(Doctor’s Note: It’s Black Friday and I’m on vacation. In the spirit of the season – and the shopping tradition – I’m re-running this article from 2013….)
I’m going to be honest with you: I’m not a huge Christmas guy. Halloween’s more my holiday these days. It’s not a Grinch thing; I don’t have anything against the holiday in theory. I genuinely loved certain family traditions like the annual gathering of as many friends as possible to take over a local Tex-Mex restaurant for Christmas Eve lunch – before we all got older and had responsibilities that made it impossible to keep it going. No, my biggest issue is the way it gets shoved down one’s throat earlier and earlier every year. Hell, stores in Austin were putting up Christmas displays in October. And to be perfectly honest, if I never hear another Christmas carol1 ever again, I will be a happy, happy man.
But the other issue is the sheer level of stress the holiday induces in my friends and family… and it doubles the amount of anxiety-induced emails I get. Every year, once we get past Thanksgiving and Black-Eye Friday and the Christmas Shopping Season officially begins, young men around the world start to panic as they wonder: “What the hell do I get my girlfriend for Christmas this year?”
It’s a trickier question than you’d think. Gift giving, whether at Christmas, Valentine’s Day or a birthday, can be fraught with insecurity and peril, especially when you’re at the beginning of a new relationship – or worse, are still in the “are we/aren’t we” stage of dating. It’s a delicate balancing act: if you spend too much, too early in the relationship, you risk coming off as though you’re starting to get clingy and desperate. On the other hand, spend too little and you look like you don’t care at all.
And then there’s the eternal question of “what do you get”? Do you go with the practical or the romantic? The sentimental or the sexual? How do you thread the needle when it feels like every gift is practically soaked in unspoken messages about commitment, intent and expectations?
The longer you’re together, the easier some questions get, but then you still have to walk a tightrope of sweet vs. sappy, traditional vs. original… it can be maddening.
Fortunately, I’m here to help you through all of this. So I give you Dr. NerdLove’s guide to gift giving…
Navigating The Price/Relationship Axis
The trickiest part of holiday shopping for a young (or entirely unofficial) relationship is understanding the relationship between the length and type of your relationship and the budget for the gift. After all, no matter how much we try to tell ourselves that a gift is just a gift, what you give to your sweetie carries an intrinsic message about how you feel about them and your relationship.
Don’t believe me? Ask around; buying expensive or outrageous gifts when you’re still early in the relationship is going to be a huge red flag to the majority of people. It’s an extension of the Grand Romantic Gesture that looks great in movies but actually freaks people out in real life. One of my best friends once got a ring for Christmas from her boyfriend.
They’d started dating on December 12th.
It wasn’t cute or romantic, it was creepy. It screamed neediness and serious over-attachment.
There are plenty of men – myself included – who’ve made the mistake of overcommitting on a gift too early in the relationship. Sometimes it was an innocent mistake. Sometimes we legitimately were trying to bowl them over and effectively buy their affections. Either way: at best it’s going to send very awkward messages. At worst… well, it can be the incident that causes your honey to start rethinking how they feel about you.
If you want to avoid sending the wrong message with your gift and signaling that you might have gotten overly attached too quickly, you need to navigate the Price/Relationship axis. You have to take into account how long you’ve been dating and – critically – what kind of relationship you have together. The longer you’ve been together, the more flexibility you have… but whether you’re exclusive or not will still influence what is and isn’t appropriate for a gift.
Fortunately, it’s fairly simple. Here’s a handy rule of thumb for potential gift budgets:
1 to 4 dates: a card. Maybe a home cooked dinner and a good bottle of wine. I recommend a Nero d’Avola personally. Seriously, at this stage, you’re still getting to know one another. Anything more than this and it’s going to make you look like you’re already thinking about what to name your kids. This is doubly true if you haven’t had sex yet.
1 to 3 months: You’re going to want to use how often you see each other as a gauge here. If you’re seeing each other once or twice a week, then you want to consider something heartfelt and fun but relatively cheap: no more than $30 on the outside edge, plus dinner. You’re having fun, but it’s not serious yet. Anything more substantial than, say, a book by her favorite author is going to be a bit much. If you’re seeing each other upwards of three times a week, you’re starting to move into more serious territory and you have slightly more flexibility in gifts. At the same time however, if you haven’t had the “Defining The Relationship” talk – you’re not exclusive or otherwise a “serious” relationship – then you want something cute and fun that reflects the fact that you’ve been enjoying your time together. Giving something practical like, say, cookware, implies a more committed relationship than you actually have. Concert tickets, especially for a band she likes, are a great idea here.
4 to 5 months, casual relationship: Same as above, but a gift of $50 at the most isn’t outside the realm of reasonability.
4 to 6 months, serious relationship: You’re in the “new relationship” stage, which means everything’s likely hearts and cartoon birds and barely being able to keep your hands off one another. This is the honeymoon period – sweet and sappy gifts are going to be the most appreciated. At the same time, you don’t want to go overboard in terms of buying presents – going over $75 (depending on your budget) is still going to carry some emotional heft. One of your best bets is something that you can do together. You’re also starting to enter the period where jewelry isn’t a bad idea – something small and simple, like a pendant or earrings – but avoid anything with gems. This is also a good time to prowl through Amazon wishlists for inspiration.
7+ months : Honestly, at this point, you’re presumably in a well established relationship. You should have a pretty solid idea of what your sweetie is into and is appropriate. I will point out that at this stage, practical gifts are more acceptable, especially if you’re living together. Just be sure that it’s something she’s expressed interest in; it wins you extra brownie points for being considerate and paying attention. One thing I will suggest is that the longer you’ve been together, the better it is to have at least one seriously romantic gift. In long term relationships, taking time to be romantic and remind your honey that you care is a big part of relationship maintenance.
