Your Guide to Unconventional Gift Giving

gift giving

I admit, I go a special kind of crazy when it comes to the holidays. I adore giving presents — one might even say it borders on obsession. I keep lists year round of things I think people will appreciate and take special note if I’m out with a friend who mentions how much those vintage roller skates remind her of the pair she owned as a child or how she’s always wanted to try a salsa dance lesson but could never spend that kind of money on herself. 

The gift-giving process, to me, creates a kind of alchemy that turns feelings of giving into feelings of gratitude. That’s not to say that there aren’t other ways to express appreciation and love, but how good does it feel to find a present you know will bring forth an amazed reaction? Something that elicits a throaty choking back of tears, an involuntary whoop of joy, a gasp of a recollected memory or a moment of silent appreciation?

You don’t need to be as obsessive as I am to pick a present that those who mean the most to you will find truly meaningful. Not sure where to start? Here are nine ideas that will take you from, “I have no idea what to give Aunt Leslie this year” to “How did you know I wanted this?!” 

Giving Thoughtfully

Giving Thoughtfully

I admit, I go a special kind of crazy when it comes to the holidays. I adore giving presents — one might even say it borders on obsession. I keep lists year round of things I think people will appreciate and take special note if I’m out with a friend who mentions how much those vintage roller skates remind her of the pair she owned as a child or how she’s always wanted to try a salsa dance lesson but could never spend that kind of money on herself. 

The gift-giving process, to me, creates a kind of alchemy that turns feelings of giving into feelings of gratitude. That’s not to say that there aren’t other ways to express appreciation and love, but how good does it feel to find a present you know will bring forth an amazed reaction? Something that elicits a throaty choking back of tears, an involuntary whoop of joy, a gasp of a recollected memory or a moment of silent appreciation?

You don’t need to be as obsessive as I am to pick a present that those who mean the most to you will find truly meaningful. Not sure where to start? Here are nine ideas that will take you from, “I have no idea what to give Aunt Leslie this year” to “How did you know I wanted this?!” 

The Gift of Memories

The Gift of Memories

The options for photo album printing services out there are endless, but if you want to go beyond your standard memory book, consider one of these.

Create a postcard pack ($29.99 from Artifact Uprising) and pledge to send one postcard a month to your far-away giftee. To save time, write all the postcards in one sitting. That could include funny quotes, random thoughts, or maybe a pretend observation about something in the future (I predict that on a random Wednesday in June, you’ll get something that makes you smile. And, oh look, here it is!) and mail them out at your leisure.

For the Instragram addict, Prinstagram offers a way to pull those memories off your phone into the real world. You could create a book of mini stickers ($10 for a set of two books), 365 days worth of prints for a calendar ($40) or a massive poster that holds anywhere from 50 to 200 of your favorite images ($25 or $35 depending on the size of the poster). Once you connect your Instagram account, you can also choose pictures you’ve favorited from your friends’ Instagram accounts, giving you an even bigger pool of images to choose from.

Photo courtesy of Artifact Uprising

The Gift of Experience

The Gift of Experience

Remember how that friend of yours always wanted to take salsa dance lessons? Now’s the time to think through what stands out in your mind as an experience someone wanted to do but never did. Because, hey, it’s never too late as long as you’re living.

It could be going skydiving, riding in a hot air balloon, learning how to speak a language or going on that hike to Machu Picchu. And if all this is starting to sound a little too spendy, consider giving one element that can help this gift happen. Say, a gift certificate to her favorite airline, gift card for the chain of Marriott Hotels or even, simply, making a mix CD of salsa music to help remind her not to let go of that dream just yet. 

The Twofer

The Twofer

Raise your hands if you know a potential giftee who likes the words “self-cleaning,” and keep those hands raised if that person also happens to love cooking. No, I’m not about to recommend a self-cleaning oven from GE.

The AcquaFarm by Back to the Roots ($59.95) is a self-cleaning fish tank that helps you grow food. According to Back to the Roots, they’ve created a “closed-loop sustainable farming system that combines traditional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals) with hydroponics (growing plants without soil).” To me that translates into: fresh herbs daily and a cute little fish named Mr. P that I can watch swim around in his tank, all without the hassle of having to clean out fish doo from a tank bi-weekly. Win-win.

Photo courtesy of The Grommet

The Gift of a Good Laugh

The Gift of a Good Laugh

This gift may not be for the faint of heart. And it’s only for the giftee with the right kind of personality, so you may want to skip this one if you can already see that pinched, pained look your grouchy Aunt Doris may give you if she receives this present.

Post-poo drops from Aesop ($29) are the classiest take on toilet humor I can find. The site describes them as something you can use after “vigorous activity has occurred in the bathroom,” and there isn’t a finer bottle that such a weird but — admit it — necessary product can come in. Reserve this gift for those white elephant gift exchanges that happen on your husband’s side of the family. Everyone will pretend not to want it, but you’ll know in their hearts they secretly do.

