With holidays right around the corner, there are almost as many gift guides as shoppers searching for gifts!
With good reason—American consumers are set to spend around $1000 during the holiday season on purchases for an average of 14 friends and loved ones.
If you’re lucky, most of the recipients on your list are folks whose tastes you’re familiar with (and comfortable shopping for).
But, the chances are that you’re bound to be buying for at least a couple of distant family members or individuals who leave you drawing a blank.
To help guide you through the gift-giving season and ensure you don’t spend on gifts that’ll go to waste, we asked Lisa Bader, the Chief Gift Giver at Wrap with Love, for insight on six common mistakes that make for misguided (or downright awful) gifts.
1. Don’t Give Gifts That Are Clearly Your Taste—Not Theirs
You see a sequined sweater that you’d just love to have, so you make the assumption that your friend will love it too. The only problem? Her closet is filled with Lands End and reflects a completely different sense of style.
It’s easy to make an example of clothing when it comes to a category that can all too easily reflect personal tastes, but this rule can just as easily apply to pieces of art, knick-knacks, or even books.
“If you love something so much, buy it for yourself and then get the person you’re shopping for something else,” suggests Lisa.
Ask yourself, are you shopping with your tastes in mind because you’re unsure as to their likes and personal style? There are a few tricks to take the guesswork out of holiday gift giving.
First, make a list of all the things that person is interested in, writing down as many things as you can. Instead of trying to buy with a single interest in mind, see if you can combine two or more for a gift that shows real thought.
If you’re still fresh out of ideas, look to the past for inspiration. Did the person you’re shopping for recently graduate? If so, perhaps you could frame his or her diploma for display. Are they a doting pet owner? Try and get a photo that could be turned into an original painting by a local artist.
2. Steer Clear of Gifts That Could Be Construed as Insulting
We’re often privy to our closest friends and loved one’s insecurities and hopes to do better. While it’s tempting to give gifts that reflect a person’s aspirations for self-improvement, doing so can come off as ham-fisted.
“This could be a gym membership to an overweight friend, perfume or cologne for someone who doesn’t usually wear any, or a bottle of scotch for the co-worker who’s trying to quit drinking,” explains Lisa.
Along those lines, avoid giving books that can be found in the self-help section. Bottom line: No one wants to hear that you think they could be doing better, even if they’ve disclosed the idea to you before.
Instead of giving a gift that reflects who they want to be, try to focus on picking something out that they need.
Think that your giftee already has everything? The key is to think broader.
If you’re shopping for someone who’s too busy to take time out for themselves, try to think of a gift that could help them enjoy more free time—or make the time they have more enjoyable, such as audio books for a long commute. Shopping for a student? Try to put together a college survival kit.
Thinking about their needs on a higher level will help to unstick your creativity and give you a better view of what could make a great gift.
3. Never Give Kids a Gift That Will Cause Their Parents Grief
“When shopping for a child, be sure to never, ever gift an item that their parents might object to,” states Lisa. “That includes toys that could be construed as dangerous, such as BB guns, adult-rated movies, and video games, or, of course, pet.”
Pets, in particular, are a never a good idea. Unless you’re picking up Spot or Kitty for your family, stay away from this surprise gift.
Sure, having a puppy or kitten magically appear on Christmas morning is memorable and wonderful. But what about the day after that? And the day after that? Having a pet is a lifelong commitment, and it’s not something that should be forced on someone without their knowledge and consent.
While we’ve all been tempted to play the role of “cool” adult and gift a child something that they wouldn’t get from mom and dad, doing so just adds stress to the holiday season and can strain relationships during an already busy time.
4. Avoid Generic Gifts That Show You’re Clueless to Their Personal Preferences
“There’s nothing wrong with gift cards. But, before you gift a prepaid card for iTunes, make sure that the recipient doesn’t prefer Android,” suggests Lisa.
Similarly, got a spare tin of peanut brittle? Make sure that your neighbor doesn’t have a peanut allergy.
Another group of gifts that falls under this “don’t” are school and office supplies. Unless the pen is special or the notebook reflects a sentiment of encouraging someone who loves writing, then avoid giving supplies as gifts.
Lisa says, “No one wants to unwrap a present and find a pack of Post-Its waiting for them—no matter what color they are.”
It’s not to say that gifts need to be personalized to be appreciated. But, at the minimum, make sure that you’re not giving something a giftee might expressly dislike.
5. Don’t Give Politically Charged Gifts No Matter Your Party’s Views
Given the election results, Lisa predicts that there will be even more politically charged gifts such as t-shirts, hats, etc. than in previous years. “I would encourage people to stay away from them in an effort to have a more harmonious holiday season, no matter what their political affiliation or leanings,” she suggests.
Even if you know that the recipient shares similar views, consider the feelings of family members or friends who might be around during the unwrapping—and that you might stir up an unwelcome controversy.
