Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Mission Impossible: Shopping for the Guy who Wants Nothing

INGRID THOFT: Every year, when my husband's birthday rolls around, I'm faced with the same dilemma:  What on earth should I give him?  He's not a picky guy, nor is he hard to please, but wow, he's hard to shop for.

The problem is multi-faceted. Firstly, he doesn't have a hankering for stuff in general. Secondly, his interest in technology (he's a software developer who works in the area of augmented reality) means that I don't understand most of the gifts he might like, so he tends to buy those items for himself.  Thirdly, his other primary hobby—a salt water aquarium—is also something with which I have little familiarity.  I'm talented when it comes to choosing names for the creatures in his underwater world—a shrimp named scampi, a fish named poke (after the Hawaiian fish salad)—but I can't tell a protein skimmer from a sump pump.

Full disclosure: my husband and I are not big gift givers to each other.  We love to give things to ourselves as a couple, but we’re not fans of gift swapping on major holidays.  We celebrate our anniversary by making a purchase for our home or putting money toward a trip.  We don’t exchange Christmas presents, and our birthday celebrations are modest.  So each year I find myself wracking my brain trying to find a good gift.  Perfect doesn’t even enter the picture!

My family also struggles with this, which explains the greatest hits of gifts that show up under the tree every year.  He’s a dedicated New England Patriots fan (yay Pats!), but not one for wearing the team colors except on his hat.  He loves spicy food and has, therefore, been the recipient of a plethora of spicy sauces and marinades.  Don’t even get me started on the salsa selections!  One of the doodads that delighted him in recent years?  Unpopable (sp?) bubbles.  Seriously.

What about clothes, you might ask?  Everyone needs clothes.  That would qualify as a deal breaker in our marriage.  As a child, he received clothes for gifts, and since then has deemed clothes "not gifts!"  I'm with him on that.  Unless you're Tim Gunn or Carrie Bradshaw, clothes don't seem very festive.

Were money no object, I'd buy him that jet he has his eye on or maybe a private tropical island.  Nothing makes him happier than spending hours snorkeling and photographing the sea life dwelling on a healthy coral reef. In fact, maybe that's what I should be "giving" him: a donation to an organization that is committed to maintaining the health of our oceans and reefs.  Maybe writing this post will solve this thorny dilemma once and for all!

In the meantime, Reds and readers, I want to hear your experiences on the gift-giving front.  When it comes to presents, which loved one poses the greatest challenge?  Do you have a go-to gift?  Have you thrown up your hands in frustration and gone the gift card route?  Do tell!


  1. Oh, Ingrid, this is such a dilemma. I dislike giving gift cards because I think it tells the recipient I couldn’t bother to actually shop for you, but I give in for those who don’t want anything else. The only time I was pleased to give gift cards was when I was searching for a little something “extra” to tuck into the grandbabies birthday cards [we’d given both of them their gifts early, before their special day] and a gift card surprised and pleased both of them.

    Grandbabies are always the easiest ones to shop for . . . the girls are a close second. But John is horrible to shop for [“I don’t need anything” is his stock reply to “What would you like to have?”]. So in recent years it’s become a sort of a mission to search out a unique “you’ll never guess what I got” gift for him. [The best one was a bell for his sailboat . . . total surprise.] But it’s an ongoing struggle whenever it’s time to come up with a gift.

  2. I have a hard time shopping for just about everyone. I think it's because I put too much pressure on myself to get just the perfect gift. Fortunately, my family usually exchanges wish lists, which are a very helpful guide and do take a lot of the pressure out of it. But man is it hard to come up with something.

    My fall back? Books for my niece, nephew, and aunt. A cappella music for my uncle. But I don't have any safe things like that for everyone else in the family, which makes it very, very hard.

  3. Books, always turn to books! Since I now have so many writer friends (and so many books are introduced here!) and I read the NYT book review, I keep a running list that I can pull out when needed.

    One year we gave everyone the CAT MAN of Key West T-shirts. They were bigger hits with some than others!

  4. Ingrid, if it weren't for your husband's hobbies I'd think we were married to the same man!

    My husband has still not opened a Christmas gift from my oldest daughter from three years ago. He opened the package to see what it was (a very well-thought-out gift, too), but the still shrink-wrapped gift itself sits on his dresser, forlorn. And come to think of it, the wallet I gave him ten years ago is there, too.

    And he's terrible at giving me gifts, the only person he feels compelled (if he thinks of it at all, usually at the eleventh hour) to give anything to. He usually defaults to a bottle of single malt.

    However, I think I've figured out one really good gift, and you're welcome to this idea. It's a one-off, though: a DNA test from one of the genetic testing sites. I gave this to my oldest daughter (who is my first husband's offspring) and son-in-law for Christmas. They are also super difficult to buy for, but they were excited to get the test kit. Have they done it yet? No. That's a whole different issue.

