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Unless you’re a complete grinch, you know that feeling you get from giving someone a gift they absolutely love can be great. Sometimes it really is better to give than receive. That is, if you pick the right present.
But finding the right gift for your significant other can get a little complicated—even stressful. You find yourself stumbling around a department store thinking, How much is too much? How little is too little? Does jewelry put me on the fast track to marriage? Do I really have to get her anything at all? Suddenly you’re sweating and reconsidering your relationship altogether.
Relax. We asked Lizzie Post, etiquette expert and co-host of Awesome Etiquette Podcast, for some guidelines on gift giving for every stage of a relationship. Obviously what you give your girlfriend is going to be drastically different one month into the relationship compared to five years down the road. What’s not so obvious? The gift traps you’ll probably fall victim to if you don’t read this guide. (We’ve noted the types of gifts you should steer clear of, and suggested others that are the perfect fit.) And if you really need some help, look for the “hint” on each slide for a ready-to-buy gift she’s sure to love. Ready to score big this holiday season? Let’s get to it.
What to stick to: If you’re a month or less in to the relationship, you want to keep gifts relatively simple, but still thoughtful. “If you’re in colder climates, a cute scarf, a hat, and a pair of mittens—something where it’s not going to have a high dollar or sentimental value; for those of you in warmer climates, a lightweight scarf can be a really nice gift and gesture,” she says. Also smart: Pay special attention in the weeks leading up to the holiday. If she mentions she loves a certain animal, collects trinkets, or is crazy about a type of tea or coffee, get a small gift reflecting that. But do not get her a gift card to Starbucks (or anywhere for that matter). “Get a pretty mug or a small tea set instead,” Post says. There’s a huge difference between a gift being thoughtful and easy, and thoughtless and easy. And if you’re not confident about her style or hobbies, gift a cooking class or purchase tickets to an event the two of you can go to together. That’s a great way to learn more about her, and even if she’s not a Master Chef or crazy about the band, the experience will bring you closer together.
What to shy away from: Steer clear of anything living: Puppies, kittens, goldfish… You make a huge commitment both to the animal you’re trying to keep alive and to her since this is now your shared responsibility. Oh, and no rings. Get to know her a little before putting a ring on it.
Hint: Marbled Colorblock Oblong Scarf, $30, shop.nordstrom.com
What to stick to: At this stage, you know her fairly well. You’ve spent time getting to know her interests, and her tastes (we hope)—all of which pays off come holiday season. Consider small-but-meaningful jewelry like earrings with her birthstone. It should be thoughtful and meaningful, but not the be-all and end-all holiday gift like serious diamonds (save that for later). You can also gift lingerie at this point in your relationship (so long as you’ve slept together, that is; and if you’re unsure, wait for another time). Just note, it should never be given on it’s own. “It should be lingerie and a piece of jewelry, lingerie and those books she wanted,” says Post, “That way it doesn’t come across as, ‘I’m only thinking about sex.’”
What to shy away from: Blindly choosing a present. Sure, that pendant is on sale (and the saleswoman is very good at her job), but maybe your girlfriend hates gold and only wears silver, or she hates the color blue, but you happen to love the headphones you picked out for her. “For any guy, my advice would be take notice,” Post says. “Take notice of what colors she wears all the time, and what type of jewelry metal she wears most often.” These observations will help you pick something she’ll love and save you both the embarrassment of a flop.
Hint: Pandora Birthday Blooms Earrings (be sure to get them in her birth month!), $50, pandora.net/en-us
What to stick to: You’ve got a lot of wiggle room here and can get her just about anything. “Six months to a year is totally good for jewelry, but it all depends on the jewelry and the woman,” Post says. “To one woman, a pair of half carat diamond earrings may be no big deal, but to another woman that’s the gift you get when you’re 50 from your spouse.” Know thy partner. If you want to plan a trip, you can do anything from a weekend getaway to a local spa resort to a full-blown trip to Italy for two weeks depending on your budget (and time). When you’re in a committed relationship, this is an appropriate gift (though a weekend trip skiing or hiking can also be suitable for a new relationship, too).
What to shy away from: Clothes. You’re probably relieved to hear this. “Until you really know what she wants and, truthfully, you know her size in various brands, lay off the clothing,” Post says. Clothing is such a tricky gift because the fit, style, fabric, and about a dozen other factors all come into play when she’s deciding what she likes.
Hint: Ski Utah Powder Package, $539/per night, skiutah.com
What to stick to: Gifts at this stage in your relationship—where you’re sure the commitment is there and you’ve been together long enough to where you know what she wants—should be special, says Post. Go a little more extravagant and splurge on something you know she’ll really love like a designer bag or wallet. At this point, it’s also OK to go the practical route and get her something that’s useful, but still high quality (think: a great knife set or a new laptop). If you’re gifting an everyday item, make sure you pair it with a card that has really beautiful words, or cook her a fantastic dinner to go with it, Post warns. Or, if you’ve got the craftsmanship, or have a friend who’s skilled enough to help bring your gift to fruition, make her something yourself.
What to shy away from: Joke gifts. Just don’t. “They often fall flat and can usually cause fights,” Post says. (She may have joked about needing a book on etiquette after meeting your stuffy Aunt and Uncle, but that is not an invitation to buy her one.) “They can be really fun for out-of-the-blue everyday gifts, like on a Tuesday, but not for holidays, anniversaries, and birthdays.” Eye rolls, the cold shoulder, and the silent treatment are sure to ensue.
*Both brands also carry wallets that make less-expensive-but-still-great gifts.