how to give a great gift

How to Give Great Gifts

Gift giving is a lifetime activity, so it pays to learn how to do it well. That’s right, gift-giving isn’t an innate sense that you either have or you don’t; you can learn how to give great gifts. It can be anxiety-inducing for many, but with a variety of techniques and some effort, your gifts will not only be well received, they will be treasured. 

The Formula For Great Gift Giving

First of all, the formula for great gift giving isn’t strictly a formula. It’s far more complicated because we are talking about people after all. That being said, there are certain tactics and behaviors that will help you be a great gift giver, not just a mediocre one. Most of all, it requires a genuine effort on your part to get results. If you dread looking for gifts, try to spend as little time as possible choosing them, or fob off your gift giving on other people, it will show.

Gift giving doesn't have to be stressful

Gift giving doesn’t have to be stressful

What a Great Gift Should Accomplish

Like any action, it makes sense to know the end goal. A great gift, simply put, should be appreciated and welcomed by the receiver. It should appear thoughtful, carefully considered and chosen specifically for the recipient.

10 Techniques That Enable Great Gift Giving

Pay attention

1. Pay Close Attention

This is the most relevant technique of them all, and hence why it is #1. Paying attention will almost always net you a better gift. But what exactly does that mean? Paying attention means that you make the choice to be more aware of the potential gift recipients around you and mine your interactions with them for ideas. Listen for things that they admire, are interested in, or want to replace but haven’t done so themselves. At the very least, careful observation will help you get a better understanding of a person’s tastes and interests. If you find it hard to remember these observations come gift-giving time, start a simple document on your computer or phone and add in observations as you come across them. Furthermore, everyone has a camera phone these days, so don’t hesitate to take pictures and stash them away in a folder for the future.

You never know when a good gift idea might come up, so don’t confine paying attention to specific gift-giving times of the year. Especially for hard to shop for people, you may only come across one or two good ideas a year, so don’t stop paying attention!

2. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask

A surprise gift will reward the giver with all the credit, but sometimes getting a gift the recipient really wants is more important. You are paying attention, but that may not mean an idea will come up when you need it. If that is the case, then ask people who know the recipient well about their ideas, or ask them directly yourself. You get to decide how important your own input is.

3. Do (and Don’t) Buy Ahead

This is an “it depends” scenario. If you find a great gift months in advance of needing it, it may be worth picking it up, but with one caveat – it has an intended recipient. Buying ahead can save you from last minute worries or timing issues (see technique #4). However, there is one form of buying ahead that you should always avoid: buying for the sake of having a gift lying around in case you need it. This kind of gift must be generic or widely appealing in order to pull it off, and this will rarely come across as being thoughtful once given. You also may end up not using it, which would be a waste of money on your part.

4. Don’t Buy at the Last Minute

Buying gifts at the last minute may not be entirely avoidable (a sudden birthday party invitation!), but for predictable occasions such as anniversaries, birthdays, holidays and weddings there is no excuse to buy a last minute gift. Christmas shopping on Dec 24th – or in any other time crunch – will force you to buy only what’s available at that moment. Save yourself the hassle and embarrassment by getting out your calendar and adding in important gift-giving occasions. Then set a reminder for yourself to buy a gift 3-6 weeks beforehand to allow for browsing and shipping.

Cliched gifts are almost worse than nothing at all

Cliched gifts are almost worse than nothing at all

5. Avoid Cliches, Underhanded or Fake Gifts

That’s right, fellas, red roses and teddy bears are Valentine’s Day cliches and you know it. Cliche gifts can come across as unoriginal and lazy, and it’s best to avoid them entirely unless you can come up with a more personalized variation. Your wife likes flowers? Choose her favorite kind of flower and ask the florist to make a custom bouquet for you. Another cliche is the assistant bought gift. You may be a bigwig at your company, but don’t farm out your gift giving duties to your assistant or your significant other. Pay attention, find your own ideas, and only bring them in to help with the logistics. The same could be said of your wife or partner; try to play a role in gift giving that is coming directly from you.

Underhanded gifts are worth mentioning because this kind of gift can do some serious damage to your relationship with the recipient. In other words, don’t give gifts that are intended to send a message (intended or otherwise) to the recipient. For example, don’t give gym memberships (my, you’re getting fat) or anti-aging products (you’re looking old!), which are almost certain to be interpreted negatively.

