How to Buy Gifts Men (and Women) Really Want

Stumped on what to give? Consider the latest research on the best gifts.

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A house in Saugus, Mass., is decorated for the holiday season.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the holiday season can be the waste involved: What if you buy people presents they don’t really want, or that they already have? How can you go about finding your significant other that perfect gift that shows how much thought you put into it, without over-spending?

The problem isn’t unique to our consumer-focused era: In the classic story The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry, written in the early 1900s, a poor husband and wife exchange gifts. The wife sells her beautiful hair to buy her husband a chain for his treasured watch, which he has sold to purchase hair combs for her long hair. While they each appreciate the thought and effort of the other, their presents are rendered useless by the price they paid.

To avoid such a depressing scenario at your own holiday festivities, consider checking out some research on what men and women really want this holiday season. The newly-released Discover Holiday Shopping Survey found that for both genders, gift cards and money top the list. For those looking to make a more personal impression, men say they prefer electronics, video games, clothes, and experiences (such as concert tickets). Women want clothes, jewelry, electronics, and experiences, in that order.

[Read: How to Stay Safe While Shopping Online.]

If those hints are still too general to suggest a specific gift, crowd-sourcing ideas can help. The Discover survey found that women are particularly likely to turn to Facebook, Pinterest, and blogs for ideas. You can even solicit suggestions for specific people via Facebook posts, as long as you exclude the intended recipient from viewing privileges to avoid ruining the surprise. You might even find that your recipient made your job easy by creating an Amazon wish list, which you can find via their email address or name.

You can also get inspiration from some of the most popular gifts this year—here are a handful of the top choices:

1. A new tablet. With some Andriod-based tablets on the market for $100 or even less, these convenient touch-screen devices are among the biggest hits of the season, just as e-readers were last year.

[Read: Why the Hottest Gift of 2012 is a Gift Card.]

2. Virtual gifts. With more people consuming books, movies, music, and other media over the Internet, electronic gifts are also getting more popular. That means more stockings stuffed with e-books, iTunes purchases, and other virtual gifts will be greeted with glee.

3. DIY-presents. Pinterest and Etsy can provide plenty of inspiration for make-your-own craft projects that can turn into gifts. If you have young children, you can help them make gifts for family and friends by buying blank bookmarks or door hangings for them to decorate.

4. The Furby. This electronic pet-simulator is another popular choice for the holidays, especially for children, who increasingly enjoy interactive and digital toys.

5. Books. According to Amazon.com rankings, bestselling gift books include Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden, and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.

[Read: 50 Smart Money Moves.]

If you’re really stuck, there’s nothing wrong with returning to the idea of gift cards or cash, which both men and women put at the top of their lists, according to the Discover survey. After all, there’s a reason why the National Retail Federation found that shoppers will spend an average of $156.86 on gift cards this year. Gift cards allow the recipient pick their own gift, often come with loss and theft protection, and, as long as they’re retailer gift cards, rarely carry fees or expiration dates.

If only gift cards had existed back in the early 1900s, the characters of The Gift of the Magi might have found a way to keep their hair, watch, and money.