Six Ways to be a Thoughtful Gift-giver
By Mary Ellen Barrett
Have you ever had the experience of giving a gift and knowing the recipient hated it? Either by the look on the person’s face when he or she opened it or its disregard later? I have, and it’s not a good feeling. I have also been on the other end of the problem. There have been times on Christmas morning when I wondered what on earth someone was thinking when he or she decided on this particular gift for me. But at the same time I wanted to show appropriate gratitude.
These awkward situations are, unfortunately, part of the human experience, but they are easily avoided with a little care and practice. Gift giving is a skill, and like any skill it can be developed and perfected with some effort and attention. For everyone’s benefit, here are some ways to become a more thoughtful gift giver.
1. Looking and listening
Really pay attention to your recipient. Did she sigh wistfully while putting down a catalog? Is there a new interest or hobby he is enthused about? A place they are longing to visit or a show they would love to see? Did their fingers linger upon something in a store before passing on? People leave hints all the time without knowing they are doing so, and a thoughtful gift giver is always on the lookout for those clues. Is your friend dying to see Paris? Well, you may not be able to buy a plane ticket, but a funky Parisian poster or coffee table book might please her. How about a lovely box of French pastry or a class in French cooking? By paying attention to little details, you can avoid being a mundane gift giver, and soon people will begin to appreciate that you know and care about them and their dreams.
“The secret to giving the perfect gift is to know a little something special about the recipient. What kind of music are they listening to? Are they a great cook? Do they enjoy traveling? The perfect gift doesn’t have to cost a lot of money but it should be something the recipient might not buy for themselves.”
—Warren Christopher, former director of shopping services of Barneys in New York
2. Good planning
That handy smartphone that helps you remember your appointments also helps keep you on track in the gift department. Every November I make a point of sitting with next year’s calendar, on both paper and computer, and entering all of my loved one’s birthdays and anniversaries along with any other gift-giving occasions that may pop up over the year. Is your nephew graduating? Will you be attending any bridal showers this year? In my planner I keep a blank sheet with everyone’s name on a line, and I jot down gift ideas as I think of them or see something I think would be perfect. All those little hints I’ve been picking up on are recorded on this list.
The computer calendar is set to remind me 10 days before an event, so all I have to do is pull out my list, narrow down my choices, and start shopping. It is so much easier to be thoughtful when you aren’t rushed and frantic! Buying the gift card from the local drugstore on the way to the party is a rookie mistake; to be a skilled gift giver, time and consideration must be part of the process.
3. The treasure of time
Time is the thing we have the least of (except maybe money), and that’s why it is the most precious gift you can give. In our society we are drowning in stuff, but we are starved for meaningful connections and shared experiences. Does your grandma really need another porcelain bird for her collection, or would she rather spend an afternoon with you? Take her to a concert or out to lunch. Drive her to visit the home she grew up in so you can hear all her childhood stories. Take her to a fancy tea at a local tea shop and don’t forget to wear hats. Bring her to your house for the weekend, and let her be surrounded by the life there. She will treasure those times, and your sacrifice of time will lighten her heart. You can easily make a pretty presentation of an invitation to spend time with your gift recipient and already have the date and time marked in your calendar so there’s no putting it off.
“Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” -Hebrews 13:16
4. Getting personal
Nothing says thoughtful better than a personalized gift. It can be as simple as putting together a beautiful photo album or as extravagant as having something engraved. Taking time to personalize can turn a humble gift into a unique and meaningful one. Embossing, engraving, and embroidering are all things that you can add yourself if you are crafty, or inexpensively at a variety of businesses and websites. Think of a lovely journal with his name embossed on the front, or champagne flutes for a special couple with a meaningful date etched on them. How about embroidered napkins or hankies? Personalized stationery is always a nice touch. Have a favorite photo blown up and framed. If your recipient is a fan of a singer or sports figure, write to them and ask for an autographed photo.
“One of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received was a photo album from one my bridesmaids. The album had pictures of my husband and I from our births to our engagement. I loved it and still do!”
—Isabel Bogowith, Topeka, Kansas
5. Consumable pursuits
A few years ago my dearest friend and I were taking our children ice skating, and she offered to bring my lunch. She baked oat bread and made chicken salad, and the sandwich she brought was one of the best lunches I’ve ever eaten. I raved about it at every opportunity. Last year for my birthday she brought me that same sandwich; she arranged a picnic and another friend brought my favorite chocolate-covered almonds. It was heavenly, and truly one of the most thoughtful gifts I could have received. She went to the trouble of baking and cooking and setting up a picnic, and all I had to do was enjoy it. As a mom I often appreciate when people bring my children things that are meant to be used up: art supplies, Play-Doh, coloring books, magazine subscriptions, and craft kits. These are things we are constantly running out of, and I love that these items foster creativity rather than inactive time in front of a screen.
Special edible treats are always welcome, and if someone has dietary restrictions, taking the time to find something special they can eat is a wonderful way of showing you love them. I once signed my husband up for the “bacon-of-the-month club,” and he enjoyed getting three pounds of differently cured bacon every month. His planning for what would be done with the precious cargo would start days before the shipment arrived. Does your recipient enjoy wine or beer? Are they steak lovers or vegetarians? High-end steaks can be delivered, or you might sign someone up for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) for a season. Inviting someone to your home for a festive evening meal is also a gracious and memorable way to honor his or her special occasion.
6. Creative presentation
Now you have finally decided on the perfect gift, it’s time to pay a bit of attention to the presentation. I often fall flat here, having absolutely no talent in the art of wrapping or even picking out nice paper. And I am ashamed to admit that I have on occasion wrapped a gift in the car on the way to an event because I have put it off with dread. However, when I do make the effort to either wrap the gift beautifully or have someone else do it, I am always so pleased because of the effect the presentation has on the receiver. It’s a wonderful way to show your creativity, even if you’re not artistically inclined.
Gift giving should give as much pleasure to the giver as to the receiver. Seeing the excitement from a gift you’ve thoughtfully purchased or prepared makes any trouble in procuring it well worth it. The presents that are most memorable are those that were given with a selflessness and an intention of creating joy. The best gifts are the ones that challenge our creativity and generate excitement for both giver and receiver. They are sincere gestures of love that immortalize the moment and create precious memories.