When it Comes to Buying For Difficult People, Useful Gifts Are the Best Gifts

But you should still at least try to put some thought into things.

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Every year it’s the same thing: You know you’ve got to get a gift for those difficult people on your Christmas list, but — despite the fact you’ve known them forever — you have no idea what to get. Generally, after weeks of trying to forget about it, you end up procrastinating to just before Christmas and settling on whatever gift card looks okay from the nearest pharmacy. But rather than repeat the same cycle this year, perhaps it’s time to give a second thought to the often-maligned practical gift.

It’s that dull-sounding word “practical” that has so undermined these kinds of gifts, so instead, try to think of them as gifts that are useful, not practical. After all, the only reason you always get Uncle John that same DIY store gift card every year is because you have no idea what the hell else he’d like — it’s useful. But a gift card is also rather uninspired. “I’m not a big fan of gift cards,” explains Laura Fabrizio, of Coastal Concierge, which offers gift-giving and other personal services. She explains that gift cards are basically the last resort of gift-giving and that, by putting a little bit of thought into things, the gesture will go a long way.

So what makes a good, useful gift? While this may seem obvious, Fabrizio says to take a few minutes to consider what someone will actually use. This excludes just about everything you’ve ever received from an office Christmas party: Head massagers, stupid mugs with pithy saying on them and all that other junk that you’re just itching to regift is not useful, so don’t be a jerk and gift it to someone else (unless it’s another office mate at next year’s Christmas party, in which case, go for it). 

Similarly, gifts like candles, generic booze and picture frames are also fodder for the regifting closet because literally no one ever needs them, and if they did, they would have bought them already. They may seem useful, but they require no thought regarding the individual you’re gifting it to, so it’s usually pretty worthless.

To find a properly useful gift requires some thought (but fortunately, not too much). Think about your buddy whose phone is always low on juice — a portable battery charger is a gift he’ll likely make use of. Same goes for things like earbuds and Bluetooth speakers, they’re not exciting gifts, but they probably won’t end up in the regifting bin because people always need them. For the DIY-loving uncle, a good multitool may be the way to go, and for the aunt who loves to cook, a nice new cutting board will always come in handy.

In addition to putting in a bit of personal thought, Fabrizio warns that you don’t want to go generic. By getting your aunt the nicer cutting board, it shows that you actually gave a crap about what you were gifting, as opposed to you trying to gift a dusty two-by-four you found in your basement and calling it a cutting board. 

You can even go practical for people close to you — your mom, for example — as long as you add a bit of personality to it. So if mom’s blender went bust, it’s totally cool to get her a nice new one: Just include a recipe and all the ingredients, or perhaps some smoothie mixes you know she likes — anything to personalize an otherwise practical gift.

Fabrizio says that in addition to the people you don’t know how to buy for, young people are often perfect recipients of useful gifts. “If they’re just starting out, a basic, practical gift may be great for the person,” Fabrizio says, so don’t hesitate to get them some kitchenware, some home tools or something for the bathroom (cough cough like a really nice shaving kit cough cough). After all, it’s something they’re actually going to use, which is the whole point of giving a gift in the first place.

The only time a useful gift is not a good idea is when it’s given to someone who’s expecting more. “I can’t imagine a husband getting his wife a vacuum cleaner under any circumstances — that may even be cause for divorce,” Fabrizio jokes. But if you’ve got someone on your Christmas list who always ends up with a gift card, it just might be worth putting a bit of thought into what you get them this year. And hell, if they don’t end up using it, you can always get them a gift card next year.