If someone asked you what the rules are for giving gifts for a holiday, birthday, or any other special occasion, you may struggle to come up with a list off the top of your head. That’s because so many gift-giving rules are implicit, built up over decades of communal gift-giving. Similar to a life-long list of recipes stored up in your mother’s head, gift-giving has no written guide that’s easy to follow. As a result, it’s all-too-easy to make a gifting mistake. In an effort to make sure your good intentions become excellent gifts, read this guide to unspoken gift-giving etiquette.
Don’t Ruin the Surprise by Asking What They Want
The first unspoken rule is to keep the mystery in the gifting process. It’s no fun to know exactly what you’re getting beforehand. There’s beauty to seeing a present meant for you and guessing what it is but still awaiting the final reveal. It’s altogether more exciting to rip away the wrapping paper or tissue paper and find a totally different yet equally thoughtful gift. It’s this mystery that elevates gifting from a simple exchange or transfer of items to an event with a sudden reveal.
For this reason, don’t ask your gift recipient what they want directly. While there are some exceptions to this rule—people who only want one thing or are notoriously difficult to buy gifts for—it’s best to think of a gift yourself. If you do crave the gift recipient’s input, you can enlist the help of a friend or a loved one. Their friend may be able to recount something they’ve said about their interests, perhaps an off-hand comment about wanting something, and could help you choose the perfect gift. Or, you can sneakily try to have those conversations with your recipient yourself. This adds to the experience when you reveal that you thought of the gift because of a conversation you had a while back.
Get a Gift Receipt
More practically, provide a gift receipt whenever possible. Though you can do your sleuthing to discover what they want, you can never know for sure if a gift will fit. The person you’re giving the gift to could not enjoy the gift, want to buy something else, already have the same item, or the gift you gave could be otherwise redundant. The reasons for returning a gift are plenty, many of which don’t involve the gift recipient disliking it.
A gift receipt graciously gives them the option to return it and use the money in other ways if they so choose. Give a gift receipt and don’t look back, and they’ll thank you regardless of whether they keep the gift or not.
Don’t Overshoot an Agreed-Upon Budget
Additionally, don’t knowingly overshoot a gifting budget that’s in place. These restrictions, whether unspoken or overtly set, help people plan their giving and avoid comparison of their gift with the gifts of others. When you spend more than the allotted twenty dollars, let’s say, you risk making your recipient feel uncomfortable and changing the dynamic of an event.
The person you give to, while they may perhaps appreciate your generosity, will wonder why you went over the budget for them, leading to some awkwardness depending on who you’re giving the gift to. The larger issue is how others would feel. They may think their gift is inadequate in comparison and be angry. Others may think you’re looking for undue attention. To steer clear of this, challenge yourself to find a great gift that fits the typical gifting range of the occasion.
Stick to the Registry
Another unspoken gift etiquette tip pertaining to weddings and baby showers is to buy from the registry rather than going rogue. This is one time when buying something someone asked for is perfectly fine. Some people might want to stand out from the crowd and get a couple or new parents something they didn’t ask for. Resist this impulse, or at least channel it away from buying things that aren’t in the registry.
Buying from the registry affords you an easy, fail-safe gifting option. Once you buy something, find ways to personalize it so it feels special. Add a heartfelt card, wrap it in a unique way, include little accessories that complement your gift, or slip in a nice book or decorative piece in with the gift. Overall, find ways to make your mark without siphoning too much money away from buying things off the registry.
Don’t Buy Things That Require Further Purchases
This is especially important when buying for kids—don’t buy toys that require further purchases. The most well-known example is buying a toy that doesn’t come with batteries included. In one birthday, parents may be on the hook for several handfuls of batteries. This introduces an unexpected (and dreaded) extra expense around kids’ birthdays and other holidays.
If you do buy toys that require batteries, gift the batteries as well. If you’re feeling generous, give an entire pack. Make sure to study the toys you purchase as well. Some toys fit within a larger structure with boards, parts, devices, and more, and only work when put together. The last thing you want is to rope the parents into giving an unplayable toy that requires a second purchase for their kids to enjoy.
Avoid Hastily Bought Generic Gifts
Generic gifts that give the appearance you bought them on the way to the party are another faux pas. People greatly prefer gifts that uniquely fit them and enjoy when others put effort into a kind gesture. Buy your gifts well in advance so you don’t forget, and take the time to decide a more personal gift.
Whether you buy unique vintage gifts from a bygone era they loved or handcrafted gifts you crafted yourself, they’re sure to like it more than a random trinket. It’s best to eschew anything that looks like it could have been sitting on a checkout impulse-buy lane just hours before you arrived.
If in Doubt, Give a Small Gift
If there is ever any doubt about whether you should give someone or a group of people a gift, it’s typically safe to come with something small. Doubt arises during workplace and extended family events. While you may give gifts to some coworkers and family members each year, it’s hard to adapt when you celebrate holidays differently the next year.
To set your mind at ease and avoid receiving gifts without giving, compromise by getting a candle, a piece of home décor, or another small item. If you didn’t need to give anything, you can still show thoughtfulness without making your recipient feel guilty about not giving you something back.