Practical but wonderful gifts?
November 3, 2010 5:10 PM   Subscribe

'Tis the season, yet again. Please recommend some lovely holiday gifts I can give that are useful, not wasteful. Picky specifics inside!

I love finding the perfect gifts for people (and yes, I start early), but after years and years of gift-giving I'm starting to run out of ideas. And as I've gotten older, I've started to prefer giving and receiving practical gifts, rather than frivolous stuff. Most of my friends and relatives are not really into gadgets or tchotchkes anyway. They're just not "stuff" people, if you know what I mean.

So I'd like to give them things they can either use regularly, or consume, but that still feel gift-y. I've given lots of books, snacks, and bubble bath, and I'd like to branch out.

A few specifics:

-I'm flying for Christmas and so are some of my relatives, so travel-friendliness is a must. Nothing bulky, heavy, leaky, or fragile. Small is good.
-No strict price limit, but under $50 is preferred.
-I'm open to making gifts, but I haven't found anything I want to make. Most of the things I've seen are decorative or ornamental, which my friends and family aren't into. They wouldn't use things like infused vinegars or those cookie-mix-in-a-jar things, either.
-Since I don't live near my family I haven't had much luck finding local "experience" gifts like museum memberships, cooking classes, pedicures, etc. On the occasions I have given them, they've gone over well.
-Everyone on my gift list lives in a mild climate, so winter accessories aren't an option.
-I have given gift cards and donations for birthdays in the past, and they've been appreciated, but we usually give physical objects for Christmas, so I am on the fence about this.
-I know I'm being vague here about the people on my gift list, partly for the sake of anonymity but partly because I don't want to give them themey "I know you like _____" gifts. But to give you a general idea, everyone I'm shopping for is in their mid-20s or older, smart, slightly nerdy. More men than women. We're all fans of stuff like The Onion and The Daily Show and I wouldn't be surprised if any of them read MetaFilter. (And that's why I've chosen to post this anonymously. Hi Mom!)

I've looked through past gift-idea threads but haven't struck gold just yet. I could have sworn someone asked a similar question last year, but I can't find it, so I won't mind if you throw me some previouslies.
posted by anonymous to Shopping (25 answers total) 125 users marked this as a favorite
Loose leaf/bulk tea and a tea ball. This is nice because you can follow it up by sending letters or cards in the future with small bags of bulk tea, and you'll know they have the tea ball that goes with it. I live in a mild climate, but still drink tea all winter, and have given this gift successfully to both men and women.
posted by aniola at 5:17 PM on November 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Last year I gave some of my family members Kiva $25 gift certificates, the idea being that they first lend the money, and when it's repaid they can withdraw it and use it to buy something for themselves.
posted by BlahLaLa at 5:25 PM on November 3, 2010 [14 favorites]

This may seem simplistic, but I enjoy getting as well as giving the following (mainly because they are things that "go away", are practical yet can be quite luxurious):

- soap (were talking anywhere from handmade to the luxury kind that nobody ever buys for themselves - it's still not very expensive at the end of the day)
- chocolate
- spices (semi-bulk from happy specialty shop)
- olive oil (imported large can from Greece, for instance)
- nice paper

My family has recently adopted "white elephant" that is less of the jokey, ha-ha variety and more actual treasures we know the other person would love. This happened despite the fact that it was supposed to be "funny". And I love it as it's really practical and cost effective (in these times..). Just thought I'd mention it because it's such a success (though we still buy stuff for the kids).
posted by marimeko at 5:27 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

We've been making charitable donations in the names of friends and family who are into that sort of thing - surprisingly, a lot of them are. I'd rather not give/get stuff because who knows what somebody really likes/can use? Also, I try to keep donations politically neutral for obv reasons.

Smile Train, Humane Society of the US, Habitat for Humanity, Cure PSP, Boys and Girls Clubs, that one where you sponsor a food animal, etc.

I find a lot of cool ideas on GlobalGiving, and if I don't know who they are, I vet them on CharityNavigator.

Nick Kristof's column at NYT is a great resource for this sort of thing.
posted by toodleydoodley at 5:29 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

What about subscriptions? Are there magazines or quarterlies you know they read and enjoy? If you want something to put under a tree, wrap up a copy of the magazine along with a note saying you're giving them a year's subscription.

