How to buy the best gifts with less money and time

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There’s a popular holiday myth I’d like to dispel. Here’s how it works: You stumble across a novel gift that you intuitively know you need to buy for your best friend, family member, or loved one. It’s something you wouldn’t have thought of buying yourself – it might even be one-of-a-kind. It can’t be so expensive that it’s embarrassing, but it has to be special and enjoyable. If they get it, it’s them delighted. “You know me so well!” they exclaim. And they cherish it forever.

You try to think about the last time this happened, but it’s difficult because in many cases the answer is never. So instead of chasing that perfect gift, cut the bullshit and just ask people what they want. Crucially, you must do the same in return. In fact, you should probably do it first to break the ice.

(A quick note: this does not apply to Everyone. No need to request a wish list from your favorite co-workers; You can just give them a nice candle or homemade cookies and end the day. I’m talking about the high pressure gifts here – the ones that usually require more research and money.)

I know this may seem ridiculous. We are not children writing to Santa; We are adults and Christmas gifts are meant to be fun. Why are you making it so transactional? Where’s the element of surprise? And to that I say this: Don’t just rely on me. Several studies have shown that people are more grateful when they receive gifts that they specifically requested than gifts that the giver personally chose.

I should also add that being more direct in saying what you want and asking others to do the same saves everyone valuable time – the best gift of all, especially at this time of year. It also saves people money on gifts that nobody wanted.

Now that you’re on board, here’s how to do it.

1. Send a simple email (or text, whatsapp, whatever).

Every year my family sends out a group email with our Christmas wishes. Everyone answers – each with their own list. We each include links to specific items, including sizes and colors where applicable. Then we define who buys what in the sidebar. (Father will say he bought my mother the books she requested etc.)

This strategy has its disadvantages. The older members in the group (hi, mom) tend to reply to everyone when they’ve bought something for someone, rather than rejecting that person. But overall it works.

If your family (or chosen family) has never done this before, it doesn’t have to be weird. You could just send a simple message like, “Hi, to make Christmas shopping a little easier, I’d like to know what you’re looking for this year. I’ve listed some things I’ve had my eye on lately below. Links are welcome. I hope this is helpful!” or “Hello. If you don’t tell me what you want for Christmas, you’ll get something I’ll panic buy at the eleventh hour. To save me the unnecessary expense of expedited shipping and to save you the trip to the post office to return the gift, please provide me with instructions. In that sense I would like to have an air fryer.”

Some retailers – including Amazon – have a “Wish List” feature that allows you to create a wish list for yourself, whatever the occasion. Other sites have “hint” buttons that you can use to email your loved ones a link to something you want. These are all acceptable in my opinion, but others might find it a little aggressive. You know your audience best, so use your judgment.

2. Add a series of price points.

It goes without saying that you don’t want to pressure anyone into buying you something they can’t afford. (Or anything at all—gifts should be voluntary.) So make sure your list is, as they say, “accessible.” For example, this year I’m asking for a nice set of nail clippers, some books, and some kitchen supplies. In the past, I’ve listed places I’d like gift certificates for (my yoga studio, a popular local restaurant). That way, if someone wants to be extra generous, they can scale up or down fairly easily.

According to a recent Gallup poll, Americans plan to spend an average of $932 on gifts this Christmas. Another survey found that more than a third of Americans take on debt during the holiday season; those who end up owing more than $1,000 in travel, gifts, and entertainment. Do with it what you will, but I’m guessing you don’t want your loved ones to start January with money stress, so be sensitive.

3. Respect the “I don’t want anything!” response.

People say that all the time for different reasons. Sometimes they try to be polite; sometimes they really don’t know what they want. Alternatively her really can’t want anything. I can relate to all of these, especially the last one; It can be stressful when a bunch of random things are planted on me, no matter how well intentioned.

Still, you might not want to show up empty-handed, especially if the gift-denier got she some. The best way to deal with this is to ask more specific questions: “What kind of wine do you like?” Or, “If I could get you a gift certificate, is there a local business you’d like to support?” Or my personal favorite : “If I were to donate to a charity on your behalf, which one would you choose?”

4. Keep the surprise effect.

A big part of the magic of gift giving is the anticipation and ceremony of it. Also, some people really love a creative gesture. Giving them exactly what they asked for doesn’t ruin this. That’s what wrapping paper is for! You can always give them what they want (a coffee maker) and then defect with a little extra (a mug with your face on it). There are plenty of ways to be smart with gifts without having to scroll to the bottom of the internet and spend more than you should. Happy Holidays!

Charlotte Cowles, The Cut’s financial advice columnist, answers personal questions from readers about personal finance. Email your money puzzles to [email protected]


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