Holiday Wish Lists: Practical or Tacky?


Wish ListAh, the wish list.

It made a lovely debut when we were little, often addressed to a certain Mr. Claus. It had a good run for a few years, but retired itself in adulthood as the stuff of kids and dreams (with the exception of weddings and babies, when they take on the adult guise of “registry”).

And now that we are adults, wish lists (outside of those socially acceptable registries) are at best silly and at worst mercenary, right? That’s what many think.

Are We Becoming More Mercenary?

A recent New York Times story discussed the recent trend of the wish list—it’s back, along with more mercenary attitudes towards gift-giving, like a desire for gift cards instead of actual gifts. (According to the story, for the last five years, gift cards have been the most requested gift, according to National Retail Foundation surveys.) A study released earlier this year showed that people who receive gifts they had requested actually derive more pleasure from them and appreciate them more.

On the etiquette front, though, wish lists have a negative taint. Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, takes a particularly strong stance against wish lists in the article, saying, this is not “what the ancient and noble practice of gift giving is supposed to be about, where you notice a person’s interests and think about what they might like and you try to please them.” Her argument: Making a list, or outright requesting a particular gift, doesn’t just rob your giver of the opportunity to be thoughtful or creative, it can make you appear greedy.

But you can’t argue with wanting to make the recipient happy, and to give them what they want—after all, isn’t that the whole point of gift giving?

Could Wish Lists Lead to Less Waste?

Wish lists are imminently practical. We’ve all been the recipient of a sweater that would look better on a dog, when we really wanted a coffee maker. And if you’re in the giving position, wish lists could be a lifesaver if you don’t know the person that well.

Which brings us to another point: gift giving is a lovely and meaningful practice, but in practicality it can also be hugely wasteful. Think of all the gifts exchanged every year that end up going to waste (unused, tossed, donated, regifted) because the recipient doesn’t like or use them. All that money could have gone toward things that would be truly useful and appreciated.

At LearnVest, we’re not fans of money being wasted, period. There just aren’t enough resources in the world for money to be wasted on things that won’t bring joy or be used. So, in the name of three major things that are important to LearnVest: (1) money well spent, (2) increased happiness all around, and (3) heeding taste and etiquette, we propose giving the wish list a little makeover this holiday.

Wish Lists: Only for the Greedy?
“Blatant greed,” Miss Manners decries, “is the No. 1 etiquette problem today.” She blames a lack of etiquette training and the widespread idea that being honest means expressing your every wish. That latter situation is what one wishlister’s aunt recently faced. Seeing that every item on her niece’s list was a gift card to a different store, she concluded that this “wish list” was less a request for a special present, and more of a demand for cash.

We all at some point or another get asked what we want for a holiday or birthday, and a thoughtful and tasteful wish list can fend off unwanted and wasteful gifts.  So what makes a tasteful wish list?  Follow a few rules of thumb:

1. Try an Oral List Instead of a Written One

It’s nicer to convey our desires to people casually in a conversation when asked what we want. Your oral “list” might be only one item long (“I’ve had my eye on this bread stone”); or you can mention new hobbies or pursuits instead of actual items, which is naturally timely during the holidays (“I really want to get into pilates next year” or “I’ve been wanting to get back into my painting in the new year”).

2. Use Technology to Soften the Tone

Amazon has a wish list feature that allows you to create a casual list on the fly of books, gadgets or other items from their site and around the internet. Many folks use Amazon’s wish list function for themselves to bookmark items for later, so the list feels more casual and less blatantly aggressive than a registry or gift site. Another way is to direct people to your Pinterest board, an online bulletin board where you can publicly share the things you love.

3. Mix Up the List

Make sure you include gifts at a wide variety of price points—from stocking stuffers to bigger items—from at least a couple of different places. You should also include a mix of tangible gifts and requests for certificates to stores you love, to allow the gift giver more flexibility in what to get you.

4. The No-Gift or Charitable List

If you don’t want gifts, consider a “no gifts, please” list. But sometimes people still want to get you something, so you can also highlight a donation to a favorite charity as your wish list item.

5. Message Only to Your Inner Circle

No matter how fabulous your list is, never send it to anyone outside your inner circle of friends and family members, or it can appear tacky and mercenary.  You can count on your inner circle to pass on what’s on your list if your brother’s girlfriend wants to know what to get you.

