Shopping for that Impossible-to-Buy-For Friend

Originally, this post was titled Christmas Shopping for that Impossible-to-Buy-For Friend. Yes, I know. It's not even Halloween yet, let alone Thanksgiving, but I started putting this post together months ago, thinking it would be a fun pre-Christmas post. What I didn't expect was that the post would grow the way it has. I already have enough stuff for at least four blog posts and there's no sign of stopping. And then I got to thinking, well, birthdays happen year round and there's wedding and graduations that come up. So maybe I'll try posting one of these every month or two and see how it goes.

So what qualifies me to write about gift giving for hard-to-buy-for
people? Well, in my circle, I'm that hard-to-buy-for person. Frankly, I'm your basic Nightmare Before Christmas. But if I do say so myself, I'm really good at buying the right gift for others, so I thought I'd give you some insight on how I do it.

The most important thing about getting the right gift for someone is simple.


Listen for clues all year long. Back when my Christmas list was longer, it was normal that all my shopping would be done before Thanksgiving simply because, in the back of my mind, I listened for that voice in my head that said, "So-and-so would love this." If that voice spoke in February, I bought that gift in February. Strike through one name on the list.

So how do you know the gift will be perfect. Again, you listen. You're friends will often give you ideas. The clue may come in a conversation you have in May, two weeks after their birthday *sigh* but it will come. And Christmas always rolls around. Once you master this skill, you might remember in December what they said in May, but until you reach that level of proficiency, make a note somewhere. Build a wishlist on Amazon if you have to, so you'll remember. And there's an advantage to having that list. If you check it regularly, you're more likely to see when something goes on sale. Imagine that. The perfect gift AND a bargain! 

The hardest part about shopping this way, I found, is that I can get so excited about having the perfect gift, it's hard to keep my mouth shut about it. That usually passes in a couple of weeks. Once, I nearly blabbed about "the great gift I got you" but at the last second, I changed my script to "Socks. I got you socks."

I've even helped friends find the perfect gift. Once, a friend mentioned that her daughter wanted a cameo broach. I was big into consignment store shopping at the time (Seattle has THE BEST consignment shops I've ever seen.) A couple of weeks later, I was in one of those shops and saw they had a couple of very nice broaches. I alerted my friend and she went down and bought one. Turned out to be worth far more than she paid for it because it was an antique. You can really find some treasures in places like that.

Some of my best coups have been things that weren't under the tree.

I have a friend who loves to entertain. That includes making dinner. I hadn't figured out what to get her that year and it was a month before Christmas. Then I opened a Groupon email and they had a deal on French cooking lessons. Now being able to surprise the recipient is nice, but in my book, it's secondary to getting the perfect gift. I called her and asked, "Would you like this?" She said yes, so I bought it. She didn't redeem it until February, but she said she had a ball at the class. And I got dinner--Chicken Cordon Bleu (one of my favorite foods)--out of the deal. I'd call that a win-win.

Then there's the "event" present. Last year, I took my niece and her husband to see Star Wars. Not the premiere. None of us felt the need to see it the night it came out. But we did see it in 3D at the local IMAX.

And one year, I took my best friend to see The Phantom of the Opera when the Broadway show came to town conveniently near her birthday. That was fun for both of us. She's one of my few friends who was actually good at getting me gifts because she does a lot of "event" gifts too. Things like Neil Diamond or Stevie Nicks concerts.

Event or activity gifts have the bonus of a memory that will last long after a physical present has lost it's luster, but they do work best when you know the recipient well enough to pick the right event.

For those you don't know well enough, there's always movies or music or books, and I may explore this more thoroughly in the future.

If all inspiration fails, the one thing that works well is to simply ASK that hard-to-buy-for person what they want. Trust me. As someone who has received a lot of gifts I wouldn't have bought for myself (Really. Not even if I had a million dollars.) it's better to get your family and friends something they're excited about even if it's not a surprise than to give them a surprise dud.

So now that I've warmed you up to this idea, what do you think? Good idea?

How do you shop for difficult people? Any coups you'd like to share?


  1. Very good ideas. I've generally shopped for easy going people, so it wasn't hard to find gifts. As for coups, the only one I've had was one shopping for me- picking up a CD soundtrack worth over 100 online even for second hand, but paying just a few bucks at a second hand shop that didn't know any better.

    1. Oh, yeah. I love second hand shopping. And now I want to know what the soundtrack was.

  2. Great points, good advice. We just had a family discussion about this. Most people want to do something new and unusual but it wastes money and embarrasses the person who won't appreciate it.

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