7 Rules Your Mom Never Taught You about Gift Giving

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Is my mom helping a 16-month-old me unwrap this gift…or is she racing to finish wrapping it because company was about to arrive?

If it was like every other Christmas I can remember, I can guarantee it was the latter. No matter how hard my mom tried, gift wrapping was always just-in-time.

Much of what we learned about gift giving happened in childhood. Your mom probably taught you to bring a gift to a birthday party and may have even shown you how to wrap it. (“A crisp corner fold makes for a smooth side!”)

If you’re like most people, your mom likely taught you to get gifts for your siblings and the adults in your life; made sure you had a gift to bring to a birthday party; and may have even insisted upon handwritten thank you notes.

What your mom didn’t teach you is arguably THE most important part of gift giving: how to get a great gift. If you’ve ever struggled to come up with an idea for someone’s birthday or received a gift that you absolutely hated, you know that getting a great gift isn’t always as easy.

Most of us will give at least 20 gifts this year—which seems like a lot, until you add up all those birthdays, holidays, weddings and other events. When we give a great gift, we have the opportunity to delight someone we love, which in turn makes us happier.

I’ve studied gift giving and believe that there are some unwritten rules that you need to know so the gifts you give are consistently winners:

RULE #1:

It’s no wonder that giving a gift can sometimes feel like a lot of work. You have to buy or make the gift, wrap it, find a card or note to include, and sometimes, you even have to ship it.

The next time you’re searching for a gift and it feels like a chore, pause for a moment and remember: you don’t “have to” get a gift, you “get to.”

The fact that you’re looking for a gift means you’re fortunate enough to have someone in your life you care so much about you want to give them something in celebration of a special moment in their life. By simply changing your perspective, you can make finding a gift an act of love instead of a chore.

Gotta get a gift? Lucky you!




Have you ever witnessed a kid sitting on Santa’s lap in the mall? The bearded fellow usually asks, “And what would you like for Christmas?”

The child reveals his gift wish to Santa and is sent off with a candy cane and a hearty ho-ho-ho. The answer given either elicits knowing smiles from the parents…or it sends them scrambling to alert the elves at the North Pole of an incoming request.

Fast forward to Christmas morning and the child who receives his requested gift is beaming…assuming batteries are included. (Consider this your public service announcement to stock-up now.)

It turns out that getting someone what they want is good advice for adults as well.

Research conducted by Professors Francis Flynn of Stanford University and Francesca Gino of Harvard University found that when people specified a gift they would like to receive, they were much more satisfied when they received the item they had requested vs. something else.  

The studies also found a significant difference in perception between givers and receivers. People who bypassed the requested gift (perhaps because they thought it was too easy?) and instead gave a different item thought their extra efforts would be viewed positively.  It turns out that those receiving the gifts felt very differently. They rated people who gave the requested item as “thoughtful and considerate.”

I learned this lesson firsthand several years ago when a friend requested a paper shredder for her birthday. A paper shredder?  Really?!??   I wasn’t entirely sure if she was serious or not, but I purchased the paper shredder.

When she opened up the gift, she said, “FINALLY!  For the past two years, I’ve asked my husband for a paper shredder for my birthday and he got me clothes.”  It turns out her husband thought he was being extra thoughtful by selecting new clothes; meanwhile, all she wanted was something to shred her monthly credit card statements into little pieces.

Get ‘em what want and your gifts are sure to delight.



I often ask people, “What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?”

Though the actual items have ranged from books to jewelry to homemade cookies, there’s a common denominator: the gifts all have a sentimental quality. This sentimental quality makes us feel warm and fuzzy which is precisely why we remember these gifts best.

Gifts can be viewed as sentimental for a variety of reasons:

  • The gift is closely associated with the giver (that baseball mitt your dad gave you for your 10th birthday)
  • The giver gave something that was highly valued by the receiver (the cousin who took you to buy an interview suit as a college graduation gift)
  • The gifts clearly display a heartfelt sentiment (the photo book a friend made for you showing pictures of the two of you through the years)
  • The giver did something outside their comfort zone to make the receiver happy (the husband who never makes a meal yet makes his wife breakfast in bed for an anniversary gift)

We all want to know we matter, especially to our loved ones. Sentimental gifts can remind us of that when we open them and for many years to come.


Adding a personal touch to any gift instantly makes it more special. That little bit of “insider” knowledge can turn a gift from something ordinary into something meaningful.

The good news? Doing so doesn’t have to take lots of time, effort or money.