6. Give Your List Only If Asked

Finally, this is the most important rule of all: NEVER pass on a list unless someone requests it! Do not email blast it; do not paste it to your Facebook profile. Otherwise you’re sending a mercenary (and ungraceful) message.

If You’re Giving …

If, as a gift giver, you’re worried that buying off a wish list will make you seem lazy, squelch that thought. The same study we mentioned above showed that people who receive gifts off a wish list deem the giver more thoughtful, not less. The same study showed that the gift givers wrongly thought the recipients would appreciate their wish list items less.

So let go of that guilt: There’s a reason that wish list is there—namely, so your recipient doesn’t have to feign excitement.

Still not convinced buying from a gift list is the way to go? Read this for tips on how to stalk someone to get that perfect gift.

What Do You Think?

What’s your take on wish lists? Are they practical or tacky?

For More on LearnVest

For ideas on what to give to those on your list, check out our holiday gift guides:
For the Creative Type, Do-Gooder, Adventure Seeker, Fashion-Loving Female, Fashion-Forward Guy
For the Sports Fanatic, Gourmet Guru, Tech Buff, Domestic Diva and Intellectual

Master holiday etiquette with these tips.
Get people what they really want (whether it’s a gift, a kind word, an act of service or something else).
And get more ideas in our Guerrilla Guide to the Holidays.


  • Stephanie

    I think they’re practical, but I never, ever point someone toward my wish list unless they ask first.  I keep a wish list on Amazon throughout the year, as much to bookmark things I might want to buy for myself at some point as to show other people.  If someone asks me what I want for my birthday or Christmas, I can just point them toward that wish list.  They can buy something directly from the list, or simply use it for inspiration. 

  • Sheila

    I’ve used the Amazon wish list for a few years now.  It’s great.  There’s always something that I think of throughout the year that I’d like to have – a book I heard about, something in the kitchen breaks, or I run out of my favorite perfume.  Only my family knows about mine, but they have used it.  I’ll never forget the year I got this beautiful necklace and earring set only to find out later that it was something I had seen on Amazon and added to my wish list.  I’d completely forgotten about it.  I think it also gives people an idea of your tastes in things.  Even if you don’t get the same sweater as on your list, your family can usually get an idea of what types of things you like.  Just remember to update it and remove items you’ve received or no longer want.

  • Jen

    My wishlist never “went away”- I’ve been giving my parents a wish list (by their request) every year since I was a child. While my parents know my interests well enough to pick something out for me, as a teenager and now as an adult, it helps them immensely when other relatives ask them what to get me and they can give specific suggestions- the extended family think “wow, they’re so in tune with what their kids are into!” and my parents know that instead of “standard girl presents” that I’d hate, my relatives would give things I wouldn’t have to pretend to like to be polite. And as far as etiquette goes, my parents would never have let me list a gift card on my wishlist. If someone wants to get a gift card instead of something else, that’s their choice, but its never appropriate to ask for one! 

  • JackieAU5

    I don’t give anyone a “wish list” per se but its a very effective tool to send the link of exactly what you want to the person who is specifically asking. This can be for birthdays, Christmas, anniversaries…whatever. I’ve been doing this for years and I am never disappointed. I could care less about the element of surprise, I care about getting something I actually want or need!

  • Amy

    I only create a list for Christmas and I only send it too my parents and sister. It is usually short and it gives them a good starting point and I tend also include things I need like new sheets or something they may not be aware of. I never send to friends because they never ask and if we do gifts they are never bad!

  • Bekki

    My husband and I just had a huge fight over this very thing. He is pro-list and believes he can only get a gift “right” if it’s something the receiver has chosen and put on their Amazon list. I prefer to be surprised. My favorite gifts are things that I didn’t realize I needed and then can’t live without. I hate the list and feel greedy putting things on it.

    • Anonymous

      Your husband is wrong. Tell him we all said so :)

  • Anonymous

    I am, admittedly, hard to buy for. I use Amazon’s Wish List for things I find all over the web that I would like. My family and friends know I have a wish list and have made good use of it. I put a variety of items – in terms of cost and style – so that there is a good selection and I am still always surprised. Let’s face it, I have enough smelly lotions and candles to last the rest of my life! My friends and family have actually thanked me for putting the wish list together – they find it convenient and much less stressful than guessing what I would like! Even if someone does not buy the exact item from my wish list they can get a good idea of what I would like and go from there. 