  5. This is such a sweet problem, isn't it? All we're trying to do is make someone happy, and in much of our lives, we can come up with solutions. But this one somehow, is impossible. Absolutely impossible.
    Jonathan and I discuss each others birthdays, for weeks in advance, trying to figure out what would please the other. Jonathan always wants to buy jewelry for me, and I say oh, I don't need any more jewelry. Which is true! Jonathan actually does like clothes, but he refuses to shop unless I absolutely drag him. . So that is difficult.
    Truly? We usually get something very last-minute, or spontaneous, or a couple of times Jonathan has gotten me something huge, and I say this is for my birthday and Hanukkah and Christmas, too OK? Thereby avoiding the next gift situation.

  6. I'm so intrigued by that test, Karen! Tell us more…

  7. I'm in similar shoes, Ingrid, except mine are particularly pinchy. See, my husband is also impossible to shop for, needs little and what he does need he'll go out and get himself, wants nothing, and is also a techy so when he does need/want something it's a thingamabobby doodlydad with XTR scud capabilities and can only be purchased through a guy who knows a guy with the right order code from some company that wants a blood test and pi recited to 470 places to even let you on their site - for security reasons. But the worst part is that he's an amazing gift giver and always finds this perfect, amazing, wonderful gift I didn't even know I wanted. Plus no matter what price limit we set he'll swear on my life, The Girl's life, and both dog's lives that he won't go over it and then ... does.

    And we give gifts for ALL occasions - birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas - so I'm stuck three times a year struggling with what to get him AND giving his family ideas because they don't know what to get him either.

    I'm exhausted still from trying to get him a gift for Christmas and his birthday (and our anniversary) are fast approaching.

  8. One of the best gifts given is time. A friend's husband arranged his work so that he could have every Wednesday off for a month. He took care of the kids and the house and the pets, and she went into the city to art galleries or for lunch or to paint. That was years ago and she still says it's the best gift she ever received!


  9. I once wrote Donald a little story book with photos. It was, and still is, his favorite gift and it gladdens my heart when I will occasionally find it on a table near his chair meaning it's pulled it out to look at again.

  10. Gift giving: feh. My husband doesn't need or want anything AND whatever you give him he'll NEVER throw away. He still has his bar mitzvah suit.

    So I try to give him consumables. For his birthday last year I gave him a homemade card with a picture of Chicken Vallee D'auge inside. Then I cooked it. Chicken with apples and Calvados, you flambe it at one point, add cream... He'd been pestering me to make that for years. This Christmas I gave him tickets to see Dorrance Dance (amazing fantastic superb tap(yes) dance group) and homemade chocolate-covered orange rind.

    Shopping for grandkids is a blast. So easy. TOO easy. We give them family memberships, too. The zoo. Botanic garden. Maybe next year the Transmit Museum.

    Shopping for my daughters is easy, too. Cashmere anything. Wrapped with the receipt.

  11. I struggle with gifts for my husband, too, for similar reasons. But for the first few years of our marriage, the struggle seemed greater for him. He was 31 when we married and it was his first marriage. He had grown up in a family of seven boys and just one girl. So the thought of shopping for "girl stuff" just terrified him. I remember getting gifts of furniture, trips, technology -- big splurges, things I enjoyed very much -- but obviously motivated in part by the fear of having to look at jewelry or women's clothing. Now that we are approaching our 30th anniversary, we are more likely to go together for a large purchase like something for the house or a trip and call that Christmas for both of us.

  12. Sounds like me. Gifts that I have enjoyed - tix to a sporting event with our son; dinner and/or theater event with family . Special time w/family creating memories cherished more than "stuff:

  13. Unpopable bubbles?! My husband (the physicist) and my son in law (robotics engineer) would love that. Um... HOW unpopable?

  14. Hallie, I have that recipe on my island at this very moment and all the ingredients on the grocery list. GMTA. However mine is called Poulet a la Normande. Separated at birth?

    This is exactly the sort of gift that goes over well in our house. One year, when Julie was deep into reading all of Proust in two different translations, I wrapped up a Madeleine pan for under the tree. I had the batter already chilling in the fridge. Immediately after opening, we left the living room, went straight to the kitchen, and had Madeleines for breakfast! She still talks about it, one of her favorite gifts ever. Cost? Under ten bucks I think.

    Grandchildren now get money. It is always the right size and color. I spent too many years buying something they already had two of.

    Having gotten over Proust, Julie's new passion is wine. That makes it easy, everything from stemless glasses that survive the dishwasher to a thingy that seals up an open bottle so it can go back in the wine cooler.

    Books are a great gift but so personal. I prefer to pick my own, and with e books, it's so easy to get or send a preview. I pay for all the household e books for us both, so it really isn't a gift, just another of the monthly utilities!

