What to do when people ask, "So what gift do you want from me?"

December 1 | Guest post by Pemcat
By: JD HancockCC BY 2.0

You've probably heard the saying "It's better to give than to receive." It's one I can relate to — I love that feeling of wandering through the shops (or internet) until you find that one perfect thing that your friend will absolutely go nuts for. It's a big emotional kick.

Getting presents can sometimes be comparatively unrewarding — especially now I'm at an age where family still want to give me birthday and Christmas presents, but aren't quite sure what to get. They don't see me every day, so they have less of an idea of what I want, and now that I'm an adult with a job I can get the things I need. But they won't be persuaded that they could send a card or call without an accompanying gift. Therefore they ask me what I would like.

I used to feel this took a lot of the fun out of it, but now I've realized that I can get all meta about it. What I'm really doing, I've decided, is giving them the gift of giving. Plus, I get to keep the physical gift. That's a definite bonus.

So here are my tips for when someone asks you for a list of present ideas:

Consider your relationship to them

  • My Grandmother really values things with connections to people, and loves her jewellery collection, much of which has links to her family. A good gift idea from her would be a watch for special occasions that I could use for years to come and think of her.
  • My sister is really open with her thoughts and feelings. A good thing to ask from her would be a copy of her favourite book from the year.
  • My husband loves getting active with me. A good suggestion for him would be some kind of experience gift that we can do together.

Be aware of people's budgets

This can be a hard one, since people don't always communicate and it's rude to ask. But it was a fairly safe bet that whilst my sister was still at school, her budget was going to be a bit less than a fiver, whereas my parents would have felt a present of that monetary value was not a "proper" present. Shop for your happy, but if there's something you want and it's close to a gift giving occasion, consider postponing that purchase and suggesting it as a gift idea. You'll get the same amount of joy (possibly more) from the thing if someone else gives it to you, and they'll get the warm glow of knowing they contributed to that happiness.

Leave room for creativity

Last year after being asked for Christmas present ideas by my dad we suggested that he could give us a bottle of whiskey or similar to start our spirits collection in our new home. I thought this was a very clever gift idea, one that could be recycled for years to come. We got whiskey, cognac, baileys, sherry, rum and gin, because what Dad really likes is to be extravagant with his children. We were suitably bowled over!

For me, recognizing the fact that the reason my family were asking what to get me was because it mattered to them to "get it right" helped me to overcome any odd feelings about asking for presents. Now I see it's about maximizing the enjoyment from the gift giving occasion for both of us.

  1. I make an amazon wishlist for my son so when people asks what he wants I can point them in that direction.
    And say something about you obviously don't need to get something from there but you can get an idea of the things he is interested in.
    I also really encourage experiences and activities as gifts.
    My mum bought us all concert tickets, a friend wants to take my son to the aquarium for his present and I think this is wonderful

    14 agree
    • Same here- I have a pinterest board where I put all the things that catch my eye but which I don't need and can't treat myself to just then. Some of the things get old and aren't available anymore, but there's a lot of stuff on there at a lot of different price points, plus it gives a nice overall impression of "the kinda thing I'm into now" in case they want to go rogue.

      For years my husband drove me nuts because he refused to get anything I asked for outright, I had to learn to say things like "Ohhhh my feet are so cold, I really need some slippers" sometime in November and hope that he'd file that away and get me slippers (to his credit, he was very good at remembering things I mentioned wanting offhandedly…but he wouldn't let me give him a christmas list.) He's starting to get over that though, I think 😉 There's not a lot of stuff I need and we don't have much space in our house, I'd much rather people ask what we actually want than feel bad because I had to get rid of an unneeded and unused gift.

      9 agree
      • The Pinterest board was going to be my suggestion! It still lets you keep the element of surprise, and feel more like you're giving them an idea of what you're into rather than a specific request. And sometimes I get cool things I forgot I'd even put on there!

        2 agree
  2. This is one of the things that absolutely annoys me about my in-laws. They show their love by giving and they want to give us things that we actually need/want (which I appreciate). What annoys me is how they ask us for a list of presents. A few weeks ago they asked us what we wanted and just expected that we could produce a list at that exact second. When we said that we hadn't discussed it yet my MIL said "Well how am I supposed to know what to get you unless you tell me?" (We ended up giving them a list of things we've had to borrow since we moved into our house in January.)