Photo courtesy of Aesop

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

I’m a fan of recurring presents because it’s one way to get the most value for your gift-giving buck — plus it extends the joy of receiving presents into those dark and dreary post-giving months. The trick is to make sure it’s something the giftee has a passion for, instead of just something that brings in more stuff that’s going to clutter her life and space.

Know an art collector? Check out Papirmass’ Art In the Mail ($69), which sends 12 prints by 12 artist and writers, one per month. For coffee lovers, you can gift a subscription to fresh-roasted coffee delivered bi-weekly (starting at $12). Consider Whimseybox ($45 for three months) for the friend who loves creating handmade goods and wants to be on the crafting cutting edge. And what about Naturebox ($19.95 per month) for the healthy snack fanatic? Lastly, for the woman who’s absolutely in love with her best friend Fluffy, throw one on the pile that indulges her dog family, too, with Barkbox (starting at $29 per month).

Photo courtesy of Papirmass

The Gift of More Time

The Gift of More Time

What’s the one thing every busy woman wants more of but can never have enough? Money Time! And while we can’t add more hours in a day (if you figure out how, call me), we can give a gift that gives more hours back.

Fancy Hands is a virtual personal assistant service that gives any giftee an extra pair of hands. Help your perpetually busy sister-in-law Sara get through her to-do list by outsourcing some of those time-consuming tasks. Fancy Hands does everything from calling to make the kid’s way-behind dentist appointments to researching the right plumber to reminding you that Uncle Chris’ birthday is tomorrow, and oh, here are some restaurant recommendations for his birthday dinner, too. Gift subscriptions start at $25 for five tasks. 

And if you want to go for something more tangible, consider giving the gift of clean ($45 towards one hour of cleaning) to that friend who's been complaining about her cluttered apartment. Step gently around this one: You don’t want anyone to assume there’s any judgement about her organizational skills, but if you have heard a friend exclaim, “I wish I could just live in a hotel and have my mess magically cleaned up for me!” then ding, ding, ding, we have a winner.

Photo courtesy of Fancy Hands

The Gift of Sight

The Gift of Sight

This is no pun. I’m talking about gifting something to someone that helps them see better, in style, so that your cousin Chelsey can ditch her rectangle rimmed glasses from the ’90s and step into the new millenium. 

Specs have never been more affordable with all the options they have online. Some of my faves are Warby Parker ($95 for a pair of glasses), Made Eyewear (which lets your giftee design a custom pair of glasses, starting at $84) and Rivet and Sway, which focuses exclusively on eyeglasses for women.

And for someone who already sees 20/20, consider gifting a pair of wooden sunglasses (starting at $75). Why, you ask? Why not? I say. 

Photo courtesy of Warby Parker

The Gift of Eat, Drink and Be Merry

The Gift of Eat, Drink and Be Merry

To make gifting spirits more thoughtful and less gratuitous, consider incorporating an inside joke or shared memory. For example, on my 30th birthday, my husband bought this ridiculously large bottle of champagne to celebrate. I would consider giving him the opposite, tiny miniatures of the same kind of champagne ($11.70), to evoke the memory. 

Another idea: Sniff out what kind beer or whiskey your father used to drink in college — something that will make him go, “Drinking this makes me feel 25 again.” Or whip up a batch of the fruity cocktails your mother used to serve at dinner parties when they were a young couple, newly married, to serve at the holiday dinner. You never realized that a piña colada could make your mom get so teary. 

For the snackers, consider stepping out on the experimental food ledge and gifting unexpected combos of delicious ingredients. Try: bacon cinnamon rolls ($14), green chile & lime caramel corn ($6.50), peach sriracha jam ($10), burnt sugar and fennel shortbread ($7) or chocolate, coffee + kumquat spread ($12). 

Feeling overwhelmed by all the choices? Choose blindly on names that make you giggle. I have no idea if these are delicious or not (but I’m guessing, probably, yes): la dee dahs ($8), lime in the coconut ($8), drunken monkey ($10),  PBJ OMG ($9) and Dreams Come Chew ($12). 

Photo courtesy of Brittany Garner Design

To Wrap Up

To Wrap Up

The perfect kind of unconventional gift begins with the thought. The phrase “It’s the thought that counts” isn’t just some euphemistic condolence you give yourself when someone gives you a present that’s slightly off; it’s a mantra you can use when scrolling through your gifting list. What makes a gift go from good to finger-on-the-nose great is all about knowing the person. Think about her personality, lifestyle, preferences, sense of humor and personal taste. Give something that makes the giftee realize how well you know and get her.

When I think about giving a present, I never want it to be just about an object the giftee could easily pick up for herself. More about a wish, an idea or dream she may have or had but could never indulge in. You hear how your mom reminisces about when she used to paint watercolors in college but had to drop the hobby when life became too busy? That’s a natural segue for an unconventional gift, bestowing the opportunity to say yes, you deserve this. Here it is.

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