Terrible Gift Giver Looking for Broadly Relevant Gift Ideas
May 21, 2021 1:06 PM   Subscribe

I am terrible at gift-giving--I have very little ability to see a thing out there in the world and say, "Hey, my friend So-and-So would love this." I am looking for gift ideas that are (1) useful enough or (2) charming enough that a large percentage of people would like to receive them.

For reference, this post is actually inspired by this recent post about tea towels, where I specifically saw this tea towel and thought, "Well, now this is something 10 of my friends would love."

Anyway, everyone's mileage may vary with this stuff--everyone's great gift is someone else's terrible gift--but my overall point is just "what is stuff anywhere in the $10 to $50 range that" lots of people would want?
posted by kensington314 to Grab Bag (41 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Sorry folks, that hyperlink link should actually have been attached to the phrase "this recent post," not to the phrase "this post."
posted by kensington314 at 1:08 PM on May 21, 2021

I just bought my sister an Opinel Mushroom Knife and I'm very excited to see how it goes over.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 1:13 PM on May 21, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: My #1 go to present for gift exchanges are cozy throw blankets. You can get cheap but surprisingly good quality soft ones at drug stores or basic department stores, and fancier ones at specialty stores (or, even though I complain about it, also at many chain bookstores).
posted by Paper rabies at 1:17 PM on May 21, 2021 [6 favorites]

Jar candles
posted by atlantica at 1:20 PM on May 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A nice set of spices spice mixes are almost universally appreciated both by amateur as well as seasoned cooks. This would be a nice example in your price range.
posted by Fallbala at 1:27 PM on May 21, 2021 [4 favorites]

Hmmm, I think gifts can be good or generic, hard to find something that is both because a good gift is specific to the person, not generic. Being a good gift giver requires a lot of thought about what that person likes and wants. Examples are giving my mother-in-law a non-fiction book, a garden tool, and some chocolate-covered coconut, perfect! A monthly literary magazine (One Story), perfect! But, if I gave that to my son, he would look askance. A gift that both would like? I can come up with something but it would be much more generic. They both might like wool socks I suppose.

That, however, is not what you asked. I think the best you can get with a good, generic gift is something useful and consumable. I get in a rut for a year and buy the same thing then switch to another thing. Right now, houseplants. Before that, a small bag of little toiletry treats (hand cream, lip balm) and a good chocolate bar. A bag of groceries from Trader Joe's is also a favorite.

Other ideas:

These puzzles are great!

Paint by number is surprisingly soothing.
posted by RoadScholar at 1:29 PM on May 21, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: High quality hand made soaps, not too strongly scented, can be a good generic gift. Etsy has many options.
posted by metahawk at 1:37 PM on May 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am bad at receiving gifts so I always encourage food or soap type presents - things that can be appreciated, then used/consumed/thrown away. I don’t want tchotchkes that need to be dusted or displayed in the home or otherwise dealt with, but food or soap (like fancy hand soap, not ivory bar soap) is well within my minimal gift-handling ability.
If you’re buying a present for kids I find books are generally well-received.
posted by Vatnesine at 1:38 PM on May 21, 2021 [9 favorites]

Best answer: This serrated paring knife by Victorinox is my go to for gifts (not expensive either). No one has ever been unhappy with it (so far).

Re fancy soap, I have regifted tons of the stuff, since I'm allergic to lots of soap ingredients and fragrances. It's a nice gift, but keep allergies in mind.
posted by gudrun at 1:47 PM on May 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

Nice coffee / chocolate / nuts
Flowers, ideally already arranged in a vase, or a small houseplant
Jigsaw puzzles are broadly popular, inoffensive, and easy to give away

Honestly, I would hate a lot of these ideas - I hate almost all scented things to the point that keeping a candle in my closet until I could regift it would bug me. Kits feel like you're handing me a chore. I would understand that it was meant to be a nice gift, though? As a fellow bad gifter, I feel like that's the best you can do sometimes.
posted by momus_window at 1:50 PM on May 21, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I have a friend who always gives a really nice flashlight when he doesn’t know what else to give. Everyone can eventually use one and it’s not always something that people will spend money on voluntarily.
posted by corey flood at 2:06 PM on May 21, 2021 [18 favorites]

Sorry, folks, I am reading these and thinking, "I don't want any of this". Except flowers.

