Broker Check
How to Give Bad Gifts

How to Give Bad Gifts

April 22, 2024

Many of my clients have already heard me talk about gifting in tax efficient ways, giving in ways that maximize your legacy, and passing wealth to your kids in ways that leave a positive impact. Today is more about giving good gifts in everyday life–something we grapple with throughout the year. Birthdays, holidays, weddings, baby showers, anniversaries, and more pepper our calendars. The question that naturally arises over and over is:

“What should I get them?”

 Today we offer tools to help you answer this question.

Something I have realized is that great gift-giving is often a function of your ears. Do you listen to the person? Conversations drop hints if you listen. The more you know about someone, the easier it is to identify what they would appreciate. Your cousin who raves about pickleball might appreciate a set of kneepads or a new paddle. The second time you hear your brother complain about his lower back at Thanksgiving, consider gifting him an hour or two with a massage therapist for Christmas.

You are listening for a need, a want, or a problem. It might be saving someone time. It could be forcing a solution by gifting something they wouldn’t normally buy themselves. Sometimes you can even shake the metaphorical apple tree by simply asking questions if you are truly stumped. The key is to ask the right questions. Do not be the half-hearted husband/wife who goes, “So what do you want for Mother’s/Father’s Day?” It’s not that it’s necessarily lazy–the problem is the question often determines the answer. That question seems open-ended at first glance, but people tend to respond to “What do you want?” with one or two default answers: “I don’t know” or “You don’t need to get me anything.” They are the easy outs–the path of least resistance because they are quick and require little thought. And they don’t help you give great gifts.

Instead, you might ask another way–a way that easily opens the gate, inviting someone to share.

“Do you like the feel of your office? Does it need something?”

“What’s missing in your mancave?”

“What would you like to see this year? If you could get away for a weekend, where would you go?”

“Have you seen the new (cool item) at (store they like)?”

“Have you heard of the new (gadget) that helps you do (fun activity)?”

“What is a fun outing we could take (grandchild/other family member/friend) on? Something memorable?”

These kinds of questions often elicit a better reaction–they are narrower in scope but also leave space for a real answer. And depending on the response and emotion, you can decide if there is something there or not.

What you do NOT want to do is throw a dart in the dark and just get a gift you think they might like on a hunch. Tony Robbins has an unrelated but popular Ted Talk where he asks the audience “How many of you like surprises?”

The entire audience raises their hands, caught up in his energy and enthusiasm.

“Bull shit. You like the surprises you want!” The crowd laughs sheepishly as they realize he’s right. This should be a foundational principle for gift-giving–unless you have the strongest of hunches based on other things you know the person loves, don’t shoot in the dark.

The best example I can think of: people who go to the trouble of creating wedding registries/baby registries do it for a reason. We had a friend who received four crockpots for his wedding. Notably, crock pots were not on their wedding registry. They kept two, though they only really had room for one, gave one to their uncle who said he “had room for a backup”, and then gave the other to Goodwill. I doubt the gifter of that fourth crockpot intended to give the crockpot to a nonprofit that then resold it to a stranger (though it assumedly went to someone who wanted it!). Don’t give someone something random unless you truly think they are spontaneous enough to appreciate it.

Something else I also highly recommend when possible: create a think tank. Asking friends and family to join in on the process achieves several things. First, it curates the recipient’s overall experience: you won’t get your fierce, heavily tatted, hopper-riding uncle Boris an adorable kitty squishmallow if his wife is already getting him one (though let’s face it: Boris probably needs two).

Putting heads together with family and friends also effectively grants you a spy network–you can compare notes of what you heard they want, need, or like. This can yield the beautiful response we gift givers yearn for. If you have never seen The Santa Clause 2, there is a wonderful scene where Scott Calvin (Santa incognito in that moment) passes a deep-voiced gentleman a present at an otherwise boring Christmas party. He rips the wrapping paper off with eyes like saucers and yells with a grin from ear to ear “This is Toss-Across! I used to love this game when I was a kid. But I never told anybody! Who, who did this?!?” Getting reactions like that from people (“How did you know?!”) can often be achieved by the little birdies chirping behind the scenes together.

