How to Determine the Perfect Gift for Anyone: Step-By-Step Guide & Expert Tips

It turns out that money can buy happiness—as long as you don’t spend it on yourself. How so?

Using MRI technology, a 2013 study on charitable giving found that the region of the brain responsible for pleasure (the midbrain) lights up when we give to others—but there’s a catch.

This holiday season, the average shopper is buying gifts for 14 people, and it’s no secret that trying to figure out what to get everyone can lead to stress. But often times, this stress can reach a point where it outweighs any of the ‘feel-good’ benefits otherwise offered by the act of giving.

To help ease this stress and potentially bring more joy to your holiday gifting experience, here are four easy steps to determine the perfect gift for anyone.

Step 1: Write Down Their Hobbies and Interests

Ask yourself, “What do they do with their free time?” Are they a fan of DIY crafts or are they more likely to be found sipping chardonnay while reading this week’s best seller? It’s old hat, but spending two minutes writing down a list that includes:

  • What the recipient loves to do in their free time.
  • Items or products they use frequently.
  • Keepsakes you know they cherish.
  • Their favorite indulgences (foods, sweets, etc.).

Don’t know the answers to those questions? It’s time to do some internet stalking (of the safe kind).

You can start by searching Amazon for their wish list, since most people have one these days. Think how surprised they’d be to find out you magically got exactly what they wanted, without even asking!

Need more insight? Their Facebook history can hold valuable clues as to products they might be interested in. After all, most of us have posted about a product that’s wowed us at some point, and would be thrilled to receive it as an unexpected gift, right?  

Additionally, if they have a Pinterest account, it can be a goldmine for learning about all their tastes and the kinds of gifts they might like to receive.

Related: The 6 Kinds of Christmas Gifts You Should Never Give

A quick pro-tip: When making your list, try writing down not only what they like, but why they like it—understanding their motivation for liking certain items will be useful insight further in step three.

But before we get there, we need to discuss important information in step two.

Step 2: Think About What Might Be Considered a “Splurge”

Let’s set something straight: Shopping for a gift isn’t the same as buying for yourself. That’s because, when we buy for ourselves, we often look for the best deal by selecting an item that offers more value than cost, while remaining within our budget.

On the other hand, since gifts are meant to bring delight and joy, don’t make scoring the best deal or a lower price your primary goal.

Related: Five Holiday Gifts You Should Never Buy Generic

We should clarify, though, that “splurging” doesn’t necessarily mean spending more. Also, we’re not implying that to be great, a gift should exceed your budget.

Only that, when shopping for gifts, you’re more likely to select something that will really wow them if you get in the mind frame of going the extra mile to seek out an item that your recipient might not consider selecting for themselves.

With this in mind, a key aspect of picking out a perfect present is going a step beyond, which we’ll explore more next. 

Step 3: Consider the Crossroads of Usefulness, Pleasure and Sentiment

You’ve got an idea of what your recipient might like (step one), and you're prepared to maintain focus on pleasure instead of price (step two). But, as we said above, “splurging” isn’t directly related to spending. So, how to determine what can make a good gift great?

Useful, pleasurable, or sentimental—all great gifts deliver on at least two of these three, and doing so will show that you really went above and beyond. Here are a few examples to get your creative juices flowing:

Are their winter gloves showing wear? Find them a new pair (useful) that’s lined in cashmere (pleasurable).

Do they have a treasured photo of a loved one or piece of art that’s yet to be hung? Sneakily get the measurements (useful), and pick up a frame that fits their taste so their keepsake can be displayed (sentimental).

Is their Kindle old enough that it barely holds a charge? Snag a newer model (useful) and stock it with a few favorite books (pleasurable), or write them a few thoughtful Christmas wishes in a document, convert it to a PDF, and upload that to the ebook reader (sentimental).

If you’re not sure which two attributes to pair, think back to the list you created in step one and consider why your recipient likes certain things. Do they favor items that make their life easier? Or, do they enjoy cultivating an image through articles of clothing and accessories from a particular name brand?

Once you have a solid grasp of what they value in the things they like most, it could be a straight shot to determining what just might make the perfect present. However, if you’re still feeling stuck, move on to the next step.

