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15 Holiday Shopping Do's and Don’ts

I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.

Gift-giving should be a joyous experience for both the giver and the recipient.

Gift-giving should be a joyous experience for both the giver and the recipient.

Are you a terrible gift-giver? Have you run out of ideas after buying for the same people year after year? Are you ready to just give out cash and be done with it?

The holidays are already stressful enough. Shopping for gifts only adds to that stress if you don't know what to buy. Feelings can get hurt with even the best of intentions if your recipient doesn't like their gift and is unable to mask their disappointment with fake gratitude, or if your gift comes across as cheap, offensive, or lacking in thoughtfulness.

Below are 15 do's and don'ts spanning gift suggestions, places to shop for gifts, and things to keep in mind when shopping for a variety of people—from your closest relatives to the person whose name you draw out of the Secret-Santa hat at work.

Be on the look out for old or worn items that your gift recipients could use.

Be on the look out for old or worn items that your gift recipients could use.

1. Do Listen to What People Want and Need Throughout the Year

Unless you are playing Santa for your kids, asking someone the week before their birthday or a holiday, "What do you want me to get you?" nine times out of ten, you’ll get the polite, “You don’t have to get me anything,” or the much more blunt, “I don’t need nothing.”

Those who do tell you want they want or need will most likely ask for something very specific and typically outside your price range, especially kids. Then, you’re really on the spot.

A better method is to just listen to what people want or need. Check their social media to see if they are posting about a particular item or store. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and find an “I want this" post.

When you're talking to your gift recipient in person, listen for offhand remarks like, “My toaster always burns bagels,” or “I broke my favorite mug yesterday” or “I’m really into succulents right now.” Usually, the person isn’t saying this to drop hints that they want this type of present from you. So you have to listen for these ideas and make a note to look for that type of gift for them.

Not only do you increase your chances of buying a gift that they will like, but you will show them that you were really listening when they were talking. That appreciation adds value to the gift that you can't buy at the store.

Put some thought into your gift card selections.

Put some thought into your gift card selections.

2. Don't Buy Gift Cards to Places Where They Don’t Shop

Don't get me wrong, I'm not dumping on gift cards. Gift cards are a decent gift, but they still need some thought put into them. If you’re going to get a gift card, at least ensure that it's one they are going to use.

Even better, don’t go for the generic Visa or Amazon gift card. Pick a restaurant that they only go to once a year or their favorite hobby store, somewhere that feels like a splurge, not a place where they’re just going to pick up groceries or batteries.

If you know that they are planning on buying a big-ticket item after the holidays at a particular store, buy it for that store to put towards their large purchase. They may even be able to upgrade their big screen TV or a new refrigerator as a result.

If they have a road trip planned, get them a gas card to cover their fuel costs. Just don’t pick a place that they’ve never gone to before or somewhere out of the way. If you’re going to get a movie card, make sure it's for a movie chain that's close by.

Also, make sure that the dollar amount is appropriate for the type of gift card that you are giving so that it doesn't just become a glorified coupon that they have to put towards a large purchase.

Shop for their style, not yours.

Shop for their style, not yours.

3. Do Shop for Their Tastes—Not Yours

Think about the gift receiver’s favorite things. Do they have a favorite show, movie, city, cartoon character? Look for gifts that feature these themes. They can be as tasteful or tacky as that person’s personality. That doesn't necessarily mean it coincides with your personal preferences.

If your grandma loves leopard print, get the leopard print top over the plain one. Does your dad only like a particular brand of shoes? Get him that brand. Think about what they would like and in what style they would like it. If your sister loves Paris, think about whether she would she like earrings shaped like the Eiffel Tower, or would she rather just have a canvas painting of the city on her wall?

Whatever you do, don't try to get them interested in your hobbies and interests through a gift. Your wife isn't going to want a pink fishing rod if she's never fished a day in her life. Your husband isn't going to want a pair of skinny jeans if he's always worn boot cut. Gift-giving isn't the time to make people try new things. It's about appealing to their tastes and preferences.

Supplement your gift with lottery tickets. Don't make them the main event.

Supplement your gift with lottery tickets. Don't make them the main event.

4. Don't Give Out Only Lottery Tickets

I’ve given out lottery tickets before. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I don’t do it anymore. Lottery tickets make a good stocking stuffer, but unless you are just embellishing a Christmas card for a casual acquaintance, do not just hand a person a stack of lottery cards. Chances are they won’t win much besides a free ticket, which will turn out to be a dud.

