Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Gift Giving and All That Stress

It has happened!  The catalogs are in full assault, the red cups are back and (except for Nordstrom), it seems every store has been decorated for Christmas for months.  This also means that the stores will be filled with bewildered people wondering which item…which Black Friday Door Buster…is the “perfect gift” for dad, niece, grandma, son, teacher – and the list goes on.  I’ve seen the stressful masses and I do not enjoy being a part of them.  This “what-do-I-buy?” happens throughout the year with events such as birthdays, weddings, mother’s and father’s day, and graduation, but it’s most acutely felt at Christmastime.

Over the years, I have had some successes and failures with gift giving.  (I did not see it coming that my middle child decided he outgrew light sabers after we proudly presented him with tricked-out, battery eating beauties.  Definite fail.)  Good gift giving takes a little creativity, moderate planning and a lot of copying.  Some of the best gifts I’ve given have been variations of something I’ve seen.

Before you run out to buy anything, take some time to make an actual list of EVERYONE on your gift list.  Next to each name, jot a few notes, no matter how seemingly random, about the person’s interests, hobbies, dreams and profession.   You never know what is going to jump off that list and inspire you when you’re out shopping.  A few months ago, I found some police themed sleeping pants (on clearance sale!) that were perfect for my son who wants to go into law enforcement.  Think back to conversations (or start purposefully listening to current conversations) and pay attention to phrases such as, “Oh, I just love…” or “Isn’t that cool?” or “Gosh, I wish…” Knowing my mother in law would love to visit the Provencal region of France led me to give her a beautiful full-color calendar of the area.

It’s also a good idea to develop some kind of system to track your purchases, or you’ll have ten perfectly adorable gifts for the 7-year old girl and nothing for the 17-year old boy.  Keep your system simple and then use it!  Write on 3 x 5 notecards, in a notebook, under ‘notes’ on your smartphone – whatever works for you.

In no particular order, below are some thoughts and ideas about gift giving.  It should be understood that a lot of my purchases are made well in advance with helpful sales involved.  I am basically done with our Christmas shopping and that is a stress-reliever for me!

TEACHER GIFTS: Having a dad who was a teacher confirmed to me the over-use of #1 Teacher-themed mugs, notepads or ornaments and the plates of suspicious looking home-baked treats.  In recent years, I think most everyone has gotten away from the teacher-themed gifts and that’s a good thing!  Better options are scented hand soap in a pump bottle, a monogrammed hand towel (I bought some at Kohl’s for less than $5 each) or (especially for the guys) a gift card to local coffee shop, sandwich shop or bookstore.

(There is one exception to giving the teacher-themed gifts and that’s for a homeschooling mom! I have one mug, one ornament and one teacher-themed writing paper set and I LOVE them!)

GIFT CARDS: Although these may seem impersonal as a go-to gift for family members and close friends, they are perfect for tutors, teachers, the newspaper delivery guy and anyone else you don’t know on a personal level.  (Do not mistake the beautiful gift of a coffee shop gift card as impersonal for me!)  I always try to support local ice-cream stores, pizza places, coffee shops, bakeries and markets by giving gift cards to the privately owned places.  A gift card to a casual restaurant (Portillo’s, Chipotle, Culvers, Panera, pizza place, etc.) is a thoughtful gift to add to a baby congratulations card.

MAGAZINE SUBSCRIPTIONS:  This is a fun and often overlooked gift idea.  And, it’s the gift that keeps on giving all throughout the year!  There are magazines on every subject imaginable, from crafts, cooking and computers to animals, science, news and travel.  Check out the expansive magazine selection at your library or bookstore for ideas, and then search online for subscription discounts.  There is some kind of discount available for almost every magazine.  Both World Magazine http://www.gwnews.com/ and Focus On the Family http://family.christianbook.com/fotf-magazines?p=1143702 have some great Christian-based options for children of various ages.  Do you know someone who homeschools?  Try The Old Schoolhouse for some helpful ideas and encouragement.  http://www.theoldschoolhousestore.com/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=485  A middle or high school aged sports fanatic?  My kids LOVED Sports Illustrated Kids (and yes, it was appropriate for children). http://www.sikids.com/  National Geographic for Kids http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/kids/ and the offerings from the National Wildlife Federation http://www.nwf.org/ChildrensMagazineCenter/KidsPubs_Offer.aspx?campaignid=NC11DA9XA8TS46&adid=73 are great options that my kids have enjoyed.  (As a side note, all these websites are chock full of great articles, information and activities.)

