The last two months of the year are a gift-giving crunch for our family and for many others. Not only do we have a child’s birthday coming up very soon, but the holiday season brings a number of gift exchanges with people from all over our life.
Naturally, we want to find meaningful gifts for all of these people. A last-minute gift given with little thought might solve a problem, but it doesn’t do anything to warm the heart when it is given or when it is received like a thoughtful gift can do. A thoughtful, meaningful gift is worth many times the cost of the item and it goes a long way toward enforcing whatever bond exists between the giver and the recipient.
Finding a truly meaningful gift is hard, though. Finding a truly meaningful gift without breaking the bank is even harder.
This is a process that Sarah and I go through every year. We try to find thoughtful and meaningful gifts for everyone that we give gifts to, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing. At the same time, we try to keep our gift spending under control.
Here are seven strategies that we use during this process.
Strategy #1 – Start Early
Part of the reason I’m writing this article in early November rather than in mid-December is that one of the keys to finding meaningful gifts for people is to start early. Almost every remaining strategy on this list takes at least a little time, and although that time can be spread out and can often be invested while doing other things, you still need some weeks between the initial push to start considering gifts and the actual day of giving to work through those strategies.
For many gifts for holiday exchanges that are months down the road, Sarah and I have already started. I have multiple gifts that I’m making for which I already have the necessary elements. I’ve purchased a few gifts on sale already, too.
Over the next few weeks, I hope to have ideas in place for all of the other people on my holiday gift-giving lists, along with the starting steps of any projects that they might involve. That way, I have plenty of weekends and even weekday evenings to move forward on those things and complete different projects.
Action Step #1: Right now, start making a list of everyone that you’re intending to give a gift to in the next two months. Then, right away, start thinking of ideas for each of those people. Do this now, and write it down. The longer you wait, the harder everything becomes. It becomes more stressful. It becomes harder to find a meaningful but inexpensive gift. It becomes more likely that lots of people are just going to slip through the cracks and receive whatever you can find on Amazon in a ten minute search a few days before the gift exchange. Don’t do that. Start now. Make a list.
Strategy #2 – Consider the Recipient and Do Some Homework
So, you have a list of people that you want to give gifts to, but you’re completely unsure as to what you should get for many of the people on the list. You love Grandma, for example, but what can you even give her that means anything?
For each person on your list that you don’t have any good ideas for, spend some time just considering that person. What makes that person happy? What does that person enjoy doing? What bonds do you share with that person?
These types of thoughts fill my spare moments this type of the year. Whenever I drive anywhere, I’m often thinking about different people to whom I intend to give a gift in the coming months. When I have a few spare moments at the doctor’s office, I’m thinking about my relationship with someone and what causes us to connect.
Sometimes, the answers come fairly easily. Sometimes, they do not.
When I find myself really struggling for ideas, I start doing homework on that person. I take a look at their social media accounts. I check and see if they have an Amazon wishlist. I visit that person, if at all possible, and take a look around their home.
Most important of all, though, I simply have some conversations with that person. If I care enough to give that person a gift, this should be a normal course of events. If it’s awkward to have a normal conversation with a person, why are you giving that person a gift to begin with?
If you pay attention during a conversation of any length with a person, you begin to get an idea of what they’re interested in and what they’re passionate about. Ask them questions about the things they seem excited about and dig in a little; you’ll often find several great gift ideas dropped directly on your lap.
Action Step #2: Go through the list of people to whom you intend to give a gift in the next couple of months. Consider each person individually. What is that person passionate about? What is your connection to that person? If a gift idea doesn’t rise to the surface, then commit to doing some homework. Visit that person. Give that person a call. Ask questions and talk about their interests. Ideas will come. They will most definitely come.
Strategy #3 – Include a Note
One of the best ways to transform an ordinary gift into something meaningful is to simply include a note with it. That note doesn’t have to be anything special. It just needs to be a short appreciation of the recipient in some fashion.