There is perhaps an even better reason to join forces with friends and family. For something like a birthday, each individual might get something cool or nice or appreciated. But occasionally a group can get together, pool money, and blow someone’s mind with a huge gift no single person would have been comfortable paying for. Mom for her birthday might ordinarily get a couple nights out at the movies and her favorite restaurant, flowers, a gift card, a necklace she likes, some odds and ends, books, a little chocolate…or the entire family could pitch in for an all-inclusive spa trip that leaves her with an unforgettable experience.

This brings me to a tip about good gifts: studies say the best gifts tend to be experiences. Of course, there is that dad who really wants the giant new super-hyper-ultra-mega high-definition TV so he can see the hair follicles on his favorite actor’s earlobe (one could argue that is an experience in itself, I suppose–just make sure you give him a hard time if he isn’t wearing his glasses!). But let me give you an example: for Christmas, Brooke and I gave my grandmother a trip to the Tacoma Children’s Museum with us and our daughter Belle. We had a great few hours playing with Belle, grabbed lunch after, took a few pictures, and made a memory. We could have donated to her favorite charity instead…and it would have faded into the background, never to be seen again, even if it did some good in the world. Three guesses which one she preferred.

Of course, we can’t always give our time or expensive vacations, but we might still give someone a place to visit or an experience to enjoy. I remember that same grandmother gave me her old car for my 16th birthday (contingent that I shared it with my brothers). My mother didn’t have the means for anything like that…so she instead invented a scavenger hunt with clues around the local mall. She sent me all over the place with a piece of paper, ultimately leading me to the old car with my grandma in the far parking lot. Looking back, both were incredible gifts I will never forget.

Good gift giving is as much defined by what it is not. Gifts should be about the recipient, not the giver. Another great example, this time of what not to do: there was a salesperson who thought he would get in my good graces by bringing doughnuts to the office. But he didn’t know his audience—had he known me, he would know I am a healthy eater who avoids those kinds of foods like the plague. It was a great example of someone shooting in the dark and having the opposite effect. And we have seen many spectacular examples of bad gifts: a bottle of wine to an acquaintance who is ten years sober, homemade snickerdoodles to someone allergic to cinnamon with Celiac disease, and my (un)favorite, tickets to an escape room for someone who happened to be extremely claustrophobic.

Bad gifts don’t have to be cringeworthy-bad–they can also be just plain bad. Don’t give people something that will just clutter their house. Brooke would take me to task if I gave her a plant–one more thing she has to worry about keeping alive when we already have two under three.

It might seem bad at first glance, but consider giving a gift card or cash if they really are saving up for something that they want (gift cards abound when we are six months away from a trip to Disneyland, for example). If you hear someone talking about how they rarely go out as a couple, force the issue with a gift card. Contrary to popular belief, you can still be thoughtful by giving someone gift cards or cash; especially if it helps create a memorable experience.

I will leave you with a last thought that will complicate my code of gifting: bad gifts can be good. Again, it all comes down to knowing and listening to who the gift is for. For most people, gifting a new cleaning utensil would probably lead to a family argument. In my house, new cleaning apparati are lovely gifts for my wife. The key to my heart is probably in my stomach–the key to hers is nestled somewhere between laundry detergent and a cordless Dyson vacuum cleaner. She likes how cleaning makes her feel, so it makes sense–in the words of banking regulations, Know Your Customer.

Last but not least, and certainly the most confusing–the worst gifts can be some of the best gifts. There is a realm of gifts entitled “So Bad It’s Good”. Gag gifts and hilarious duds can yield laughs and memories for years to come. In case anyone wants to know the best worst gift I ever received, please enjoy here. Happy gifting, everyone! 


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