Gifting pains
February 8, 2018 11:44 AM   Subscribe

Are there any go-to gifts for people who are pretty much impossible to buy for?

I realize I am asking an impossible question. I have to get gifts for my parents each about 3 times a year. They are impossible to give anything appropriate to, but if I don't give them anything then they are very hurt and think it means I don't love them or am selfish, etc etc. I spend a lot of time poring over websites and shops trying to find ANYTHING they might not hate to little effect and after decades of this I now feel defeated and just want some easier options, if any exist.

The reasons this is so hard is:

-They have no outside interests, no hobbies, do not like to do anything much at all other than shop, eat (not cook though) and watch TV
-Their house is borderline hoarder. I also feel bad giving them more stuff.
-They LOVE shopping and finding good deals. I think what they enjoy most is getting bargains so if I get them anything they can get it's like I've taken away from them the joy of purchasing it. They don't need anything. They are retired but have more money than me.
-Money or gift cards would really insult them
-Experiences are out, they won't do anything
-They have no hobbies
-Practical items like clothing don't work because they are particular and, again, buy everything. Something like "nice luxury socks" will never work because they will only wear type A of brand X socks, which they buy in bulk with triple coupons
-They will not watch dvds. DVD gifts sit shrink-wrapped on the shelves for years.
-I have to ship gifts from overseas so things like food or anything large is super impractical. I also should add, I need to wrap the gift myself and send it in a package. I know.

I usually just give books now but I know they don't read them. They probably have more everything than they can use in a lifetime. And yet it's really, really important to them that I send them gifts, though one of them does get annoyed if she doesn't like the gift.

So...does anyone have any practical solutions to this?
posted by Polychrome to Human Relations (40 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
disposable items and/or food.

Had a relative who wrote the book on passive/aggressive gift receiving.. Everything got the back-handed compliment served up like a pro. Some folks kept trying to play the game, our answer was to give something that she ate, was small, and was somewhat fancy.

(Of course, the only winning move is not to play .. 1x a year at Christmas was all we played)
posted by k5.user at 11:48 AM on February 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Yes - this truly is an impossible question.

What about toiletries?
A nice face cream?
Perfume / Cologne?
A decent hand cream? (Always useful)
Nice soaps for their bathroom?

Good luck!
posted by JenThePro at 11:51 AM on February 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Donation to their favorite charity and a nice card?
posted by KleenexMakesaVeryGoodHat at 11:54 AM on February 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

My defaults for this are bath bombs and nice coffee.
posted by sleepingcbw at 11:55 AM on February 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

posted by agentofselection at 12:00 PM on February 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

Fancy maple syrup. Fancy salts. Fancy coffee. Whatever foodstuffs they already like, but the fancier version that people don’t usually splurge on for themselves.
posted by Weeping_angel at 12:00 PM on February 8, 2018 [14 favorites]

Tiny exotic candies or cookies - these are harder and harder to get retail, at least anything good or unusual.

Something for their pet. If they have a pet, they love their pet, and they will love to watch their pet have a good time

Etsy gift (vintage, sentimental, unique) but sold _by someone in their area_ who will ship it directly to them with a card or message from you, wrapped. This is usually pretty easy to do - just limit Etsy search results to a town or state/region/province near them.

Something made only in your region that they can't get there -- again, food is good for this.

If they like shopping, maybe they would enjoy helping you shop for somewhere to give a charitable donation. You can get a gift certificate for a multiple-charity organization for which they get to designate the specific recipient.
posted by amtho at 12:02 PM on February 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

I know you said food is impractical but honestly I would probably go with things that are relatively stable and that come from near you. So I would do things like fancy chocolates/candy from the store in my area. They're fancy and local so it's special but they can't buy it where they are, if the weather is cool enough they'll ship fine, and you won't feel bad about contributing to their overstuffed house. You can extend this process to lots of things - coffee or tea, dried fruit, some baked goods/snacky things, lotions/soaps. We've had luck with things like having a selection of nice steaks shipped directly, though that breaks your "I have to wrap it" rule. I really feel you on this - there are a few people I HATE shopping for due to basically all the same reasons.
posted by brilliantine at 12:03 PM on February 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