One of my favorite things to do with a note is to explain exactly why I gave the gift that I gave that person. Basically, it’s a description of the thought process from the above strategies: what I noticed about the recipient and how that translated into a gift idea.
Such a simple note is deeply meaningful for one reason: people like to be noticed and appreciated. The simple fact that someone else paid enough attention to them to notice a specific interest that they had and then translated that interest into an attempt at a thoughtful gift often means far more than whatever the gift itself might be.
What if you’re not a “wordy” person? The honest truth is that notes from people who usually don’t do such things are even more meaningful, even if those notes aren’t written with perfect penmanship or with perfect spelling or grammar. In those cases, you know as a recipient that the note caused the writer to step outside of their comfort zone to express something for you, and that adds incredible meaning.
Action Step #3: If you give someone a meaningful gift, include a handwritten note with that gift explaining it and how that gift ties to the recipient. It’s an incredibly easy way to add deep meaning to a gift given.
One mistake that people make when it comes to giving a gift is that they think of themselves and the recipient as being in a bubble of sorts. The gift is from one person to another or from a couple to another.
Often, however, you share a lot of ties with that person. That person might be your father, for instance, but you share that relationship with all of your siblings. Your favorite uncle might be everyone’s favorite uncle. Your favorite coworker might be everyone’s favorite coworker.
In those situations, you can often add a lot of meaning to a gift by working with other people to create something extra special. Perhaps you can make something together, like a giant photo collage or, in one hilarious case, the world’s biggest cheese plate (this happened once… such a fun memory). Or, perhaps you can chip in together for a bigger gift that’s outside the realistic range for any of you, like when a bunch of family members chip together to send an older relative back to visit his ancestral home.
If you have a great idea for someone that’s just outside the scope of what you should realistically spend or can realistically pull off, start talking to other invested parties. Quite often, if you take the advice of the first strategy here and start early, you’ll find that they haven’t planned anything yet and thus are very likely to get on board with your idea.
Involving a large group in a shared gift like this greatly broadens the horizons of what’s possible for a meaningful gift. It allows you to think bigger than what you might otherwise consider.
Action Step #4: If you come up with ideas that are “too big,” ask yourself whether other parties with a similar relationship to the recipient might want to become involved. You might find a bunch of willing assistance to make a very big meaningful gift possible that was otherwise impossible. Again, the key is to start thinking now, not later, and get ahold of people sooner rather than later.
Strategy #5 – Give to Their Better Self
This final strategy is a sneaky one and it’s one that’s often hard to implement, but it’s something that almost always makes for a meaningful gift that will really connect with the recipient.
On the surface, it’s really easy: give to their better self. Consider the best, most heroic attributes of that person and give a gift that is in line with those attributes. Think of the moments in your life where that person has really amazed you and then think of a gift that matches up to that moment.
I’m going to give you a specific example here. One of my older brothers has had a mix of great moments and setbacks in his life. He’s achieved a few tremendous things, but at other times, he’s been almost overwhelmed with personal challenge.
It would be easy for me to give him an ordinary gift when there’s an opportunity for gift-giving. If I want to make that gift truly powerful and meaningful, though, I should aim for those moments where my respect for him was the highest, those moments where he did something that left me in positive awe. If I can come up with a gift that reflects those moments when I thought most highly of him, then that gift is going to be truly meaningful.
I have an idea, though I don’t want to spoil it here in case he might be reading this. Suffice it to say, it comes straight from a moment where I was in awe of one of his personal attributes.
Action Step #5: Think of the recipient in their best moments. What kind of gift might be appropriate for those moments? What gift can you give them that reminds you of the moments when they touched greatness, and can show them that you remember when they touched greatness? What gift can you give that will cause them to reach for a little more than they are today without being somehow critical of where they are right now? It’s a difficult task, but if you can navigate it, you’ll almost always find a meaningful gift.
