Five Kinds of Gifts That You Absolutely Should Not Give

If you're having a hard time narrowing down the gift idea lists, make it easy by crossing off these five common presents that may be good in spirit but are ultimately lousy gifts.

Every Friday, I’m compiling a list of five things that meet one criterion. “What is that criterion,” you ask? Well, it’s going to change every week and you’re just going to have to try and keep up.

This week…

Five Kinds of Gifts That You Absolutely Should Not Give

This time of year, lists of “great gift ideas” are endless and everywhere (I even contributed to the ocean of suggestions, not long ago) but at some point, even the most astute gift hunter will grow overwhelmed and disillusioned with the selection process. So where do we go from here? How about the other end of the spectrum? Rather than listing a trillion gift ideas, I think it would be easier for everyone if I were to just definitively eliminate some ideas from consideration and that's what I've done, below.

One massive, golden caveat applies to all of the categories listed: these categories are to be avoided at all costs UNLESS the gift recipient explicitly asked for a certain item from that category (i.e., “I absolutely want the TuneCast Auto Live”). If there was no request, then you are required by Internet Law to abide by my rules.

5. Gift cards

A specific gift card as part of a package gift with a larger theme in mind is actually a good idea (like giving someone an iTunes gift card and a travel pillow because you know they’re going on a trip soon and need some music and comfort for the ride or a gift card to a specific restaurant in a city they will soon be visiting or moving to). Otherwise? Un-requested gift cards are very much a banner proclaiming, “I have no idea what to get you and I may or may not have waited until the last minute to buy this” and you’re better than that.

4. Anything that will create work for the recipient

Nobody wants a ticket to a labor fantasy camp. Unless the golden caveat applies, do not give someone a vacuum or supplies for a project. Do not give someone any sort of gift that requires the recipient to register for something online/over the phone or maintain any sort of frustrating correspondence. Do not give a recycling bin to someone who has no history of recycling or any plans to start.

Your “here, do things with this” gift will either collect dust (literal and figurative) or ultimately expire into the sands of time; neither fate is a good one.

3. Electronics

Whether it’s headphones or some sort of digital camera accessory, electronics are one of the trickier areas into which you will wander. Would this product work with whatever hardware/software they currently own (or will own, following the holiday)? Does the recipient already have this product or something similar to it? Would they use this product? Is this the best available version of this product? Do we have a rough ceiling for money to spend on gifts and if so, is this specific product worth getting under that price limit?

For example: you’re thinking about getting your friend an iPod FM transmitter of some sort but you agreed to only spend $15 on each other’s gifts so your only choice for an FM transmitter is a relatively cheap brand/variety that – even if your friend really wanted an FM transmitter – you’re probably better off not-buying at all. Like I said: it’s tricky and thus… it’s probably best to avoid all electronics.

2. Anything that could inadvertently be perceived as subtly insulting

The gift recipient may very well be interested in photography and that DK book definitely looks like a valuable resource but it’s difficult to know for sure whether your attempts to help them hone their newfound craft with a “how-to” book will resonate as positively as you hope. Most people would generally be fine with this sort of gesture but you never want to risk it – someone might already be in a foul mood and if you happen to give them a “how-to” book, you could ignite a powder keg.

So, think ahead about what your gift is saying and avoid sullying the gift-giving celebrations of you and yours.

1. Clothing and shoes

No gift market is more of a minefield than clothing. First of all, even if you think you know someone’s clothing tastes, inside and out (like say, a family member or longtime friend), nothing is for sure. The recipient may tell you “if you get me any pants, get them in a size 33” but even he won’t know if a 33-inch waist pair of pants from a brand he's never worn will really work out. (For the record: T-shirts are usually an acceptable exception to this rule.)

Unless the person specifically asked for a certain article of clothing AND provided size and color information… avoid clothing at all costs.

Justin Brown is an artist and writer living in Virginia. He channels most of his enthusiasm into making things for his online art shop, Artness! by Justin Brown. You can keep up to date with him, his worldly adventures, and his dogs by following him on Instagram and on Facebook


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  • Reply December 18, 2009

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    This post was mentioned on Twitter by primermag: New on Primer: Five Kinds of Gifts That You Absolutely Should Not Give

  • Reply December 18, 2009


    I guess I have a problem with the title of this article. Almost everything on it can be a poor gift, but there are numerous exceptions.

    Just for a few examples: Gift cards are impersonal, but then if you are just buying something for someone you are not too close to a cousin, nephew or niece for example, they would probably appreciate that much more than if you went and got them some random “safe” gift they may not want at all. (also if you’re known for being especially bad at gift I.E. my grandmother. I dread the idea of getting anything other than a giftcard or cash from her).

    “How to” books could be subtly insulting but only if they come from no where. If someone mentions they want to start cooking more or start a blog, a how to book would not only be appropriate, it’d be thoughtful. Unless the person is unbelievably high-strung I don’t think it would be much of risk.

    I used to work in a clothing store and I’ve since become very good at buying clothes for men and judging sizes (so i could be bias in that respect). And I’m not great at buying clothes for women, but I often like most of what is bought for me by others (usually one of my sisters). And even if you don’t like it, clothing is a very easy gift to return or exchange.

  • Reply January 17, 2010


    For the most part I agree. But to be honest I love giving gift cards to people that are not in my immediate family. If you don’t see them often and don’t know what they really like you just can’t go wrong with a gift card. I admit it’s only one step above cash, but hey, they definitely work in situations when you just don’t know what that person wants.
    .-= billf´s last blog ..Aviator sunglasses for girls recommendations =-.

  • Reply February 22, 2010


    I both agree and disagree with your #5 Gift Card. I personally love gift cards, but I can see how people may see them a bad way so I usually try not to buy them as gifts.

  • Reply March 6, 2013


    Books as gifts, in general, is a poor idea. Giving a book as a gift doesn’t usually work out the way you hope; even if they are a reader, they know what they like, not you. Or the other version of a book gift translates to “I think you should read this!” They think “I have something for the next time I go to a used book store.”

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