Buying someone a tea kettle for their new home?
The next time you’re at the grocery store, get a box of tea in a flavor you know they like and tuck it inside.

Giving a friend a book by his favorite author?
Include a photo of the two of you to use as a bookmark. Add a witty caption, “Hope this part of the story is as exciting as that road trip we did to Vegas…”

Even a gift card or gift certificate can be injected with a bit of personality.

Giving your in-laws a gift certificate to a local restaurant they’ve wanted to try?
You can make the gift more interesting by printing out an online menu and highlighting a few dishes you think they might enjoy.

Each one of these little touches demonstrates an awareness of what the person likes and conveys a sense of intimacy. (Plus, in each of the examples above, the personal touch puts some fun into the functional.)




When people start thinking about gift ideas, the majority of people think about “things” they could get the person.

It turns out that gifting an experience—tickets to a concert, show or sporting event; an invitation to afternoon tea at a favorite restaurant; lessons to learn the ukulele—can result in some of the most memorable gifts of all.

A variety of studies have indicated that gifting an experience can result in higher levels of satisfaction than gifting a material item. This seems to be because these experiential gifts have longer “emotional horizons”:  the person is delighted when they learn of their experiential gift; they anticipate the experience in the days leading up to it; they have the enjoyment of the experience itself; and then relive the memory of the experience.

There’s another category of experiences that I’ve become especially fond of lately. Rather than gifting an experience for the person to “do”, you can gift an experience so the person “doesn’t have to do” something.

Think about the pain points the person might have, or even things they complain about regularly, and see if there’s a service you can gift to make their life a bit easier.

Does your bachelor brother kvetch about having to clean?
A birthday gift of a cleaning service might make him a lot less cranky after his next Super Bowl party.

Is shoveling snow becoming tougher on your aging aunt and uncle?
A gift for snow removal service might ease their burden (and your worry!).

Experiences may not fit in a box but they’re some of the most favorite gifts of all. For downsizing retirees, minimalists and those who don’t need any more “stuff”, experiences can be particularly thoughtful because they don’t take up space in their home.



Ever open a gift and have no clue why the person gave it to you? These gifts are cast aside, returned or regifted because we’re not sure what to do with them.

I was at a birthday party recently and a friend opened up a gift from someone who had known her for years. It was a blender. She was puzzled—she seldom used the blender she already owned and she couldn’t remember expressing interest in a new one.

At a happy hour several months later, the person who gave her the blender asked, “Have you been able to replicate the frozen margaritas from this place? The blender I gave you was supposed to crush ice in similarly sized chunks.”

The next time you give someone a gift, help the person understand WHY you selected it. You can always tell the person as they’re opening the gift, but it’s even more impactful if you include the reason in a greeting card or gift note. This small bit of insight helps the receiver understand why you made the selection you did and allows them to view the gift through your eyes.

As an example, you purchase a cookbook as a housewarming gift for a friend who enjoys Italian food. You could just write “Best Wishes for Your New Home“ in a card, or you could add a bit more:

“I saw this cookbook and it reminded me of that trip to Italy we took several years ago. The Pasta Pomodoro recipe looks as good as the one we had at the little restaurant overlooking the water. I bet your new kitchen will make the dish even more delicious! ”

A written note has the added benefit of being able to be re-read again, whether in the quiet after the party or because the person wants to relive the happy memory again. And for those who sometimes struggle articulating emotion, it’s often easier to write a sweet sentiment than it is to say it.



When people find gift giving to be stressful, it’s often because they know they need a gift for an upcoming birthday, anniversary or holiday, but they don’t know what to get, where to get it or when they’ll have time to purchase, wrap and give the gift.

I’ve studied gift giving and believe you can vastly improve your experience if you have a game plan. A game plan is a structured approach to help you identify, select and wrap a great gift. Even more importantly, a game plan can help you:

  • Find gifts that people enjoy more
  • Make gift giving less stressful and more enjoyable
  • Save time looking for gifts
  • Save money by avoiding rush charges and unwanted gifts
  • More confidently give gifts to the special people in your life

Trying to buy a gift without a game plan would be like inviting friends over for dinner, but having no clue what to serve, when or where you would go grocery shopping, what sort of prep was necessary and whether you’d eat in the dining room, at the kitchen island or in the backyard. (Maybe going out to dinner is a better idea?)

Check your calendar for the next occasion in your life where you’ll want to give a gift. If you’re not sure what to get or feel like you could use a few tips, try a gift game plan.  I’m convinced it can make your gift giving experience better—for you and the lucky person at the receiving end.

Follow these seven rules and watch your gifts delight like never before!