As I've gotten older I've embraced the idea that if somebody isn't going to like things I give them, and at their core doesn't like the kind of things I like, it's ok to give them something I think is stupid, and it's also ok if they hate it. Also, if they're going to hate pretty much anything I give them, as soon as there's something they complain less about, give them that again, and call it a tradition. Yes, Mom, it's your birthday scarf, I got you a blue one this year! And that follows on the heels of her Christmas wall calendar and box of chocolates. Tradition!
posted by aimedwander at 12:04 PM on February 8, 2018 [22 favorites]

Perhaps I misunderstand but you seem to be saying that for their own reasons they basically force you to play a game you can’t win. So pretend and be done. You will never get the joyful or even just gracious response a gift should elicit. So if you want to keep the peace and keep sending books. If you want to change a rule change the one about hand wrapping stuff if you live overseas. If they try to engage about that just refuse to engage. That’s the way it will be from now. But stop trying to twist yourself into knots because they have structured the game in a way that means you will never hit on the right gift.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:05 PM on February 8, 2018 [22 favorites]

Even those fancy food things, those people won't use. My InLaws don't anyways. Fancy stuff is to good to be used or too weird.

I've somewhat given up. I love them dearly and they are some of my favourite people, BUT I can't make them happy with a gift, so I don't try.

But I do try to shop all year rather than when I * have * to. Which means I've bought things and stored them until needed. It takes pressure off. As I browse now, I always have a MIL/FIL filter going on.

I send them cards out of the blue a lot. That seems to be more touching to them than anything else.
posted by Ftsqg at 12:05 PM on February 8, 2018 [6 favorites]

Have you asked them? "I love you, and I'd enjoy giving you something that would bring you pleasure. However, I don't want to burden you with something you won't use or like. Should I continue sending books that I think you'll like? Maybe some [insert 3 or 4 other options]? Or if you'd prefer I could make a donation in your honor to [x]."

Best case, they give you some guidance. Medium case, they appreciated that you're trying. Worst case, they are a bit annoyed that you are not a mind reader, but at least you know that you gave them an opportunity to choose.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 12:05 PM on February 8, 2018 [6 favorites]

Have you tried telling them this? Why not put it out there - as in, "Mum, Dad, I love you and I want to get you gifts that you will love but I'm stumped. I know you have lots of books now so I'd like to go for something different - is there anything you've had your eye on?". If they say that they just want to be surprised you can at least push for categories of things they might enjoy.

Failing all of that you could set them up with an Amazon wish list and let them pick for themselves, either by adding stuff when it takes their fancy - but never knowing which they will get - or by getting to rate choices from an array of items you've pre-selected and think they might like.
posted by freya_lamb at 12:10 PM on February 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Through trial and error, I have discovered that the ideal gift for my mother-in-law is any sort of item that I can slap a photo of a member of her family on or in. Picture frame, coasters, blanket, pillows, candle-inna-jar, etc. Three years ago her present was a selfie of my husband and I, taken on our vacation to Japan, in a nice picture frame. I've found a place that will print photos onto fabric and make a quilt from them, so there's next Christmas taken care of.

Her first grandchild is arriving in a week or two, and if I make time every so often to go to my brother- and sister-in-law's place to take pictures of the kid I am good for gifts for YEARS.
posted by telophase at 12:14 PM on February 8, 2018 [20 favorites]

Tricky. Do they have ANY interest in their heritage? Ancestry DNA is on sale and doesn't clutter their house!
posted by beccaj at 12:24 PM on February 8, 2018 [4 favorites]

You might try gifting them services -- that's what I finally landed on with my "have everything, need nothing" parents. Find out where Mom gets her hair done/who is Dad's barber and get a gift certificate for the next several visits. Arrange for lawn mowing, snow removal, or an annual yard clean-up. Have a landscaper come out to trim the trees and maybe plant a perennial flower bed. Pay someone to come and clean the gutters for them, or do the annual furnace maintenance. Send someone to the house to detail the car. Hire a window washer. A housekeeper visit might offend, if they're hoarders, but you can judge that.

