Social Minefield: How To Give A Perfect Present


A present is an opportunity to show how creative, thoughtful, and generous you are, all with a single well-wrapped package. Or it’s a chance to look like a huge ass. Here’s how to do the former and avoid the latter.

Gift-giving is tough. I learned this the hard way at the age of four, when I went to my best friend’s birthday party and proceeded to unceremoniously unwrap the gift my mom had carefully picked out for her. Because that’s what presents are for, right? Opening? Needless to say I got in huge trouble — and discovered at a young age how emotionally fraught giving a gift can be. You want it to be awesome, but not over-the-top. Personal, but situationally appropriate. And then there’s the question of price. It’s enough to make anyone just swap Amazon gift certificates (this is what my dad and his dad do every Christmas), but you no longer have to resort to that, because you have this handy guide. We’ll tackle holiday gift ideas in greater depth later on, but for a whole bunch of other occasions, see below.


I covered this a bit in the birthdays post, but I’ll reiterate: if it’s a casual friend, who’s also a grownup, you probably don’t have to get anything. Unless he/she’s having a house party — then bring some nice booze if you can afford it. If not, baked goods! If you’re shopping for a close friend, you may already have a great idea. But in case your gifting staples are getting a little tired — or your wallet is looking thin — consider giving a service. Dodai says, “my friend once ‘gave’ me the gift of organizing my apartment, and it changed my life.” Sadie has another budget-friendly recommendation:

Pick up a vintage purse at a thrift shop and then fill it with cheap necessities: notebook, pen, coin purse, gum, band-aids, hotel sewing-kit, mini Advil, stain-remover, vintage hankie etc. I usually include an old pulp paperback. You can also do theme ones (ie for a new job or travel) but the point is to keep it cheap and eclectic.

If you’re crafty, handmade gifts are another good option. I just hurt myself every time I try to use a glue gun or a needle, but for one dear friend’s birthday I got a pretty notebook and filled it with recipes I’d made up. And once I gave another friend the gift of a secret. I had some gossip I knew he was dying to hear, so I waited until his birthday, wrote it on a card, and delivered it to him with great ceremony. This is probably the most-appreciated gift I’ve ever given.

Baby Showers

Helaine Olen, a writer on parenting and personal finance, gave me this tip:

The best baby shower/young child gifts I received were clothes for a child older than my own. Everyone buys babies clothes, so much so that they’ll never wear half the 0-3 month onesies you get. But when it comes to a two year old, it’s you and your bank account which means that one day you will be pathetically grateful to open up the kiddie drawer and find those toddler pants you couldn’t imagine why someone would buy you at the time. You can get clothes for children up to three, by the way. After that, the kids have figured out the gift-giving thing and the days of pleasing mom and dad are over.

Intern Katie, who has lots of experience selling baby shower gifts, points out that prospective parents often have registries, which are a first step if you’re not sure what to get. If they don’t however, she has some specific ideas:

Trumpette socks – SO cute. They look like shoes, don’t slip off the baby’s foot, and have grips on the bottom. Also, you can never have too many socks, so it’s not a problem if someone else has already gifted them.
Sophie the Giraffe – It’s a $25 teether, but every single baby loves it. It’s a French toy that’s been around since the ’60s. They’re made of natural rubber and are the perfect shape and texture. They used to have a “cult following” in the US, but now they’re getting pretty well-known. Sophie is also a perfect gender-neutral toy.
Swaddle blankets – There are a few companies that make them, but Aden + Anais is a good bet. They’re white muslin blankets that come in packs of two and four, and have lots of different patterns. They’re extremely versatile and pretty affordable.
Jellycat Truffles (Size large) – It’s a super soft and floppy, adorable plush animal/pillow that the kid will keep for years. Also comes in many varieties.

Katie also adds, “If you get clothing, make sure to match the correct season with the baby’s age. Don’t buy a 6-12 month size romper in the middle of winter for a newborn, since it will be summer when it fits.”


Plenty of adults are fine with a hug and a whiskey shot on their birthdays, but kids want presents (probably because they haven’t discovered whiskey). If you’ve been invited to a kid’s party, Margaret recommends the literary approach:

For baby showers and child birthday parties I give an age-appropriate collection of books in a basket or bag. My friend left her baby shower with two laundry baskets of infant-sized baby clothes, and she already had a full wardrobe of hand me downs. Now that the baby is two, she’s getting lots of (pink) toys. I pretend I’m trying to instill a love of literature, but it’s really just an excuse to spend some time in a book store revisiting my old favorites.

