Gift Giving Etiquette: The Ultimate Guide

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Holiday gatherings and special occasion celebrations often call for gifts, but you might not know when to give a gift, how much to spend, and what type of gift is appropriate for the occasion. Often, when I receive an invitation to a celebration, my first thought jumps to: What should I give to celebrate? If you know the guest of honor well, you might have the perfect gift in mind. But, sometimes, you’re purchasing for people you don’t know very well, which can make gift giving a bit trickier. 

Consider this your all-inclusive gifting guide, helping you navigate gift giving etiquette with confidence. Read on to have all of your gifting questions answered. 

A Gift Giving Guide for the Giver

You’ll always be prepared to give a gift in a thoughtful and appropriate manner if you do a bit of research about the event, the recipient, and the occasion. Follow these tips to ensure you’re always adhering to proper gift giving etiquette.

Determining Whether You Should Bring a Gift

You’ve received an invitation for a special occasion or celebration, and you’re wondering if you can show up empty-handed or should have a gift to give. Gifts are always appreciated, so you can always bring a gift, even if it’s something small like a bottle of wine or a thoughtfully written card. However, some events call for a gift more than others, so consider the type of occasion before you start shopping.

Birthdays

Birthdays are the most common gift giving occasion, so if you’re celebrating one, be prepared to give a gift. Birthday gifts are particularly popular among children who love to open their gifts among friends. However, adult birthday celebrations also usually involve gift giving, though the birthday guy or gal may opt to wait to open the gifts after the celebration.

Winter Holidays

Gift giving holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah also typically involve gifts, but how you give gifts may also depend on your family traditions. Holiday celebrations with extended family might require many gifts, especially if you have a big family. So, your family might opt to stick with exchanging gifts between only immediate family members or doing a gift exchange where each person is assigned one extended family member. Work with your family to determine how to give gifts for these holidays so that you’re all on the same page. After all, you don’t want to receive gifts from your distant cousins and not reciprocate with gifts of your own.

Weddings and Pre-Wedding Events

Soon-to-be-wed couples are often celebrated with several pre-wedding parties. If you’re a guest at these parties and the wedding itself, you might wonder how many gifts you need to purchase the happy couple.

Typically, engagement parties do not require gifts, and they aren’t expected by the couple. If you do choose to give one, your gift can be modest, such as a thoughtful memento or a celebratory bottle of champagne.

Wedding showers are gift giving occasions, with a focus on showering the couple with gifts for their life together. Typically, you can purchase gifts off of the couple’s wedding registry, which can make finding a gift easier.

The wedding, too, requires a gift. In addition to shopping off of the wedding registry, you may also opt to simply give a cash gift, which the couple can use as they see fit. Typically, the wedding gift would be the most expensive gift that you give, but how much you spend can depend on your budget and your relationship with the couple. If you’re in the wedding party, for instance, you’ll probably spend more on a gift than you would on one for a coworker who you don’t know as well. 

Anniversaries

Anniversary parties usually celebrate a milestone anniversary, which can make them suitable gift giving occasions. However, in these cases, the celebration itself is more of a focal point than any gift opening. So, while you’re certainly always welcome to give a gift for this special occasion, one would not be expected, and a card alone is a suitable way to mark the milestone.

Housewarmings

If a loved one welcomes you into their new home, celebrate with a small but thoughtful gift. Housewarming parties are typically gift giving occasions, but you can stick to modestly priced gifts focused on filling the new home with items that the family may need. These gifts can be as simple as a bottle of wine, a lovely scented candle, or a set of new hand towels are an appropriate way to celebrate the purchase of a new home. 

Graduations

A party to celebrate the new graduate calls for a celebratory gift. Cash gifts are often a popular choice for the new grad, though you may also choose a gift that helps them in their next phase of life. For example, a high school graduate might appreciate a gift they can use in their dorm room, or a college graduate might love some high-tech gear that can help them as they start their new career.

Deciding What Gift Is Appropriate

You’ve decided that you’re attending an event that calls for a gift—now, you need to decide what gift is appropriate for the occasion. A variety of factors impact your gift shopping, and these variable factors differ for every situation. So, go through this checklist to determine what type of gift is appropriate for the occasion.

  • Significance of the occasion — The bigger the occasion, the bigger the gift—typically. You’re going to spend more money celebrating your best friend’s nuptials than you will celebrating her 32nd birthday, for example. Once-in-a-lifetime milestones warrant the most meaningful gifts, but that doesn’t necessarily mean spending a lot of money.
  • Budget – Gift giving should not be stressful, nor should it negatively impact your budget. It’s completely appropriate to give a gift with your budget in mind, and any thoughtful friend or family member will appreciate your gift, no matter how much it cost. Remember that gift giving is not a contest to see which guest can spend the most money. So, don’t feel guilty if you consider your budget as you shop.
  • Relationship to the guest of honor – Chances are you’ll have many reasons to give gifts throughout the year. It’s acceptable to prioritize your gift giving, focusing your priciest or most meaningful gifts to the central people in your life. Giving gifts to your employees might require less thought and expense than celebrating your new nephew, for instance.  

Gift Shopping Tips

Once you’ve evaluated these considerations, you’ll be ready to shop for an appropriate gift for any occasion. Follow these tips to simplify your shopping, avoid some gifting pitfalls, and find the right gift for your recipient.