Even hardcore lottery players would rather pick their own scratchers or just play the numbers. This is especially true if you have no luck with lottery tickets yourself.

5. Do Ask Parents What to Buy Their Children

Are you the cool aunt or uncle who doesn’t have children but has kids to buy for on their shopping list? If so, don’t try to guess at what the kids will want. You might end up buying something that their parents already got them. You might get the age bracket wrong. You might even get something that the kid isn’t even into.

To avoid looking foolish, or even igniting a meltdown, just ask the parents what you should get the kids or at least have them point you in the right direction. And don't just ask to see their list. Just get them to tell you what the kids are into lately. It might not be the most creative approach, but it's the safest.

Picking up any old Christmas village piece leads to a mess of a Christmas village collection.

Picking up any old Christmas village piece leads to a mess of a Christmas village collection.

6. Don't Bother With Knick Knacks

Unless you know that a person is looking for a particular piece for their collection, just picking up a snow globe, Christmas village house, or porcelain doll is going to collect dust or sit in a closet until it's thrown away. Teachers especially seem to get the same little Christmas ornaments and decorations from each class of students they teach.

They alone must keep the bubble wrap and storage facility companies in business. Instead, give them gifts that are meant to be used up, like shower gel or pistachios, and leave the Christmas ornaments alone.

Dig through the clearance bins whenever possible to see if there's any gold in there.

Dig through the clearance bins whenever possible to see if there's any gold in there.

7. Do Shop Early and Year-Round

Don’t wait until the night before to pick up a gift for somebody. Whether you shop online or in stores or both, if you see something that someone you know would like, pick it up and save it for the next holiday.

Buy multiples or different versions of the same item if you know of more than one person who would like it. This is especially true of seasonal and discounted items. I am constantly accumulating gifts that I see when I'm just browsing, whether it's socks, kitchen tools, beauty items, etc. I usually get a good deal on them and can give out higher-end items without breaking my budget.

Buy gift baskets if you want to pay a fortune for a collection of half-empty boxes and Easter grass.

Buy gift baskets if you want to pay a fortune for a collection of half-empty boxes and Easter grass.

8. Don't Buy Gift Baskets

Gift baskets are pricey and not worth your time. The photos suggest a giant basket filled with food, but as someone who worked in an office for 10 years where we would get several of these at Christmastime, I can tell you that the entire basket is filled with cardboard or Styrofoam with just a few pieces of fruit or boxes of candy, nuts, or cheese sitting on top.

The candy usually comes in boxes containing 2–4 pieces, never enough to go around. The crackers and cookies are generic. The jellies and cheeses are hit or miss.

Fruit baskets aren’t much better. You’re lucky to get six pieces of fruit in the entire basket for $30 plus shipping. Plus, you have to order well in advance to get it delivered before the holiday.

Edible Arrangements are always fun to get, and the fruit itself is usually a welcome reprieve from the chocolate Santas and gingerbread men you've been binging on all month long, but they have to be eaten quickly, and they too can be super pricey, especially if you want one that is a decent size and contains at least one chocolate-covered fruit.

So, while these are convenient gifts for companies to hand out, make your grandma a gift basket with food that you know she likes, and fill the entire basket fuller than these companies do.

This unique shower curtain is a fun but practical gift for science nerds.

This unique shower curtain is a fun but practical gift for science nerds.

9. Do Buy a Unique Version of Something Practical

Adults often buy things that they need when they need them. So buying practical items can seem like a safe bet, but it’s also not a very creative one. You’re essentially buying something that they could have bought themselves and probably not in the color or style that they would have picked.

If you’re going to go the practical route, maybe buy the higher-end version of that item or one with a design they would like that they probably wouldn’t get themselves if they are in a “practical shopping mode.”

For instance, if your mom needs a new shower curtain, and she loves Minnie Mouse, buy a Minnie Mouse-themed shower curtain. Make sure it matches her bathroom color scheme too. The same goes for bath towels, kitchen accessories, and other home furnishings and office supplies.

This should not be your go-to place for gifts.

This should not be your go-to place for gifts.

10. Don't Just Give a Gag Gift

Gag gifts can be funny, but it’s not funny when the receiver realizes that’s all they’re getting. Gag gifts will be funny for one day. Then they’re put away and never looked at again. They waste your money and show that you put very little thought into buying for that person. At the very worst, you can offend them.