Flowers are usually a good gift - they're beautiful and ephemeral - but I get that they don't ship well, and that having flowers delivered in another location is way too expensive.

One thing that usually works, if the recipient has a pet, is a toy for the pet. I love giving people food puzzles for dogs and cats.
posted by amtho at 2:20 PM on May 21, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: One thing that's true of literally anything that anyone here can suggest is that there's no such thing as a truly universal gift. There are, however, things that are at least pretty good for large swathes of people, and the gift-giver can themselves think about whether a given "generic" gift might be good for any given person. For example I might give a nice bottle of wine to 90% of my friends if I'm in a pinch, but not the one who hates wine, or the one who doesn't drink, or the one who's incredibly educated and picky about wine.

As a rule, the best 'generic' gifts in my experience are consumables or gift cards for consumables, because all humans eat and drink things even while their specific preferences do vary. Gift cards to nice restaurants; fancy coffee or chocolate; wine or whiskey; spice mixes. None of these are literally "universal" but all have a broad enough usefulness as gifts that I think they're as close to an answer to this question as is possible.
posted by Tomorrowful at 2:28 PM on May 21, 2021 [8 favorites]

A Visa gift card is always appreciated; everyone likes money.
posted by epj at 2:53 PM on May 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: What about nice containers/receptacles, like wooden boxes (carved or otherwise) or zippered fabric pouches in solid colors or simple prints? I always appreciate ways to wrangle my stuff.
posted by delight at 3:11 PM on May 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

gift cards are great for this, so people can choose their own gifts. Amazon, Lee Valley, etsy, your local food delivery service, Uncommon Goods, a local coffee shop; make a list of links to a variety of stores and you'll always be ready
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 3:34 PM on May 21, 2021

In keeping with the no gift fits everyone theme, if you give me a Visa gift card, I’ll feel like you couldn’t be bothered to try to think of something I’d like. Same with an Amazon gift card.

And I’m another no on scented candles.
posted by FencingGal at 3:35 PM on May 21, 2021 [8 favorites]

My favourite for this is a box of high-end chocolates or similar commonly-enjoyed treat (of course not for anyone I know dislikes it or has dietary restrictions etc).

I have a big box of scented candles/lotions/soaps in the basement because I don't really enjoy using them and I can't regift them fast enough to keep up, so I don't love getting more of those, though non-consumable things I won't use are definitely much worse.
posted by randomnity at 3:49 PM on May 21, 2021

I’ve found that a set of high quality nail clippers makes a good gift for men.
posted by bq at 4:05 PM on May 21, 2021

Best answer: I go with nice picture frames. Most people have pictures hanging around that they wouldn't mind having a frame for. Of course, you could still choose what you think is a gorgeous wooden frame and have the recipient hate it.
posted by FencingGal at 4:19 PM on May 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A good umbrella
posted by sciencegeek at 4:38 PM on May 21, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I find (in my circles, anyway) people often *want* to stop using as many disposable items, but replacing them with the reusable version can be expensive or a pain to source. So, one of the things I've started doing is giving people nice reusable versions of disposables:

posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:23 PM on May 21, 2021 [22 favorites]

I once found a guy at a craft fair selling lovely wooden boxes that look convincingly like books. I bought five of them and they were perfect for a ton of "what do I get for this person?" occasions.
posted by gideonfrog at 5:28 PM on May 21, 2021 [5 favorites]

Universally liked is a difficult ask. For the last 5 years I’ve brought a popcorn popper and popcorn flavoring to both white elephant/gift swaps (not the kind where you being trash gifts) I’m invited to every year and people clamor for them. But if I knew the recipient didn’t have a lot of kitchen space I’d go with fancy microwave popcorn and the flavorings.