Keep in mind: these are just a guide. Every relationship is different and proceeds at its own pace; you’ll know better than me whether your snugglebunny would prefer a Le Creuset dutch oven over a bracelet or if she thinks cute knick-nacks are just one more thing that need to be dusted. And with that in mind:
Do Your Research
One of the keys to picking the perfect gift is keep her personality and interests in mind. Some women are far more likely to want something useful than something schmoopy, while others will love you forever if you buy her an Assassin’s Creed Eagle hoodie or a PotatOS.
But when you want to show that you care, you want to go the extra mile… especially if you’re not necessarily into or don’t really understand her interests. The more you can show that not only do you appreciate their passions – even if you don’t share them – but you care enough to invest in them, the more beloved your gift will be. This means being willing to do the research when it comes to what somebody who engages in her hobbies might really love.
To give one example: one of my friends effectively won Christmas forever by buying his wife a single chef’s knife. She was a devoted cook and who read William-Sonoma catalogs the way other people watch porn. He, on the other hand, could barely boil water without setting off the smoke alarm. But he went out of his way to buy the best chef’s knife he could find – in this case a high-carbon steel gyutou. It was perfectly balanced and razor-sharp, with just the right amount of heft while still being sized for her hand… and it was possibly the greatest thing he could have gotten her. It said that while he may not have quite understood her love of cooking, he was willing to do the footwork to find something that she would really appreciate instead of trusting to luck or just buying something because the clerk behind the counter told him would be good.
Of course part of what helps when you’re checking with the experts is to make sure you know what she already has… after all, buying a gamer a copy of Assassin’s Creed 4 when she already has it won’t work, and buying Forza when she’s not into racing games is just going to mean that she’s going to want to trade it in when you’re not looking. The best way to avoid that issue? Well…
Build A Cheat Sheet
Want to look like a genius? Put a cheat sheet together. If you have a smartphone then you have the ultimate tool at your fingertips: with the ubiquity of cloud-syncing services like Evernote, you can access any necessary information in seconds no matter where you are.
Here are the basics of what you need to have listed:
- Bra Size
- Shirt Size
- Pants Size (Note: when dealing with women’s clothing, this is going to vary drastically depending on designer.)
- Underwear size
- Ring size
- Favorite color
This helps ensure that if you decide to buy, say, a dress you think she would love, then you’re going to know that it fits right. If you want to go the extra mile, then include the following information:
- Favorite fabric
- Preferred cut of pants/shirt
- Favorite designer
- Favorite store
- Favorite make-up
- Favorite scent
- Favorite TV show
- Favorite movie
- Favorite author
- Favorite band
- Favorite game
You can also use this cheat sheet to discretely keep track of things they’ve mentioned before… as well as the things she doesn’t like. She loves Game of Thrones but has been waiting for a sale before getting the Blu-Rays? Goes on the list. She likes a particular brand of accessories? On the list. She thinks certain tops just never work on her? Goes on the list. It’s incredibly simple and makes you look like the best, most attentive boyfriend/husband/what-have-you in the world.
When In Doubt, Go For (Offbeat) Instant Romance
Sometimes you are just going to draw a blank. Even when you’ve been with your partner for months or even years, it can be a little daunting to find something that will not only make them smile but will say that you put some thought into this. That’s why sometimes the best gifts are often the ones that are simple and romantic, especially if they’re momentos and reminders of your relationship together.
Photos are especially good… but you want to go the extra mile? Do something different with them. Printing a favorite photo on wood, for example, gives it an extra level of texture and artistry that it didn’t have before, turning a couple’s selfie into something special. There are several services online that print photos in many different media, including canvas, aluminum, wood or even on chocolate.
Another option, especially if you’re dating someone geeky or who is deep into various fandoms: commission an artist to do an illustration for them. A simple portrait of your sweetie dressed as Sherlock, a cartoon of them with the Doctor, even just a picture of a smirking Damon Salvatore… no matter what, it will be utterly unique to them and incredibly special. There are literally thousands of amazing artists on DeviantArt who take commissions. Price is going to vary by size, complexity and the popularity of the artist, so be sure to do some research first.
You might also want to look into experiences as gifts – special events or lectures she might be interested in, classes she’d been dying to take, even taking her to an indoor skydiving session. One friend took his girlfriend to a wine-and-chocolate tasting event led by a local celebrity chef, combining various vintages and wines with artisanal chocolates. They may not be the cheapest of gifts, but they’ll be things she will remember fondly for years to come.
On occasion, it’s also good to just go completely sappy. One of my friends gave his girlfriend a key-shaped USB; he called it “The Key to the Tardis” because it was bigger on the inside than on the outside. When plugged in, it became a virtual scrapbook of their relationship together. He’d filled it with digital memorabilia: photos of them together, videos they’d taken on trips together, letters they’d written to each other, even several themed playlists that she could load up in iTunes. It was very simple and incredibly heartfelt. She thought it was the most romantic thing anyone had ever done for her.
True, trying to figure out what to get your sweetie for Christmas, her birthday or any other holiday can be stressful. But with a little thought and some care, even the simplest gifts can be the ones she’ll treasure for a lifetime.
Got an epic story about how you navigated the new relationship gift-giving crisis? Did you give (or get) an amazing present from your sweetie? Share your details in the comments and on the Dr. NerdLove Facebook page!
- That isn’t Christmas in Hollis, The Season’s Upon Us or The Fairytale of New York [↩]