my two cents

How to Buy the Best Gifts With Less Money and Time

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There’s a popular holiday myth that I would like to dispel. It goes like this: You stumble upon a novel gift that you know, intuitively, that you must buy for your best friend, family member, or loved one. It’s something they wouldn’t have thought to buy themselves — maybe it’s even one of a kind. It cannot be so expensive as to be awkward, but it must be special and indulgent. When they receive it, they are delighted. “You know me so well!” they exclaim. And they cherish it forever.

You’re trying to think of the last time this happened, but it’s hard, because in many cases the answer is never. And that’s why, instead of pursuing this pipe dream of the perfect gift, you should cut the bullshit and simply ask people what they want. Crucially, you must do the same in return. In fact, you should probably do it first, to break the ice.

(A quick note: This doesn’t apply to everyone. You don’t need to request a wish list from your favorite co-workers; you can just give them a nice candle or homemade cookies and call it a day. Here, I’m talking about the high-pressure gifts — the ones that typically require more research and money.)

I know this might seem ridiculous. We’re not kids writing to Santa; we’re adults, and holiday gifts are supposed to be fun. Why make it so transactional? Where’s the element of surprise? And to that I say this: Don’t just take my word for it. Multiple studies have shown that people are more appreciative when they receive gifts that they specifically requested than ones the giver independently chose.

I should also add that being more direct about what you want, and soliciting the same from others, saves everyone valuable time — the best gift of all, especially this time of year. It also saves people money on gifts that no one wanted in the first place.

So now that you’re onboard, here’s how to go about it.

1. Send a straightforward email (or text, WhatsApp, whatever).

Every year, my family circulates a group email with what we want for Christmas. Everyone replies-all with their own list. We each include links to specific items, including sizes and colors when applicable. Then we sidebar on who’s buying what. (Dad will say he bought my mom the books she requested, etc.)

This strategy has its drawbacks. The older members in the group (hi, Mom) have a tendency to reply-all to state when they’ve bought something for somebody, instead of leaving that person off. But overall, it works.

If your family (or chosen family) has never done this before, it doesn’t have to be weird. You could just send a simple message like, “Hi, in an effort to make holiday shopping a little easier, I’d love to know what you’d like this year. I’ve included some things I’ve had my eye on lately, below. Links are welcome. Hope this is helpful!” Or, “Hi. If you don’t tell me what you want for Christmas, you will receive something I panic-buy at the 11th hour. To save me the unnecessary costs of expedited shipping and yourself a trip to the post office to return said gift, please give me some direction. On that note, I’d love an air fryer.”

Some retailers — including Amazon — have a “wish list” function that allows you to create a gift registry for yourself, regardless of the occasion. Other websites have “hint” buttons that you can use to email loved ones a link to something you want. These are all acceptable, in my opinion, but others might find it a little aggressive. You know your audience best, so use your judgment.

2. Include a range of price points.

It goes without saying that you never want to pressure anyone into buying you something they can’t afford. (Or anything at all, for that matter — gifts are supposed to be voluntary.) So make sure that your list is, as they say, “accessible.” For instance, this year I’m asking for a nice pair of nail clippers, a bunch of books, and some kitchen supplies. In the past, I’ve included places I’d love gift certificates to (my yoga studio, a favorite local restaurant). That way, if someone feels like being extra generous, they can scale up or down pretty easily.

For context, Americans are planning to spend an average of $932 on gifts this Christmas, according to a recent Gallup poll. Another survey found that more than a third of Americans take on debt during the holiday season; those who do wind up owing more than $1,000 for travel, gifts, and entertaining. Do with that what you will, but I’m guessing you don’t want your loved ones to start January stressed about money, so be sensitive.

3. Respect the “I don’t want anything!” response.

People say this all the time, for various reasons. Sometimes they’re trying to be polite; other times, they really don’t know what they want. Alternatively, they really might not want anything. I can relate to all of the above, particularly the last one; getting a bunch of random stuff foisted upon me, no matter how well-meaning it is, can be stressful.

Still, you may not want to show up empty-handed, especially if the gift-denier has gotten you something. The best way to deal with this is to follow up with more specific questions: “What kind of wine do you like?” Or, “If I were to get you a gift certificate, is there a local business you’d like to support?” Or my personal favorite: “If I were to donate to a charity on your behalf, which would you choose?”

4. Preserve the element of surprise.

A big part of the magic of gift-giving is the anticipation and ceremony of it. Also, some people really love a creative gesture. Giving them exactly what they asked for doesn’t ruin this. That’s what wrapping paper is for! You can always give them what they want (a coffee-maker), and then go rogue with a small, additional thing (a mug with your face on it). There are many ways to be clever with gifts that don’t involve scrolling to the ends of the internet and spending more than you should. Happy holidays!

The Cut’s financial advice columnist Charlotte Cowles answers readers’ personal questions about personal finance. Email your money conundrums to

How to Buy the Best Gifts With Less Money and Time