Finally, don’t give fake gifts. Homemade gift certificates for a massage or an IOU (“let me buy you dinner sometime!”) aren’t real gifts. Don’t make it the recipient’s prerogative to redeem a gift – how awkward for them! If you do this, schedule the redemption immediately after it’s been offered so it doesn’t look like a gift you have no intention of giving.

6. Don’t Buy the Same Thing Over and Over Again

We’re all guilty of this. Once you know a gift has been well-received, it can be tempting to buy it again and again. Unless your gift is a tradition treasured by the recipient, a repeated gift will quickly become predictable and unexciting. It also risks making you look complacent or lazy. Make the effort to mix up the old idea or simply choose a new one.

Amazon gift card

An Amazon gift card may be easy, but it’s not original

7. Avoid Gift Certificates (with a caveat)

Gift certificates are polarizing. They can be extremely welcome for events such as weddings, graduations, and housewarming parties because they give the recipient a chance to choose a gift that is most relevant to their needs. However, there are other situations in which gift cards, especially credit-card issued cards that basically equivalent to cash, will again make you look lazy or like it’s not worth your time to look for a real gift. To err on the side of safety, use gift certificates sparingly unless they actually reflect some thought. For example, gift certificates for the spa, a great take-out place, or your local golf club might be welcome for a stressed-out friend.

8. Spend Appropriately

It’s hard to say exactly what “appropriate spending” is because it depends so much on the person and the occasion. Spending much more or much less than the social norm will make the receiver question the intent behind your choice of spending. Furthermore, if the gift is given in a group setting it can be embarrassing to be the obvious outlier. Spending $1000 when $100 is the norm, or likewise spending $10 in the same situation will make you look like you are showing off or deliberately cheap. However, if you have a tight budget, you should spend what you can afford.

Gift basket

A personalized gift basket is thoughtful and easy

9. Gifts Don’t Have to Be Purchased

…that is, exactly in the form you intend to give them. Personally curated gift baskets, a favorite meal ready to go into the oven, or a framed photo are all ideas that require some extra thought and effort on your part. The benefit is that these gifts will feel extra personal.

Bad vs. Good Gift Wrapping

Bad vs. Good Gift Wrapping

10. Wrap Gifts Like an Adult

You’ve seen it before – or maybe you’ve done it? – a birthday gift wrapped in Christmas paper or a housewarming present stuffed unceremoniously in the free bag from the store. Unless your gift is from Tiffany’s, this sloppy presentation will offset the thoughtfulness of the contents no matter what they are. You’re no longer 12, so there is no excuse for not properly wrapping gifts. That doesn’t mean you have pile it high with ribbons and make a handmade card; simply buy appropriate wrapping for the gift and season, and wrap it up neatly. Not sure how to do it? Check out this simple gift wrapping video here.

Gift Giving for Specific People

Ramos Pinto 20 Year

Give “the man who has everything” something special they can consume, like this Ramos Pinto 20 Year Tawny Port

For the Person Who Has Everything

We all have this person in our lives, and they are a nightmare to buy a gift for. They have everything, want nothing, and tend to buy what they want themselves. To compound the situation, even if you ask what they want, they can’t give you any ideas. The easiest way to buy a gift for this kind of person is to focus on consumable gifts.  A bottle of port, an exotic spice blend or a super premium olive oil can be consumed, and thus eventually used up by the recipient. This type of gift is easiest for foodies, but if push comes to shove, a carefully selected gift card can also work too.

Double Sided Baby Alpaca Scarves - Fort Belvedere

Get your SO something they wouldn’t get themselves, like a lux baby alpaca scarf

For a Spouse or Significant Other

In a cruel twist of fate, sometimes your own spouse or partner can be the hardest to shop for! They may be there “person who has everything” or they may prefer to pick out their own gifts. The best way to ensure smooth gift-giving is to have a conversation about what they like and dislike. Check in again after gift giving to see how you did. One other great technique for SOs is to get them what they love but wouldn’t get for themselves – a track day, a spa treatment, or some other indulgence or item that they would appreciate.

