How to give good gifts

July 2013

I celebrate most holidays with three immediate families and three more extended sets, so it’s always interesting for me to study their gift-giving habits. I recently decided I wanted to make a concerted effort to get better at gift-giving myself, so I started thinking about how to do it better. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

I decided to start with the traditional gift-giving approach and see how I could improve it. Current best practice seemed to be the following:

  1. Ask target for their wish list.
  2. Determine an appropriate price range.
  3. Purchase a socially approved item within one’s price range.

On this model, reciprocal gift-giving holidays effectively turn my money into goods on my wishlist (through the intermediary of other people’s money/wishlists).

But this process could be improved in obvious ways. After all, if the items on my wishlist aren’t rare, I can purchase them just as easily as you, so the entire wish-list idea is a bit silly. What if I don’t want anything that costs less than $20, or the only things I want are sex toys (and it’s a family-friendly holiday)? What if my wishes change between when I distribute the list and when I receive gifts? Besides, this wastes paper and results in unnecessary logistical issues with gift transportation. So let’s get rid of the wish-list step entirely! Aside from social convention, the following procedure ought to be strictly superior:

  1. Determine an appropriate price range.
  2. Write target a check for said price.

On this new, improved model, reciprocal gift-giving holidays effectively turn my money into… other money?

…wait a minute.

(But if you think about it, ridiculous though this model is, we actually do implement it sometimes! Well, actually, because we have cultural hangups around real money, we implement a strictly worse version of this already terrible model, where we give people money except they can only spend it at one particular place, thus combining all the crassness of money with the inflexibility of wish-lists. Blech.)

The basic problem here is that the traditional approach to gift-giving is based on spending completely fungible resources–my money and your money are exactly the same. So I want to try giving only non-fungible gifts–essentially following this rule:

Give people something they couldn’t have given themselves

Sure, this is hard, but not as hard as it sounds. I listed a bunch great gifts I’ve received, given or observed and tried to figure out the common threads, and I think there are some transferable insights there. Here are the ideas I came up with:

I guess I can see why people don’t do these kinds of gifts. For my non-fungible assets like time and expertise, it’s harder for me to find the right way to spend them–the wish-list approach is a simple algorithm, whereas I have to be creative to make someone a nice card or a mix CD. Non-fungible presents also feel more personal, and therefore more dangerous: it’s fine if someone doesn’t like the book I gave them, but it hurts if they don’t care for the waltz I composed.

But the objection about difficulty is moot if your goal is to give a good gift, not just a minimally difficult one. And if you’re worried about rejection, I recommend you to just try this once or twice and see: in my experience, fear of rejection is vastly disproportionate to the likelihood someone will actually reject your gift or how painful rejection is when it happens. So this is the rule I’ll try to follow with gifts from now on.

Advanced tips

The above rule gets you pretty far, but here’s some other stuff I’ve found useful:

So here’s to non-fungible, unique and surprising presents. Happy gifting!

Thanks to Nick Ryder and Gautam Mohan for feedback on a draft of this post.


  1. Thanks to Nick Ryder for the example! 


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Tristan

I like the post, especially the second half.

Another tip:

buy more than one piece of an unusual awesome present if you find it. Often people you like are somewhat similar. I have a small box with cool stuff I look into if I need a present, works well :).

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Nat Kuhn

I… am Ben’s father. And I’m here to tell you that what he said is absolutely true, that card was maybe the best Father’s Day present ever, and, uh, trust me, the awesomeness was not based on Ben’s artistic skill so “yeah but I can’t draw” is no excuse. (Ben often accuses me of being biased when I say he does something well, so on the rare occasions when he does NOT do something well, it is very very important that I make that super clear in order to achieve any credibility with him). Thanks Ben!

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Wang

The behavioral economists’ guide to buying presents (an Atlantic article that cites some results from economics, not an actual publication by economists)

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