Tips on How to Buy Holiday Gifts for Family Members Who Hate Gifts

Lindsay Goldwert
November 13th, 2020 | 7 min

When it comes to giving holiday gifts to your family, it’s the thought that counts. Unless you’ve got a family member who hates your thoughts. Our loved ones can be tough customers when it comes to giving them gifts that they’ll actually like.

They may not want us to waste our money. They may be indecisive. They may just be picky or just flat out don’t want a present. That’s when it’s important to be creative.

“My family is impossible to buy gifts for, especially since they just buy what they want,” said Angela, a 36 year-old entrepreneur from Washington DC. “I’ve started focusing on giving them things they’d never think to buy themselves - one Christmas we gave everyone lottery scratch-offs with gold coin chocolates as stocking stuffers. I've designed a custom stack of cards that can be shared across our entire extended family.”

Since so many of us will be far away from our families for the holidays, giving gifts can feel extra fraught. We asked our friends and colleagues for their top tips for buying holiday gifts for family members who deserve better than a generic gift certificate or an ugly Christmas sweater:

Don’t ask “what do you want?”

Instead, ask, “what do you need?” Your mom or dad may not want anything other than a card from you but maybe, if you ask them what they’re running out of or what they love that’s been broken or damaged, it may convince them to grudgingly accept the gift.

“My father is impossible to buy gifts for, he always says, ‘don’t waste your money!’ But I can’t get him nothing!” said Joe, a 45 year-old attorney from Philadelphia. “So I always ask him what he’s running low on and I buy him that. Sometimes it’s really silly, like a shaving cream he likes or soap. But he is happy to receive it and we’re all like, ‘whew’.”

A gift can also be a needed service, something that a family member would love to have but would never spring for for themselves.

“My sister had just had her third kid and didn’t want anything, her house was already overflowing with clutter,” said Amanda, a 30 year-old marketing associate from Dallas. “So my brother and I chipped in and got her gift certificate for a cleaning service. We were worried she’d be offended but she cried (with happiness).”

Think about what they value

Not everyone can use a new scarf or has the time to read a juicy bestseller. Think about what makes that family member happy on a day-to-day basis versus trying to make them smile when they unwrap the gift.

“My mother and stepfather love to cook and make elaborate meals but they don’t want to take cooking classes and they have a thousand cookbooks and a ton of cookware,” said Ellen, a 38 year-old logistics supervisor from Toledo. “We decided that we’d only give them gifts they could eat or drink. Now they get wine or fancy olive oil or a big chunk of really good cheddar or parmigiano reggiano cheese.”

If a family member values family but not gifts from family, go with that.

“We thought it would be so cheesy to send my parents a bunch of framed photos but they loved them,” said Jonah, a 36 year-old software developer from Oakland. “We found an old photo of my grandfather from World War II in his uniform and my parents actually took my graduation photo down to display it. Fine with me, I hate that picture.”

Think about what they’re missing out on

This has been a tough year for a lot of our families. Many of our loved ones are working extra hours and money is tight. Thinking about their basic needs and what will keep them healthy and happy is always the right thing to do.

“The pandemic has been really hard on my family, especially my parents who live in a rural area without many food options outside of Wal-mart,” said Evan, a 35 year-old engineer from Charlottesville,Va. “That's left my parents in a lurch when it comes to high quality meats and vegetables that aren't in a can.”

“Many local butcher shops and produce markets are actively doing delivery (for a small fee) and it's been a wonderful way to give them something from the comfort and safety of my own home,” he said. “Just a quick internet search for butchers in their area, and boom –I can get it delivered on time, and Mom and Dad can have a decent meal.”

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