Says Katie, “Cool t-shirts/sweatshirts are always good (but include a gift receipt).” She adds, “I also like educational activity sets (i.e. science experiment kits). Stay away from Disney characters/Barbies/military-themed toys unless it’s what the kid is asking for — there’s better stuff out there and the parents might not approve of it.” Speaking of parents, my mom always says never to buy a kid anything to make noise — probably because of the singing stuffed reindeer somebody got us one year. Or the chirping bird figurine with no off switch that we eventually had to put in the freezer so it would die. Speaking of which, Olen has another word of caution:

Stay away from electronics. Someone once bought my three year old an electric car that would develop a poltergeist at three am, and take off across the apartment independently. It’s funny now, but at the time we had a newborn and were less than amused that the small amount of sleep we were getting was getting interrupted by a car that of course we could not get rid of, because my son thought it the best toy ever!

Someone You Just Started Dating

This is a notoriously tough area. I’m of the opinion that just-because gifts early in a relationship, though considered romantic by some, can all too easily veer into creepy. If you really feel the need to make such a gesture, go personal (something he or she has been talking a lot about and needs/wants) and cheap. Now say you’ve been together a couple of weeks or a couple of months, and a birthday approaches — taking him or her out for dinner or cooking a nice meal is a nice way to observe this without going overboard. Want to do something more? Again, go with personal and cheap — which is also a good call if a major gifty-type holiday intervenes on your relationship’s honeymoon period. I may be alone here, but extravagant gifts often make me uncomfortable, and especially early on, I don’t want the other person to feel beholden to me because I got him something “too” nice. When Christmas came within our first few months of dating, I once gave a now-ex-boyfriend a hard-to-find but inexpensive Soul Coughing EP. He gave me a cool hat. Everybody won.


Many gifts are for happy occasions, but what if your friend is sick or recovering from surgery and you want to cheer him/her up? Cards are always nice, of course. I personally hate flowers, but if your friend loves them, go for it. Food is dicey — true, being sick makes it hard to cook, but sometimes makes it hard to eat also. In this situation it’s best to check with your friend or someone close to her about what her stomach can handle. Entertainment is often a safe bet — recovering, whether at home or in the hospital, can be boring, and some DVDs, books, or magazines can provide a much-needed shot of fun. In general, I’d stay away from Tolstoy — it can be hard to concentrate when you’re doped up on meds, and lighter fare is often better. When I was recovering from an appendectomy, my friend got me this comic book and I was eternally grateful. Then again, I’m pretty happy with a comic book for any occasion.

Bridal Showers

Bridal showers often have registries too, but if you’re going off-script, we have a few thoughts. Says Tracie,

If you want to get creative with bridal shower gifts, you should buy something vintage (like a vintage wedding cake topper) because it’s cheap and easy and cute. Or something sort of useful, like a non-trashy garter belt, which is incredibly hard to find, since they’re all pretty gross.

Dodai once gave “a cute tote bag filled with stuff that would be good for the bride’s honeymoon destination, which she had already chosen: aspirin, mosquito repellent, a guide to the bugs of Costa Rica, a journal.” As the Honeymooner’s Review Guide points out, the better you know the bride (and her plans), the more luck you’re likely to have picking out something personal. The less you know her, the more you should stick to what she asked for — or a good all-purpose gift. Margaret suggests a ring-holder.


This one elicited strong opinions from marrieds I polled. Says one friend of mine, “do not buy anything not on the registry unless you know them REALLY REALLY well. I got some weird stuff that I didn’t really want and then I couldn’t return it because I had no idea where it came from.” She adds that if you do go off-registry, “be kind and include a gift receipt.” Adds Tracie,

Honestly, for weddings, everyone just wants money, even if it’s the smallest amount. It’s the thought that counts. Unless the thought is not money and is something else. One friend gave me $50 and I really appreciated it because I knew it was what he could afford and he wasn’t wasting the $50 on some trinket I would just end up throwing out.

If you don’t want to give cash, but can’t afford a $500 espresso machine, consider these tips from Hortense:

If everything on the registry is crazy expensive, consider going in on something with a friend (or two). Gift cards are always welcome, because if the bride/groom don’t get what they want off of the registry, they can use the extra cash to fill in the gaps.

Oh, and if you choose to be creative, heed Katie’s advice: “make sure you really ARE being creative, not just buying a different salad bowl that they didn’t ask for.” Which leads me to a pointer for all gifting occasions — gifts should really be more about the recipient than the giver. So while it’s great to put some thought into it, don’t let your efforts o be original get in the way of what your friend will really love. Sometimes, people just want money. Or comic books.

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Image via Petr Malyshev/

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