Gift Giving Etiquette: 15 Simple Rules to Make Your Gift Stand Out

Gift giving etiquette is important to know so you can give the right gift, in the right way, at the right time. We’ve studied the art and science of giving memorable, meaningful, and appropriate gifts, and have plenty of helpful tips to share with you.

So here are fifteen simple rules of gift giving etiquette. These etiquette tips will make your gift stand out while being suited to the occasion and, most importantly, treasured by the recipient.

Gift Giving Etiquette

Gift Etiquette: 15 Simple Rules to Make Your Gift Stand Out

Rule #1: Don’t Make It About You

This should be obvious, but because of simple human nature we tend to forget it so easily. Repeat after me:

Gift giving is not about me.

Gift giving… is not…about me.

It is so easy to twist it though, isn’t it? Every holiday and birthday, every wedding, we want to express something, show off, impress, stand out from the crowd. (Note the title of this post… playing to your vanity a bit, mebbe?)

The basic rule of gift giving etiquette, the ‘one rule to ring them all’ is this: Don’t make it about you. It’s about the recipient.

Don’t spend so much that it makes some sort of statement about your wealth or generosity. If your finances are tight, consider a DIY gift or an act of service, and by all means be thrifty when possible, but unless you’re in true financial straights, avoid being concerned primarily with costs.

Another trap is to think that just because you like something, everyone else should like it too. Try not to win them over to a new style of music or somehow magically generate a love of reading with the book or e-reader that you give. Chances are, your gift will be glanced at and then stuck on a shelf and forgotten.

Instead, follow Rule #2.

Rule #2: Listen, Pay Attention, Study

Listen to what the person talks about or gets passionate about. Pay attention to their likes and dislikes, favorite songs and movies and books, whether they like coffee. You don’t want to be the person who gets a vegetarian a gift card to Outback Steakhouse, or a Yankees cap to a Mets fan.

If you study a person, you will always find out something about what they love.

Maybe it is an outward and public thing like a favorite restaurant (get a gift card!).

Perhaps it is something more personal and subtle like how they would always pick blackberries with Grandma on their birthday, and cook a pie together. With something like that you can get creative. Take them blackberry picking and bake a pie together, or get a framed art print of blackberries. You’ll know what is best, if you pay attention.

Rule #3: Consider Consumable Gifts

When we talk about great gift ideas, I think we all might naturally lean towards something long-lasting, something that will be used repeatedly and appreciated long after the gift is given.

But – especially when you don’t know the person extremely well – it can be tough to find that perfect gift. One way to give a memorable gift is to give something that can be used up.

Seems kinda backwards, right?

But it really is not. If you follow Rule #2 (Listen, Pay Attention), one of the easiest things to note about someone is what kind of food or drink they enjoy. Then, go out and buy them something top-notch, that they normally wouldn’t buy for themselves.

Think of a $25 bottle of wine when they typically get two buck chuck or sometimes “splurge” on a nice $10 selection. Think of a fancy cheese platter from a local organic dairy, or a box of chocolates from a craft chocolatier.

Have you ever had that happen? Someone gives you something truly decadent… do you remember it? I sure do. I’ve received a handful of really nice consumable gifts, and I remember them because they were a solid step above what I normally get for myself.

And lastly, consider the cost in comparison than what you would get instead. Think of a really nice 6-pack of craft brew, chocolate, jerky, specialty candy, etc. These top-shelf items are just as much or cheaper than most office or holiday party gift limits, so a good quality consumable gift won’t set you back any more than you would already spend.

Rule #4: Avoid Self-Improvement Gifts

This is another obvious one, but it needs to be said. Here’s a brief but suggestive list of self-improvement gift ideas to avoid:

  • Weight loss books and videos
  • Excercise equipment
  • Diet recipe books
  • Just about any “How to” manual
  • Edu-tainment games or movies for teens
  • Budgeting tools for those who have trouble with finances
  • A daily planner for someone who runs consistently late
  • Books and documentaries that conflict with their views

You know what this means for your situation and recipient. If you’re truly following Rules #1 and #2, you will pretty much automatically avoid this pitfall.

Rule #5: Don’t Buy Them A Gift

If they say “Don’t buy me a gift,” take it seriously.

Well, not always. You can probably tell the difference between someone just saying that to make sure you come to their birthday dinner or whatever, and the person who is really asking you to not get a gift. Perhaps they can’t afford gifts in return, and don’t want to feel any sort of obligation. Respect that, and don’t buy them a gift.

