The table was covered with a rich blue cloth and gold confetti, a gigantic cake in the shape of a yellow sunflower sitting in the middle. We gathered around in hushed tones, waiting for the telltale sound of the key in the doorknob. Then—finally—“SURPRISE!”
It was my mom’s 50th birthday, and we had struggled for weeks to figure out how to celebrate. When asked what she wanted, she said the eight little words that no prospective gift-giver wants to hear:
“Oh, you don’t need to get me anything.”
Are there any words more daunting? But, together, her best friends, my aunt, and I came up with a list of gifts and experiences we knew she’d love—and decided to cover our bases by throwing a big surprise party as well. That way, even if our presents fell flat, she’d still have a fun experience to look back on.
It worked! Not only did my mom have a wonderful time at her birthday—and two big pieces of cake—she also ended up loving her gifts. I opted for a homemade set of throw pillows, while her BFF gave her tickets to the theater; it was the perfect blend of practical, sentimental, and experiential, and I’ve taken what I learned from that big birthday year to develop a strategy for how to pick out a birthday present, the perfect present, for anyone, every time—in three easy steps.
Step 1: To Pick out a Present, Just Ask!
When I was in 8th grade, everything my sister got for Christmas was Harry Potter-themed, and I mean everything, from the set of sheets for her bed to the novelty tea cup and wand-shaped pen. She liked Harry Potter, but it was a bit much. As her smile began to waiver, it occurred to me that none of us had actually asked her what she wanted. It turns out she had grown out of her Harry Potter phase months ago and was now longing for a new CD player and the first Princess Diaries book. Oops.
My point? We could have given my sister what she truly wanted if we had just taken the time to ask! If your friend or family member has a birthday coming up, one of the easiest ways to keep track of what they’re interested in is to encourage them to start an online wish list on a gift giving website. Once they register for free, they can choose items from suggested gift guides or easily add their own coveted items from around the web to their list. There’s also an option to add their likes and dislikes if they want to leave things more open-ended.
To help the birthday girl or guy out, you can share the link to their wish list with the rest of their friends and family. Since you’re the one sharing the link, they won’t have to feel awkward about asking for gifts—and they’re guaranteed to get presents that they’ll love. And, no more stress from guessing on a gift so you can spend your time focusing on how much fun you’ll have at the party!
Step 2: Do Your Research to Pick out the Perfect Gift for Anyone
The crowd was swaying together, lost in the rhythmic pounding resounding from the speakers in front of the stage. I was at a concert to see one of my favorite new artists, Lizzo, all thanks to my best friend. She had noticed that I added a bunch of her songs to the playlist I like to blast in my car so when Lizzo came to town, my friend surprised me with tickets. I hadn’t even realized that she knew I liked this artist, and I was extra touched because of that; it just showed what a thoughtful and attentive friend she is (and the concert was a dancing, twirling, singing-at-the-top-of-my-lungs blast).
Sometimes, you do have to guess what to buy someone for their birthday; we all have a friend or loved one who, out of politeness, doesn’t want to give any hints as to what they’d enjoy getting. But a little sleuthing can lead you down the path to picking a perfect gift out for just about anyone.
- Ask their friends: Ask the birthday gal or guy’s friends, family members, or even any close co-workers if they have any ideas. Check with parents if you’re trying to pick a present for kids, whether it’s a toddler’s birthday party or a sweet sixteen or a 21st birthday. Chances are, they’ve let a hint drop here or there without even realizing it.
- Look around: The next time you’re at their house, in their car, or at their office, pay attention. If you’re over for dinner, you might notice them mentioning something they don’t have in the kitchen, or you might see that they like to light a lot of candles around the house and, voila, a gift idea! Also keep an eye out for any catalogs they may keep lying around that could give hints as to their favorite stores, authors on their bookshelves that could lead to a new literary gift, or any foods or drinks they tend to eat regularly or on special occasions that could be part of a DIY gift basket.
- Check social media: Peep at their Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook pages to see if they drop any hints there. See a photo they posted from their favorite restaurant? Consider a gift certificate! Did they “like” a band that’s coming through town? Concert tickets could be the way to go.
A little bit of detective work can go a long way toward finding the perfect gift for your love done, even if they’re being awfully subtle. The answer could be right in front of you, hidden in the location tag of a food pic or the tracks on a party playlist.
Step 3: Make it Personal When Picking out a Present
I’ll never forget the year my mom got a trash compactor for her anniversary. It doesn’t sound romantic, sure, but she was moved to tears when she opened it. That’s because, inside the oversized box, my dad had included a handwritten letter explaining why he gifted it. My parents had been slowly building and finishing their house throughout my early childhood. The trash compactor, utilitarian as it may be, was the final touch. My dad explained that now that the dream home they built together was complete, they could focus on the next exciting chapter of their marriage, focusing their energy on their future together.
A trash compactor will obviously not be a great gift for everyone, but the point is that including a personal touch can make even the most banal of gifts seem special. It could be anything from wrapping a kitchen tool, like a slow cooker, up with a framed photo collage featuring pictures from great meals you’ve shared together, or making a gift yourself, like putting together a jar of homemade granola or sewing a throw blanket that they need for their new easy chair.
Including a heartfelt card or note is always a good idea, too; I have dozens of birthday cards I’ve saved over the years that are far more precious to me than what they came attached to. Because that’s the whole point of a birthday present, anyway: letting someone know that you care about them, and that they’ve somehow touched your life.
It can feel daunting when you first set out to pick out the perfect birthday present for a loved one but, if you follow these three easy steps, you’re pretty much guaranteed to find a great gift that’ll show your friend or loved one that you care. It’s all about being attentive, whether that means being direct and just asking, crowdsourcing ideas from their community, browsing their social media feeds, or relying on sentiment alone.
At the end of the day, it’s not about the actual gift itself. It’s all about building your bond with someone you adore. On birthdays, we’re celebrating someone’s very existence, and there’s no better way to celebrate such an occasion than with a present that, no matter how humble, says, “You’re important to me.”
Still looking for the perfect present? Check out our Happy Birthday Gift Guide for more inspiration—and don’t forget to share your ideas with us on Elfster’s Facebook page, on Instagram @Elfstagram, and on Twitter @Elfster.
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