  15. Ingrid,

    There are so many great gift ideas from other comments above. You mentioned that your husband likes salt water aquarium. Just a thought - perhaps if there is an aquarium or a science museum in town, he may like a gift of a day there? I had another thought. Peter Rabbit stories were created by Beatrix Potter because she wanted to give her friend's children a gift. She wrote these stories for them and they became children's books. Since you are a writer, perhaps you can write a story for him?

    Another thought. I was in a day photography workshop at Book Passage through Travel Writing and Photography one summer. One of the people in our workshop told us that his wife bought him the registration to the workshop as a birthday gift. If there is something like this, then perhaps your husband would like this? Gifts do not always come in boxes. Gifts can be new experiences.

    I always tell my family that I do not want gifts because I have too much stuff. However, I appreciate the gift of time. For example, a gift "certificate" of having afternoon tea with relatives is always fun! A day at a play or a movie is fun too. One year I got tickets for my whole family to see Wicked for a child's 11th birthday.

    Sometimes it can be difficult for me to give gifts because we do not know if this relative would like it. For example, one year we sent a toy car to a 3 year old relative and we never heard back! We had no idea if they received the gift or if they liked it! Now when we send gifts across the country, we get photos through text on the phone and they say thank you for the gifts! So we know they got the gifts!

    Hope this helps!

  16. Men are impossible when it comes to gifts. When John wants something he buys it for himself, even if it's a week before his birthday. He warns our kids "don't give me clothes." Sometimes they ignore this and he actually likes the sweater and wears it.
    I once gave John a week of my time to organize his office. We give each other trips or theater tickets

  17. Ah, my partner of 27 years (the relationship, not his age) never wants anything. And he needs nothing because he doesn't believe in buying new when garage sales and, yes, curbside recycling provide for so much of his needs.

    Fortunately, he loves Mandelbrot, just like his Mom made. I have his mom's old cookbook, and every Christmas and birthday I whip up a big batch, just for him.

    Here's the recipe....

  18. From reading the comments, a common "complaint" is that the man says he doesn't want anything because there's nothing he needs. How lucky, if you consider, is that? The mere fact of having everything and wanting nothing is quite a gift.

    That said, I keep a wish list. Yes, it's always books, and there are more books here than I can read, but there's always something that appeals. Sometimes I'll buy something, book or other, and give it to my wife, saying "wrap this up and give it to me for (next gift occasion)". She's not enthusiastic about that solution, but often admits she wouldn't have come up with that item.

    For our anniversary, which is coming up, we plan a trip, just 3 to 5 days, somewhere we can drive to, and that's something we look forward to. Otherwise we try to pick gifts that are memorable. Last year I gave my wife a beautiful Rhododendron, which we planted and now each year when it blooms (it's just setting buds now) it's a reminder. She loved it.

  19. I'm struck by the thoughtfulness of everyone. Hank is right, what a lovely problem to have, wanting to please the one you love! And Rick made a good point: I'd rather have a guy who wants nothing than one who is impossible to please!

    There are so many great suggestions in the comments; I'll need to put them on a list for future reference!

    Karen, I'm definitely intrigued by the DNA test idea. He has a general sense of his roots, but it sounds like this would provide some actual data, which he likes.

    Hallie and Ann, Let me know what time dinner is served. Those chicken dishes sound amazing, and I'm impressed by the flambé aspect. Fire usually qualifies as a screw-up in our kitchen.

    Aimee, the "thingamabobby doodlydad with XTR scud capabilities"? Yes, we are living in the same universe. It also usually requires some teeny weeny part that is only manufactured in China with a delivery date of five days to five months!

    I love the idea of the photo workshop, bib-li-o-phile! He's really into underwater photography, and I would be happy to accompany him to an exotic location to carry his photo equipment!

  20. Here are the bubbles, Hallie. If they're not suitable for the "young at heart" in your life, actual children love them, too!

  21. My husband is Mr. Easy when it comes to gifts. Ask him at any time and he'll reel off a list, but they are always more the male version of the blender variety than the fun variety and I know he'll get them for himself eventually. You know, the metric socket set. So I spend much of the year picking up on little clues and then shop from that. His favorite movie - Twelve O'Clock High. His mother was one of the original WAACs he's a pilot. I found a place that made reproduction Toby Jugs like the one in the movie. He loved it.

    He's an electronic engineer and a chemist in real life - I'm off for those bubbles. He'll love them! Thanks Ingrid.

  22. His bar mitzvah suit!!!!

    I gave DNA kits to family this year -- mostly they loved it as a gift. My son, though, cautioned, "is there anything you need to tell me before I go through with this?" He does love to tease me.

    My husband's family think that books are the only gifts worth giving!

    I don't sweat the gift giving problem -- give a book when nothing else comes to mind, but if some inspiration comes along then go at it with gusto. I gave my husband a Word Clock this past Christmas which he adores. I paid $25 for it. "Best gift ever" he assures me.