Business gifts can be more risk than reward

Business gifts can be more risk than reward

For a Boss, Colleague or Client

Business gifts are tricky because they are very easy to read into as paying for access or influence. They are really best avoided unless they are part of the company culture or the country’s culture, so do your research accordingly. Be aware that some parties can’t accept gifts from subordinates/vendors/colleagues because it may violate ethics rules. Keep gifts simple, reasonably priced and not too personal. Business-related items, such as a nice business card case, are a perfect choice.

People You Don’t Know Very Well…or At All

Going to Christmas at a relative’s house may mean buying a gift for your niece’s new boyfriend that you’ve never met. Awkward, right? Even if you can learn a little bit about this person, getting a personalized gift is unlikely. Ask for a specific suggestion, or go the gift card route to keep it simple.

10 Great Hostess Gifts

10 Great Hostess Gifts

Host or Hostess Gifts

A host or hostess gift is a nice way to show your appreciation for a stay or a home cooked meal. For dinner parties, wine, spirits, or another accompaniment to the meal is usually appreciated, or you can get them something for breakfast the following day when they are recovering from the night before. Check out our guide on how to be a great houseguest here for ideas.

Book for children

Ask the parents what gifts are age-appropriate for children


Getting kids gifts can be fun, but it’s always best to ask the parents before heading to the toy store. The child may love your gift, but it may drive the parents nuts or worse, create some other unforeseen issue that could have been avoided. Tread carefully around sweets, noisy toys, replica weapons, and anything digital.

Gift Giving Faux Pas

Sporting tickets

Don’t give tickets as gifts to events only you want to see

Finally, avoid these gift faux pas and you will be in the clear.

  • Don’t combine gifts for the unlucky people who have birthdays, anniversaries, or other occasions around major holidays
  • Be careful when buying clothing that is sized; unless you know the size works for sure, a guess can lead to an insulted recipient
  • Re-gifting. Yes, everyone will know, and yes, it’s a bad idea.
  • Don’t use gifts to send a message. Gym memberships and anti-aging creams aside, giving your favorite nephew an X-box while the others get a coloring book will make your favoritism – and not the gift – the center of attention.
  • Don’t give people gifts for hobbies or activities they haven’t expressed interest in. Giving someone who hates to cook a cookbook will not make them want to cook more, it will just make them wish for a gift receipt.
  • Used gifts. Unless it’s a serious antique for an antique lover, don’t give secondhand items as gifts.
  • Don’t give utilitarian gifts (socks, vacuums, blenders) unless you are certain that they will be welcomed.
  • Don’t give gifts that are really meant for you, such as lingerie, a gift certificate to your favorite restaurant, or tickets to a sporting event only you like. It’s a jerk move.


What are your gift giving hangups? What have your best gifts been?

How to Give Great Gifts
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How to Give Great Gifts
A quick primer on gift giving; do's & don'ts & product recommendations.
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15 replies
  1. Geoff says:

    Hi Sven; The mention of gift giving to business associates or employers reminded me of gifts I gave to a principal associate. As a sole proprietor, I frequently ‘associate’ or combine talents with another to complete a project without straining my response to frequent clients. The gifts were usually inexpensive objects that he could publicly display in his office, bookends of Italian marble, a pencil cup of a nun with a ruler reminding him of his parochial school days, which he enhanced with tagged washers (slugs) of bad clients. The last gift after an especially good project was a Chelsea clock that chimed the naval watch ‘bells’ which I now have, a gift offered by his widow.
    However, the gift most memorably received was a Fresnel lens nightlight. I had purchased it a day or two before he was to leave for his son’s home for the Holidays. He called me from the airport to thank me for the gift which he had taken with him and just opened. It was received on the anniversary of the death of his closest friend and business partner. It was especially poignant as they had together restored the Fresnel lens of the local historic lighthouse. I had no idea, just that sixth sense.

  2. Gary says:

    Once again, excellent advice all the way around. I commented on Facebook back around Valentine’s Day about an email from Costco promoting the usual gifts of flowers and jewelry. The email ad went on to promote a Nutrisystem certificate as a possible gift idea. I proposed that it would be a very poor choice that could lead to domestic violence. I received an incredible number of likes and reposts, mostly from the ladies. Keep up the good work.

  3. Victoria Melo says:

    The first thing we need to know is that what matters is the intention, as long as we give something with joy and happiness everything will be perfect! Of course if we know that the person wants something in specific, that is positive, but we need to remember ALWAYS, give the gift with joy and happiness!

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