When I was in grade school, my then-single mom bought me something I wanted desperately: a set of The Beatles bobbleheads. Decades later, she shared that she had spent her last dollar on them, making it to her next paycheck by walking to work and returning pop bottles for grocery money. If my place ever catches fire, you can bet John, Paul, George and Ringo are coming out first. They are my best gift ever.
So what’s the secret to giving great gifts? We asked people about their best gifts and uncovered four: four ways to guarantee the gift you give will be memorable, meaningful and appreciated.
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The four secrets to giving the most meaningful gifts lie in stories behind each one. We’ve found that a gift becomes great when it does one of these:
- Shows someone that you really get them and that you know what matters to them.
- Reflects personal aspects of you or the connection the two of you share.
- Captures a specific and important time in someone’s life.
- Goes beyond the gift itself to become an experience.
Some of the best gifts we receive are the ones that relate to something that really matters to us.
Making someone feel like a winner
“Many years ago, I trained to run in the Chicago marathon and was heartbroken not to get to finish—they shut it down mid-race because of the heat. I’d trained so hard for it so to not finish was crushing. On my first day back to work, my co-workers had made a ‘finish line’ for me to cross at my office and written notes of encouragement to me.”—Sarah T.
Putting someone else first
“My wife and I usually agree on a general gift budget for each other each Christmas, and we usually stick to it. I had been bugging her for way too long about wanting to buy a stand mixer, and she had resisted because we didn’t have much counter space. When I unwrapped an unexpected and rule-breaking gift, a beautiful stainless steel KitchenAid stand mixer was staring me straight in the face. The fact that she surprised me with something she knew I wanted—something she knew I’d never buy for myself because of her hesitations about it—made it such a meaningful gift to me.”—Andrew B.
Knowing what someone really loves
“When my son Aaron was around 10, I got home from work to find him waiting for me at the door. It wasn’t quite my birthday, but he asked if he could give me my gift early. I said sure, and he said it was in the garage. On the way, my wife whispered to me that he was really excited and couldn’t wait. We walked around to the back of our van, Carolyn opened the hatch, and there was a bass guitar like the one Paul McCartney played. Aaron had heard me make an offhand comment several months earlier about what a cool bass it was. It was more bass than I ever would have bought for myself, and clearly his mom had paid for most of it. Still, I loved the bass, but even more I loved the fact that he remembered I had mentioned it.”—Bill G.
The best gifts don’t have to be unique—but they can be uniquely you. Many such gifts are handmade, whether an artistic creation or a home-cooked treat from a family recipe.
Giving someone extra love
“I once made a Mother’s Day gift for my mom after her mom had passed away. I found an old letter my grandmother had written to me, and I had the word ‘love’ in her handwriting made into a necklace so that my mom would always have her mom’s ‘love’ by her heart.”—Emily O.
Meeting someone’s needs
“When I was in college my new boyfriend found out I didn’t have a computer, so he cobbled together a ‘Frankenstein’ computer/monitor/printer system so I could write essays without heading back to campus late at night. It was so thoughtful, really useful and very appreciated. It wasn’t even a holiday; he saw a need and filled it. Of course, he was a keeper and I ended up marrying him.”—Diana St. J.
Baking up someone’s favorites
“My favorite memory is of my grandmother. She loved to bake, and Christmas cookies were her specialty. I remember waiting in the bay window on Christmas morning for the blue Toyota to pull into the driveway. Me and my sisters would run out to great her, carrying the Christmas decorated boxes filled with cookies. To this day, every time I bake the same kinds of cookies, I can’t help but smile big and remember her.”—Shelly W.
Many great gifts capture treasured memories. These might be keepsakes from school days or favorite vacations or even ways to display them and share their stories.
Putting someone’s memories in writing
“Fifteen years ago, I started memory boxes for the kids. Each Christmas, I will write down 12 or so memories, moments of achievement, even humorous things relating to them throughout the year. They get to read their new lists at Christmas, and then those lists go into a decorated box for each of them. It’s a very cool tradition for me to do for them, and for them to read.”—Leslea R.
Refilling someone’s toybox
“My husband has given me a few things from my childhood that I really loved. He found a Weebles Blimp just like the one I’d gotten as a gift during the one time I was in the hospital as a child. It showed that he really listens and cares.”—Catherine H.
Passing down someone’s legacy
“One of the most meaningful gifts I’ve received was a homemade recipe book filled with all the recipe cards, magazine cutouts, scribbles and so on that my grandmother had used. She had a big box of notecards that was filled with recipes written on whatever. My dad and his family spent several months scanning all the items and creating custom books for each of the grandchildren. I love looking through it and seeing grandma’s handwriting.”—Abigail B.
Memories of many great gifts become something beyond themselves. They are not simply presented—they are revealed in creative ways.
Burying someone’s treasure
“When I was 4 or 5, my college-age sister came home for Christmas and wouldn’t allow me into our basement. On Christmas morning, she gave me a treasure hunt that ended in the basement, which she had transformed into a whole maze with multiple sitting areas by using hundreds (okay, maybe a dozen or two) boxes. It was fantastic.”—Helen S-B.
Choosing a theme for someone’s gifts
“I love giving bundled gifts that offer something they want with something they need. For a housewarming, I might give tea towels decorated to represent the state someone is leaving and the state to which they’re moving, along with a bottle of good olive oil or booze, something yummy to munch on (perhaps native to the city they’ve moved to), and a nice piece of servingware or a picture frame.”—Lauren G.
Filling more than someone’s stocking
“When I was 5, Santa brought me an old-fashioned wooden school desk. I was so thrilled that it didn’t even occur to me for several minutes to lift up the desk lid. When I did, I found it loaded with glue sticks, pencils, crayons, stickers and construction paper. I still love those surprise-within-a-surprise gifts. Whenever I’ve given my daughters a purse or other container as a gift, I’ve always filled it with little extras.”—Keely C.