Updated on 12.11.09

Finding the Perfect Gift Without Spending Too Much

Trent Hamm

As I write this, I’ve spent about five hours online hunting down “perfect” gifts for various people on our Christmas shopping list.

In almost every case, I wound up spending less than our target dollar amount on our list. In almost every case, as well, I found a gift that I think is utterly perfect for the recipient.

Just a few years ago, I would have spent a crazy afternoon at a shopping mall taking care of my list in roughly the same time period. Two problems with that: I would have spent a lot more and the gifts would have been a lot worse.

What exactly did I do this year that was so different? This year, I tried an approach that I’ve been slowly building over the last few Christmases.

Instead of just coming up with gift ideas for each person right off the bat, I spent some time just thinking about each person on my list. What do they care about? What interests do they have? I used the internet to help me in this regard to research a few people and see what they were talking about.

If I didn’t know much of anything about them, I realized that (a) maybe I shouldn’t be buying them gifts in future years or (b) I should spend some time getting to know them better. After all, if you can’t come up with at least some framework of what the person is passionate about or interested in, what basis is there for the relationship? Why give a gift at all?

So, one result out of this is that I know a few gift exchanges I’m going to drop out of next year and I know a few relationships I need to work on in 2010.

Back to the main point.

For each person on my list, I tried to write down five to ten words that describe them in some fashion. I’ll list the eight words I came up with for someone on my list: funny, board games, video games, quiet, smart, chemistry, outdoors, bicycle, camping.

I dropped that list of words into Google and read the first few pages of links.

Virtually every time, one of those pages pointed me straight to an idea I hadn’t even considered before as a gift – something that just worked perfectly for that person. It worked on the order of 90% of the time. The best part was that, once I had that gift idea in mind, I was often able to find that gift for an amount less than I expected to spend on them.

On the occasions when it didn’t work, I just went back to the list of words again, eliminated half of them that didn’t seem to fit as well, and then worked on other ones. I would try different smaller sets of the words. Each time, within two or three tries, I found myself on some path towards a really great, surprisingly inexpensive gift.

Here’s the real truth: great gifts come from caring about people as individuals and thinking deeply about that person, not from just trying to find something so you can knock another person off of your Christmas list. Lead with the person, not with the gift, and let the tools we have at our fingertips lead you towards the right gift. Time and time again, you’ll find something perfect – and you’ll save money.

And no, I won’t mention the gift idea I found. That person is a Simple Dollar reader, after all.

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  1. Studenomist says:

    I got everyone something that matters to them this year.

    My little brother a new golf set because he has been getting into golf lately.

    My middle brother a laptop because he went away for college. No I’m not rich I got it for free through a giveaway.

    My parents I got them a weekend away from the house. They work really hard and put up with us annoying punks. So I got them a weekend getaway so that they can have some time to relax.

  2. Trudy says:

    I never thought of actually searching google for an gift idea this way. I just generally look around a particular website that matches a person’s interest. (which is how I found one of the great gifts for my husband at a reduced price)

    Great idea and thanks! I’ll be bookmarking this suggestion for next year.

  3. Jeroen says:

    Well, maybe a more frugal idea is to restrict gifts. That’s what my family has been doing since, er.. forever. Somewhere in November everbody draws 1 name to buy a present for, and a target price is agreed on. During the next week, everybody puts up a top 5 of what they would like to have. Net result: everybody gets 1 gift and gives one gift that they know the other one wants. Of course, children do get special treatment.

  4. Mike C says:

    Personally I find that the best way to find ideas for Christmas gifts is to work at it all year long. Throughout the year, when I spend time with my friends and family, I pay attention to what they are doing, their interests, their plans. Something may come up that points to a gift: their ipod just broke, they are planning a trip to the snow, they are getting into cooking… I just write the possible idea in a notebook, and leave it there for later. By November I rescue the ideas that I have been having all year, and look for the best deal for them. This makes the whole shopping process very easy, and stress free, and you get perfect gifts for everyone.

    Unfortunately I am not that disciplined every year. This year I have been very busy, and I have not come up with good ideas before, so I am struggling a little bit right now…

  5. Maybe our biggest mistake starts with asking the recipients what they want! At that point it becomes an attempt to fulfill a wish list, which is a much more expensive(!) task.

    A true gift is something we give and is received without expectation. If we gift without asking what they want we’re likely to come closer to giving something that’s really appreciated. Kind of like bringing a gift back from vacation that the recipient never expected.

    This is one of those areas of fugality that probably will be a tradeoff of time for money. We have to really think what people want, then put some time into exploring the possibilities. I have a feeling it will be well worth the time spent in terms of saving money though.

  6. Chelsea says:

    The problem I have is that I live 1000+ miles from everyone I exchange gifts with (my husband and I don’t really exchange gifts). Even though I talk to these people on the phone frequently, I find it hard to feel like I really “know” them the way I would if I saw them face to face more than twice a year. I can think of a couple things they might like. For example, I’d like to get my parents a Netflix subscription because they like to rent movies and their Blockbuster just closed, but I feel like I have to ask to make sure that will be okay. I guess this isn’t a particularly helpful comment, just something I’ve been frustrated with this year.

  7. kim says:

    I have a large extended family that I really only see once or twice a year. Every year we have a family Christmas party. Honestly, I wouldn’t have a clue what to get for anyone! Instead of exchanging names, we’ve started doing a yankee swap. Everyone brings a unique gift or gift basket for $25 or less. It’s wonderful fun and usually pretty rowdy, since we allow “stealing”. There is no pressure to get the perfect gift. As a matter of fact, you can easily bow out for a year by simply not showing up with an gift. This year I’ve spent the past few months saving up all sorts of chocolate items that are on huge sales and putting together a monster death by chocolate basket!

  8. almost there says:

    I think Kim has a great idea. I find the shopping and gift obligation too much of a burden. This year I just submitted our christmas gift budget to a charity so that they could build free lodging for wounded vets near the vet center.

  9. Robert says:

    This is a brilliant idea of finding gifts, I’m going to try it right now. Thanks!

  10. Sharon L says:

    I have a whole different approach. I shop all year around, looking almost exclusively at sales. We got a $10 gift card to Kohl;s, looked in the clearance jewelry and got my sister-in-law a pair of earrings and matching necklace for $2.15 out of pocket. Sometimes we grow hot pepper plants and dry them for her as well. (This year those turned out to be REALLY expensive. 17 peppers out of three plants… Sigh.

    Dollar stores have great books. I found some for graduation, got three for my nieces and nephews. It was several years before I gave them all out, but they keep. I found Christian CDs for $1 each, bought out the stock, and give them one each year for 5 years. In September or October, I pick up their calendars at the dollar store. My other sister-in-law knows that she will get her horse calendar. My best friend’s mother has vision problems. I get her large print puzzle books at the dollar store. My friend gets golden retriever garden decor at 75% off. I usually pay from 10% to 50% of full price for each gift.

    Then when the gift-giving occasion arises, I just go to my shelves, pick out the gifts I want to give and wrap them. (Paper bought at after holiday sales and estate sales, of course.) I actually haven’t had to do any Christmas shopping for several years. Plus, my spending gets stretched out during the year.

    I can hardly wait for the day after Christmas to get started for the next several years! 90% off!!!!

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