  • Ruth

    I think wish lists are unbelievably tacky. My family rules were you can make a wish list if you’re a little kid (realizing that you won’t get most of the gifts on it, and more than half your gifts will be surprises), and you never return a gift unless it’s the wrong size or you already own it. To do otherwise is unbelievably ungrateful. To only shop for someone based on a list of demands is also thoughtless and uncreative. If you don’t like a gift, donate it to someone who will appreciate.

    Rule of thumb: If you have a job, you should buy everything on that list YOURSELF, not leave it up for other people to buy it for you. Holidays are for surprises by acts of thoughtfulness, not studies on personal greed.

    • Sheila

      Growing up we always had a rule in our house that after Thanksgiving you don’t buy anything for yourself.  If there’s something you want, you put it on your list.  As an adult I’ve stuck to that rule.  Of course I have broken it on occasion when there’s been something expensive I’ve needed that I wouldn’t expect anyone else to buy, but as a general rule I stick to it.  My coffee maker recently broke so it went on the list. 

  • Guest

    I think giftcards have a use but a limited one. I don’t think it’s appropriate to give a friend your age or older a giftcard (unless you’re doing something like tucking $5 to Starbucks in with a card), that just feels like exchanging money, but I do think they’re appropriate for younger people. When a young family member went away to college we got her a Target gift card. We never give giftcards at weddings (because we’re the same age) but I think it’s appropriate for the friends of the bride and groom’s parents to give one. Just a thought! :)

    • Sheila

      I think it all depends on who you are buying for and your relationship to that person.  I don’t find anything wrong with giving a gift card to a restaurant or if I know someone is saving for something that you can’t afford to give them yourself then I can see how a gift card towards that purchase would be nice.

  • Christmas Lover!

    I love wish lists not for me, I am so easy to buy for no one needs a list, but for me to purchase for nieces, nephews and siblings.  I love to give gifts but my family lives all over the country.  We don’t see each other often enough to know what each person needs or wants.  Not everyone is on social media so I don’t see what they are doing every day.  I always ask for a list so I can please the recipient.  Isn’t that the point? Also our list are not necessarily specific items from one particular store but ideas to point the shopper in a direction.  Some family members even list favorite charities instead of gifts if they feel they don’t need anything and what a blessing that is for everyone involved.  Lists are life savers!

  • NeRD

    To each his own – etiquette can be relative. There’s rarely one right answer for anything. For some families, wish lists work great and for others they are not appreciated. Live and let live. People in my life always ask me what I want – so what’s the difference with keeping a wish list? I never put gift cards on my list and never anything expensive. Interestingly, I only update my list when someone asks me to. Anything of high expense – I buy myself. I appreciate hearing the pros, cons and tips of these lists but I’m sad to hear that some people think they know what’s right and wrong across all people everywhere. As for me, a lot of what I give may be wasteful because I’m not great at always knowing how to match a gift to a person. And, I give to thrift stores frequently, so someone else can benefit from the gifts that I don’t use. But, wouldn’t it be nice to spend money on gifts that are actually kept and used. The element of surprise isn’t always a great thing. Cheers to all of you this holiday season!

  • Valerie Gleaton

    My parents love to get us a few surprises for Christmas, but my they definitely appreciate getting a wish list from us for the bulk of their holiday shopping. And I feel the same way — I like to know that I’m getting the other person something they really want, then adding in a few personal touches to show that I put some extra thought into it.

  • MDiskin

    Season of life means everything here — we have 3 small children, and family that live far away, including overseas. They really want to give the kids something they’ll enjoy and use, so we put ideas on an Amazon list with our kids’ 3 names. Most are books with a “big” toy for each and a few smaller things. Many things on that list are books I want to remind myself to look out for, either at the library or at Goodwill. And I beg, BEG everyone each year to buy used. It’s also helpful if you have, for example, a child who is an advanced reader — my 6YO has been reading books much bigger than usually get lumped in her age group, so it’s helpful to see what she’s into. Again, though: we never push the list.

