bonds of gift giving but this whole Christmas thing is completely out of hand, so much pointless consumption. The idea of gift giving at christmas is like a good instinct that has been hideously amplified to 1000x what it should be and turned into a monster. I pretty much insist on people giving me charity gifts most years.


Thank you for this comment. have changed the tone of that paragraph which was way too harsh.


I feel two ways about it because I'm so similar to my friends and family in terms of the charities I support. I did appreciate, and remember, a charity gift I got from somebody who I knew did not give a damn about the cause that the charity supported, because I knew they did it solely as a gift to me. That felt good.


Micro-loan charities like Kiva strike cool balance. The recipient determines if it all goes to charity or if they want to withdraw some of the cash later. The recipient is also involved in the selection process.


With the almost instant gratification of Amazon, I always have the gadgets or clothing I need or want, but donating to one of my favorite charities is always always appreciated.


Gift exchange is undervalued as a custom, at least in America. I am thinking particularly as a business custom. A gift gives you a chance to express gratitude, show your understanding / empathy of the recipient. It also is a great way to make a communication about who you are. That's why gifts of your product or service can be really effective.


Too bad its synonymous with bribery.


That depends on the gift.

We receive some at work, generally from Asian clients. Things like traditional fans, alcohol, chocolate, a small print of a landscape.

I think we have a policy, if it's under €50 it's not a bribe. I don't know the details.


This is an uncomfortable truth.

I am very rarely able to map my understanding / empathy of people onto objects, and it's seriously anxiety-inducing to think about how this signals a lack of understanding or care.


> Likewise, the curse of the ‘associated gift’ happens all the time.

My mom does this all the time.

I remember one year I wanted a lava lamp and a fish tank.

Instead she got me a fish tank themed lamp.


Might as well train a new GPT for gift giving or a markov chain


Generally I give and enjoy receiving edible gifts. They don't take up space, they don't end up stashed away for years, they don't clash with my artistic side, and it's much harder to go wrong. Tea leaves, desserts, those sorts of things are all good gifts IMO. Homemade edibles, even better, even if it's not perfect I value homemade things and as a friend I very much value the fact that you tried.

What I really hate (inside) is when people try to buy things related to my interests and hobbies, including electronics and outdoor gear. I'm most picky about those things and there are very specific things I look for in hobby gear that most people outside the hobby wouldn't understand. Also I don't like when people buy household things like silverware and decorations. I have matching sets of those things and if the "intruding" gift doesn't match it will basically sit in a box and never get used.


I like charity gifts!

For many years, I've made enough money that the the things I want are either easily affordable (rock climbing equipment, a gaming console, etc.) or completely unrealistic as gifts (two round trip first class tickets to Taiwan). And this is compounded by the fact that I'm the most expert person among my friends and family on most of my interests.

So for many years I've asked people not to buy me gifts for birthdays or other occasions, but to instead donate to an animal advocacy nonprofit (and I'll suggest some to them). I'm _much_ happier to see them spend some of their money improving the state of the world, as opposed to getting me stuff that I don't need or could purchase for myself any time I wanted it.

That said, some relatives still get me gifts, but at least they're very usable, like gift cards to my favorite restaurants or book store.


Thanks for this comment Autarch. On reflection, I wrote that paragraph way too harsh. I've redrafted it now to reflect the reality of yours and other comments like it.


The rewrite is much better. I agree that it's not something you can _assume_ the recipient will like. Even for me, I'd be fairly annoyed with a gift to a charity I don't think is very valuable (looking at you, Make a Wish).


> Even for me, I'd be fairly annoyed with a gift to a charity I don't think is very valuable (looking at you, Make a Wish).

I'd be very hesitant for people giving money on my behalf to charity as well. Many charities seem to mismanage money in a big way, for example by spending lots of money on marketing and paying the leadership big salaries. From other charities I might find their agendas often questionable (Oxfam Novib, Amnesty) or I don't agree with their methods (Greenpeace).

Of course there are some decent charities to be found as well.

