Gift Giving Etiquette: 12 Quick Tips to Get It Right


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There are many different occasions that call for gifts. Sometimes gifts say ‘congratulations,’ while other times they say, ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I’m here for you.’ When thinking about what gift to give someone, there are some simple etiquette tips worth considering.

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It can be tricky to figure out when to give a gift or how to pick an appropriate gift. It’s always good to consider things like the message you are trying to send, as well as people’s circumstances and tastes. There is also helpful etiquette to know when sending the gift. It’s important to consider things like timeliness and presentation. 

While you are never required to give a gift to anyone, there are times when not giving a gift could raise some eyebrows. Here are some quick tips to help you get gift-giving etiquette right. Remember, gift-giving is as much about intention as it is about the actual gift—the best gifts come from the generosity of your heart. 

Tips for Knowing When to Give a Gift

It can be confusing to know what are appropriate times to give someone a gift. You probably know that it’s proper etiquette to bring a gift to a kid’s birthday party, but what about for a coworker that helps you out? Here are some scenarios when gift-giving makes sense.  

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1. To celebrate an achievement or milestone

If you were invited to a birthday, anniversary, graduation, or wedding celebration, it is good etiquette to bring a gift.

The only exception to this is if the invitation clearly spells out that the hosts do not want gifts. Some people ask for donations instead, and it’s important to respect the hosts’ wishes!

2. When someone is suffering

When someone experiences a loss or is going through a tough time, it can be compassionate and supportive to give them a gift. 

Just make sure that your gift is appropriate. If you are bringing a gift to a funeral, for example, don’t bring something giant and extravagant that the mourning family has to figure out how to get home.

Flowers or a card are typically a safe bet. If you are headed to their home after, a meal for the freezer is a wonderful way to help someone who is grieving feel cared for. 

3. To show someone you are grateful

Sometimes a thank-you note is enough, but if someone truly goes above and beyond for you, a gift of gratitude is a generous way to thank them. If a friend did a lot for you while you were going through a difficult time, a thank-you gift is the perfect way to express your gratitude. 

Perhaps a coworker covered for you or their mentorship landed you a big promotion. Gifting them a token of appreciation is good etiquette. Same for a boss who you would like to show your appreciation to. The holidays or birthdays are always appropriate times for gift-giving in an office setting.

4. Just because!

Sometimes, you just want to let someone know you’re here for them and that you care. Maybe you’re missing them or just want to make them smile. This is a great time for a surprise gift!

Tips for Picking an Appropriate Gift

There are important things to consider when choosing a gift for someone. You want to be generous, but not overdo it. It’s important to consider both the occasion and also the person you are gifting. What might be perfect for someone in your life, might be a giant flop for another.

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5. Be generous

When giving a gift, don’t just send someone something cheap and thoughtless. It’s better to send something homemade or even a thoughtful card than junk. A gift doesn’t need to be expensive to be generous. 

Take your time thinking through what is an appropriately generous gift for the occasion. Don’t be afraid to get creative!

6. Consider the person’s circumstances and taste

It would be in poor taste to get someone a gag gift while they’re grieving. Even if they’re a person who generally has a great sense of humor, a joke gift is not a good idea after a loss. Something sentimental or beautiful such as a plant or donation in memory of their loved one is a better alternative.

If someone is going through cancer treatment, they might be dealing with some nausea and other physical discomforts. Sending them a basket of smoked fish is probably not an appropriate choice. Sending them a care package with fuzzy slippers, a soft blanket, and a comfy pillow is a much more thoughtful choice.

If someone is struggling through a job loss, a gift card to an online retailer, food market, or their favorite restaurant might really help with basic needs. Getting some relief from paying yet another bill can be a huge gift. 

Pro-tip: If you can’t offer the person support in person, consider sending them an e-gift card

The most important thing you can do is to be thoughtful. If you know someone loves flowers, chocolate, or wine, these are great gifts for nearly any occasion. 

7. Give a gift of service

The gift of your time and energy is particularly appropriate when someone has experienced a loss or is going through a difficult time. Another great time for this is when someone has a newborn baby. 

