Christmas shopping for a man can be challenging for a woman. Even if you have been married to him for over 30 years. But it can be a good opportunity to build the relationship and get insight into how to show your love in ways he will understand and appreciate. I offer a list of ways to stimulate your thinking. I recommend taking notes on what you discover, because there are birthdays, too. And next Christmas. Really, you need a dossier on him, if you don’t have one already. Important information has a way of burying itself in the dark recesses of the brain when you really want it. Some of these things may seem so obvious, but I find that when I think of them on purpose, I notice things I didn’t notice before!

1.  Watch what he does for fun or in his discretional time. Look at the details of it. You can’t just say, “he goes fishing.” You need to learn where he goes fishing, what kind of fish he tries to catch, what he is disappointed in. Listen to his stories and accounts, even if you have heard them before. Ask questions about how it is all going.

2.  Work with him on his projects or participate in his activities, as much as he likes. True, sometimes he needs quiet time or time to think. Still, a lot of times, your interest will spark more fun as he is able to explain and teach. Along the way, you are likely to learn about tools or processes in his activities that you would not have otherwise noticed. For example, I was working on a small cement project with dear hubby, and he “gave me a turn” stirring. With a rod of rebar. It was like mixing a double recipe of cookie dough with a toothpick. That Christmas, he got a heavy duty, long handled metal spoon, as well as a drill-like cement mixer with attachments. I was even able to surprise him, which is hard to do.

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3.  Wander through his fun or work spaces when all is quiet. It is possible you may need permission for this, or to be extra careful about what you touch. However, if you just go through and notice things he might need for organization, things that are broken, or materials that are commonly used, you can use this information to help stock him up with useful things. My husband is notorious for using things until they absolutely fall apart. This is fine to a point, but sometimes it is not safe (outdoor electrical extension cord for Christmas), or he just hasn’t found time to replace something (what nice new saw blades!)

4.  Notice what he is always looking for. “Where is my… ?” Sometimes it is just as well to have multiples available. I know my hubby can always use an extra measuring tape or hammer.

5.  Meander through store aisles that are in the general category of where he might shop. Personally, I don’t go shopping on certain store aisles by myself. Mostly it just doesn’t occur to me that there is anything useful there. When I venture into those places with his interests in mind, I see all kinds of fun things that I would probably otherwise pass by as “boring” or “I have no idea what to do with this.” After I have gone through this exercise, I find fun things like ginormous hooks to help organize things on shop walls, or straps for holding down things in the fishing boat. Sometimes, I risk buying him something that I know very little about, like a certain kind of jiggly, rubber fish bait, (do you know how many choices of that there are??) and he gets intrigued because it triggers his imagination and generates new thinking. Never mind that he would never have gotten exactly what I picked out.

6.  Listen to what he tells his friends about. Be attentive. Don’t interrupt. I say these things to remind myself. The guys will usually have enough questions and insights that they don’t need MY input or stupid questions. This may end up giving me a perspective on his likes and dislikes that I might not have noticed on my own.

7.  Observe what do-it-yourself or adventure documentaries he watches on TV. My husband likes to watch everything from cooking shows to survival races. He doesn’t talk very much, but if I am patient, he will give his engineering perspective on certain kitchen gadgets, or how he would do things differently in the top of a tree in the amazon jungle. Those are usually “ah-ha!” moments for me. Then, sometimes, I can ask probing questions or for more clarification. It really ends up being fun for everyone in the room.

8.  Note what equipment he gathers for an outing or project. Is it getting worn out? Are there certain clothing options that you may have seen, but he doesn’t know about because he rarely goes shopping? Does any of the stuff he is using look inconvenient? Keeping in mind that he is a minimalist in being prepared, but I am likely to take along supplies for every possible contingency, I sometimes come up with good ideas that fit his way of doing things. For instance, he will pile on all manner of old clothes to keep warm in his poorly heated workshop in the winter. I, however, knew about insulated work overalls and bought him some. He now wears them regularly.

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9.  Pay attention to what might make his job, commute, or projects more pleasant. This can mean needing to tune in to seemingly obscure details and things that you won’t notice unless you really try. One year, I suggested the kids get him a seat warmer (the kind that plugs into the cigarette lighter) for his long drive to work. It was a small thing, and he still had to go to work, but it made the deep winter, early morning, dark drive more bearable. Something relatively simple, such as a coffee shop gift card is good, too.

10.  Go on his shopping errands with him. I am forever fascinated by what my husband shops for. He goes right to certain items that I never knew existed. I think they really only exist in an alternate universe, but he knows the secret latch to let us in. If you want to be “sneaky” about this reconnaissance, start this earlier in the year and make it a semi-regular habit. The more you do it, the more you will be able to see what piques his interest.

11.  There is nothing wrong with asking a few questions, either. We are grownups and he knows I am his Santa Claus. Send me a list. Is there anything he has been thinking about getting himself, or he will feel freer about having it bought if it is a gift? This can include simply asking if something he is showing an interest in is something he really wants. We all know that sometimes we dream, but when we think more about it, it’s not what we want.

12.  Would he rather have it ready made or make it himself? I base this on both what I see him doing and what I know he is capable of or has time for. Just like I would just as soon have a length of fabric than him try to pick out a new dress for me, he would sometimes like a stockpile of PVC pipe or lumber.

13.  Use gift cards wisely. I tend to avoid gift certificates for him, because they seem to indicate laziness in trying to understand him. For others that I don’t live with, they have their uses, but for him, an actual gift seems best, if possible. On the other hand, sometimes what he enjoys/needs is permission, of sorts, to go spend money. I am the gift giver in the family. He feels more strain about buying choices. However, if he has a gift card, then most of that strain is relieved.

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14.  Consider the cost from his point of view. Sometimes investment in quality is what is needed, but sometimes he is more likely to appreciate a frugal option. If he is distracted all the time by how expensive something was, then it was probably the wrong gift for him. I have seen an extra large pad of graph paper excite my husband much more than a nice cashmere sweater. The pad of paper meant fun possibilities. The sweater meant needing to be careful of what he was doing in it.

15.  Picture his face when he receives and opens the gift. This simple visualization has brought me back to reality many a time, saving all of us from gift giving disaster. Sure, he always tries to show appreciation, but we all know what real happiness looks like when someone gets a gift, even if they are a fairly non-demonstrative person, a.k.a my husband.

I’d love to hear if these ideas help anyone and what you end up discovering for your gift giving. After Christmas, of course, if it will ruin any surprises you have planned. But, then, maybe, we need to compare lists again, for the sake of further research and dossier building.