  • Debinparkville

    My daughter has a wish list for my young grandchildren.  My granddaughter has a collection of little pets which number in the hundreds and it’s impossible to know what she has and hasn’t!  My grandson is a baby is getting toys as hand-me-downs from his sister.  I love having the list so I don’t have to worry if they have the toy and see her eyes light up when she sees something new!

  • prc

    it depends. i have a wishlist on amazon for myself, to help me remember all the books/things i want. my boyfriend and father just give me what they want, but my mother, aunt and grandmother want wishlists, so i give them to them.

    i generally get more interesting gifts from my father/boyfriend. if my aunt/mother don’t have wishlists, i get a bunch of stuff to donate. that being said, i don’t even really want gifts. i’d rather just have money to pay of credit cards or have them give money to charity in my name. i am trying to pare down my possessions, so the only things i ask for are either quickly used up or very functional/useful.

  • AM

    I sent out a wishlist to my family this year before my autumn birthday and without a request for one.  It may have been horribly rude.  However I know they are all in very tight financial straights right now and it’s difficult to get “a little something” for someone so I made them a list of things under $20 that I’d be delighted to receive.  My family still asks for wish lists in general and although some of us (including me) enjoy surprises we put the enjoyment of our gift as our top priority.  This way they know they can get me something inexpensive and yet very much wanted.  I do not however, put giftcards on any wishlist.

  • Anonymous

    I think wishlists totally miss the point of gift giving.

    In my family we get each other gifts ranging from any amount of money, sometimes creative, sometimes off the shelf. I am the youngest of 10 children with more than 20 nieces and nephews. Last year, for example, I got on my oldest brother’s shutterfly account and had 3 beautiful, artistic pictures he took in Costa Rica blown up and put on canvas.

    But, in my husband’s family they insist that we not only buy for each person and set a dollar amount, but that each person then tells you what they want. Then one sister-in-law sends a confused email after every thanksgiving “Did we say $10 or $20 for each child” The youngest of whom is 21. (My husband and I don’t have children after a miscarriage two years ago) This year we even drew names at Thanksgiving only to have a total reversal within a day.

    Some of the people in my family are getting these cool, upcycled wine bottle outdoor torches that I am making that I found on  Pinterest. His family might just get gift cards for the dollar amount specified like they did last year after the 6th exchange of wishlists.

    Honeslty, I am making their gifts too to show them how it’s done!!  I am so glad to get that off my chest.

    • Amma209

      But if it works for them- what’s the problem? I absolutely love your gift giving idea and have tried to implement that with my family (it was a hugeeee no go), but I don’t think there is one way to do Christmas gift exchange.  I think as long as most people are in agreement of whatever strategy they use, then really whats the big deal?

      • Anonymous

        I am cool with a gift list in general. For example, when one of my nieces went off to college, I threw her a “shower” and she made Target and Bed, Bath and Beyond etc wish list so she could get what she needed. Great. I’ve got my own lists on different sites.

        However, when the gift list becomes “I am basically doing your shopping for you and vice versa and let’s all make sure we’re getting the dollar amount promised” that is the big deal, and I left out some important elements. First of all, we are compelled to participate. Only one person is in agreement about how they do their gift exchange, she is just the pushiest (and the most in debt). It is putting a huge amount of stress on another sister-in-law (her sister) who just got divorced and can’t afford it and it costs everyone more money with the wishlist than if they were more creative and thoughtful, not to mention checking and double checking “Did you already get this for this person?” With 17 people in his family (including parents, couples and nieces and nephews) we are then weighing what we can afford for my family with 27 people (including my mom, couples and nieces and nephews) who expect nothing, but I would like to be able to get them something too. At Thanksgiving this year at his family’s we picked names. The one sister -in-law, who is getting divorced, was basically forced to say she couldn’t afford the way they had done it in the past while sitting at the table AND then the next day the other sister decided that everyone should buy for everyone again. I said cool to my husband, but I am not taking one “list” or set dollar amount from anyone. Gifts are about thoughtfullness and generosity, not coercion and expectation. (That last line is not directed at you, again it is just so awesome to be able to write this out loud.)

        P.S. When his family has to buy a gift for like an anniversary or something they call me for ideas. Am not saying I am awesome or anything, but a little creativity and thoughtfulness can alleviate a lot of stress. 