Take Advantage of Registries

Engaged couples and soon-to-be parents often build gift registries for these occasions. Registries take the guesswork out of your shopping and guide you to gifts you know your recipients need. Typically, these registries include gifts at many price points, making it easy to find one that fits your budget. For the most options, shop early before other guests start buying gifts.

Never Ask What They Want

Avoid an awkward conversation, and don’t ask your recipient what they want as a gift. That question puts the pressure on the recipient and, quite frankly, ruins the surprise of a gift. If you are attending a celebration and don’t know the guest of honor well, stick with a neutral gift that anyone will like.

Don’t Rule Out Gift Cards

Gift cards might seem like an impersonal gift to some people, especially those who are special to you in your life. However, for others, gift cards can be a welcome solution when you’re struggling to select a gift. Gift cards are easy to redeem, and they’re often a much-appreciated gift. Consider giving them to teachers, clients, or coworkers as a thoughtful holiday gesture that doesn’t require too much thought on your end.

Homemade Gifts Are OK

Thoughtful gifts don’t always have to come from a store. Make use of your talents and share homemade gifts with family and friends. Perhaps you’re a talented artist, a skilled jewelry maker, or an expert baker. Giving a homemade gift shows that you put time in creating something special for your recipient. Homemade gifts, in particular, work well when you have a lengthy shopping list and want to offer a small gesture of appreciation to important people in your life like neighbors and teachers.

Don’t Try to Match Gift Amounts

Gift giving isn’t a competition to see who can spend the most money. So, you don’t have to spend the same amount of money that someone spent on you. Your goal when gift giving is to share something meaningful to your recipient to show that you care, all while choosing a gift that fits within your budget. 

Avoid Regifting When You Can

We’ve all been in a situation where we received a gift that we didn’t really want. Perhaps you already had something similar, or the gift just didn’t fit your style or your needs. Regifting can be an appealing option because you can pass that gift along to someone else at no cost to you. But, it comes with some problems. 

First, you never want your gift giver to find out that you passed the gift along, and that can happen if you regift to a shared friend or family member. Second, if the gift ever comes up in conversation, your reaction to it might give away the fact that you didn’t use it. Plus, regifting isn’t very thoughtful for your next recipient and instead feels like you’re just trying to pass off an unwanted gift instead of finding something appropriate for the occasion. If you truly don’t need the item, consider donating it instead.

No Gifts, Please Requests

If you receive an invitation requesting “no gifts, please,” then honor it. The guest of honor did not include that request on the invitation to see who will still give them a gift. They truly do not want a gift, either because they don’t need anything or don’t want gift shopping to be an imposition on their guests. If you aren’t comfortable showing up empty handed, a thoughtfully written card is always appreciated.

A Gift Giving Guide for the Recipient

While you may often be the gift giver celebrating others, for other occasions, you’ll be the recipient of a gift. Maintaining proper etiquette in this situation is important as well, so follow these tips to ensure you graciously accept gifts that celebrate a holiday, your birthday or other special occasions.

Express Your Appreciation

When you receive a gift, be sure to express your gratitude as soon as you open it. Your personal feelings about the gift should not matter—you are expressing your appreciation that someone took the time to celebrate you, so show your thanks.

Follow Up With a Thank-You Note

Follow up your verbal thank you with a handwritten note. In this note, you can express your appreciation for the gift and for your relationship with the gift giver. If you’ve already used the gift, you can share how much you enjoyed it, too. Don’t delay in sending this note—try to drop it in the mail within a week of receiving the gift.

Carefully Consider When to Open the Gift

If you’re hosting an event where some guests brought you gifts and others did not, then consider delaying opening the gifts until after the party. You don’t want to single out anyone who may not have brought a gift. If a guest really wants to be with you when you open the gift, try to do it discreetly in a one-on-one setting to avoid any awkwardness for other guests. 

Of course, if you’re hosting a birthday party or holiday gathering where everyone brought gifts, feel free to open them in front of the crowd.

Gift Giving When You Don’t Know Your Recipient Well

While many gifts are purchased for family members and close friends, other gift giving situations may call for you to purchase gifts for people you don’t know as well. Perhaps your company has put you in charge of selecting the holiday gift for your team. Maybe you want to express your gratitude for people in your life who provide important services, including your child’s teachers, your postal carrier, and your hairstylist. Or, you might be participating in a White Elephant gift exchange where you purchase a gift for a group, not knowing who will ultimately end up with your gift.

Consider these tips when shopping for people you don’t know as well:

  • Ask shared acquaintances about their interests to guide you to the right gift.
  • Consider something homemade, such as a box filled with your favorite cookies and candies, which tends to be appreciated by all.
  • Choose a monetary gift instead, such as a gift card or cash gift, so that you know the recipient will use it. 
  • Avoid gifts specific to certain tastes. While a unique brew of coffee is perfect for a coffee lover, don’t purchase it unless you’re certain your recipient drinks coffee.

Summary

Thanks to this guide, you can become a gift giving etiquette pro. No matter what gifting situation arises, you’ll be able to shop confidently, choosing an appropriate gift for any occasion. Shop with your budget, occasion, and recipient in mind, and you’re sure to find a gift that suits your loved one as well as your budget.