A regular seasonal struggle of choosing the right gift for friends/family.

How can a decision be made of what to give while keeping the element of surprise intact?

7 Answers 7


A gift or a present is an item given to someone without the expectation of payment or return. An item is not a gift, if that item, itself, is already owned by the one to whom it is given.

Key is to gift something which is in receiver's required-list or wish-list. It is a tricky job which may or may not be easy as it sounds.

"Before that happiness, there is a storm of stress."

My strategy [has worked with my friends and family]:

  • Silently analyze their hobbies, lifestyle. [You may have to stalk.]
  • Based on that, identify items they may likely want to have. Get him/her in a conversation and talk very generic about the topic of that item or category.
  • Look into past to make it nostalgic (personal preference)

For example, I gifted "Insta Pot" to my sister. I knew she loves cooking and has less time for herself. I got her in a conversation saying "Hey, did you hear about Instapot?", Sister responded "Yes! It's a great time-saving device for cooking." I ended that conversation and jumped to another topic.

And then, it explained me to pick that as a gift and she didn't know that it was coming. She was quite surprised.

Tip: Be unusual while gifting. For example, if you follow same tradition/approach of gifting them, change a little bit which will increase the level of the surprise factor.

Happy Holidays!

  • Thank you for a helpful recommendation! One possible issue with this approach is the 'get him/her in a conversation' about hobbies/interests...the intent might not entirely be lost on someone 3 weeks before Christmas after a year of talking about things unrelated to these things. This also assumes time for stalking or doing other detective work about their hobbies etc. But I guess you are right that this might be the only way to end up giving something they would actually need/want. My personal take is that I already have everything I need, and would rather buy for myself everything I want..
    – A.S
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 19:46
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    Yes, I agree. That's something I would recommend to keep is usual so that your friend or family member don't find it different and out of the blue. You can check with another friend/family member about what the receiver wants or his/her current wish/list. Thanks.
    – GC 13
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 20:32

We gave up trying to second-guess each other. Each family member makes a list and hangs it on a board in the kitchen. The other family members arrange among themselves who gets what and everybody's happy. Try and make the list nice and long, and varied by price, size and wow! effect.

The Amazon wish-list is ideal for this purpose too.

But you do have to restrain yourself for a few months and not buy those items for yourself.


The only strategy that I found, which works for me, is to observe and take note of anything that comes up in terms of interests, noticing heavily used items that could use an upgrade or replacement, or even a passing comment about something they'd like to have. Maybe it's just a long, wistful glance through a shop window that you will notice.

It might be a bit late for this year, but the trick is to not start with this a couple of weeks before Christmas, but make it a habit all year round. Whenever you notice something or an idea crosses your mind, write it down.

Quite a few of those ideas will have become obsolete by the time Christmas or birthdays come up, but you'll still end up with a helpful list to work off.

  • Thank you for good suggestions. Making a habit of noticing what your friends or loved ones are interested in or need but are not able to obtain for themselves is probably a good all-around habit that 'keeps on giving' not just during holiday season but over a lifetime.
    – A.S
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 20:54
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    You a right about the "keeps on giving". The level of interest you keep showing once you have adoped this habit also has some good side effects on the daily interaction. It's also not just items that people can't support themselves you should watch out for, but most often those things that people could get themselves, could use, and would like - but still don't get for themselves because they just cross that line of indulgence.
    – Halin
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 21:35
  • Indeed. But on the other hand perhaps there is a good reason someone doesn't cross that line, e.g. b/c they know it's not healthy/good influence/addictive/peddles to lower instincts/etc. I think there are different types of wants: those people have in earnest out of a desire to improve themselves, and baser cravings or impulses. For example I may constantly whine about wanting a $3000 watch but do I really want it? Maybe I know I'll break or lose it so I intentionally stay away. So caution is warranted before enabling others to satisfy certain types of wants...and careful communication.
    – A.S
    Commented Dec 9, 2017 at 0:49

Two techniques I've used with success:

  • Ask someone else who is closer to the person you're buying for - for example, if you were looking for a gift for your father, ask your mother what he would like.

  • Make a list - the recipient makes a list of things they would like, you then take that list and buy one (or more) things from it - that way you can be sure of getting something they want, but still keeping at least part of the element of surprise.

  • The list idea seems like a good balance of predictability and surprise, thanks! Good hack. As long as they don't prioritize the list, there will be no disappointments... Also some people only want one or two things, which might throw a wrinkle into the method. I guess less isn't always more? ;)
    – A.S
    Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 15:26

What my wife does is take people shopping, well before Xmas and show them items to see their reactions (of course, she never mentions Xmas and pretends that she is looking for something for herself, mostly but not all the time so that it doesn't look too obvious). It's a bit like manipulating people for a good cause. I couldn't be bothered to do that though.

When I need an original gift for her, I take the kids to town and let them do the thinking (no special instruction is needed: "My, my, my, It's Mom's birthday next week, isn't it?" usually does the trick beautifully.

  • @ maneesh mohan, I'm sure you meant well when you edited my answer but it's obvious that you actually added mistakes and even turned one of my sentences into something completely different. Could you please refrain from editing my stuff next time. Thank you.
    – user45784
    Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 7:19

I personally keep my eyes open for sales everywhere and all year for things that people close to me and even people I don't even know yet might like or enjoy (for the unexpected event you're suddenly invited to and don't have a gift for). I find you such gifts that places like TJ maxx, marshalls, big lots, Ollie's and even the salvation army. Completely random things. One store's close-out items, another stores top seller. All sorts of different variations of products with new items coming constantly. Constantly finding tons of items that people on my list will love... Even if I find it in June and have to hang on to it for months.


Observation and thoughtfulness. Example : I know someone who loves scottish-style shortbread, but one year I got her some and other people piled in and ate most of it. This year I got her artisan lemon flavour shortbread, knowing that no one else here likes that flavour. So a point to me for getting something she liked, and an extra point for making it exclusive and also focused on her preferences. Observation should give you most of what you need to solve this problem. She did say "no one will steal it!" the moment she opened the package

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