Other people might object giving to charities for other reasons [0].

---

[0]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KcqinGqHQCg


"Avoid premature optimization" applies to gift-giving too.

There are many areas where you could optimize the gift-giving process. I imagine you could also turn it into a science, with carefully researched formulae and experiment-driven results.

This, to me, seems to miss the point a little bit. You're not supposed to give the perfect gift. You're not supposed to generate the optimal amount of joy in the recipient. You are supposed to form a connection with the recipient, and have that feeling reciprocated. That's the real test of a good gift.

It doesn't matter if they never use the gift after tomorrow. It doesn't matter if they have the same dollar valuation of the gift as the giver does. What matters is if they genuinely appreciate the gesture and, at least for the moment, enjoy the feeling the gift gives them.


As an adult I find the gifts that I appreciate most are the luxury versions of simple useful things.

If I wanted aftershave, chocolate, socks, a phone, a laptop (insert any other typical gift here) I would have bought them.

I would not have bought harrods teabags or a cashmere scarf... but everytime I use them they make me smile.


Has anyone considered/calculated how much environmental waste these unwanted gifts incur? I tell everyone I either want a nice meal together with them or to donate something in my name to charity. 99% of the time my wish is ignored and I get an ugly shirt or socks that don’t fit.


Some people are quite happy getting nothing. I wouldn't be the slightest bit bothered if never got a present again. I know a lot of people find this hard to accept. [As a footnote I'm not Scrooge I certainly don't mind buying gifts for others!]


Good advices and a well written article.

To add one advice about a common occurrence the author mention:

> you might knock it out of the park one year and I might give you something that’s nowhere near as good. Next time, I'm going to want to do much better. This imbalance leads, in part, to the continuation of the tradition

When the cycle escalate I like to call that gift inflation. In case it's desirable to avoid it (it often is), simply agreeing to a spending limit helped me a lot. It might be awkward at first because we don't usually talk about the monetary value of gifts, but in my experience with siblings and significant other we're all better off.


I started a website for charitable gift vouchers where the recipient can choose from a very large and varied list of causes to donate to. It turns the receiver into an active participant. The nice thing is that both giver and receiver are left feeling good and generous, which increases the appeal and hopefully leads to even more vouchers being donated in the future.

It’s a local project though (https://www.goodgift.be). Feel free to steal the idea. Just be transparent and preferably don’t take any commissions on the donated amounts.


I personally abhor receiving trinkets that I really have no use for and although I have a hard time to, I am learning to accept gifts without saying "oh, you didn't have to". I'd say the best thing is to either ask for a wishlist or simply give an amount of money in some form that is not offensive: giftcard etc. But this varies from person to person. Some people like receiving anything at all and consider it as a token of attention. Know your target before buying up gifts. When I tell family and friends "Please! no gifts for me" I absolutely mean it.


Two of the most under-discussed aspects of gifts are their functions as displays of power and demonstrations of conspicuous care. Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain touches on this.


Is the display of power, displaying the power of the giver?

Or are you gifting power, that the recipient can then display?

Thanks for the book recommendation.


Yes, it is a display of the power of the giver. Many givers do not interpret their own actions in that way, and yet... Native Potlatch culture in the American northwest is a good example of gifts that signal power.


"For example, if I bought you a gift for $100 and you thought that it was actually worth about $70 it would mean that, somewhere along the line, you’ve destroyed $30. Pop! It's gone. You might as well have just taken your cash and burnt it."

I would argue that in that case you have actually given a great gift. They have gotten something they consider valuable considering the $70 amount they would pay for it but a bit too much of a luxury given the fact that it actually costs $100.


I have found when in doubt give something that can be consumed. Find out their favorite food/drink etc. and just go one step beyond. If they are a tea drinker give a cool tea blend plus a new mug. If they are a beer drinker, give a selection of beers they probably haven't tried + a snack food that pairs well with them. It's not a new iPhone but it shows you know them and it's something you know they will definitely use.


