We’ve trimmed our gift-giving WAY down over the years, refusing to give stuff because we’re supposed to. Mostly we give money to charity in our friends’ names (with a pretty card alerting them), or food gifts we’ve made ourself. For the few we really want to give more tangible gifts to, here’s our list of things we think are worth giving for the way they expand minds/hearts/creativity, or are just downright useful. (For more ideas, explore our SHOP’S drop-down menu or enter “gift” in the SEARCH box).

Ellen Silverman
Ellen Silverman

We are BIG on giving books, especially poetry and art, which to our minds means giving an experience in compact form, enjoyable any time, for years to come. You’ll find a trove in our shop (along with articles we featured them in). A favorite that many people we know have loved: Ancient Trees: Portraits in Time, 60 astonishing “portraits of change, survival and time” that photographer Beth Moon made during fourteen years traveling the world.

Beth Moon
Beth Moon

Kid’s books are great for adults too. Check out artist Yayoi Kusama’s astonishing version of The Little Mermaid. Our perennial, zennish favorite is Marjorie Winslow’s classic Mud Pies and Other Recipes. 

mud pies and other recipes cover

Need a little something to give?  The Everyman Library Pocket Books series offers small, wonderfully designed books most any poet you think the giftee would enjoy.

Everyman pocket library jacket stylies

Computer upgrades and fixes can be remarkably easy with iFixit’s great tech repair toolkit and their online videos. We’ve liberated a few friends by showing them how easy it is to add ram, a new hard drive, and giving them the tools to do it. Love means helping you do it yourself!


For years we dreamed of life-size Lego blocks that we could use to build furniture. Then we found EverBlocks which are just that: strong, plastic, modular, interlocking blocks that you can build all sorts of useful things out of…including FORTS (for kids)…read about ’em here. We love the minimalist white ones; kids dig the 24pc Jumbo Block Beginner set in primary colors.


Instant-films cameras have had a big resurgence with good reason: they have the inimitable analog quality of real film, with images that magically appear before your eyes, and that you can hold, give, display. We still use our beloved vintage polaroids. Fuji makes a range of instant cameras, with readily available vivid color AND black-and-white film.


Although Fuji makes smaller models, e like the Fujifilm INSTAX Wide 300 whose picture size (4.25 by 3.4 inches) is similar to the original Polaroid, and has a some good basic controls. Be sure to include film with your gift.  (We STILL treasure the pictures we took decades ago)…

Sally Schneider
Sally Schneider

Earlier this year we stumbled on Twisted Lily, a Brooklyn-based fragrance boutique that has a fantastic web store. We were THRILLED to discover we could buy samples of perfumes for $4 each. Receiving a selection of 6 or so made us realize that a little trove of perfumes makes a great, inexpensive gift. You can also give a gift card from Twisted Lily to allow your friends to sample what they like.

Sally Schneider
Sally Schneider

Along the idea of everybody-is-a-cook-in-some-form, we love giving beautiful tasting spoons. Our current favorite which is beautiful on a wall: twelve-and-a-half-inch hangable black walnut spoon from Park Woodshop $48 at Food 52.


A heavy, well-made, big enough mortar and pestle is a terrific item for the cook in your life (most don’t have a good one.  We really like Milton Brook Unglazed Mortar and Pestles with beech handle pestles and the 6.5-inch diameter (there are many sizes).


Today, a reader gave THREE subscriptions to Improvised Life to member of her extended family. In doing that she hit a triple-home run: she gave access to our 4,000 articles + our inspiring community + supported Improvised Life + she didn’t have to leave the house. To gift someone, click here, fill out the form and we’ll send a notice for you. And you can email or print one of our gift cards to announce it.


If you’ve found illumination, joy, or inspiration in this post, please consider supporting Improvised Life. It only takes a minute to make a secure donation that helps pay our many costs. A little goes a long way towards helping Improvised Life continue to live ad-free in the world.

Support Improvised Life ♥

3 replies on “Improvised Life’s Thoughtful Un-Gift Guide

  1. Who made it a ‘have to’, giving could be the most wonderful act, equal to receiving ( do we still know how to receive also ? ). Isn’t this what this holiday is about , on the shortest day ? When it is cold and we come together -if we have someone or someplace to go to, is not that the best thing ?

    We just give differently with more and other things available to us, also things that we don’t need . We can still distinguish if a nice notebook and pen is a little luxury that can spark something or if we are simply entering a competition (as mentioned in your other post) . So it is not a materialistic race if we do not enter it. This pressure is put on people artificially; i think that many are made to just function and then it is easier to spend that hard earned money on something than having to switch back into ‘lovely mode’ and take time.
    It is about selling something – products, ‘lifestyle’, emotions (i.e. all products, brands) while not generally supporting and nurturing the simple art of being kind (to oneself, to others). I think the true miracle is that there are still so many lovely, helpful and kind, inspiring people EVERYWHERE, because most of us travelers, we seem to have some dents from a rough road.

    Again thank you for all the sparks
    and wishing you all your true needs fulfilled and just a lovely time

    greeting from across the pond : )

  2. YES. Who made it ‘have to’. People who sell things, I imagine: big stores, advertisers etc. And then people bought in, and then it became obligation. It now takes courage NOT to go with the whole thing…but it seems to be the case more and more as people tell me they are buying fewer gifts to to connect to the joy of really giving something with meaning.

    Warmest wishes to you, Sahana.

  3. I also suggest a Peugeot Pepper Mill… sturdy classic

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *