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Gift cards are easy, but good gift-giving is truly hard

Forget gift cards or even cash: Good gifts

Forget gift cards or even cash: Good gifts tell the recipient "I get you." Nov. 28, 2016. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

If it’s the thought that counts, then gift cards don’t count much at all.

They’re popular, granted. Six out of 10 people responding to National Retail Federation surveys this year said they wanted to receive gift cards for the holidays, and more than half said they planned to give them.

The rest of us may think of gift cards as a cop-out. Gift cards are what you give when you don’t have a clue what makes the recipient tick and can’t trouble yourself to find out.

OK, that’s not totally fair. Gift cards may seem like the only reasonable solution when you’re dealing with, say, the ever-changing whims of your teenage nieces and nephews.

But why bother with plastic? Just give ’em cash. Cash gets spent. A big chunk of what’s sunk on gift cards — about $1 billion per year, according to market research firm CEB — remains unspent.

Ill-considered gifts are an even bigger waste of money, of course. Everybody has stories of epic fails: The etiquette book (extra points if it’s from your mother-in-law). The box of chocolates to someone who’s allergic, on a diet or both. Getting back the gift you gave to the oblivious person the year before.

Good gifts can be all over the map as well, but they share a similar trait. They universally say, “I get you.”

Giving good gifts can be incredibly hard. It takes time, energy and some sleuthing. You have to stop thinking about yourself — what you want, what you think the recipient should have or be or do — and think in depth about the other person: How do they like to spend their time?

What are they passionate about? What would make their lives easier or more fun? It’s an exercise in empathy that takes us out of ourselves and brings us closer to the people we love.

I’m not great at gift-giving, but I pay attention to the people around me who are. Here’s what they have in common:

  • They listen and take notes. Some of the best gift-givers keep a running list of ideas in a notebook or on their smartphone.
  • They consult. Friends and loved ones can be a great source of ideas, plus they can let you know what the recipient already has.
  • They don’t wait for Black Friday. It’s more likely to stumble across a great gift the other 11 months of the year.
  • They don’t just give stuff. Experiences bring more happiness than possessions, research shows.
  • They fail sometimes. Selecting a gift means taking a risk, and no one gets it right every time.

Early in our marriage, my husband, who normally is an excellent gift-giver, gave me a waffle iron. I hadn’t even fully unwrapped the present before I blurted out, “We’re going to nip this in the bud.” (A note to spouses everywhere: Don’t give anything with a plug unless it’s been specifically requested. Even then, think twice.)

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