In a similar vein, are there venues (galleries, museums, concert halls etc) that they visit regularly that run membership programs? Give them a year's membrship.
posted by girlgenius at 5:36 PM on November 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Think Geek and Cafe Press are great resources for the geeky gifts-and just have em' shipped to your destination, so you don't have to pack them. (The Volume Knob Turned to 11 and the Dr. Who Blink shirts are faves here).

Donation to the Heifer project along with a physical gift that corresponds: bees+fabulous honey or Burts Bees cosmetics, for instance).

Season of their fave show on DVD.

Prepay Netflix.

Local handcrafts, like jewelry.
posted by purenitrous at 5:40 PM on November 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Tons of places offer free shipping--can't you buy online and then have the packages shipped to your destination? Why schlepp?

I like gardening stuff (bulbs, seeds, live plants), food/drink of the month, DVds, etc.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:42 PM on November 3, 2010

I've blogged about clutter-free gifts a lot the last two holiday seasons. Here's a link to my site with one such post, which in turn links to the other posts. Somewhere among all those ideas there may well be some that resonate with you.
posted by jeri at 5:51 PM on November 3, 2010

The best thing my wife's gotten lately was a custom camera bag made by someone on Etsy. There are of course tons of strange and geeky things to find there.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 5:51 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Big soft luxurious towels.
posted by Sassyfras at 5:55 PM on November 3, 2010

Here are a few gift ideas I bookmarked for this year:

Small Letterpress Calendar
Personalized Stationary
Reusable Bags

Do they like card games? I've given Fluxx and Set as gifts.

One of the best gifts I ever received was a set of letterpress greeting cards. The giver included thank you, birthday, wedding, congratulations, etc cards along with a book of stamps. For a year or so I was able to simply pull a card out of a drawer and send it off without having to run to the store. It was so nice and seemed much more meaningful and more useful than a dvd or some other gift.
posted by shesbookish at 5:56 PM on November 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

Really, really nice socks made out of something sumptious. Seriously! They get worn all the time, and feel like a real treat when you rotate through to them. My aunt gave me a pair of cashmere socks that lasted for years, and I never would have dropped a lot of money on one pair of socks. Every time I put them on, it was like a hug for my feet.
posted by smirkette at 6:03 PM on November 3, 2010 [6 favorites]

I'm doing personalized post-its for a few people this year. And having to restrain myself from not buyng some for me, too. I'm using this site.
posted by something something at 6:38 PM on November 3, 2010

I forget the exact name of this, but my parents gave me a sort of combination gift card/catalog one year for Christmas. The physical object I got was a gift card affixed to the inside of a brochure -- and the brochure was for a series of magazines.

The upshot of all this was that I was getting a year's subscription to any one of the magazines I chose out of the brochure. I could either log onto their web site, or send in a card, and let them know my choice, and whatever company it was that ran this would set it up.

I think they said they found it in a bookstore (I know I'm being distressingly vague on the details).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:31 PM on November 3, 2010

I also like practical gifts, so if I know that the recipient doesn't need anything, then I try to give them am upgraded version of an everyday item that the person would normally not buy themselves. I've had great success giving and receiving the following:

- Matching waffle-weave dish towels and dish cloths. Pretty basic, but a whole lot of people have terribly old rags that would be nice to upgrade.
- cashmere socks
- good coffee or spices. My dad always gives me fancy olive oil and I couldn't be happier about it
- Sonicare toothbrush.
- fancy makeup, skincare or haircare products (you have the know the recipient fairly well for this one). Husband loves high end shaving cream.
- metal collar stays (if recipient has to wear suits for work)
- nice apron and oven mitts if someone loves to bake/cook (my oven mitts get hideously stained and burned, yet I can never justify buying myself new ones just because they look so unattractive).
- A small ceramic pot and basil in a bag (much prettier than the black plastic planter it comes in from the nursery, and fun to grow)
- Nice bedroom slippers. Husband adored the Tempur Pedic slippers from Brookstone, and although they get a lot of shit for their ugly boots, Ugg slippers are really freaking comfy (and I live in Florida and don't think they're too hot).
- An awesome flashlight (there are some that are under $50 if you poke around.. I'm not recommending the $500 flashlights!). Courtesy of my geeky dad who was obsessed with giving tire gauges as gifts in the 80s.. Leathermen in the 90s.. and apparently flashlights in the 00s.
posted by gatorae at 9:10 PM on November 3, 2010 [5 favorites]

Red Oxx Cable Locks. They cost $1 each and can be used for all kinds of things—not the least of which is a quick zip tie for travel.
posted by pineapple at 9:30 PM on November 3, 2010

Came in to also say socks.