For the handwrapped part, just make up a certificate that describes the gifted service, put in a box with tissue paper and a sweet, loving note saying that you wanted to spoil them a little.
posted by peakcomm at 12:26 PM on February 8, 2018 [13 favorites]

I started buying those Christmas-village-under-the-tree ceramics for my Mom so I'd have a goto gift for Christmas, but she decided they were too much trouble and I should stop. She had a charm bracelet, but I stopped sending charms when she got charms for all her kids and got my birth date wrong. And didn't fix it.

As others said, this is a no-win situation. I would talk to them and say I love you, but it's impossible to buy you gifts you like. I want to celebrate your birthday, but it's really disappointing when my gifts are never really right. Send high quality candy, picture frames or interesting gifts from wherever you live. If you gift a frame, send the right-sized picture. Give your Mom quality gold or silver jewelry. I had a phase of giving family members safety gifts - quality flashlights, solar radio, flashlight that charges in the cig. lighter in the car, fire extinguisher. Send from Amazon; if they get in a snit because you ordered online, they'll get over it. One thing I did with my Mom was to send many small things. She loved lobster and at one time had what I'm certain was Ohio's largest collection of lobster fridge magnets. If you travel, send dishtowels from wherever you go, or tote bags for groceries. Send them lots of postcards, whether you travel or not. Go nuts on birthday, Mother's/Father's Day, Christmas cards. Send cards for every holiday for which you can find cards.

They want tangible reminders of your love and connection and they want to be able to show off these items to their friends. Consumerism is already out of control; don't let them guilt and bully you into making it even worse.
posted by theora55 at 12:28 PM on February 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Ugh. I hear you. I'm pretty much in the same situation as you, though I'm not overseas from the recipient. It's very hard to buy for a hoarder/borderline hoarder no matter what, and someone not having any perceptible interests is just maddening.

A few things I'd suggest, though they've been hit-or-miss with me:
- Gift trial subscription to a prepared food delivery service as opposed to meal kit service (warning: they still have to actually log in to the service and create an account, which they may never do)
- Balloon bouquet (try a local florist near your parents)
- Shutterfly photo book of old family photos arranged in a nice manner (success! and now the original photos are preserved in a new format that won't fade/get damaged)
posted by queensissy at 12:32 PM on February 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have to ship gifts from overseas so things like food or anything large is super impractical.

My generic answer for hard to shop for people (myself included) is consumables. Can you have something dropshipped inside their country?
posted by Candleman at 12:33 PM on February 8, 2018

Is wine or similar not an option?
posted by saladin at 12:41 PM on February 8, 2018

> borderline hoarder

Storage solutions.
posted by Leon at 12:46 PM on February 8, 2018

"A donation has been made in your name to the Human Fund."

But, more seriously, I'd go with KleenexMakesaVeryGoodHat's suggestion of a charitable donation in their name.
posted by mhum at 12:52 PM on February 8, 2018

I have found that gifts I make myself go over well in these sorts of situations, especially with relatives. Even if they don't like it, they're less likely to complain, and will generally at least appreciate the effort and time you put in.

For example:
homemade spice blend/popcorn topping/whatever
dried herbs from your garden (including things like homemade lavender sachets)
If you are crafty, projects like knitting, embroidery, quilting, collage
handmade candy
posted by veery at 12:57 PM on February 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Seconding (thirding?) photos. I do this for my similar parents every couple years - pull together a bunch of old photos, make into a photo book (MPix, Shutterfly, etc), gift. I've done this for recent events/happenings (photos of my parents with my niece, photos from my wedding), but also for family vacations from 20+ years ago. I've also just printed out a couple of nice photos and framed them - they still have wall space!
posted by writermcwriterson at 1:19 PM on February 8, 2018

This is super helpful, you're all pretty much spot on. I forgot to mention, "delightful things" also work but it's anyone guess what might be classed as delightful. Delightful items for their dog might work as well--I initially did not mention their pet because the gift might not be seen as really for them and also, they buy her everything, but that's probably overthinking it. So far I have found some delightful soaps via etsy and will get some delightful sweets.
posted by Polychrome at 1:27 PM on February 8, 2018

You're shipping from overseas, so send something that screams out that it came from the place you are in. If you are in London, go to Harrods food hall and pay through the nose for some marrons glacés if it's Christmas, or a plum pudding. Those are small and essentially non-perishable.

