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Great gifts don't have to break the bank

It's definitely the thought that counts when presents are exchanged

Gifts are intended to add happiness and fun to special occasions, and in many cases, they do. However, with each exchange of gifts there is potential for something to go very wrong. As a result, many people dread the entire process. If you're one of those gift-phobics, there are some simple rules for you to follow that will reduce your fears and become a better gift-giver and more gracious gift recipient.

Rule #1: rid yourself of the notion that a gift has deep symbolic meaning. Sure, there are times when a diamond means "forever." But don't go into the process of gift exchange with lessons from Freud's "Psychopathology of Everyday Life" inscribed in your mind. Freud might have believed that gifts had sexual innuendos, but it's much easier if you start by assuming that "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" or a "'pen is just a pen." Ignore well-intentioned but overly analytical advice columns. You'll find gift-giving to be less anxiety-provoking if you don't think read too much into what a present says about a relationship. This is also true if you're on the receiving end. Let's say you hint to your partner that you'd like a sweater. When that sweater turns out to be one size too small, don't assume that your partner is trying to tell you that you need to shed a few pounds. Learn to interpret present-related mistakes as innocent errors and everyone will feel better.

Rule #2: use empathy. If you're the giver, your gifts should be based on what the recipient would like and need, not on what you think the person should want or have. You might love the color red and think everyone should have a bright red sweater, scarf, or shirt. However, you'll be headed to massive "gift fail" if you do a Queen of Hearts and try to paint everyone's presents red. In anticipating what presents would make a person happiest, learn to see the world from that person's eyes. Observe what your recipient chooses to wear, from clothing to perfume. Ask yourself what the recipients favorite habits and hobbies are and make your gift choices on that basis. And don't forget that making recipients happy might include giving them exactly what they request. Wedding guests who go "off the list" (meaning they don't stick to the bridal registry) should realize that they likely will have their present returned, regifted, or stuffed into the back of a closet. Rather than make the couple happy, they've just created a big nuisance. If you're the recipient, empathy is just as important. Don't ask for something way out of the giver's price range or comfort zone. Give a range of options, both in expense and appropriateness. For instance, if you think your friend would be embarrassed and self-conscious at walking into Victoria's Secret, ask that person for something on the more conservative side.

Rule #3: allow yourself enough time. If you're the potential recipient, give out plenty of advance notice when you're in hint-dropping mode, especially your heart is set on a specific item. Waiting until the last minute almost always guarantees disaster for everyone. Gift givers also need to keep an eye on the calendar. Unfortunately, last minute sales at holiday times reinforce procrastination on the part of gift givers. Why buy a coffeemaker at 15% off today when you are pretty sure it will be sold at 30% off tomorrow or the next day? Retailers are turning shoppers into gamblers by constantly inventing new promotions in which price changes might swing by anywhere from $2 to $200 (read my posting on holiday shopping for more on this topic). You can play discount roulette, but at some point, if you're aiming to get a particular gift you run the risk of finding nothing at all satisfactory. Your gift may even end up costing you much more because you'll have fewer and fewer alternatives from which to choose or have to pay express shipping charges.

Rule #4:

leave your ego behind. If you're the recipient, don't assume that a gift that didn't meet your expectations means the giver doesn't care about you. There are many reasons that gift-givers miss the mark such as failure to follow the above three rules! If you're the giver, don't let your self-worth be defined by the response to your gift. So what if you got the wrong size or color? You got the wrong model, the wrong make, the wrong whatever. So what? Unless you swallowed the receipt or bought it at a flea market, there's a good chance the gift can be returned. In fact, if you bought it properly, you're sure the gift can be returned. No hard feelings; you wanted to make the recipient happy. You didn't, and now what was done can just as well be undone and happiness will be assured for all.

Rule #4:

Rule #5: be prepared to lie, or at least, not to tell the truth right away. This is the golden rule for recipients. If you received the gift in person, show your true emotions only if they are truly positive. The gift-giver is most likely eyeing you intently and trying to interpret your every reaction, including the slightest twitch of your eyes (the most sensitive to lying, after all). Unless this person is strictly following Rule #4, he or she is feeling extremely vulnerable. Even if you are outraged, humiliated, disappointed, and resentful, it's time to do a Lady Gaga and put on your poker face. The gift-giver may know that you're lying but will appreciate the fact that you're making an effort to protect his or her feelings. That will go a long way toward producing the response you hope for: "You know, if it isn't quite right, here's the gift receipt." Problem solved. Time to enjoy the rest of the occasion.

Now that you've learned the rules of successful gift occasions, here are five practical tips:

1.Have fun. Even if the gift is one that met the exact specifications of the recipient, you can still add an element of surprise and originality to the occasion such as buying a small and thoughtful gag gift to go with it.

2. It's all about the presentation: Find a card that expresses exactly how you feel or reflects something special about your relationship. Add flair to the gift with great wrapping or a neat gift bag.

3. Don't be afraid to ask: If you want to make sure your gift is a success, ask the recipient ahead of time for a suggestion or two. A great present doesn't have to be a complete surprise.

4. Keep the receipt: Exchanging and returning gifts is much less awkward if you have a receipt, especially if it's a gift receipt that doesn't show the price. The recipient will eventually find out how much it cost, but at least this happens when you're not there.

5. Say thank you: No matter how you really feel about a gift, express your thank you very clearly and enthusiastically. Every gift requires effort on the part of the gift-giver and it's important to acknowledge that effort- if not through a thank-you note, then through an email.

Life's gifts are often simple, but the gift-giving process isn't. With a little psychology, everyone can cherish the moment.

And if the rules don't work, check out my guide to returns and other gift-related problems.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010

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