How to Determine the Perfect Gift for Anyone: An Expert’s Guide

Have you ever heard that money can’t buy happiness? Turns out that the conventional saying might not be true.

Thanks to MRI technology, researchers performing a study on charitable giving were able to learn that the area of our brain which is responsible for pleasure (the midbrain region) lights up when we give.

In layman’s terms, this means that money can buy you happiness—as long as you don’t spend it on yourself.

Giving gifts might bring happiness, but there’s a catch. The average holiday shopper is buying for 14 recipients this season, and trying to figure out what to get everyone on your list can bring a whole lot of stress!

Because scientists still haven’t figured out how to determine the perfect gift for your sister-in-law, coworker, or best friend, we’re here to pick up the slack and help you achieve the status of expert gift giver in just a few simple steps.

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 your giftee loves to do in their free time.
  • Items or products that they use frequently.
  • Keepsakes that you know they cherish.
  • Their favorite indulgences.

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

Most people have a wishlist on Amazon, and they’ll be pretty surprised and delighted if you somehow found just the thing they wanted without even asking—and that they may have even forgotten they wanted themselves.

You can also look through their Facebook history for clues. After all, how many people have posted something and gone "OMG I need this!" before? Probably most of us.

Additionally, if they have a Pinterest account, that’s a goldmine of all their tastes and anything they could possibly desire.

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

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

Of course, this is only step number one, since most people already own stuff that complements their interests. So, while this is a helpful first step, stopping here often leaves you feeling stuck for ideas. Never fear! The following steps are your secret weapon to selecting the perfect gift. 

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, gifts are meant to delight and bring joy.

Related: Holiday Gift Guide: It’s Worth It to Pay More for These 5 Items

With that in mind, a key aspect of picking out a perfect present is going a step beyond. We should clarify that “splurging” doesn’t directly mean spending more. Nor are we 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 giftee might not consider selecting for themselves.

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

You’ve got an idea of what your giftee might like (Step One) and you’re prepared to go the extra mile (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—great gifts deliver two on two out of these three. 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 your efforts to think of a gift that combines two of the three attributes listed above are coming up short, or are out 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 is 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 giftee 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.

Need Some Extra Help? We Asked a Professional Shopper for Tips for the Perfect Gift

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

How does Lisa decide on what would make an extraordinary present? She uses these questions to determine the question 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 lives 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 stores will have online gift catalogs that are meant to appeal to their biggest fans and offer safe bets for gift givers.

See Also: 9 Great Gift Ideas for Someone Who Loves Travel

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, Get Creative With Packaging

Rather than just handing them a gift in regular wrapping paper, turn it into an experience they will enjoy. 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.


Want to Learn Expert Tips for Online Safety?

Join over 3 million HighYa readers who receive weekly how-to guides, tips & reviews and get a FREE COPY of our Complete Online Safety e-book. Enter your email below to get started!