A better alternative is a fake-out gag gift, like wrapping a kid’s toy to make it look like something dull, like a chair or snow shovel or finding those joke boxes that look like you’re giving them a vacuum cleaner. A gag gift can be a cute, smaller gift if you can’t help yourself, but make sure you have something real to hand them when the joke is over.

11. Do Stock Up on Stocking Stuffers

Always keep bags of candy, Chapstick, hand lotion, picture frames, notebooks, nail files, office supplies, and other small, generic items that you can give out to co-workers, Secret Santa recipients, or just to even to reach a specific dollar amount that you intended to spend on a particular person.

Try to get creative with these small gifts. Make sure they are brand name items, unique, gender-neutral, and will be useful in some way. If you know someone who sells Avon or something similar, sign up for their weekly emails so that you have constant access to deals on these small items.

A face you can't help but make when you are given a re-gifted gift.

A face you can't help but make when you are given a re-gifted gift.

12. Don't Re-Gift

There are different schools of thought on this practice, but my stance is clear: Don’t re-gift items! If you were given a gift that you don’t want, return it right away or give it away as a “just because” gesture.

Or have a re-gifting party where people are asked to bring something that they already own and want to give away. That way, certain people aren’t actually paying for gifts while others are just pulling some unwanted item out of their closet.

Re-gifting makes you look cheap. It can offend the person that gave you the gift to begin with if they find out that you wrapped it up for somebody else. And chances are, it’s not something that anyone else would want to have either.

13. Do Consider Homemade and Personalized Gifts

You don’t necessarily have to be a Pinterest master, but homemade gifts are usually hits with artsy or creative people. Can you knit blankets, hats, or scarves, draw or paint, or copy easy crafts from tutorials that you find online? If so, buy some supplies and get to work early so that you have time to finish them.

One year, I drew and framed cityscapes for each of my co-workers for Christmas. This is especially useful when the price range is low, and your skills are high.

If you're looking for higher-end homemade gifts, browse Etsy to see if there are any artists on there who make gifts themed around the interests of the people on your lists. Music, book, and nerd culture are very prevalent themes on Etsy. They are also detailed and very professional-looking items. You just have to check out early so that your item has time to ship.

If you have someone on your list who likes personalized gifts, Walmart has an entire section where you can buy items with personalized photos added to them, such as blankets, calendars, coasters, and even wall art. You just upload a favorite picture or set of pictures, choose your item and size, and the item ships for free.

They also have great deals on photo prints so that you can create your own albums or personalized items.

Others like monogrammed items. L.L. Bean is a great place to go for monogrammed bags, clothes, and other items. To the right person, the perfect gift just needs to have their name or initials stitched onto it.

Tickets or season passes are a great idea if it's in your budget.

Tickets or season passes are a great idea if it's in your budget.

14. Don't Forget to Look Into Buying Tickets

Some people don’t want “stuff.” They want experiences. Adults especially don’t need toys that they can play with on Christmas morning. They’d like something to look forward to in the future.

Look into tickets for their favorite sporting events, concerts, or shows that they might like to go to later in the year. Of course, you are typically confined to a limited price range and available events on sale at that time of year, but it’s always worth it to browse Ticketmaster to peruse your options. There may be holiday discounts or early bird specials for events that someone on your list would like to attend.

Another option is a year-long pass to museums, amusement parks, or other local attractions. If it's a place that needs a reservation, book one in advance. Make the gift pay off after the tree and lights are put away until next year.

15. Do Check Out Subscription Boxes

There are so many subscription boxes out there, and even if there are ones that capture your interest, you are unlikely to buy them for yourself. The same goes for the people on your shopping list.

Subscription boxes can contain beauty supplies, movies, books, t-shirts, razors, wine, and dozens of themes for dozens of interests. If you can think of a subscription box theme that someone would like, Google it. They often offer discounts to first time buyers or those who listen to particular podcasts that are sponsored by the service.

They can be pricey too, so look at different subscription rates. Maybe they have a one or three-month sample supply that fits your budget.

Good Luck With Your Holiday Shopping!

I hope these tips help to make your holiday shopping less stressful, even for the hardest people to buy for. Every year, holiday shopping gets tougher and tougher, but there are always ideas out there, whether you shop online, in-store, or through catalogs. Keep calm, and good luck!

What are your gift-giving tips? What’s the worst gift you’ve ever given or received? The best? The funniest? Leave your answers in the comments below!

© 2018 Laura Smith


Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on November 22, 2018:

All good suggestions. I like the one about shopping throughout the year. Shopping for the recipient's and not the giver's taste is very important. Thanks.