    Last year my MIL wanted only one thing for Christmas. Due to some circumstances it wasn't in the cards (1. It is expensive – more than six times what we normally would spend on her gift, 2. Due to a family quarrel we were not talking to my BIL/SIL until just before Christmas so going in on it together to save money was not an option, 3. We had already bought her something before she requested this gift). After all the presents were opened she cried and said it was the ONLY thing she wanted (so clearly we didn't love her since we didn't get it for her). So this year I have been left to organize getting this gift since my husband and my BIL apparently do not remember their mother crying last year.

    3 agree
    • From one homie to another, that is a slipper slope, my friend. Unless you really really care about your MIL, and not just that you don't wanna deal with her crying (bleh), I'd say present organizing is the job of her children, not you. If they don't care enough to put in the work, you shouldn't take it on. I was in a situation like that for 6 years, because I couldn't understand why my husband and his siblings were so thoughtless to their mother. I went as far to plan her 55th birthday party (on a boat, no less!). Then it dawned on me (through dramatic circumstances) that my MIL still didn't like me and wasn't very nice to me. Doing things for her that her own children wouldn't even do won me no points. And honestly, there was a reason they didn't do those things. Long story short, I wish I had given things that represented my care to her, not what I thought her children should have given her.

      22 agree
      • The reason they don't do those things is that their mother taught them that it's their wives job to do it (for her sake, she unfortunately had two sons and no daughters). She believes that it's the wife job to run the house and do all of the organization. She does it for her family and her mother does it for her family. My SIL and I are trying to get our husbands to do more; however when they fail at the task our MIL (their mother) tells us that's why we should do it as the wife. For example my BIL forgot to RSVP to some wedding invitations. My MIL told my SIL that she should have done it for him. She has admitted to me and my SIL that she didn't teach her sons basic things like cleaning (since me and my husband have lived together he has been in charge of cleaning and it's been a pretty painful experience) and household finances (my husband and his brother are both horrible with money).

        My husband and I have only been married a year and my BIL/SIL have only been married two years. We've been working on unteaching our husbands what their mother taught them but it takes time.

        ETA: My husband and BIL actually did plan my MIL's 55th b-day party (and mothers day) this year. It was a huge mess and it a prime example of how things turn out when my husband and BIL do things. My MIL was happy to have a party since she told my FIL that she didn't want one and then on the Thursday before mothers day said that she did want a party (luckily her sons had already planned one).

        5 agree
    • Yeah … sometimes people request something and I immediately reply "I've already picked/purchased your gift." I've found this to be particularly effective at waylaying disappointment. It lets them request the specific item from someone else, and creates some anticipation about what I DID get them. And instead of "you don't care about getting me what I want" it's more of a "wow, you think about me so much you've already gotten something?" I understand some people are just a little too narcissistic for this to work, but thankfully not any of the people I buy presents for.

      4 agree
    • This would be a good time to read The Five Love Languages – gift giving is totally one of the love languages. And yes, this even works for family members.

      It's great you're aware of it, but it's serious business to people who need to be loved that way.

      8 agree
      • Thanks, I was just reading a bit about that. My in-laws are all like that. My BIL/SIL wanted cash instead of wedding gifts and they refused to send thank you notes out because they weren't happy with what they got. To them it was very disrespectful that most people bought them physical items instead of giving them cash (even though it is customary in the family to give physical items). A few Christmases ago, another member of the family saw a gift I got my nephew and she thought it was really cool and liked it better than the (more expensive) gift I got her daughter. She more or less asked why we didn't get the same thing for her kid (actually that Christmas she complained about two of the three gifts we got her three daughters). When my husband was a broke student and couldn't afford to get his family gifts that were more than $15 he got a lot of flack about it.

        My in-laws also assume that everyone wants to be loved that way. I actually have severe anxiety when it comes to opening presents in front of people. My first Christmas with the family I was shocked by the number of gifts I got (especially considering we haven't been dating long). (My in-laws spend more on me and my husband then my dad and step-mum spend on all of their seven children/seven children-in-law/eleven grandchildren combined.) I also requested that I not have a bridal shower but my MIL insisted (it was not worth fighting over). My in-laws also had a gift opening after our wedding (my husband opened all of the gifts because I could not handle it). When I suggested that I was too busy hosting my housewarming party to open gifts, my MIL (and her mother) made it clear that I was being ungrateful for not accepting their love.

        3 agree
  3. I appreciate being asked what I want because I have a lot of "gift guilt" where I feel like I HAVE to keep anything anyone gives me, even if I kind of hate it. First world problems, right? And on the other side, I want people to actually be able to use the gift I give them!