I think they side step this a bit, but please provide the gift givers in your circles with a list. It doesn’t have to be actual specific items you know exist (the cell phone controlled tea kettle is a great example), but it makes life better for everyone as it reveals your preferences.

My in-laws moved to distributing wish lists this year and it is so much less stressful.


Thanks, this is a genuinely good blog post. Not too long, not too complex, informative, cited, and with real-world applicability.


Here's another twist on this advice. If you make a wish list, try to optimize the list for the gift giver. My brother loves to find the best whatever-it-is for you, so just giving a category optimizes for his gift giving experience. One thing on my list last year was "dice storage", and he got me a really fun dice bag. He got to surprise me, and I got something wanted and actually still use.

My sister is a pleaser, and just wants you to get what you want, so I include links to specific things for her. If she is ever unsure what to get, she can just go straight to one of the linked Amazon pages and just click buy. My list is long enough that even if it's exactly what I asked for, I'm still surprised by what she decided to get for me.


I think there are two main ways to give a good gift:

1) give the person something that they know they want but that they will not buy themselves

2) give the person something they they don't even know that they want.

I think 2) is much better than 1), but it's also much harder to pull off.


I’m so happy that there isn’t anyone who gives me gifts. Read my lips: I don’t need more stuff in my house. Likewise, apart from spouse & child I don’t have anyone to buy gifts for. One less responsibility means more peace of mind.


What we do is have the idea of a present box. When we're out shopping (well in the days when you could go out shopping). If we saw something that would look like a good gift for person X or person Y we'd buy it and put it in the present box. It might be a book or a certain item of some kind.

Then when it comes to near a birthday or Christmas we'd check what's in the present box to see if we have anything suitable for them. If not we'd then go through the process of buying something. But the present box has saved us countless times as we'd often buy something thoughtful and put it in there in advance.


Everyone in my family puts together an excel spreadsheet with links & notes, ex. If Mom wants a candle she'd either put a link to a specific candle or notes listing preferred brands and scents.


The main thing i learned from this article is that there's a remote controlled car that you can control with the N64! If anyone on here is wondering what to get me for christmas, wonder no more.


Was it a car that was controlled through the N64 or simply a cheap remote control car with an N64 logo slapped on it?

Based on my history of gifts I've received, I would very much expect that latter.


Argh! I think you're right! Christmas is RUINED.


"...Ask Them What They Want"

Of course this the the obvious answer. But for me, that reduce the "WOW" factor.

The question is how to determine the right gift, which mean: 1. You don't spend unordinate amount of cash, 2. The person will appreciate it

Without asking him/her questions. Which means you have to understand the hobby/habit of that person pretty well....


When I was younger my family wrote down what we want for Christmas on index cards then had my dad keep track of who bought what for whom. We eventually started using a site called Giftster instead which has worked great. This way people get stuff they want and nobody ends up buying the same thing.


Save all the trouble. Gift money. They can buy whatever they want/need/like : groceries, fruits, ice-cream, DSLR, iPhone, Tesla, accesories for stuff they already have, etc. Absolutely full freedom on what to buy, where to buy, when to buy.

We need to de-stigmatise / un-shame gifting cash.


Imagine everyone in a group of people gifting everyone else in the group $20. Everyone ends up with the exact same amount of money they started with. How is that a good idea? If we're just going to get each other cash, why bother gifting at all at that point?


The everyone gets something they like and tells what they got "from" each other.


Yes


I tend to view birthdays, weddings, and Christmas as the worst time to give a gift. Your gift is likely to be considered a social obligation (because it is), and people may judge it against other gifts they received.

Some wine bottle or home made cookies can have far more impact if given at another time.


When I was traveling for work back in the late 90s, I bought a GustBuster umbrella out of the SkyMall magazine for my brother's HS graduation. He used it all 7 years of undergrad and law school.

I may have even used the seat-back phone to order it while flying...


The problem with gifts is that if you actually want it and it's worth the money you would have bought it already. (There are exceptions: e.g. parents with more money buying gifts for kids who can't afford them.)


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