If I get asked for advice, it’s usually about writing or freelancing. Occasionally someone will ask me how I keep my fingernails looking so immaculate, but that’s not something I can really give advice on – it’s not Maybelline, I was just born with it.

But there is one other thing people often ask me for advice on: gifting. Apparently I’m pretty good at finding really nice gifts for people, without having to drop ridiculous amounts of cash.

So since it’s two weeks to Christmas, I’ve had a think about it and come up with a breakdown of how I come up with gift ideas. It probably won’t work for everyone, but it works for me. In my opinion, good gifting is all about asking yourself the right questions about your giftee. And I recommend starting with one question.

First question: are they practical or sentimental?

This is usually a pretty easy question to answer. Does your giftee value things based on how useful they are, or how they make them feel?

I always think a person’s home or desk is a good clue to answering this question. Sentimental people usually surround themselves with photos and keepsakes. Practical people usually surround themselves with purely functional things.

Once you’ve answered this question, you have two completely different paths to go down.

Gifting for sentimental people

I personally find sentimental people the easiest to buy for. You start by asking yourself questions like these:

  • What to they care most about?
  • What experiences and memories have we shared?
  • Do we have any little in-jokes?
  • Is there something I know about them that most people don’t?
  • Is there a specific place, animal, language or time that’s special to them?
  • Is there anything they do that they might feel goes unappreciated?

If your giftee is sentimental, personalised gifts are usually a good bet. I recommend notonthehighstreet.com and MoonPig, but you can google ‘personalised gifts’ and find lots of good places. You don’t necessarily need to go there with something specific in mind. You can just browse until something stands out. You can put a photo or an engraving on pretty much anything, without having to spend too much.

It works well for heartfelt gifts and silly gifts alike. For my nan’s 90th birthday, I gave her a personalised, ornamental bird feeder with ‘Nan and the birds: friends for 90 years’ engraved on it. One year my fiancée, Lisa, had a photo of us made into a jigsaw puzzle. For sentimental giftees, you always have plenty of options.

Gifting for practical people: are they thrifty or free-spending?

I find practical people either very easy or very hard to buy for. It generally hinges on the answer to this question.

Thrifty people watch their pennies, put off buying things they clearly need and don’t treat themselves often. Free-spending people, on the other hand, buy something when they want or need it – and they don’t skimp on quality or drag out the lifespans of possessions that are old and need replacing.

Gifting for practical, thrifty people

This is usually pretty easy, you just need to look closely. Ask yourself questions like these:

  • What do they use a lot that’s knackered and needs replacing?
  • What do they use a lot, but only ever buy a cheap, low-quality version of?
  • What do they really like or enjoy, but abstain from because it’s too much of a luxury buy?

Little items of clothing are usually a good bet here. Do they always wear a hat, gloves or slippers, but only cheap ones they’ve had for years? It won’t cost you much to get them a really high-quality replacement.

You can also consider buying them an ‘experience’ but this is a high-risk strategy. If your giftee is a thrifty person who doesn’t treat themselves often, the spa day or afternoon tea can be great gifts – but you need to be really confident they’d enjoy them. If you give someone an ‘experience’ voucher for something they find uninteresting or even stressful (like a sky dive), they’ll feel obliged to use it purely so they don’t seem ungrateful.

Gifting for practical, free-spending people

In my opinion, these are the hardest people to buy for. They don’t treasure personalised gifts or keepsakes, and they’ve already gone out and bought everything they want or need.

Your best bet is to ask yourself questions like these:

  • Is there a clever new gadget or invention they don’t know exists, but would be right up their street?
  • Can a mutual friend or family member give me any tips?
  • Is there anything they ‘can’t have too many of’?
  • Do I know anyone with a similar personality or sense of style who can tell me what awesome new stuff they’ve seen recently?

I won’t lie, these ones can be really hard. Often you just have to browse for ages until you see something you’d never have thought of on your own.

General tips

None of these apply to any particular type of giftee – they’re just things I find to be good rules of thumb.

Take notes all year round

You shouldn’t wait until it gets close to birthdays or Christmas to prick up your gifting ears. Whenever you’re with someone and they point out how cool something is, note it down on your phone. So many times I’ve been thinking about what to buy someone, and then looked through my phone and found a really good idea I noted down months ago.

This is especially good for those tricky giftees who aren’t fully sentimental or fully practical. You can get them something you know they’ll like, and they’ll also be touched that you listened and remembered something from so long ago.

Steer clear of their main hobbies

In my opinion, it’s a common mistake to home in on a person’s interests and hobbies. If they’re really into a particular sport, music genre, fandom or whatever, they probably have strong opinions about what they like and dislike within that field. And the stuff they like, they’ve probably already got.

If they’ve shown an initial interest in something, that’s different. Then you can consult with someone who knows the subject better than they do, and you can find them a highly-recommended ‘starter’ gift. But for the hobbies they’re really passionate about, steer clear unless you share that interest with them and have a really deep understanding of their likes and dislikes (or can get a tip from someone who does).

If in doubt, up your research rather than your budget

Throwing money at a gifting problem is almost always a bad idea, in my opinion. The ostentatiously expensive gift can be really special, but only if it’s something you know they’d love and makes for a show of how much you care about them. And even then, it’s only really appropriate for free-spending, practical giftees.

Sentimental people won’t feel a personal connection from an expensive, impersonal gift. Practical, thrifty people will say ‘you shouldn’t have spent so much’ and mean it. And sentimental, thrifty people will recoil in horror.

If you’re really struggling, I think there are very few occasions where upping your spend will solve the problem. I say it’s a much better idea to seek more knowledge. Speak to the people who know them best, browse more ideas, think harder about who they are and what defines your relationship with them.

Let me know if this helps

I’m definitely no gifting genius, but I’ve read and heard some really naff advice through the years. People always seem to start with generic ideas based on gender, age and interests. I’ve always found it much better to ask fundamental questions about the individual giftee and work outwards from there.

So if you’re reading this while racking your brains to think of a good gift idea, I’d love to know if it proves useful. Let me know. mpc