Do you struggle over choosing the right presents for the people you care about? There are smart ways to make that struggle just a little bit easier. I've spent my whole adult life as one of those present-givers who obsesses over finding the right presents for people--even people I don't know that well--until I've honed gift selection into something of a martial art. If you've ever wondered how people who pick out really good presents do it, here are 11 insider tips that will help you do the same.

1. Pay attention to the things they buy for themselves.

Even the most no-nonsense, frugal people have a few luxuries they like to indulge in--or dream of indulging in. What does your gift recipient collect coupons for? Fantasize about? Browse over in catalogs? Those are all clues to the perfect present.

2. Consider out the gifts they give others.

I've always noticed that the presents people choose for their friends, family, and co-workers provide insight into their own hearts' desires. When it comes to presents, most people truly do unto others as they would have others do unto them. So take careful note of the presents your recipient has given as an indicator of what they want.

3. Use inside operatives.

I use this tactic frequently, because most people have spouses, friends, or parents who'd be delighted to tell you what their loved ones most want as a present. This is how I find out, for instance, that my stepson, a master carpenter, really coveted a stand-up toolbox for his birthday something I could never have guessed on my own.

4. Observe what's needed.

One year at a friend's Christmas gathering, there was an awkward moment when the celebrants opened a bottle of wine and there were no wineglasses. The following year, it happened again--only this time my husband and I handed her our Christmas present. Guess what was inside?

5. Check out their design choices.

While you're using your powers of observation, please don't forget to make careful note of what colors and styles your recipient favors for clothing, jewelry, accessories, and decor. A year ago, we stayed with some good friends and noted they'd redone their kitchen with a modern, sleek design, and bought new square dishware in the green/gold/brown family of colors. So as a thank-you present we picked out a large handmade bowl in that color scheme and with geometric lines that reminded us of their new look. We returned a year later to find them using that bowl for everything from dinner salads to Halloween candy.

6. Check out what they do for fun.

What does your recipient do in off hours? If they love to travel, consider a travel accessory. If they love to cook, consider a professional-level cooking implement or perhaps a particularly fine olive oil or sea salt.

7. Give an experience instead of an object.

A gift certificate for a nice dinner out, a spa treatment, an outing, or other fun excursion can make a wonderful present if it matches your recipient's ideas of how to have a good time. Don't limit yourself to physical things when present shopping. Experience gifts can be especially effective for people who have too many things or small living space.

8. Solve a problem.

Is something annoying your recipient for which you know the correct solution? You need to be careful with this one--you don't want your present to seem like an implicit criticism. But a really nice kitchen knife to replace that old dull serrated blade, for instance, could be a welcome and useful present.

9. Review their social media.

The things people post online can often give you great ideas as to the right presents for them. A year ago, I had to come up with a thank-you present for a hard-working ASJA volunteer whom I didn't know very well. Asking around about what he might like didn't help, so I resorted to reading his blog. And there it was: multiple mentions of sitting and working in a favorite coffee house in his home town. I got him a gift certificate to that coffee house.

10. Tap your special expertise.

Are you the only person in your family who follows the latest consumer technology trends? Knows anything about fine wine? Reads all the latest books and book reviews? Use your special knowledge to find a present that perfectly matches your recipient but that he or she wouldn't have known to choose.

11. Personalize the impersonal.

There will be times when there's no good choice except to give someone a gift card. If that happens, so be it, but don't just give a gift card. Make it personal by enclosing it in a special box you've picked out, between the paws of a stuffed animal, at the bottom of a bowl of pom-poms or...you get the idea. One year, I had to give my husband some money so he could buy the disposable contact lenses he'd been wanting. So I went to work with a shoe box, some old magazines and a pair of scissors and created a box with hundreds of pictures of eyes all over it. If you give it a little thought, you can make even the most utilitarian present unique and fun.

Published on: Dec 7, 2014
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