One of my sisters is an awesome gift giver and she goes against all conventional knowledge sometimes. She'll send gifts that are unapologetically about her and what she likes. And everyone loves them! She's a fabulous person and her gifts are like getting a piece of her. Honestly I think with people like your parents, you might as well enjoy the gift and the process of giving it, since it's such a crap shoot as far as the reception goes. And if you send something that really means something to you, that truly is a gift.
posted by BibiRose at 1:32 PM on February 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

>I need to wrap the gift myself and send it in a package. I know.

Of all the requirements, I'd push the hardest against this one and send flowers from a local florist, if you can possibly manage the overseas payment.
posted by tchemgrrl at 1:54 PM on February 8, 2018

Flowering plants were the most successful with my MIL. There are numerous websites that offer cut flowers and flowering plants in stupefying containers. I couldn't be expected to wrap it myself. Both MIL and FIL came from a background that said "flowers are special" and "you don't give yourself flowers," so they were pleased even if they didn't actually like them. Bonus: the plants die, so only the pots can be hoarded.
posted by kestralwing at 3:06 PM on February 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

This may require extra work, but it's worth it. My mother has always been notoriously difficult to delight with gifts. I started mining her for information about things she used to love but can't find anymore. For her birthday this year, I managed to find a vintage perfume she wistfully remembered. She said it was her all-time favorite, but she'd run out and it had been discontinued. I found a shrink-wrapped bottle on ebay. Best gift ever. This also works well with food and other nostalgic experiences.
posted by TheGoldenOne at 3:29 PM on February 8, 2018 [4 favorites]

Through trial and error, I have discovered that the ideal gift for my mother-in-law is any sort of item that I can slap a photo of a member of her family on or in. Picture frame, coasters, blanket, pillows, candle-inna-jar, etc.
Delightful items for their dog might work as well--I initially did not mention their pet because the gift might not be seen as really for them and also, they buy her everything, but that's probably overthinking it.

Pretty sure the thread has just identified that you need to get stuff you can slap a photo of the dog on.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 4:14 PM on February 8, 2018 [8 favorites]

My parents and husband are all impossible to shop for, so i feel you. These have all gone over great for me:
- gift certificate to salon/barber shop for haircut
- tea, teapot, tea box, coffee, coffepot, cups/mugs, nice honey
- wine, omg all the wine. Liquor. Glasses, stoppers, decanter
- soap, shampoo, shaving cream
- good tweezers, razors, hairdryer, glass nail file
- tools for yard work, gardening, housework. Garden gloves, kneeler things
- gadgets. My dad loved the USB rechargeable lighter at Christmas.
- nicer new boring things like dishcloths, potholders, oven mitts
- cookbooks, interesting kitchen tools or pots (tagine, collapsible collander, silicone pizza wheel)
- activities to do with them. I took my mom to a museum and afternoon tea and that was probably the best gift in years.
posted by gatorae at 5:52 PM on February 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

This sounds pretty miserable but here's an idea: a friend that I volunteer with mentioned that she was "dedicating" her time in the school to her father-- writing him a note thanking him for instilling in her the importance of education and photos of her with the kids. I can't imagine anyone who could get that note and be like: "but where's my luxury socks?" but I don't know your folks.

Also, yes it's an experience gift, maybe you could hire cleaners to do a deep clean of the house to give your parents a break or-- if the situation really calls for something ice cold-- a professional declutterer? Which provides the opportunity to say: "I love you so much and this is the most thoughtful gift I could give you."
posted by athirstforsalt at 1:02 AM on February 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

There are people in my life who are a lot like this and I think one thing you will want to do is try to get past the way you see their hoarding and recognize that they see it as a positive emotional experience to have and acquire those things. You say they want gifts, but they already have "too much stuff". Just from that it's clear to me that they don't feel the same negativity around the objects that you do. So maybe you send them little tchotchkes from wherever, or send them a small box with a couple of chocolates in it, or a mug with a photo of their dog on it, they will enjoy receiving the gift even if they don't "need" it and even if years from now you find it buried in a bag in the bottom of a hoard pile in a back room it won't mean they didn't enjoy and appreciate it.