Yard games are great … for people with yards. Fancy cocktail glasses for people who like to have dinner parties. Monogrammed beach towels for your mermaid/mermen pals. Spotify subscriptions for the teens.
posted by kimberussell at 6:07 PM on May 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

Wine/Fancy liquor
Excellent chocolate
posted by shadygrove at 6:59 PM on May 21, 2021

Personally, I would say please please nothing decorative. Even people who think they know my taste in cushions/picture frames/vases...usually don’t. And even if they do, I have enough decorative items for my small house until I die.
posted by Salamander at 7:26 PM on May 21, 2021 [6 favorites]

To be more positive (sorry!), I think quality/name-brand versions of items (nearly) everyone uses are good to have in the generic gift stash. When a certain fancy-home-goods store has a sale, I stock up on things like:

- dish towels (thick, white, waffley 100%-cotton)
- salad servers
- scented candles
- water carafes
- sink sets of handwash/moisturiser

The key is that they’re high-quality items in classic, neutral designs (and it doesn’t hurt that recipients see the logo and assume you spent more ;)). But they’re still not one-size-fits-all, which is why I get a variety.
posted by Salamander at 7:44 PM on May 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

Money origami in a shape that the person you're giving it to has an interest or a Nikola Tesla banknote from Yugoslavia for the science lovers.
posted by stray thoughts at 8:05 PM on May 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

My go-to is a very simple but well-made glass pitcher or serving bowl. Depending on how much you want to spend, it can be from someplace like Target (they have good Polish-made glass, who knew?), Crate and Barrel, or Williams Sonoma/Sur La Table. If you want to go high end, check out Simon Pearce. All of these places have different styles from traditional to modern.

We were gifted a really pretty, simple but elegant round-bellied pitcher that probably holds almost a gallon when we got engaged almost 25 years ago. I've used it for dinner parties, birthday parties, etc. Not just for beverages or water but also as a vase on multiple occasions. I have a gorgeous serving bowl that's been a centerpiece for many holidays. This solution has worked as a wedding gift for people I don't know well at all (husband's co-workers). As a plus, for a housewarming or birthday gift - bring an arrangement in the pitcher or fruit in the bowl. Done and done.
posted by dancinglamb at 8:50 PM on May 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

Amazon has a "Most Gifted" page and a "Most Wished For" page (based on people's wishlists in aggregate) with a column of categories to the left. May help you reduce the legwork.
posted by metabaroque at 9:20 PM on May 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As a professional organizer (man, I start a lot of AskMe comments that way), I can tell you that a lot of generic gifts that don't DO SOMETHING are the first things clients set free, especially candles and picture frames. (If you give a picture frame with a photo of you and the recipient in it, that's different.) Things with scents (soaps, flowers) may go over really well if you know the scents people like, but if you don't know for sure they don't have allergies or serious preferences, I can tell you that those get tossed often.

Gifts I've seen clients receive that they've really liked, all in the price range you describe:

Fancy (though not necessarily pricey) shower heads
Packing cubes (the kind that go inside suitcases)
Waffle irons
Pretty (standard-sized) umbrellas -- not black, but bright and memorable, less likely to be left behind
Golf umbrellas
Glass carafes
Charging stations
Cheese (OK, maybe that's just me, but if there's a food you know someone likes, there's a way to send it. Two years in a row, a friend has sent me a big box of 50 Cabot Seriously Sharp cheeses via Dakin Farms, and it yields extra gifts -- a fairly large cooler as well as ice packs.)
Outdoor welcome mats (frivolous or plain, depending on the person, but the kind that's heavy enough not to blow away)
Gift certificates for some number of months of streaming TV (Netflix, Hulu, etc.) or music (Spotify) or backup service (especially if they don't already have cloud backup)
A book of car washes
Smart outlets/plugs (if they have something like Alexa) to control appliances, lights, fans, etc.)
Bluetooth finder/tracker items like Tile or Airtags

Basically, if a thing is just something you look at, unless you know the person's taste, it can quickly become clutter. But if your gift can make their lives easier or more luxurious, it's likely to be a win.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 9:34 PM on May 21, 2021 [34 favorites]