Step 4: Get an “A” for Effort

Traditional purchases don’t require much effort: You either shop online or in the store, buy an item, then wrap it.

However, if you’re coming up short in your efforts to think of a gift that combines two of the three attributes listed above, or are outside of your budget, consider putting in some figurative elbow grease instead by giving one of the following:

A Homemade Gift: Are you crafty and have a talent for making a particular item, such as handmade soaps, embroidered wall art, even chocolate chip cookies? Since homemade gifts cost little more than the materials and time spent making them, this can be a budget-friendly option.

To take your gift from thoughtful to exceptional, try to incorporate something that’s a reflection of what the recipient loves. This could be as simple as a favorite scent, memorializing a day you spent together in your preferred art, or whipping up your famous baked treats with a twist that appeals to their favorite flavors.

An Impossible-To-Find Gift: Never underestimate the value of good old-fashioned legwork when it comes to thinking of the perfect present. Is there something your giftee has been searching for? It could be a particular item that’s been discontinued, something that fits in a hard-to-fill space, or a little-known-but-handy device that compliments one of their favorite pastimes.

An Assembly-Required Gift: Are you on a serious budget but have a particularly useful skillset? Consider if there’s something that your recipient would love, but, due to their circumstances, type of transportation, or lack of ability to wield tools, they haven’t gotten around to purchasing or completing the task.

This could mean picking out and assembling a bookcase, purchasing and delivering a cord of wood, fixing something around the house that you’re adept at (just make sure it’s within your abilities!). After all, sometimes the best gift you can offer is your time and the ability to help someone in a way they need.

How to Find the Perfect Gift: Tips from a Professional Shopper

Lisa Bader is the Chief Gift Giver at Wrap With Love, a personal shopping service that offers gift coaching and helps to select extraordinary gifts for those you love.

How does Lisa decide what would make an extraordinary present? She uses these questions to make a determination in 15 minutes or less: 

1. What’s your relationship to giftee? Close friends, family members, and loved ones deserve the majority of your efforts, while co-workers and cousins can be gifted something simpler.

2. What do you want the gift to say? Consider the emotion you want your gift to elicit, whether it’s to inspire, make their life easier, remind them of a cherished memory, or show appreciation for being invited into their home.

3. What do you like most about this person? When you’re drawing a blank slate on ideas for giving, heading back to the basics and selecting something that celebrates what you love most about them is a safe bet.

4. What connects you both? Think beyond terms of how you met and consider the activities and interests that you have in common.

5. What’re the person’s three favorite stores? Gaining insight into a giftee’s established sense of style for personal or home decor items is a great way to get ideas. Often, these types of stores will have online gift catalogs meant to appeal to their biggest fans and offer safe bets for gift givers.

Still Need Help Thinking of a Gift? Take Them at Their Word

Lisa’s final question is the one she considers most important: Have they already told you what they want? If so, your best bet is to get it for them—it shows that you listened and remembered.

And, if not, it’s completely okay to just go ahead and ask.

However, sometimes those we are shopping for, give hints that aren’t so clear. Here’s Lisa’s insight on some common responses to the question of “What would you like for Christmas?”:

  • “I don’t want anything.” – Can you think of something sentimental for this person? If so, that’s a perfect fit! A runner-up is to make a donation in their name to a charity that helps a cause close to their heart.

  • “Don’t spend your money on me!” – A phrase most often uttered by older, well-meaning relatives. Get this person something sentimental, such as a memento of time you’ve shared together.

  • “Oh, I’m not sure…” – Grab this person a gift card from their favorite store and sleep soundly in the knowledge that you did your best.

Finally, Don’t Hold Back on Your Packaging Artistry

Regardless of the gift you selected, forget boring wrapping paper—turn giving into an experience they will enjoy—and remember! A few ideas from Reddit Gifts include:

And, that’s it. You’re now a fully-qualified expert gift giver. If you’re left wanting more holiday related tips, check out our comprehensive 2017 Holiday Guide.

Have a favorite go-to tactic for gifting ideas? Let us know in the comments below.

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.


Sign Up for HighYa Newsletter

Sign up for HighYa newsletter and get our best content delivered in your inbox as well as 3 free eBooks to help you save money and shop smarter. Enter your email below to get started!