Strategy #6 – Start Watching Sales
Once you have some ideas in mind, it’s time to start taking action. For many gifts – and for the items needed to make gifts – a big part of this is to start watching sales.
For me, watching sales means several simultaneous little tricks.
I use to watch a whole lot of items on Amazon for price drops. The site watches them automatically for me and informs me when a price drops on an item. Anything that might remotely work as a gift or as an element of a gift gets listed there.
I download store flyers from various stores in my area each week from their websites and browse through them, looking for sales on particular items.
For some specific items, I’ll actually dig into websites devoted to those specific hobbies or areas of interest and see what I can find. I’ve joined many hobby-related websites over the years just to look for idea recommendations and hunt for sales.
What about Black Friday? It’s usually clear whether or not a particular item you’re considering has a chance of being a Black Friday sales item. If you’re looking at a specific consumer electronic device, for example, waiting for Black Friday might be a good decision.
All of this really doesn’t take too long. I might spend an hour all told setting up searches on Camel Camel Camel. I might spend fifteen minutes a week downloading a few store flyers. I might spend another half an hour doing specific research for specific gifts, but that usually adds up to just a few gifts on my list.
What if they already have the gift that you bought them? Once you’ve done a little due diligence on the item, don’t worry about it. There’s almost no way you can ever guarantee that someone doesn’t have an item that you’ve selected. Just make a little effort to make sure you’re not duplicating something they already have, if you can.
Action Step #6: Once you have ideas for people, start looking for sales on the required items as early as possible. Using is a great way to start for many general purpose gifts. Downloading weekly store flyers – and, eventually, Black Friday flyers – is another powerful step. The goal is to find items that match what you have in mind already when they’re on sale, so the sooner you reach this action step, the better, because it gives more time for sales to pop up.
Strategy #7 – Make Something Unique (or Unusual)
For me, actually making gifts for people is a wonderful way to celebrate the season. If I can find a way to actually make something for someone that they’ll actually enjoy and use, I’ll almost always do that, especially if it’s something that I’m going to enjoy making.
I’ll give you a specific example. For this holiday season, I’m actually making someone an electronic device using a Raspberry Pi mini-computer. It’s been an incredibly fun project so far and I’ve learned a great deal along the way. I know for an absolute fact that this person will enjoy the gift deeply and I’m enjoying the process of building it, so it’s become an extra fun project for me.
For another friend, I’m making a poetry book. I’m literally hand-copying a selection of poems from the public domain into a thin book, along with little notes on why the poem is meaningful to me and might be meaningful to that person.
In past years, Sarah and I have made a number of consumable items for people, from craft beer to soaps and from handmade stationery to personalized soup mixes. Each of these worked well because they indicated an attention to the person. Not only did I know that a particular person liked craft beer, I knew their favorite style of craft beer, made a batch in that style, then bottled it for them with humorous personalized labels.
It’s that bit of extra distance that makes a gift meaningful. It’s easy to make something for someone. It takes a bit more attention and sometimes a little more work to make that gift for that person, and it’s that extra step that makes a gift really meaningful.
Action Step #7: If you’re considering making any gifts, ask yourself how you can tweak that gift to specifically match the person you’re making it for. What specific elements of that gift can you tweak? How can you tweak those things to make it more personally meaningful for that specific recipient? Once you know what you can do to make the gift distinct, take action to make it happen.
In the end, finding a truly meaningful gift for someone that doesn’t break the bank comes down to two things: time and thought. The best ideas come from thinking about the person and giving those thoughts time to marinate and grow. Giving yourself plenty of lead time as you go through that process enables you to find a great idea and then still have plenty of time to implement it at a reasonable price.
What’s the take home message? Start today. Start right now. Make your list and start thinking about meaningful options. This gives you plenty of time to find the right gift – or the right items needed for the gift – at the right price and to handle other elements that might make it special, such as a note or a collaborative effort.