Fresh flowers or preserved botanicals (like curly willow branches) in a simple vase that they can reuse, that goes with the decor of their home. If you don’t know the decor, or their style is modern, go clear glass. If it’s country or Scandinavian, white or cream. If it’s coastal or tropical, blue. If it’s boho or woodsy, green. Other colors can be nice too if you know it’s their favorites like I love purple vases, for example, but clear and blue are also nice. The fresh flowers are a temporary version of putting a photo in a photo frame, but everybody could use a vase now and again. Especially if it’s a simple shape like a cylinder or a globe, which could also hold candles or trinkets. You can often find these at grocery stores with nicer florist sections, but also more luxe vases can be bought ahead of time wherever and then you can grab a bouquet when you need a gift. If it’s Christmas time, spruce branches make fragrant gender neutral bouquets.
posted by Mizu at 11:04 PM on May 21, 2021

Housewarming gift: metal pegs. Plastic pegs are terrible.
posted by freethefeet at 2:51 AM on May 22, 2021

Best answer: If you live in a cold climate, hat/mittens, warm socks, or slippers. I’m a knitter and have in previous years knit a dozen sets and then decided who gets what, and they’ve been used and appreciated.

Fancy non perishable consumables from a local producer. For me, that includes wine, coffee roasters, a vinegar/olive oil producer/importer, jams/pickles, chocolates, and soaps. None are truly universal, but they are close enough for me to buy a bunch of things in a price range and decide on recipients after the fact.
posted by tchemgrrl at 3:46 AM on May 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: An Egyptian cotton Bath sheet.
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 4:01 AM on May 22, 2021

Best answer: Lots of great ideas here! That mushroom knife is going on my list for two separate people. In the kitchen vein, I often send people a tool like that, that has been really useful for me, like recently a Xyliss basting brush. No more bulb turkey basters! There's also a personal connection when you give something you enjoy using. In my family we always say "Please feel free to give away if it isn't for you" because we are all short on space and may have a friend who would just love the thing.

Also, echoing something tchemgrrl said about local producers. My frequent recipients mention enjoying stuff from my home, which is Chicago. Some have moved from there so it's nostalgic. There are a few makers I hit up for food things whenever I need a gift. I also pick up things when traveling. A pareo bought in Hawaii and iirc made in Tahiti was a big hit.

I really do keep lists of people and what gifts they mention in particular to avoid stress if no new ideas come to mind.
posted by BibiRose at 8:04 AM on May 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I loooove office supplies. Some favorite gifts I have received are nice pens, post-its, note paper, whimsical paper clips (e.g., shaped like little hands or bicycles), interesting stickers, blank inside cards with envelopes, spiral notebooks with artsy covers, colored pencils/pens, etc. (Not really a fan of gift cards because then I have to be the one to do the shopping chore.)
posted by SageTrail at 12:00 PM on May 22, 2021

My go-to housewarming present is a fire extinguisher.
posted by mgar at 12:30 PM on May 22, 2021 [7 favorites]

I love gift shopping! Off the top of my head, here are some general gift ideas. Obviously they need to be slightly personalized (e.g. what type of magazine would someone be interested in, does this person drink alcohol, etc.).

-A bottle of REAL champagne or single-malt scotch
-Magazine or newspaper subscription (make sure it's not on auto-renew)
-Reusable silicone ziplock bags and metal straws
-Envirosax reusuable tote bags (get the $50 set of 5)
-Beautiful cookbook or coffee table book
-Nicely bound display-quality set of classic books (e.g. Lord of the Rings)
-Throw blanket (synthetic for houses with kids or pets, otherwise wool and/or cashmere)
-Yeti travel mug
-Magic Puzzle Company puzzle (SO FUN!)
-House plant in nice planter
-Spicewalla unconventional spice collection (not always available)
posted by zibra at 10:12 AM on May 24, 2021

So many good ideas! A few more, in case they're useful:
- loose leaf tea blend (perhaps a fandom blend from Adagio) + mug + tea strainer
- sponsoring a rescued animal (such as a baby elephant with Sheldrick Wildlife Trust)
- typographic neighborhood city maps (I have the DC map from Ork Posters)
- art print from Marcella Kriebel (there's a lovely variety of subjects)
- lots of good stuff at different prices from Uncommon Goods
- sun print kits (good for kids and adults too)
- membership to a local museum
posted by wicked_sassy at 10:48 AM on May 24, 2021

What about a potted plant or potted flowers like orchids? Those are usually my go to gifts.
posted by finally at 8:18 PM on May 25, 2021

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