I know. They seem boring. But until someone has had a pair of really good, they simply will not buy socks that cost $20 (or whatever). I bought my mum a pair (very good merino wool socks - good even in a mild climate) and she said that she is always finishing them out of the washing machine to wear again because they are so nice on her feet.

A thread you might be thinking of is Affordable Luxuries - gifts for the holiday season that convey a sense of luxury, yet cost between about $25-$75.
posted by AnnaRat at 1:00 AM on November 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm doing more gift-basket than single-gift: the part that may suit you is, I'm buying the large assortment of sugru and splitting it among the hackiest of my friends and relations.
posted by aimedwander at 6:48 AM on November 4, 2010

Maybe you were thinking about the question I asked last year? I asked for useful holiday gifts in the $20 range and there were tons of great ideas there.
posted by HeyAllie at 8:11 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I really like the letterpress stationery idea. There are places where you can learn to do this yourself and then have access to the equipment, so you could make custom note cards for each person, maybe - monograms? I don't think it's a particularly cheap undertaking but you'd be learning a new skill for the future, too.
posted by lakeroon at 9:09 AM on November 4, 2010

This year I'm giving an ID Guard Stamp, because it's practical and not something I had ever seen before.
posted by alice ayres at 10:00 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

In my family we all get deodorant, soap, toothbrushes and paste, contact solution, shampoo, assorted cold and allergy meds, bandaids and underwear. Sounds simple, but I'm always amazed when I end up not having to go to the drug store for 4 months.
posted by WeekendJen at 1:16 PM on November 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

posted by kidsleepy at 4:57 PM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

- leatherman
- nice terrarium (check out VivaTerra and Flora Grubb for inspiration. They're on Etsy too)
- portable computer mouse
- computer bag
- bodum coffee press
- moka coffee pot
- smartwool socks
- linen/cloth napkins
- potted plant
- gift certificate to nursery
- gift certificate to spa
- Amazon gift cards
- bodum coffee/beer mugs (double-walled)
- Nissan portable coffee mugs
- packing cubes (or mesh travel bags - so useful)
- birdhouse
- globe
- prepaid netflix
- prepaid itunes card
- concert tickets
- gift certificate to local favourite or good restaurant (i.e. sushi)
- Chilewich placemats
- nice new spatulas, fancy can opener, microplane grater
- nice spices
- one new cutting knife
- kitchen shears
- new towels and handtowels (from Macy's or Pottery Barn or something)
- booze (nicer gin, vodka or even wine)
- 6 pack of craft beer (really)
- nice, unscented soy candles - long burning and great for dinner parties
- nice handwashing soap or face cream
- moleskin books (you can get the front engraved with cool images) or field notes books
- immersion blender
- missing parts of a china setting - perhaps the creamer was broken or a new platter would be nice
- stemless wine glasses (yeah, they fit in the dishwasher!)
- CD with tons of great This American Life episodes
- A book with family heirloom photographs - they'd scanned in the originals and made copies for everyone for Christmas
- cookbook - either of a genre that I enjoy (Thai, vegetarian, Mexican, etc.) or some new cookbook from a celebrity or blogging chef. They are fun to read and provide much inspiration.
- pizza stone
- pizza peel (combined with the pizza stone and a pizza cookbook = awesome gift!)
- delicious vanilla - the good stuff is surprisingly expensive
- delicious, aged balsamic vinegar
- cordless drill (I adore mine, and have given them to many friends who also adore them, but they're generally more than $50)
- Parks pass for the year
- something for camping (new chair or dish set - those silicone bowls and cups are great)
posted by barnone at 7:50 AM on November 5, 2010 [6 favorites]

Oh, I've given a boatload of these RuMe bags. They are one of those things that people are like, "huh!" when they first open their present.

But then they LOVE them. They're small enough that you can squish them in your coat pocket or backpack or purse, so you always have a few with you. They carry more than other tote bags and WAY more than grocery bags. The handles are long enough to go over your shoulder. They don't rip or tear or puncture. They're washable. They're great for the pool, beach, gym, weekend trips, library, post office. I've probably given 50 of them and people still comment how much they love them even years later.
posted by barnone at 7:53 AM on November 5, 2010 [5 favorites]

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