Gifts of service cost little to no money and can make a giant impact. Consider service gifts like: 

  • Preparing meals
  • Housecleaning
  • Writing thank-you notes
  • Running errands
  • Childcare 

8. Think outside of the box

The best gifts are the most thoughtful. So be creative! Think about the best gifts you’ve ever received. Search your memory for the times in your life when the things people have given or done for you have made the biggest impact. Keep that in mind when thinking about an appropriate gift to give.

The only exception to thinking outside of the box is If someone has a registry, like for a wedding or new baby. Items on the registry are gifts that you know the receiver needs and/or will love. In this case, while it’s not a requirement, it’s proper etiquette to buy something off of the registry.

If you absolutely hate everything on the registry, money is the second-best option. Even though you love that gravy boat made of the finest china, if it’s not the couple’s taste, it will likely sit in a box in a closet collecting dust.

Tips for Sending Your Gift

Now that you’ve decided it’s the right occasion to give a gift and you’ve figured out how to pick an appropriate gift, it’s time to figure out how to actually give the gift! Whether you are bringing it to someone or sending it, here are some quick tips to think about.

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9. Consider packaging and presentation

A gift can be made even more special with beautiful wrapping. A big elegant bow can really elevate any gift. However, if the person you are gifting is passionate about the environment, choose eco-friendly packaging, or skip packaging altogether.

If you are giving a gift like flowers, consider the arrangement. It’s nice to gift a bouquet in some type of vase. Especially to a host or someone grieving. If someone is hosting a dinner party and you bring flowers, it can be a major inconvenience for the host to have to locate a vase, trim stems, arrange the flowers, and add water.

Similarly, if someone is grieving, lighten their burden by providing an already arranged bouquet in a vase. 

10. Include a gift receipt

When giving a gift, it’s good etiquette to include a gift receipt. There are so many reasons why someone would want to return or exchange a gift.

Don’t take it personally! The most important thing is your intentionality, and you want the person to actually be able to use and enjoy what you gift. 

11. Be intentional about timing 

Don’t wait too long to send a gift. Consider why you are sending the gift. What impact do you want it to have? If it arrives three months after the big day, does it still pack a punch?

The only reason to wait to send a gift is if you are being intentionally thoughtful about timing. If you think a gift will overwhelm someone who has a lot going on, it might make sense to wait until things settle down. 

If you want to delay your gift, make sure to acknowledge the occasion right away. You could do this by sending a card or a text. You could call the person on the phone to congratulate them or to express your sympathies.

If you are delaying the gift because it’s an experience in the future (like a sports game or theater tickets for example), you can always print out a picture and description of the event to gift them right away.

12. Sometimes a card is more than enough

If you’re far away or want to express congratulations, sympathy, love, care, or gratitude, sometimes a card is totally sufficient. Receiving a hand-written card or letter in the mail is special and sure to spark joy in the receiver. 

If you can’t be with someone in person, but still want to send them a gift, consider a digital gift-giving option.

Tips for Being Generous on a Shoestring Budget

It can be hard to think about giving gifts when you are financially struggling. You might be wondering how you can possibly afford to be generous when money is tight.

The truth is that generosity and money are not at all the same thing. Sure, generosity can include giving money, but it doesn’t have to. There are lots of ways to be generous without spending a dime.

Be generous with:

  • Your time. Gifts of service are incredibly generous, and typically only require you to give your time and energy.
  • Your thoughts and words. Sometimes a listening ear, sharing that you are thinking of or praying for someone, and offering kind words are more than enough. You never know the one thing you might say that can make the world of difference for someone. If you’re not sure what to say, check out this resource.
  • Your creativity. When you can’t afford to buy a gift, think outside the box. A homemade gift or beautiful letter can be an amazing gift. You could even create a picture montage or compile video messages from the person’s loved ones. 
  • Your influence. If someone is going through a difficult time, you may be able to use your network to help them. If someone lost their job, offer to connect them to someone successful in their field that you know. If your friend makes a big move, introduce them to a mutual friend in their new city.

When it comes to gifts, it really is the thought that counts!

infographic of tips for picking an appropriate gift

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