  • Grammaob

    Lists should be suggestions only. Some people (adults?) get ticked off when they get something that is not on the list. Maybe the price of gifts should be dropped to the point that it is the thought that counts, and not a big waste if it’s not exactly what you’ve always dreamed of. We are getting greedier and more mercenary.

  • CleoBarker

    I’m always being asked what I want for Christmas. So I never throw out a wish list, but I let people know verbally the things I like. A good friend asked me just the other day what I wanted. I said “Oh, don’t buy me anything (shes tight on cash), but I wouldn’t complain if you made me a corset top like the one you have ;) ” I knew she had all the materials for it, so she wouldn’t have to devote anything but time, and I know she loves showing off her skillz. :P When it comes to Hubby i have to drop things really obviously. Like, I have to point at something and say, thats what I want. And he does the same. Otherwise I’m way off- like last year, but he also didn’t want anything last year even when I did ask. So this year will be a winner :)

  • Anonymous

    Homemade gifts are the best!  And cost doesn’t need to come into it since most people have flour and butter, or material and buttons, or paper and crayons to make the gift.

  • Karebeaner

    My family has a wish list wiki that we can each update throughout the year. And thank goodness for that- I have not a CLUE what to get my uncle otherwise!  But, as Grammaob said, it’s only a suggestion list, and is usually used more as a jumping off point for everyone’s creative gift ideas.

  • Alysia Dugan

    To be honest, I have wishlists on just about every site I frequent. For the most part, however, I only do it as a means of keeping track of my favorite pieces. When it comes down to writing a wish list for the holidays, I sit and deliberate for hours over what I REALLY want, and then, what I think my family and friends can afford or would be willing to spend on me. Yes, I do tend to ask for a lot of gift cards, but they’re typically for clothing stores where I can pick out what I want and make sure it fits. I’ve also started asking for gift cards to grocery stores and gas stations to help make my own small bank account stretch a little further. Because I’m a starving student, however, other people’s wish lists tend to be ignored in favor of giving them baked goods and homemade items.

  • Cooperobin

    I’ve been giving my parents wishlists for 12+ years. I keep a running list of books and music I want to buy throughout the year. Whatever is still on there, come the holidays, I forward to my parents. I add some gift cards for places I frequently shop (information they wouldn’t know otherwise) and sometimes I add other little things. 

    If I didn’t send my parents a wish list, they would be lost. I tend to do the holiday shopping for my dad, specifically. So, without a list from me, I don’t think he’d know what to do. I do the research, find good prices and send some links to the sites that were most cost effective. So, I think wish lists are very practical when used appropriately.

  • Christina Rocks

    Regarding family gift exchanges…since the great recession of late, my family has done something different every year.  One year we drew names for homemade gifts, another we did a white elephant for $10 gifts where all $10 had to be spent at the dollar store and then drew names for which we wrote a list of ten “Why I love…” that person.  This year, to get even more creative and accommodate different financial realities, each individual (and in some cases couples) drew months.  On Christmas Day, we will present to each other the date during our month and preview of activity that we will all do together.  Each person pays for everyone in their month, so whether you want to have everyone over for a game night (potentially free) or fly the large Italian clan to an exotic locale (expensive…and probably unlikely :) ) you have the choice.  I’m the only one in the exchange who lives out of state, but I am very excited to be with everyone on Christmas Day and travel home for as many of the get-togethers as possible :)

  • Bbarbs

    In my family everyone is hard to buy for, so a rule of thought has came about when it regards wish lists.  Everyone sends a list to my mother of five things they would like for Christmas, ranging in price as well as need and want.  My mother turns around and gives the list to my grandparents and any other family members.  On that list is also one or two places we would like appreciate gift certificates for.  
    There is always a possibility to receiving a gift from our list but also other fun gifts.  For some things I get very specific but others I like to be open to the possibility that it is the gift givers choice.  Like this year I asked for a sweater and kitchen appliance, for the kitchen appliance I was very specific, but for the sweater I left it up to the gift giver.  This allows some flexibility, but also so creativity. 

  • Anonymous

    Ok, your son sounds hilarious.

  • lali

    i just relocated from philly pa. im havin money problem cant get cash assitance or s.s.i i have no food anys i would love to give my grandkids a nice christmas vut have no funds i was wondering if someone can help me