That said my own sense of appropriateness and comfort with stuff and with generating trash is such that I would feel a need to keep the gifts small, maybe consumable, or maybe even go to cute cards with a message or a photo in them as suggested above. Cards still send the message that "I thought of you and put some effort into picking something out."
posted by Lady Li at 2:49 AM on February 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

You said they watch TV. Do they have any interest in going to the movies? My mom has seriously enjoyed the Moviepass we gifted her for Christmas.
posted by jaksemas at 8:18 AM on February 9, 2018

gift cards would really insult them
Does this include a restaurant gift card? For some, those fall into a different category of "acceptable" when a regular store card is not.
posted by soelo at 8:39 AM on February 9, 2018

What about a subscription to a streaming service like Netflix or Acorn TV (and I'm sue there are tons of others)? It'd be cheap to just stick the info in an envelope and mail it to them, plus they watch a lot of TV, and it doesn't take up any physical space. (Your parents remind me of my parents, although mine do not frown on gift cards, THANK GOD)

Or maybe an ice cream subscription box. Even people who don't cook eat ice cream (right??).
posted by jabes at 8:43 AM on February 9, 2018

food of the month club (you order online and it gets sent nicely wrapped from the company); or if that's too expensive, just gifty food, like from Harry & David or Pepperidge Farm or Figi's or whatever their speed is. If you send fancy fruit from Harry & David then at least you know it CAN'T be hoarded; worst case it rots and they throw it out.

You'd be surprised at the range of foods available from these places.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:51 AM on February 9, 2018

oh, does "need to wrap the gift myself" mean you can't have a gift item shipped from a gift company? (JFC if so.) But in that case, the answer to your question is: the default all-purpose tangible gift is a box of chocolates. That is the One True Answer.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:54 AM on February 9, 2018

You've just described my in-laws (minus the hoarding). We give them the same gifts every year: pistachos and pickles for my FIL, chocolate truffles and a photogift of grandchildren for my SIL. They like it; done.

I am also difficult to shop for (though hopefully not to the extent of your parents!), because I don't like having a lot of stuff around (I'm kind of a minimalist), I don't like pop culture toys or gag gifts, I don't like artificial scents or materials, and I don't like a lot of super fancy gifts like expensive lotions or jewelry etc. I only recently realized this about me, and it makes me feel a bit bad for anyone who tries to get me a gift, but it's the truth. I'm a happy receiver of gifts as well as a champion regifter : )

So here are a few things I have received that I really loved, in the hope that it helps you:
- personalized BUT USABLE gifts. A friend made me playing cards with pictures of us on the back - loved that. I recently did the same for another friend using a website where you can personalize each card (or each number or suit etc.) and it was fantastic. I'm a big game player so this obviously worked well for me, but I can't imagine anyone not appreciating a usable gift with lots of personal photos. Since I'm a minimalist, I don't want something that's only meant to be looked at, not used (or something too ugly to use [photo mugs, I'm looking at you]) - if your parents are hoarders, usability is probably a good requirement for them as well.
- my favorite bottle of wine/whatever. Of course I can buy it for myself, but the meaningful part is that someone paid attention to what I liked. Same with my favorite tea.
- fancy local-to-you edibles. Even if your parents are not adventurous eaters, there's bound to be something they like, particularly if you focus on specific areas such as chocolate, cheese, crackers, whatever.
- candles. I love candles and light them often, so I appreciate the gift of a different version of something I'm likely to use.

So you might have discovered a trend in my suggestions above, which is that they are all usable/consumable AND targeted to something I like. And once you've found that illusive combination, stick with it (see the gifts for our in-laws above)!
posted by widdershins at 11:58 AM on February 9, 2018

For your parents? Easy. Send them pictures of you, send them things you made that you think they would enjoy (cookies?), send them letters where you reminisce about things you have done together. Send them little things with a note that you were out at a little shop and saw this little thing and it reminded you of that one time you all went on a trip to see Auntie Em and wasn't that a great trip?

If you want to spend more, visit. This is the thing than many parents want more than anything else. (YMMV)
posted by yohko at 6:40 PM on February 11, 2018

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