The secret art of gift giving

Age of the Geek Column: There are only a few shopping days left until Christmas.

Some of you out there are ready to go – your presents already bought, neatly wrapped, and are under the tree.

Others are doubtlessly rushing to find the perfect gift, or any gift at all. It is understandable. Some people are hard to shop for. Be it for a treasured loved one or a casual acquaintance, Christmas shopping can be a tricky endeavor.

One school of thought is to simply follow your instincts. Put some real thought into the person you're shopping for and get them something you know they'll love.

It is a risky move with a high payoff. If you do it right, you'll get the gift recipient something they really want while also showing them how in tune you are with them. But there are a lot of ways it can go wrong. You could give them something they already have or worse, something they don't want at all, leaving you with that awkward, "Well, it's the thought that counts," consolation.

Yes, it is the thought that counts, but let's face facts, the present counts too. Nobody appreciates having to plaster on a fake smile and say, "Ohhhhhhhh. Thank you. It's… I'm sure I can find a use for this." It's not comfortable for anybody.

At the other end of the spectrum, there's the gift card, or just straight up cash. Pragmatically, it's the safest option. Money isn't everything, but again, let's face facts. There is a direct correlation between how much we like a person and how much of our Christmas budget we allocate to them. If that is the case, then straight cash is the most practical way to ensure that the gift recipient gets what they want.

From a purely logical standpoint, cash is the best option. If we acknowledge that money directly correlates with affection, then cash is the most appropriate expression of that affection as it's the most flexible for use.

The downside is that cash completely bypasses "the thought" that we all acknowledge is "what counts." Cash is practical, but impersonal.

Gift cards narrow that gulf slightly, at least demonstrating that you've put enough thought into a gift that you at least know where the recipient shops, but that's about the bare minimum of thought that can be applied.

Both cash and gift cards also place the burden of shopping onto the recipient, which is a whole other issue. If you're the kind of person that dreads even deciding what to cook for dinner, receiving the gift of having to shop for your own gift kind of puts a dampener on things.

Of course, there's a better middle ground. Lists.

Personally, I'm a big fan of lists. Always have been. Many hours of my childhood were spent meticulously pouring over magazine advertisements and the Sears Christmas Catalog, organizing lists of video games and action figures. I thrust pages upon pages of Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers toys upon my parents for gift ideas.

The age-old tradition of the Christmas List is age old for a reason. It's the perfect practical compromise.

Sure, sticking to a list does eliminate a lot of the surprise factor, particularly if your list isn't flush with options. There isn't as much thrill when you go from, "It's just what I wanted! How did you know!" to "It's just what I told you I wanted!"

Much like receiving cash, making a wish list is effectively shopping for yourself. You have to put some work into it, but it still leaves the ultimate decision making to the gift giver.

And picking from a list can still have that personal touch.

My circle of friends has an annual Secret Santa exchange, which has been made considerably easier over the years thanks to Amazon's wish list feature. This year, my Secret Santa recipient's list included a variety of fantasy novels, computer components and the occasional Nerf Gun, but one item in particular stood out for me, a graphic novel collection of a comic that I have really enjoyed and proselytize for at every opportunity.

Had I picked anything else off the list, it would have been largely meaningless. A random Stephen King novel or wireless charging pad would have been equally well received by my recipient, but wouldn't have the same personal touch. I never would have thought of gifting the graphic novel on my own, but because I had a list to work from I was able to give my recipient something I know they want while also gifting them something that means something to me.

Of course lists don't always provide such opportunities. Sometimes there will be nothing on the list that really calls out to you. In that case you either have to go with something at random that you know they'll at least like, or risk freestyling it. I've found that a mixture of the two works. Some in my family will be getting both something they asked for and a complete surprise. When all else fails, hedge your bets.

So make your list, check it twice and no matter what you end up giving or receiving, be sure to have a Merry Christmas.

Travis Fischer is a news writer for Mid-America Publishing and maybe puts a little too much thought into Christmas.