  23. You're preaching to the choir. My husband doesn't need anything either. Mainly because he goes ahead and buys it himself. I don't buy him clothes. I don't buy him stuff for his hobbies. In recent years I have bought him books that I think he will really like. I thank the WSJ reviews for turning me on to them. I've gotten him The Birdmen, about early aviation and feuds between Glen Curtiss and the Wright brothers. I got him Rebel Yell, about Stonewall Jackson. I got him Waterloo, by Bernard Cornwell. And I've checked books out at the library about Jimmy Stewart's military years and General Truscott. And he's liked every one of them! Hooray. His gift giving in the past has been last minute and hit-or-miss. He finally wised up and gives me a Barnes & Noble gift card for Christmas. Or cheats and writes a card that says we can go on a trip of my choice. Which means he is willing to go with me, although I will do all the planning, making reservations, etc. Which is fine. Travel and books. You can't go wrong.

  24. SOmone once gave Jonathan and me a little wether station. It's from someplace like Brookstone, about the size of a cigarette pack, runs on batteries, tells the weather for the week. SO silly--but we love it!

    Although they make special ones for where you live, Ingrid. They always say rain.

  25. My Christmas gift this year was a card. Inside was a promise to take me to any restaurant I would like, for a "complaint-free" evening. (He usually grumbles about the cost if I'm not cooking. Ahem.)

    So we were on our way to my daughter's for the holiday when another daughter called on my cell, which was on the speaker in the car. So I'm telling her about her dad's gift to me, then I ask her which restaurant we went to in Venice she thought her dad and I should go back to.

    He didn't think of limiting where the restaurant was, did he?

  26. Does he have a go-pro? My husband loves his.

  27. Hank, I just startled the man in line next to me laughing at your comment. A mini weather station for Seattle could be a post-it note entitled "gray and rainy."

    Karen, Very smart on the restaurant choice!

    Chevy, He has a go-pro and uses it a lot underwater when not using his bigger camera.

  28. Some gifts I've personally enjoyed include magazine subscriptions, restaurant gift cards, and bookstore gift cards. But I'm easy to buy for; I like anything I didn't have to shop for, with the exception of books. I can easily spend about eight hours in a bookstore!

    In our family we used to buy gifts for the children and pick the name of one adult to buy for. In the past few years we kind of got away from that, and bought little things for everyone. There are a lot of "everyones" to buy for, though, so we went back to picking a name of an adult and getting gifts for the children. Adults who had special requests could mention what they might like. I'm happy with being surprised, and I LOVE what I received, 2 decorated and scented wax bowls from the Habersham Candle Company. They are NOT candles, so you never need to worry about knocking them over or forgetting about a lit candle, and they are really pretty.

    Deb Romano

  29. Hub and I are pretty lame in the gift department, too. Books are a solid as we're both readers after that...we'll, let's just say I'm taking notes on the answers you get!

  30. I'm not sure exactly when in our forty year marriage my husband and I decided to pick out our own gifts, but it's been a while, and it works out great for us. For Christmas, I get a big bag of books I pick out, and my husband gets something for his reloading or shooting. He was on the rifle team at University of Kentucky, and he still enjoys going to the shooting range and reloading bullets for his guns. For anniversaries, we choose something together to do, last one was a train trip. Birthdays are back to picking out our own gifts. I can occasionally pick out a book he likes, but he only reads non-fiction.

    Hallie, you made me laugh out loud for sure saying that your husband still has his bar mitzvah suit.

  31. The real question, Hallie, is does he still fit into his bar mitzvah suit?!

  32. I'm easy. A gift card to Barnes and Noble does the trick.

    Also, at Xmas I make a list and give it to the people who generally would buy me a gift. They have options to choose from. It makes it a lot easier for everyone involved.

    My mother was the hardest to shop for and got harder to shop for as the years went by. Sadly, not something I will have to worry about anymore.

    The best gift we got for someone that didn't want something was my grandmother. One year she said she didn't want anyone to get her anything the following year, "unless you are going to give me 1,000 dollars". So that's what we did, the entire extended family came up with a share of that 1,000 bucks and my uncle went to three different banks to get it all in one dollar bills. So we did indeed give her 1,000 dollar bills.

  33. My husband is impossible to shop for as he's a comic-book aficionado (I know little about this subject) and has seemingly read every book I'd think he'd like (he also works at a library). For his last birthday I told him to get whatever he wanted for himself and pretend it was from me (!). Once I took a deck of cards and wrote down one thing I liked about him on each card. Eventually you have to get creative! To be fair, though, I'm also probably hard to shop for and tend to also not have any clue what I'd want! : }

  34. :D Need some suggestions also :D I want to give my father a gifts. I find it even more difficult to choose.
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