Instead, you can give in other creative ways.

Try making something crafty, take them out to lunch or coffee, or give them a treasure of yours that they have long admired. Write a meaningful and appreciative note, show up on their doorstep with dinner and a movie, fix that broken hinge. Offer to babysit. You get the idea.

There are tons and tons of DIY tutorials for gifts that just take a little time and effort. And after all, there is a lot of truth in the old saying that it’s the thought that counts. When someone sees that you’ve put time and effort into a gift, they will be truly blessed by it.

Rule #6: Don’t Give Early

I know, I know, you’re just excited and you can’t wait to give the gift. That’s ok for you, but remember Rule #1 and that gift-giving is not about you. It’s about the recipient.

Most of the time, is much more satisfying for the person who receives the gift to open it on the date. Otherwise, the holiday or birthday or anniversary comes and they do not get to receive a gift, and that’s no fun at all.

Try not to put the recipient in that position by following proper gift-giving etiquette. Simply wait until the appropriate time to give the gift. No matter how excited you are, patience is a virtue!

Rule #7: Better Late Than Never

An on-time gift is ideal for proper gift-giving etiquette. But sometimes a gift arrives late. There are circumstances outside of our control, especially in the contemporary age of online shopping.

When a gift is custom made, personalized, shipped from far away, imported, arrives damaged, etc, there will come a time when the arrival of the gift is delayed. Even with the best planning these things happen, and even with the best companies and customer service.

At Northwest Gifts, we have boatloads of customers who receive their gifts on time and in perfect condition, in plenty of time to give for a birthday, holiday, or commemorative event.

But every now and then there is an issue… a shipping carrier delay due to a winter storm, a busier-than-expected production schedule, a human error. We work our hardest – and gladly so – to make sure that every gift is delivered quickly and perfectly.

The reality is that mistakes do happen. As with most great companies, when an error or delay occurs we will own up to it and take care of it as best as we can. However, that doesn’t change the fact that every now and again, the day comes and you don’t have the gift in hand.

Maybe you only found these awesome personalized quarter barrel signs two days before Christmas. There’s no time to get it delivered by December 25th, so what do you do? Get a lame gift card? Run to Best Buy for some electronic device?

No need. It’s perfectly fine, should the occasion justify it, to have a gift arrive late. We suggest to customers to get the personalized barrel sign, print off a picture of it, and wrap it up with a bottle of wine or stick it in their stocking along with a coffee gift card so they at least have something on Christmas.

(I seriously have this conversation multiple times every year in the few days before Christmas. Order your personalized gifts now!!)

Or perhaps you miss the party because are unavoidably detained. Maybe it is an illness, family emergency, or you get called in to work. Maybe the babysitter plan falls through, or your flight is delayed. Should you still gift the gift, even if it is late? Of course.

Better late than never.

Rule #8: Don’t Expect Anything In Return

This is essentially a variation on Rule #1. It’s not about you. Give generously, give with an open heart, and truly don’t expect anything in return.

Also, be careful to avoid comparing what you do receive with what you give. You may be able to afford more, or maybe you have fewer relatives. Maybe your friend just had their hours cut and they haven’t told anyone yet.

There are many and various reasons why your gifts won’t always be perfectly matched. Chief among these reasons is the simple fact that you are two different people, with unique personalities and life situations. Give your gift, and don’t expect the same – or anything, really – in return.

Rule #9: Actually Buy What Is Suggested

This should be common courtesy for everyone, but especially when parents request (or specifically do NOT request) specific gifts for their young ones.

If they have a rule against Barbies or toys with guns, respect it. If they ask for a donation to a charitable organization instead of a gift, do it.

Maybe they are trying to lose weight and ask for no edible gifts, maybe they are switching to all-digital and ask for no DVDs, or maybe they just want or don’t want specific things.

Whatever the request is, and no matter what the reasons are behind the request, good gift giving etiquette is to respect their wishes.

Rule #10: Don’t Get Too Personal

This rule depends on the setting and on your relationship with the recipient. It’s important to keep in mind what is and is not appropriate for different occasions.

For instance, you should never bring personal products as a gift for a co-worker. Perfume, cologne, and most clothing items are a little too intimate and should be avoided for office gift exchanges.

The same goes for most birthdays and other gift-giving occasions. Steer well clear of gifts with innuendo, lingerie, or any other items that are related to sex or the bedroom.

