5-ish Steps to Shopping Efficiently while Getting Stuff People Want

Just yesterday, I was talking with a friend about Christmas gifts. He said he hated surprises because he’s unprepared to dislike gifts. My mom has disliked surprises since before I can remember for mostly the same reason.

As Christmas creeps ever-closer, I am (in typical Monster-fashion) finally taking time to search for gifts for family and friends. A major reason for my procrastination is simply that we had to see what was left after bills. That’s just part of being a young couple, having a young child and a fur-baby, and one of us being a graduate student. But the other, much more significant reason for putting off buying the presents is this: it takes me little to no time to buy presents, and I almost always nail the gift choice-I bought a Frank Herbert obsessed family member a first edition copy of Dune once, and back in the fifth grade, a girl (who I hope remained so funnily honest) told me once, very frankly, that “everyone said you buy the best presents, so I’m glad we’re friends and you’re at my birthday party.”  And while I might not be the best, I think I’m a pretty good gift-giver. Here’s why: I spend a lot of time planning which gifts to buy. 

So in the spirit of the season, I’ll give you some of my gift-giving basics.

1. Decide on a budget that I can realistically afford. This is a really, really important one. I always do this first, before I even start thinking of how many folks need presents. (Seriously, I don’t want to end up eating Ramen noodles through half of January, and if I start thinking about how many folks I need to buy presents for WHILE deciding on a budget, I panic.)

2. Now I make a list of people I need to buy presents for.

3. I decide, based on how long my list is and the size of my budget, how much money I’m going to spend on individual presents. I generally do this by:

  • taking 45% of my budget out, to be divided between the fiancee and the little Jedi,
  • then using 45% family presents and
  • 10% for close friends.

As I have a decently-sized family now, with 13 members apart from Sam and the little Jedi, they warrant a significant portion of the budget. As I am a graduate student with many graduate student friends, and as Sam is an indie filmmaker with a lot of indie filmmaker friends, and as we are a young couple, we know mostly young, new families like us, and so we have a finite number of friends with whom we exchange presents. I expect this will change over time to include another family member or two and even a new category or two-colleagues, in particular.

4. This is a crucial part of the philosophy: I spend time listening to what my potential present-getters say they want. People will often say “I wish I had a…” or “it would be nice to have a…” or even “oh, that would be cool to own.” I try to find the thing they wish they had in the price range I can afford. As such, my gifts tend to fall into 5 categories:

  • 4a. Things they’ve said they want. A new radio, some fancy stationary, a pretty scarf, whatever. Something I’ve heard them say one of those phrases about but not seen them with.
  • 4b. A book. If I haven’t heard them say anything specific that they want, I think of something that I know they love. I will often then buy them a book about that thing, fiction or nonfiction. (My brother once received The Pirate Primer from me, and I’m happy to see it on the bookshelf in his new office; my soon-to-be-sister-in-law loves comic books and girl-power, so I bought her Womanthology last year.)
  • 4c. Something unexpected. This is something that it hasn’t occurred to them to want. If they don’t read often (like my fiancee), I turn to some kind of fun/funky product: a Batman Christmas ornament, a banana wines-stopper, a coffee mug with a favorite character on it, etc.
  • 4d. A small luxury. We end up not splurging on things when we’re trying to keep to a budget and/or when we’re in the midst of trying to keep up with responsibilities. A “movie kit” with popcorn, some candies, and a DVD and/or a gift card to a local theater; a “coffee lovers” kit” with a nice mug, some good coffee, and some chocolate covered coffee beans; a pre-paid hair cut and color (for a woman like me, who loves the salon but has to wait a few months between visits, this would be amazing).
  • 4e. Something crafty. I can sometimes pull this off, sometimes not. My skill set is around a 4 of 10 right now, and I have a high percentage of Pinterest fails.

5. I write down a list that consists of-person, item, cost, place to buy it. And I make sure I’m under or on my budget. Then I:

  • 5a. find as much of it online as I can (and always take advantage of shipping cost specials!)
  • 5b. and combine the others to make as few trips as possible.

Voila! I’m spending less than afternoon’s worth of time to buy presents that are still thoughtful.



Leave a Comment

    1. Thanks. It is probably the most important thing for me to remember and to really sit down and do before other stuff, because if not, I’ll just buy whatever I think so-and-so would enjoy and then find myself having spent way more than I can truly afford.

      My worst habit is saying that “oh $5 or $10 over budget won’t be a big difference,” but it really is when you’re talking about a list of 10-20 people.


      1. Exactly, it’s that which adds the most to the Christmas stress.i think it’s too easy to over commit like you say…a little quickly adds up – just as a little saving can 🙂


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