6. Check With Parents Before Buying the Season’s Hottest Toy
“If a toy is hot, or involves a particular character, check with the parents first,” says Lisa. It can be a bummer to give a Spiderman toy to a kid who opens it and says, “But I like Batman.”
And, while it feels awful to have a gift flop, buying the year’s hit toy for a child might mean something worse: Undermining their parent’s efforts.
» Related: 7 Tips for Holiday Toy Safety
For example, certain gifts such as that first bicycle or an American Girl doll or bicycle, are iconic enough that parents should get the first chance to give them.
“The best thing to do when buying for kids is to check with parents first, lest you beat Santa to the punch,” says Lisa. The parents may be happy to hand off the privilege to you, especially for big-ticket items, but always ask first if the gift you are considering falls into this category.
The Secret to Giving a Great Gift Every Time?
As Chief Gift Giver, Lisa’s chock-full of good advice—not just on which gifts to avoid—but on how to pick out a gift that resonates.
Her first lesson? Approach the opportunity to give a gift as a privilege, not a chore.
“The fact that you’re looking for a gift means you’re fortunate enough to have someone in your life you care so much about you want to give them something in celebration of a special moment in their life,” she says.
Approach the opportunity to give a gift as a privilege, not a chore.
By simply shifting your perspective into one that views finding a gift as an act of love, you discover that your creative juices start flowing.
From the mindset of gratitude that you get to show those you love that you care, here’s Lisa’s foremost tip on how to give a great gift: Give them what they want.
Research conducted by Professors Francis Flynn of Stanford University and Francesca Gino of Harvard University found that when people specified a gift they would like to receive, they were much more satisfied when they received the item they had requested versus something else.
Why would anyone bypass a giftee’s wish list? According to Lisa, we sometimes feel pressure to think “outside the box,” and come up with gifts that are more creative than just fulfilling what’s been requested.
However, the study found a significant difference in perception between givers and receivers. It turns out that those giftees whose wish lists were granted viewed the giver as “thoughtful and considerate.” And, those who tried to give an avant-garde item? Not so much.
» See Also: Five Holiday Gifts You Should Never Buy Generic
Remember, Great Gifts Don’t Just Happen! You Need a Game Plan
Even with pockets full of gratitude that we have people in our lives to give to, I think we can all agree that gift shopping can be a little stressful.
However, most truly awful gifts could have been avoided with a little planning.
“Trying to buy a gift without a game plan would be like inviting friends over for dinner, but having no clue what to serve, when or where you would go grocery shopping, what sort of prep was necessary and whether you’d eat in the dining room, at the kitchen island or in the backyard,” says Lisa.
Instead, approach gift giving with these questions in mind:
Why are you giving the gift? Not just because it’s Christmas and you feel obligated, but think about your relationship with this person or what they bring to your life, and how you’d like to celebrate that.
How do you want them to feel? Consider your relationship and their interests. Are you giving to a friend who likes to feel inspired to try new things? Do they have a burgeoning talent that you could feed? Or, are you hoping to sweep your partner off their feet?
How can I combine my idea with another? Got a friend with a thirst for new books and a sense of humor? Get them a Kindle and load it up with a few books they’ll enjoy.
Once you’ve got an idea in mind, you’re only halfway done. What could be left? Don’t forget to check reviews.
Whether you are shopping in a store or online, reading the reviews can help you determine if a gift is made with quality and answer any remaining questions about whether or not it’s the right fit.
At HighYa, you can find reviews in popular gift categories like Entertainment, Home & Garden, or Products & Services.
If we don’t have the review that you’re looking for, Amazon likely offers consumer feedback on any product you have in mind—just be sure you know how to spot a fake review among the real ones. (Hint: Don’t put too much stock in one or two reviews, whether glowing or negative.)
» See Also: 5 Best Websites for Thoughtful Christmas Gifts
If You Still Can’t Think of a Gift, Cash or Cards Are Always Appreciated
In a list of gift gaffes, one might assume that cash or gift cards would top the list of “don’ts.” That’s because givers often worry that giving cash or gift cards might be seen as impersonal, thoughtless or crass.
It turns out that assumption is all wrong.
Research published by Washington University in St Louis shows that recipients prefer these more versatile gifts more than givers think they do. And, contrary to givers’ expectations, recipients think that these less personal gifts are more thoughtful, too.
Which means gift cards don’t only get you off the hook for grabbing something in a time crunch, they’re equally appreciated as a thoughtful gift.
Check Out Our Holiday Gift Guide for Even More Inspiration
Are you determined to go a step beyond gift cards or cash and get creative with your giving, but still feel plum out of ideas?
Head over to HighYa’s 2018 Holiday Guide, where you’ll find tips and tricks on finding great gifts and extra ways to save when shopping.