Gift memories, not things: a guide to better gift giving

Petra @Erratic Engineeress
6 min readDec 2, 2021


Because the thought is not all that counts.

Hello December, the season of gift giving! Unfortunately, every year thousands of unwanted gifts end up returned, donated or in the landfill at worst, which is why I think we should all look past the generic Christmas consumerism and remember the roots of gift giving, which is to make someone happy(ier). I’ve already talked about regifting and why it should be a more acceptable practice before, but this time I want to tackle the selection of gifts and how we can avoid the unwanted gift scenario.

This post applies to both holiday and birthday gifts — because I know it is easy to get gift giving fatigue, i.e. run out of ideas for the yearly gifting ceremonies with all the people in your life and that those of us more fortunate already have a lot of everything, I’d like to propose a general guideline: gift memories, not things.

Now, when I say memories, I mean that in the broadest sense possible, from well-spent time together to new experiences, but also things that will make the receiver smile and remember the person who gifted them for years to come. Yes, I know I said memories, not things, but we can attach memories to things too and that’s what we are aiming for here. If the things we gift have some significance, it transforms them into cherished or at least welcome objects, otherwise they forever remain just things people neither care about, nor need, also known as unwanted gifts. Obviously, you’ll want to make those good memories, not regular reminders of an unfortunate gift choice that the receiver doesn’t want to throw out, like the proverbial tacky vase from the in-laws that you have to display somewhere or they’ll comment on its absence.

So, in order to minimise the number of unwanted gifts and their impact on the planet as trash, let’s all lay off the tacky, generic last minute buys (you know you’ve done it before and so have I!) and start using our brain. First off, in a society where everyone is always rushing somewhere, the greatest gift you can give is the gift of your time — either literally in the form of your company or figuratively by creating something, be it homemade food, arts and crafts or even just a simple greeting card. By the way, greeting cards are a wildly underestimated way to show someone that you care. The thing to consider is whether the person you will be selecting a gift for is worth your time and if you have enough time to give. Similar considerations should then be made for the budget as well. This may sound brutal, but we should always be honest with ourselves — we’ll rarely spend a lot of time, money and thought on a gift for a casual acquaintance or a random colleague as opposed to friends and family.

Here’s a useful list of things to consider when selecting a gift:

The gift giving guide

  • Have they mentioned wanting/needing something?
  • Is there a partner/family member/close friend you could ask for a suggestion?
  • Do they have any special interests or something they’d like to learn?
  • What do they like?
  • Are they passionate about a charity/cause?

If you have the time and the inclination, homemade gifts can be amazing, but they can also be very tricky if you have created something that is on the level of a bad childhood drawing or a burnt cake and you expect the receiver to be grateful for it. Again, you have to be honest with yourself — can you create a homemade gift that you would be happy to receive? Because let’s be real here, everyone wants to receive a gift they actually like, not just a half-finished piece of someone’s self-expression. When in doubt, it’s best to keep it simple, as even a home-baked loaf of bread with some store-bought jams or spreads can make a nice gift. However, if you can properly DIY, sew, paint or craft something, then the sky’s the limit.

If you’ve found an idea for something they need, that’s usually the jackpot, although it is best to ask around to make sure they won’t be receiving 4 versions of whatever they need. Otherwise, it’s always a great and environmentally friendly idea to gift experiences, such as gift certificates for a local tourist attraction, experience or a special event, a nice restaurant meal or a hotel or spa package, a language or skill course, a cinema/theatre ticket, an introductory art/hobby/music/sports class or even a voucher for their hobby supply shop or a bookstore. But if you do that, consider the recipient: don’t just randomly buy someone a skydiving experience if you have no idea whether they even like adrenaline. Vouchers and gift certificates are often seen as impersonal and lazy gifts, but that’s because people often buy the wrong ones as a last minute option. However, if you select the right one, I’m sure you’ll see a huge smile on the other side and you can even make a personal voucher for a home-cooked meal by you or an evening out together for the special people in your life. Also, it’s best to choose such experiences that are paid in full, not discounts, and have flexible dates to make sure your gift doesn’t go to waste because of time and budget constraints.

Another thing that is often frowned upon is gifting money. However, if you know that someone is saving up for a house renovation, a new car, a particular travel experience or a piece of special gear, your contribution can be very useful for them. If that’s acceptable in your culture, gifting money with a nice personalised greeting card or a homemade detail can be a very nice gift for someone who needs it. Similarly, vouchers for preventive health screenings, car insurance, kids’ necessities or yearly toll road passes can actually be thoughtful and kind group gifts amongst friends and family, even if they may seem a little dry.

Obviously these last two points mostly apply to gift giving among friends and family rather than amongst practical strangers, but even if you have been perfunctory invited to a friend of a friend’s birthday party or a work Christmas event where people are expected to bring gifts, you can still choose a nice gift that won’t burden the environment. Personally, I’d stick to a cosmetics or food goodie bag: local, maybe slightly more upscale products like hand creams or body lotions with neutral scents, culinary selections or tasting boxes with longer expiration dates, fancy chocolates, a bottle of quality olive oil or even a bottle of alcohol (again, if that’s acceptable in your culture). The thing is, even if you happened to accidentally give something they don’t like, if it’s a nice product, they can still regift it to someone else and there should be less chance that it will end up in the trash. People often go for neutral products in such cases, but unfortunately nobody needs 5 water bottles, scented candles, keyrings, pillows with motivational quotes, coffee cups etc. and these things can consequently be harder to regift.

The same goes for store-bought gifts in any other situation, which brings us to another checklist:

Buying a good gift checklist

  • Is it useful/pretty/funny-in-the-right-way or just trendy and a gift for the sake of a gift?
  • Do they already have something like this?
  • Would I be happy to receive such a gift (adjusted to my taste)?
  • Will it end up forgotten on the shelf/returned/donated?
  • Am I just buying this on impulse or would it actually make a good gift?

I’ve been trying to stick to this checklist when buying gifts and I mostly succeed, although I still sometimes get tempted by stupid stuff. However, even then I try to pick things that would make good, funny memories and that people would hopefully cherish at least for a while. Obviously you can’t always get it right, but if you put some thought into it, there’s a very high chance of success. Also, it goes without saying, that it’s always best to buy gifts from local small businesses with sustainability in mind, if you can afford it, of course.

So, how’s that for some food for thought? I hope you’ll remember this post the next time you’re about to grab some generic, mass produced product just for the sake of buying a gift and that you’ll think of its environmental impact and decide to choose something actually nice instead. Both the recipient and our planet will thank you for sure!

Originally published at on December 2, 2021.



Petra @Erratic Engineeress

Curious mechanical engineer, Tribology PhD student and a passionate traveller who still believes in dragons and goodness. Blog: