Maybe Mom finally realized that she has all the kitchen utensils she needs. Or you can’t bear to add (again) to Aunt Matilda’s compact collection. It’s time to think out of the gift box. Try one of these clever suggestions, courtesy of Real Simple readers.
For years, finding a gift for my stepmother was a challenge. Then, before Christmas 2008, it occurred to me that I could adopt a zoo animal on her behalf. (She’s a huge animal lover.) I chose a snow leopard named Biscuit from the Brookfield, Illinois, zoo, and my onetime $35 contribution helped pay for a part of Biscuit’s food and care. My stepmother loved the gift. She would often take my kids (now ages three, seven, and nine) to visit the zoo to see “Grandma’s animal” and pick out new ones to support in the future.
Alina Suarez Cahill
A monthly delivery of fresh flowers. I worked out a deal with my local florist, so it cost just $150 total to send a bouquet to my mom every month for half a year. The beautiful blossoms certainly brightened her day.
I give a charitable donation to a cause that’s tied to the recipient. For a friend who grew up attending Space Camp, I contributed to a third-grade class in his area that needed funding for a NASA-themed science project. (I found the school through the website donorschoose.org.) This kind of gift feels more personal than a random tchotchke.
Little Rock, Arkansas
Like many long-married couples, my husband of almost 20 years and I often forget to express our gratitude for each other. So for Christmas in 2009 I surprised him with a journal full of reasons why I appreciate him. Every day for a month, I wrote a couple of sentences covering everything from thanking him for keeping our garden green to complimenting his warm hugs. He said it was the most thoughtful gift that he’s ever received.
San Ramon, California
Every year, I give my friend the same thing: I wrap all of her Christmas presents for her. She enjoys having this task checked off her to-do list without having to lift a finger.
Margaret L. Pevehouse
As a professional organizer, I’ve never wanted to give anything that would create more clutter. So I buy loved ones AAA memberships. After all, everyone runs into car trouble from time to time, and this gives them a sense of security when they hit the road.
Geneva, New York
I share a piece of my South Indian culture with others. I fill a basket with all the necessary ingredients to make a traditional Indian dish, such as chicken curry. Along with a handwritten recipe card, I include spices (fennel powder, for example) that can be difficult to find in your local grocery store. It gives my friends an easy way to cook a delicious, out-of-the-ordinary meal.
Flower Mound, Texas
For my mother’s gift one year, nearly three dozen family members each wrote a beloved memory of her on a slip of paper, which I then collected in a jar for her to keep. Some recounted funny moments, while others shared the ways that she has made a difference in their lives. Almost a decade later, she still displays the jar in her living room.
A once-in-a-lifetime experience. My husband, a car enthusiast, gushes about the time I purchased a race-car driving lesson for him. In addition to receiving an hour of classroom instruction, he drove eight laps around the track at speeds of up to 143 miles per hour. He felt as giddy as a little kid—smiling from ear to ear the whole time.
Frame old, long-forgotten photos. After discovering snapshots of my mom during her college days, I placed them in silver frames and gave them to my sisters. We lost our mom almost three years ago, and the pictures transport us to a happy time, when she was young with her whole life ahead of her.
Lake Elmo, Minnesota
My father loves to play tennis, so 10 years ago I bought him private lessons with a pro. Not only did his game improve but he also learned a new way to protect his elbows from injury. Inspired by that gift, I now frequently give loved ones the opportunity to advance a current skill or acquire a new one (like a painting class for my sister-in-law).
Fort Collins, Colorado
While you can never go wrong with any great read, I suggest giving books that are personally meaningful to you. Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close are novels that enriched my life, and I am happy to share them with others.
The last thing my parents want is more junk for their house. So, as a gift, my seven siblings and I pledged to do major chores over the course of the next year. For example, my brother agreed to chop firewood, and I took down the holiday decorations. This is exactly the gift they wanted.
I prefer receiving practical presents, so I always give them, too. My go-to gift is a luxurious and comfortable pillow. What’s more useful than something that you sleep on every night?
Charleston, South Carolina