GIFTS FOR GRANDPARENTS:  How many homemade ornaments or Popsicle stick trivets does one Grandma need?  For the people who seem to have whatever they need and swear they don’t need anything else, there are still good gift ideas out there!  Consider a photo gift – a mouse pad, notebook, deck of playing cards, and a tote bag are just a few of the numerous items offered by the photo sites of Walgreens, Snapfish and Shutterfly, to name a few.  Get all the grandkids together for a photo shoot and present a framed masterpiece to the proud grandparents.  One year I copied and expanded on an idea I saw in a jewelry store, and my mother-in-law was thrilled.  I had a bracelet made for her with each child and grandchild’s birthstone represented by a colored crystal bead.  Not only was it pretty to look at, but it had personal meaning.  Other gift ideas for the grandparent set are DVD collections of favorite TV shows from “back in the day” (Lone Ranger, Jack Benny, Gunsmoke, etc.), CD compilations of old time radio (The Green Hornet, Burns and Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly, etc.), or a DVD collection of TV commercials from the 1940’s, ‘50’s and 60’s.  (Amazon.com carries all these items and at competitive prices.)  Tickets to a local dinner theatre, symphony or museum exhibit are well loved.  My folks got a paid membership to a DVD mail-rental service and loved it.  Gifts that don’t require storage or dusting are always a big hit with my folks!

PHOTO BOOKS:  Dispel the idea that you need to become a scrapbooking maniac in order to make a photo book as a gift!  It seems everyone in the photo business has beautifully simple, SUPER easy to assemble digital photo books.  A year-in-review photo book makes a special gift for an out-of-state grandparent.  I’m in the process of creating a photo book of a trip a few of us took for my friend’s 50th birthday – what a great way to commemorate all the fun we had!  Scan old photos from your high school days and make a digital photo book for a friend’s 20th reunion or 40th birthday.  The options are endless and there is ALWAYS some discount available!

MIDDLE SCHOOL/HIGH SCHOOL: For a guy - start his toolbox!  Even if you have an artsy, musical guy in your life, he will need certain items like work gloves, a tape measure, screwdriver and a hammer.  (And, although they may not realize it now, girls will need and use this stuff too!)  Giving a Live Butterfly Garden is an educational AND fun gift that is enjoyed by all ages.  http://www.amazon.com/Insect-Lore-Live-Butterfly-Garden/dp/B00000ISC5  (The box said it was for ages 5+ and I can assure you I enjoyed ours as much as my kids did!)  The aforementioned magazine subscription is a good gift option, as are event tickets.  Send a teen and a friend to a music festival or concert and you’re instantly cool!  We surprised our middle kiddo with “Monster Jam” tickets, and he enjoyed an insanely loud afternoon watching monster trucks drive, jump, flip and crash.  Arrange to enroll the pre-teen or teen in a class or camp that feeds an interest, like a jewelry making class or a cartoon drawing class or a winter-break sports camp.  Check with the local park district for a list of available classes and camps.  Our county's forest preserve district offers a wide variety of activities and classes that a teen would love.  Spending time with the teen in your life is a great memory-building gift.  Treat him or her to lunch followed by shopping/bowling/movie/afternoon of baking/video gaming.  I remember how special and loved I felt when an adult who wasn’t mom or dad chose to spend time with me.

WEDDING:  If you want to include a little gift in addition to cash or something off the registry, there are some useful gifts to consider.  Return address labels are a fun gift to give, especially when the newly married couple will have a lot of thank-you notes to send!  Another fun gift idea is a subscription to a cooking magazine.  A gift card to a hardware store is always useful, even if the couple lives in an apartment!  A helpful gift to a newly-wed couple is to drop off a meal when they just get home from their honeymoon.  Most couples return and hit the ground running, and it’s awfully nice to have dinner ready to go!

HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION:  Yes, money is needed and appreciated by all high school graduates, but another gift that is a guaranteed hit is something from their prospective college.  Go to the college’s online bookstore and buy a t-shirt, folder, notebook, mug, etc. for the graduate.  Did you know that for about $10 you can get a roll of duct tape with a college logo?  How fun is that?  Amazon.com sells collegiate themed duct tape for about fifty different state schools and universities!  http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_0_13?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=college+duct+tape&x=0&y=0&sprefix=college+duct+#/ref=a9_sc_1?rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3Acollege+duct+tape&keywords=college+duct+tape&ie=UTF8&qid=1322018497

GROUP COUPONS:  Groupon.com and LivingSocial.com have become very helpful for creative gift giving!  (Quick summary: Local businesses offer gift certificates for products or services at roughly half off.  Recent offers have included restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores, magazine subscriptions, manicures/pedicures, cooking classes, digital photo books, bowling, golf and so much more.)  Do a Google search for “group coupons” and you can find numerous sites that serve cities all across America!  These group coupons can be printed and presented or emailed to the recipient.  I recently bought my nephews and niece a $10 gift certificate to a frozen yogurt shop near their house and paid only $5.  My boys were thrilled to receive a gift certificate for the local batting cages, mini golf course and concession stand.  These group coupon sites are a sensible way to check out different businesses, and I've become a return customer at many!

Stress not!  You CAN give “the perfect gift” and avoid aimless wandering through the over-heated, crazy-people packed malls.  Remember to make a list, copy ideas and tweak them until they’re just right. 

And, if they only made Stars Wars themed duct tape, I'd be Aunt Hero!


  1. A Star Wars Cricut cartridge would not make you just an Aunt Hero but also a Sister/Sister-In-Law Hero! Now, I need some gift ideas for your kids......

  2. great ideas, kathryn!

  3. Thanks for all the great ideas!