    It is nice when people 1. notice that you've started a new hobby or activity and 2. ask you if you want something related to that. It gives you a starting point for ideas and shows that they pay attention to your life. I try to do this when I can. My MIL did that this year, and the thought behind her asking was really touching. It's a similar theme to the spirits collection or new home gifts.

    I'm always a fan of giving and getting consumables, but sometimes it does require a little detective work or a straight up question. Coffee or tea? Whole bean coffee or pre-ground? Tea bags or loose tea? What kind of wine?
    Other completely random but highly useful gifts have been the new efficient light bulbs, batteries, and an "ove glove."

    4 agree
    • Boy, would I love to get a battery gift pack! I'm always in need of batteries of all sizes and types, for a lot of different activities – TV watching? check. Photography? check. Baking? check.

      3 agree
      • We bought a huge pack of batteries for my husband's grandmother, who cares for our nephews a lot, and two years later she still mentions with delight how she's never going to run out.

  4. These are great tips. My family definitely appreciate being given a list, though these days my "list" is normally one or two suggestions. Fortunately, my family do not care if my requests are a little unusual or not very "present-y". (This year, pots and pans for my birthday. My parents enjoyed choosing within that guideline, I love the gift, and I never would have replaced our old battered ones myself.)

    My in-laws really like to get/receive experiences like theatre tickets and meals out; my Dad likes to give/receive consumables (which make great presents, because even super fancy tea/coffee/chocolate/wine is not that expensive in the scheme of things, just not something you would get for yourself). This kind of knowledge of peoples likes takes time, but then I love trying to find the perfect present for everyone anyway!

    What I don't do (and don't super approve of) is subtle hints. If you'd like a particular present, just tell me. If you want me to be creative, that's cool too. If you want me to give you a list of presents I'd like, I'll get back to you. But subtle hints often don't get picked up on, and leave everyone disappointed.

    6 agree
  5. Thank you for this!

    Just yesterday my husband and I got the yearly "What do you want all want for Christmas?" request from a family member. I always think of this as such a choir. Both sets of my parents are really great gift givers who truly enjoy spending a lot of time coming up with the "perfect gift" and somehow they always do. So needing to think of things in advance and write them in a list just seemed counter intuitive to me. This post really helped me think about why this family member always asks (she lives far away, she considers the price of the gift as a reflection of the value of the gift, she doesn't want to give us something we don't need). And how to approach the list this year.

    2 agree
  6. I keep up wishlists on Amazon and Think Geek so I can just point anybody who asks to them, plus things will automatically be marked as purchased when somebody buys one so I don't have to give different suggestions to different people.

    And I'd much rather be asked than the alternative, which is usually to be given a generic female present like makeup or jewelry which is almost never anything I'll use.

    7 agree
  7. I find it hard to come up with an item or list on the spot, plus I like to be suprised. So I usually name a store or brand I like. That way they can choose an item that fits their budget, or give a gift card.

    3 agree
  8. Perhaps I'm in the minority, but I like it when people ask me for a wish list or if I ask people for a wish list. It shows they want to get me something that I will love/want/need. And then we avoid the whole "omg I hate this I hope they gave me a gift receipt" situation. I've received one too many gifts, before I started doing wish lists, that either were never used and kept out of guilt.

    Personally, the people I know who are doing gifting are way too damn busy (myself included) to either pick up the subtle hints people say about things they would like, or can't be bothered to attempt to get "creative" to come up with a gift for that hard-to-buy-for person. AND WE ALL HAVE ONE.

    I like the wish list because it says, "hey here's what I would like/need/want. You can either get something off of this list or you can get "creative" and use it as base point." And usually, I'm only putting things I would never buy myself (but things I really really would like to have) on the wish list.

    That being said, I try really hard to get people things they have never asked for before, but would love. It has worked out great in some cases, and not so great in others. But there are plenty of other times when I just can't figure out what someone would want so I just ask for a wish list.

    5 agree
  9. if i am close with the person, and they insist on a specific item, i direct them toward Amazon for my wish lists. if we are not particularly close, but they insist despite my refusal, i ask them to donate to a number of local animal shelters in my name. so far, a few folks have taken me up on that, and i'm thrilled.

    lately i've been making consumables for folks…but only if i know their allergies, likes, and dislikes. otherwise they're getting gift cards…if i can afford it.

    4 agree
  10. My husband and I both come from families where we provide wish lists, but they're used differently.

    In my family, you make a list of lots of things you'd like, but it is without expectations. They are options/ideas for gift givers. It maintains a surprise element for the recipient, and lets the giver choose something they'd like to give (on the list or not).

