3 min
October 16, 2022

Be a better gift-giver

When it comes to gift giving, is it really the thought that counts?

My aunt sent a wedding gift which was so extremely generous - especially because my husband, Sam, and I said, “No gifts.” It came in the mail in a big box. I opened it. It was a large black frame with a 10-picture collage of photos from our wedding dance. All of the pictures were blurry. 

This was a seemingly very thoughtful gift. But actually, it was an extremely bad gift. 

According to John Ruhlin, author of Giftology, 

“It’s not the thought that counts. It’s the thoughtful thought that counts.” 

Gift-giving is an art that can be mastered by truly giving that person and that gift a lot of thought. Things to take into consideration are your relationship to the person and budget. Otherwise, it’s a simple matter of quality.

Timing is Everything

It’s near-impossible to be thoughtful in the days leading up to giving a person a gift. This is not the time to come up with a brilliant and thoughtful idea. Instead, create a note in your phone and whenever you think of an idea for someone in your life, write it down. 

This already happens naturally for all of us, we just don’t pay attention or we think we’ll remember when that birthday or holiday comes. But we won’t. So when the idea strikes, periodically, at random times, write it down. Maybe it’s something as specific as a particular book you think they’ll love, or maybe it’s as general as penguins. (My sister loves penguins.) 

"Santa" note in my phone



I have a drawer full of meaningful letters and notes that I have saved from people. I read them from time to time and they give me warm fuzzy feelings inside. You know what I don’t have? A drawer full of cheap, unthoughtful gifts.

If you don’t have the money to get someone a gift, write them a really thoughtful message. 

John Ruhling says it best, 

“Either write a really nice note and don’t do a gift, or do it right. Those are the two options.”

Gifts don’t have to be expensive. Showing some vulnerability and appreciation for the person in your life is more meaningful than a bottle of Bath & Body Works shower gel.

Shared Experiences

When thinking about a gift for someone, ask yourself, “How well do I know this person?”

If you know the person really well, time is the greatest commodity. Think of a gift less as an object and more as an experience. What experience could the two of you share?

Like most parents, my in-laws don’t need or want anything (at least that’s what they tell us every time we ask). What we do know they love is spending time with us. The four of us enjoy food and cooking, so Sam and I treat them to a cooking class. We cook, we learn, we drink wine, and we eat a delicious meal together. It’s really a gift for all of us.  

Other experience ideas include tickets to a show, going out to dinner, getting nails done, or attending a sporting event. For the most important people in my life, whenever I can, I try to give the gift of time spent together. 

Safe Bets

If you don’t know the person that well, an experience might be off the table. In the example with my aunt and the picture frame, she doesn’t know me or Sam very well. As it happens, we aren’t people who like to hang pictures of ourselves on the wall. Oddly enough, we aren’t people who like to hang blurry pictures on the wall, either. 

Anything that takes up space in someone’s home is a gamble, even if you know the person well. The less you know the person, the safer the gift should be. In these instances, it’s best to assume that the person is a minimalist. 

Each Christmas, I give the gift of homemade chocolate chip cookies. These aren’t just any chocolate chip cookies. I’m like Judy the Elf in The Santa Clause. It took her 1,200 years to perfect her hot chocolate recipe: “Not too hot, extra chocolate, shaken, not stirred.” 

Okay, it hasn’t taken me that long, but I have been perfecting them for nine years and each batch takes six hours to make (refrigerating the dough and letting it rest results in a softer and chewier cookie). I use high quality ingredients and include Reeses Peanut Butter Holiday Bells and red and green Peanut M&Ms sprinkled throughout the tin. 

Scott Calvin and Judy the Elf in The Santa Clause

Anything that can be consumed is a safe gift (keep in mind allergies and dietary restrictions).  Homemade is best, otherwise make sure that whatever you’re getting them is something you love. Other great consumable options include a nice bottle of wine or alcohol, or a candle. 

Another safe gift is a necessity that doesn’t take up a lot of space. For example, socks. Everyone needs socks, but not everyone buys themselves nice ones. That’s the key - they have to be good quality. Don’t buy some cheap, silly pair of socks that the person won’t enjoy wearing. Pick out a sporty Balega, a comfy Bombas, or a really nice dress sock. Socks are awesome. 

Quality over Quantity

It’s Christmas Day. I sit on the couch and my mother-in-law places three enormous shopping bags full of wrapped presents at my feet. I am overwhelmed by her generosity. 

It feels like the unwrapping will never end, but when it does, I’m left with a few gifts that I’m really excited about, and a lot of stuff that I wish I didn’t have to take home with me. 

Gifts should not be burdens. Parents seem to struggle the most with this idea of quantity over quality, but there’s no need to emulate the Dursley family in Harry Potter. Just because Vernon and Petunia got their son, Dudley, 37 presents for his birthday last year does not mean that they need to get him 38 presents for his birthday this year. That is stupid.

Dudley Dursley in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

But parents tend to base their gift-giving off whatever they did the previous year, as if they have to live up to the amount of gifts or someone might be disappointed. 

To my mom and my mother-in-law: We are not disappointed. It’s too much. We don’t want it. We don’t need it. I promise. Focus more on the really good gifts. 

Really good gifts are simply the ones you’re the most excited to give. 

Let the bad gifts go

Be a better gift receiver and you will become a better gift giver. Don’t keep bad gifts just because someone special in your life gave it to you. Send them a nice thank you note and be done with it. Give the gift to someone you know will like it, exchange it, donate it, or throw it out. Just get it out of your home.

In her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Maria Kondo says that our possessions have feelings just as we do. 

“What do the things in our home that don’t spark joy actually feel? I think they simply want to leave. Lying forgotten in your closet, they know better than anyone else that they are not bringing joy to you now. Make your parting a ceremony to launch them on a new journey. Celebrate this occasion with them. I truly believe that our possessions are even happier and more vibrant when we let them go.”

Don’t feel guilty about letting something go. If your possessions don’t bring you joy, then they’re weighing you down. Would you rather have an item you hate on display when your mother-in-law comes over so that her feelings aren’t hurt, or have a sense of pride and ownership over everything in your home?

Sam and I asked Mom for big ramen bowls. Christmas morning, I opened a set of very shallow bowls. It’s not what we wanted. Or needed.

So Sam and I took them to the store and exchanged them for a set of four large, beautiful ramen bowls. I sent Mom pictures and said thank you and we love them. Did this hurt her feelings? It sure did. Do we regret doing it? Absolutely not. We use them all the time!

Thoughtful Thoughts

Your new gift-giving capabilities start now. Create that note in your phone and write down ideas as they strike you. It might even be for a person that you’re not planning on getting a gift for. Better yet, make a note for yourself, too. That’s right, gifts for you. Sometimes the things we want for ourselves make the best gifts (and now when your parents ask what you want, you can give them specific items that you really need).

We threw out the blurry pictures from my aunt. Still trying to decide if we’re going to use the frame. It might be the perfect size for the colorful Quidditch poster we want to hang in the nursery. But if it’s not, we’ll donate it. We’ll send the picture frame off on its next journey, and all of us will be happier because of it.