I live far away from much of my family, as does my wife and many of our friends (here in LA, most of us are transplants from elsewhere in the country). Every January, as the holidays wind down, I hear lots of stories about gift-giving gone awry due to the great distance between gifter and giftee. Of course, the gifts are given with generosity of spirit and magnanimity of soul, but despite the best intentions, the process of giving and receiving can often cause stress and duress. I hope that I can mitigate some of that stress by compiling a small list of gift-giving guidelines for long-distance giving. Follow these guidelines, and the gift-giving-and-receiving process will be more focused on the spirit of the season and less on the stress of commerce and retail.
- If the recipient will be flying, avoid giving large gifts. No microwaves, no cases of wine, no bulky sports equipment. If you want to give something that’s sizable, consider giving them a photograph to open in person and ship the gift to wherever they live.
- Unless you see your giftees often, don’t assume that you know their tastes. Do some research. Look at Facebook photos, talk to their spouses, significant others, friends. Ask the recipients for a wish list (amazon.com has a great wishlist feature). I have a friend who gets clothing from his in-laws every year. He has never worn any of the clothes; they’re not his style. He always ends up returning them or donating them to charity. Which brings me to:
- Unless you are absolutely sure of the recipient’s taste and size, make sure you give gifts that the recipient can return in THEIR hometown, not yours. National chains (Macy’s, Target, etc.) allow you to buy at one store and return at another. IF you prefer to support the local economy, perhaps there are local boutiques in your recipient’s hometown that you can shop via the internet?
- Even if the recipient is visiting you, restrain from buying from local boutique in your hometown. If the gift doesn’t work out, your recipient will need to spend time during their visit returning the gifts instead of spending time with you.
- Are you shipping a gift? Confirm the shipping address with the recipient. Many people have different addresses for receiving letters and packages, and if you send packages to a mailbox, they can often end up disappearing.
- Are you buying for children (grandkids, neices, nephews, etc.)? Avoid the desire to buy every cute outfit and stuffed animal you see, and instead, focus on gifts that are meaningful. Ask the child’s parents for great gift ideas. Says pal Lael Logan: “Many of us are trying to give our kids the joy and excitement of presents while also balancing it with teaching the "true" meaning of this time. Perhaps you could take the kids on a special holiday outing instead - to see Santa, or ride a train - creating traditions and memories is how we'd like to teach our kids about this season.”
- Can’t think of a good gift for someone? Consider making a donation. It’s a terrific way to give something with meaning for more than just your recipient, and it’s very convenient for weary travelers. Says friend Katherine Resch: “We're doing that for the adults on my side of the family this year, and we're having a lot of fun choosing a charity that will be personal to each family unit.”
- Don’t give crap. Are you sending your loved one a candy-cane filled with M&Ms? A bobblehead Santa? If so, consider just abandoning the gift altogether. Maybe just send a card, or a gift certificate, which brings me to my last guideline:
- Gift cards, gift certificates, and cash are always welcome, though they’re admittedly impersonal. You can make them less impersonal by buying a gift card for a specific store that’s local to the recipient. Was there a boutique that you discovered the last time you visited your sister? Buy her a gift card for that place, and when she calls to thank you for the gift, you can have a nice time remembering your trip. See! Much nicer than a boring sweater from Macy’s.
These guidelines are assembled from my experiences as a long-distance giver and receiver, and those of my friends. If you’ve got any additional guidelines, feel free to post them to the bottom of this note, and next year, when I repost, I’ll try to include some of them!