    Husband, on the other hand, makes a short list, and that's what he gets. I don't like that! Where's the fun? It's frustrating because he's a musician, but I don't know enough about the equipment to buy something without him researching and telling me the exact product he wants. I gently suggested maybe he'd like more of an experience for his birthday than a gift, but he declined.

    4 agree
  11. I see where you're coming from, but I totally disagree. If someone has to ask me what to get for a gift, then that person does not need to get me a gift. Gift giving encourages overspending and overconsumption and the overproduction of crap. Just say you'd like to spend some time together. Sharing experiences is so much more valuable than any piece of junk someone could buy.

    9 agree
    • I generally agree with you, but then there are the people who will buy you a tangible gift no matter what you say.

      7 agree
    • First, I think that "crap" and "junk" are in the eye of the beholder. Sure, some people may overindulge during the holidays and use them as an excuse to go overboard, but there are lots of other people who give gifts as a way to show they care (see comment about the five love languages above), and there are lots of gifts that are also necessities that a person may not be able to afford out of their regular budget, so receiving such items as gifts can actually be really helpful and valuable. It's all about the intentions of both the gift giver and receiver, and I think it's really cynical to assume that the majority of people are just offering to give others gifts because they can't overcome the urge to not overspend on overproduced crap.

      If someone asks you what you want and you really don't want the other person to spend a lot of money or buy "overproduced crap," you could suggest going out for drinks/dinner, a bottle of wine, a copy of their favorite book (as mentioned in the OP), etc. Something that could lead to a nice experience or open up a meaningful conversation. I of course don't know your situation, but my guess is that if someone is asking you what you would like as a gift it is evidence that they love and care for you and just want to give you a token of their affections.

      10 agree
  12. Very much understanding keeping a gift you don't want/need out of guilt. I have Downtown Abbey on DVD and it's still shrink wrapped – from last Christmas. I have no interest at all in watching it but since my grandmother gave it to me I have kept it. Last year was my year of receiving things my relatives liked but I had no interest in or use for. My request for socks and a gift certificate to the grocery store would have been more useful…

    • Hey that's a good show! I didn't think I'd be interested either but I liked it .

      1 agrees
  13. In my family, sending out Christmas lists sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving is like carry-over from when we were kids. My parents are very up-front with how much they want to spend on each kid and spouse. And if you don't give them a list, they think you're a hopeless cause (and are obviously offended) and end up buying you socks & underwear.
    So since it's so hard to come up with gifts now that I'm an adult with a full-time job, I keep a small list all year and then when my parents ask for our lists, I have something ready.
    They aren't really interested in looking at an Amazon list, and they don't do Pinterest. Now we just send an e-mail out to the family with our lists.

    1 agrees
  14. Blerg. My family and my boyfriend's family both require Christmas lists, and I run into these two problems in particular: 1) I have to come up with multiple separate lists to avoid duplication and keep in mind that only one person (his mom) has much of a budget, thus I must include many many small items, and 2) everything I really need is embarrassingly banal. Example: I haven't been able to allocate much money to clothes this year, due to high rent and ridiculous medical bills. So what I really need/want is underwear, jeans, and shoes… but I am definitely too old to ask for those things.

    • Can you ask for gift cards? You could just say something like, "I'm in need of lots of random necessities, so I'd really enjoy and appreciate gift cards to X Y or Z." That way they could give you something with the exact amount of money they can spend, and you don't have to ask for a "banal" thing, and can get what you need privately!

      8 agree
  15. Oh I keep a pinterest board! It's great for people to get an idea or actual item I'd love without having to ask me! I will pin anything that catches my eye & if I ever get the rare chance to treat myself, I even go back to it to see what goodies I found. Even if someone doesn't use pinterest or has no idea what that is, I can go back to it myself when trying to make up a list.
    But if I AM asked, I usually play into that person's cards. For example, my mother doesn't have a lot of christmas money this year due to cancer bills, yet she insists on getting us something. She recently started to crochet items, and my husband and I both asked if she'd make us something instead of buying it, and she was thrilled about the chance to make us something! (I also asked for socks, because I'm a broke grad student & I never have enough clean socks dang it.)

    But it's the same for other friends, if I know they are crafty, I ask for homemade items, if they cook I ask for something they could make (or items they recommend for cooking like utensils). If it's a techy friend, I'll ask for something like a new thumb drive or something similar. Loves getting together for board games or cards? Ask for board game or cards, so they can enjoy it with you at your get together! My best friend loves to antique with me, so every year she gets me a unique item that reminds her of me and I always look forward to that! My In Laws use my pinterest board, and up until recently my grandma always got me a movie gift card (we moved onto a gift exchange since our family has grown)! movie gift cards are the BEST gift cards in my opinion.

