The act of giving someone else a gift seems to be hard-wired into human behavior: We do it almost from birth. Just watch a toddler solemnly hand one of his cookies to a parent and you’ll see just how basic is the impulse (and watch closely enough and you’ll also see that it is the cookie that the kid had previously licked and found to be an icky flavor). But there’s no need to over-think it: Simply accept that, if you’re married or in a serious relationship, you’re expected to give gifts. And do it well. Or else.
If you’re playing in the Romance Leagues, this is serious stuff. Forget all the mawkish nonsense about giving your mom a crudely made flower pot that you threw together in art class: These rules are different. Make a mistake, and you’ll be hearing about it for decades. Literally. Do it right, and that perfect anniversary present will help you get closer to reaching your own selfish goal. No, not well you know, (Although there’s always that), but convincing her that paying $8k for a Triumph Bonneville is perfectly reasonable.
The problem is, there’s no single, right solution to giving a gift to women. It’s like one of those equations in calculus, where the curve grows infinitely closer to the goal without actually reaching it. The best we can do is to try to approximate the ideal.
When To Give a Present
Birthdays, obviously. Anniversaries, if you’re married or committed to a long-term bond. In both cases, any year that is marked ending in a zero or a five is a big-time event and demands special attention. Valentine’s Day? Sure, why not. Christmas? Absolutely, even if both of you have no attachment to the religious aspects of the holiday. If you’re unlucky enough that the birthday-anniversary-Christmas dates are all clustered closely together, you’re still on the hook for each and every one of them and to find some excuse about six months later. You can’t expect to get off that long without giving her something, do you?
How Much Should You Spend?
Oddly enough, that’s the least of your problems. All you have to do is spend commiserate to your income; just enough to show that you’re not a cheap bastard, but not so much that it messes up the rest of your finances. If you’ve known each other for more than a few months, you can be almost certain that she already knows your income and net worth on a level of detail that would impress your bank’s loan officer, so she’ll be able to judge just how well you’re doing.
What’s In the Box?
If Sigmund Freud had to ask what women really want, who are we to know the answer? And before you say “Just ask her!” you have to remember that part of the present is to prove that you know her so well that you can anticipate her wants and needs on an unspoken level of higher romance. Or something. So how do you know what she wants? Ask her. Just don’t do it like an amateur and wait until the week before her birthday, or you’ll look like you’re just winging it. Listen to the hints she gives you throughout the year and get to know the difference between a passing fancy (“That lamp looks nice.”) and a passion (“I just love silver!”). Keep notes. If you’re really stumped, there is a present that cannot, will not, never fails: A gift card. Absolutely true, and serious surveys prove it. If it’s not one of those zero or five anniversary/birthday years, you can always go with a gift card to her favorite store or catalogue. Under no circumstances, however, can you get away with just flowers and/or candy. As ancillary presents, sure; as the main event, not a chance.
As the birthday or anniversary draws closer, she’s almost certainly going to raise the subject of what you’re going to give her. It’ll be done casually, teasingly, but there is a serious purpose behind this conversation: (a) she wants to make sure you haven’t forgotten and (b) she wants to make sure you don’t make the same bone-headed mistake like you made last year. Go ahead and play the game and take the opportunity to tease back and mislead a little, but be careful. Right way: “How do you feel about wombats as pets?” Wrong: “I don’t suppose you’ve ever had breakfast in bed… in Paris.” (Not unless you’ve already booked that suite in the George V, buckaroo.)
There Will Be Cards
Here’s a stock tip: Invest heavily in greeting card companies. Any industry that can sell 6.5 billion units during a four-year recession is going to out-perform anything on the planet. And you are going to contribute to their sales. The “official” card with the present is always the toughest. It should be romantic, well-designed, made from high quality materials and hit just that right balance between sincerity and over-the-top poetry. But that’s just the main card: You should also have a second, funny card. And a third one, to give over dessert after dinner (hey, it’s been hours since you gave her the first one!). See, told you this was a growth industry.
The Voilà! Moment
Presentation is everything, of course. Deciding when to give the gift depends on her personality and the type of present. Morning is usually good, but if you’re going to make her wait until dinner that’s cool, as long as you provide a card and some flowers as an appetizer earlier. Or you could stretch it out with a series, such a mysterious key with a note that leads to a storage unit containing a trunk that has a plane ticket… Use your imagination; she’ll appreciate the effort. Just remember that women, in general, like surprises but don’t like to be surprised. If you don’t know the difference, ask a friend who’s been married for a few years. Just be prepared to pay for a large bar bill.
In the end, a present given in the spirit of love and joy will be the right one. Enjoy yourself when giving, and that will come through. God isn’t the only one who loves a cheerful giver; your sweetheart will, too. And if you don’t get it quite right, there’s always next year.