Rule #11: Keep Within Your Budget

It is perfectly acceptable to give a gift that fits within your budget. You do not need to feel bad if others give extravagant gifts; stick with what you know works for you. Give generously, but give realistically and within your means.

This doesn’t mean you can be a cheapskate; no one likes that. But a thoughtful and well-chosen gift can often be much more meaningful than the expensive latest gadget that need to be updated in six months.

Rule #12: Don’t Apologize for Your Gift

When you give a gift, don’t apologize for it. Sometimes, especially when Rule #10 applies, people will feel bad for just giving something small. Well, you don’t need to feel bad.

If your gift, no matter how small, is thoughtful and focused on the recipient, then they will appreciate it and you do not need to be ashamed of the size or cost of the gift.

Rule #13: Don’t Embarrass By Overspending

Well-intentioned though it may be, you won’t do a friend any favors by giving them some expensive and extravagant gift when they are out of work or have a lower income. In fact, you may simply embarrass them (and yourself), especially if they refuse your gift.

Proper gift giving etiquette says that your gift should be appropriate for both the occasion and the recipient.

If you are at a gathering of friends and a typical gift is a book, board game, or six-pack, you can provide a blessing by upping the ante just a bit. Perhaps you give a case of specialty craft brew instead of the six-pack, or a niche out-of-print board game they’ve been drooling over instead of something off the shelf at Target.

These types of gifts take it up a notch by giving them the best of the best. But it does not take it to the level of outright embarrassment, drawing attention to your wealth and their lack. That’s the key.

You can, of course, offer to pay rent or buy groceries, but they’ll probably say no, thanks. If you really would like to substantially bless someone by giving in their time of need, there are ways.

Drop off a couple bags of high-quality groceries on their porch, or leave a couple Benjamins in an envelope in their mailbox. But do so anonymously, and especially not in front of an entire party of friends and peers.

Rule #14: Wrap It

Presentation counts. Take the time, and take the effort the present your present the right way.

Wrap it in lovely wrapping paper, or upcycle old newspaper to reduce your carbon footprint. Use a nice gift bag and tissue paper, and save the ones you receive so that you can re-gift the gift bags.

Side note: Some people insist that proper gift etiquette means that everything must be new. I disagree; I think that reducing waste trumps this custom, so I always recommend saving and reusing gift bags, tissue, and wrapping whenever possible. Of course you will want to discard ratty old beat up bags (or use them for your “special” friends who know how you roll), so everything within reason.

When you take the time to wrap your gift properly and make it look attractive, it is just one more way to show your affection and appreciation for the recipient.

Rule #15: Write a Note

A note or card is not only proper gift giving etiquette, it is also your chance to connect with the recipient with some thoughtful expressions put to paper. Plus, it makes the gift a bit more personal.

You know those little note card tabs that come on the handles of gift bags? Use them. Have you seen the birthday card aisle at the store? Buy one, but make sure you fill up the left inside section with your own handwriting.

Nothing says how much you care quite so well as a thoughtful and personal handwritten note. It’s the right way to give a gift.

Now that you know the gift giving etiquette rules you should follow…

… how about some rules you can break? Here are 7 Gift-Giving Fallacies You Should Completely Ignore.


Gift Giving Etiquette 101: Giving the right gift, every time
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Daniel Szczesniak

Daniel launched All Gifts Considered in 2013 to help people find the best gift ideas for anyone and any occasion. He has worked for Northwest Gifts, an online gift shop based in Oregon specializing in American-made and personalized gifts, for...

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3 thoughts on “Gift Giving Etiquette: 15 Simple Rules to Make Your Gift Stand Out”

  1. Thanks for writing some good etiquette tips for giving gifts. I like that you mentioned that you should pay attention to what a person could get passionate about to figure out what could be a good gift to give them. It sounds important to pay attention to this throughout the year so that you can be ready to get the right gift at any moment.

  2. I’m glad you explained that it is important to have a gift look attractive when you are giving it to someone. My brother’s birthday is coming up soon, and I think it would be a good idea for me to get him some collectible pins from his favorite TV show. When I get them, I’ll be sure to have them properly wrapped before I give them to my brother.

  3. This is good information. I wish people who don’t know how or think they do would read this and others like this to find out how and get ideas. It means a lot when someone puts time and thought into a gift. Once, I received a valentine, left on a chair around 730 in the evening, no note, no conversation; just sitting there and I just happened to see it. Another time, on the morning of the occasion a quick dash to the supermarket returned a card and a pot plant. Go figure! I like it better when it’s just money.


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