    I love giving gifts & I don't mind if people ask me (unless it's my husband, because then he complains that he can't buy anything I told him because it wouldn't be a surprise, so he's not allowed to ask anymore lol). It's less about what I'm actually receiving and more about appreciating the time you took to think about me! Even if I just end up getting something "un-useful" I almost always figure out a way to re-purpose it to be useful 🙂 So no matter what I get, you can guarantee I'll be pretty happy with it! It's the thought that counts!

    3 agree
  16. Just something to think about when using an Amazon or a similar wishlist…I sent one to my parents last year, assuming they would understand how it worked. What happened was that my mom printed it off when I gave her the link, but didn't shop for another month or so. This resulted in my father-in-law (who also got the link) and my parents getting me the same thing. I've now explained to my parents that it should be used as a gift registry and they actually need to look at the link and press "purchase" or delete it off the list when they buy something. Let's hope it works better this year!

    1 agrees
  17. A few years ago my immediate family started Secret Santa. Now the whole family does it (between the adults and older kiddies) in whatever group we happen to be together for Xmas (QLD family, NSW family etc). It is fantastic. There is a set budget and there is a list stuck up on the wall at a house that is commonly frequented where you can write down suggestions not just for yourself but for anyone on the list if you happen to have a great idea for someone else. There's a lot of ridiculous suggestions on there too (Dad has At Home Mouse Taxidermy kit on his this year, yes, they do exist). It is great for a lot of reasons. You can't ask the person because it's secret, the amount is known, suggestions are there if you need them and it is just a whole lot of fun.

    I have to say it was super disappointing to get an email from the organiser of my work secret Santa ($10 limit) wanting me to tell them what I want. It is just suppose to be a silly fun surprise. Presents are suppose to be fun and be a surprise, it really is the thought that counts.

    1 agrees
    • My family does something similar because there are seven of us kids – we use a wiki site to keep our list online where everyone can see it and edit their pages as they need to.

  18. I used to take pride in not asking people for suggestions, and i felt like being asked meant they didn't want to make an effort. But since i've become a much more conscious consumer, I *REALLY* appreciate being asked and actually make sure i have a few (just a few) things in mind so i have an answer when asked. We spent the past two years getting rid of the *STUFF* that was filling our apartment so getting crap that i will probably just donate asap is pointless. In return, i try very very very hard to get people something they will use. (re: Novelty gifts – i read a statistic lately that something like *1%* of gifts are actually in use 6 months later. The rest are stuck in a closet or drawer somewhere, or in landfill. That scares me.)

  19. I'm a December baby with a birthday the same week of Christmas. I'm pretty used to disappointing birthdays/Christmases and while it sucked big time as a kid, it's no big nowadays. I say this as I'm turning 30 in a few days.

    The one exception: my fiancé's gift to me. I put SO MUCH thought into his gifts. I'll admit it – my feelings got hurt when my birthday was a disaster last year followed by a terrible Christmas gift (2 $40 each ugly scarves and he ripped the tags off and threw away the receipt before giving me the gift – SMH!). Also, I think it's hard for him to wrap his head around more expensive does not equal more thoughtful. And more thoughtful gifts (even if they are $5) are so much more valuable! After previous years of gift giving, I also had to give him the "a birthday and Christmas are two separate occasions and deserve two different celebrations/gifts" talk. My problem is since I really want a thoughtful gift (or experience!), it definitely takes away from the gift when I have to give him a list. I gave him a list this year and as a result I'm pretty certain what my gift is for my birthday already. This definitely takes away from the thoughtfulness. I am trying to be okay with it and not pout, but it's hard. He is around me all the time, he knows me better than anyone so I'm not sure why thinking of a gift is hard for him. Who knows, maybe I'm wrong and this year I'll be surprised… or maybe it'll be another opportunity for me to not get so worked up about gifts and know emotionally (in addition to mentally) that the thoughtfulness of his gift does not mean he loves me any less.

  20. Now that I'm older and don't have desire to accumulate much more "stuff", but tend to not have the time to see folks as often, I normally ask for experiences. Like, let's go out for a fancy dinner and it's our gift to one another, or let's go to a show together. This year, my brothers and I purchased a family photo session with a professional photographer to come and take group pictures for my mom (with a credit towards prints for later). Last year, I bought tickets for my whole family to go on a two hour "pirate cruise" together. The time together and making new memories is the best gift for everyone!

    3 agree

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