By Noël Fanti

One of my oldest friends celebrated her birthday last week and, after more than ten years of gift-trading, I found myself surprisingly stumped about what her present should be. As I browsed through shelves of scarves, cosmetics, bestselling books, and knick-knacks, they all felt flat. Yes, I knew my friend’s taste forwards and backwards, but nothing I saw struck me as uniquely special and heartfelt enough. Frustrated and running out of time, I tried to think back to my previous successes in gift-giving, and one instance in particular came to me: A few years ago, my siblings and I designed a ring for my mother that she hasn’t removed since. We had selected a band and added each of our five birthstones as a circle around her emerald birthstone. Although the color combination is unusual (her emerald surrounded by our diamond, pearl, peridot, pink tourmaline, and blue zircon), the sentiment makes it more valuable than any diamond ring.

This opened up a whole new world of gift-giving to me, and now I’m bursting with ideas! My new mantra is “if you’re searching for a memorable gift, make it personal.” There are a multitude of options that can be personalized, from stationary to glasses to travel items such as totes and overnight cases. A unique photo frame with a picture of cherished moments – like a birthday, vacation, or fun-filled day together – brings those memories back to life each time the picture is seen. Etched glasses for a favorite beverage are a reminder of your friendship each time a toast is made. Custom labels on favorite beverages such as wine, champagne, or beer can be funny and clever or sentimental – check out outlets like My Own Labels – or you can go straight for the good stuff and mix and match the recipient’s favorite food and drink with gift basket services like Gourmet Gift Baskets.

Personalizing jewelry, like my siblings and I did for my mom, can create a lasting token of appreciation. Charm bracelets are enduring souvenirs of all the wearer holds dear, from sports teams and hobbies to inside jokes and travel souvenirs. Engraved cufflinks are another prime opportunity for customization; who knows, if you give your dad or boyfriend an engraved pair, he might even dress up more often! Rather than a typical class ring, give your high school student a custom ring with stones to match his or her school colors. Stud birthstone earrings are a thoughtful gift, as are tennis bracelets substituting the recipient’s birthstone in place of traditional diamonds – and they don’t have to be saved for the wearer’s birthday month, either. A good place to check is ShopNBC – they have hundreds of birthstone jewelry options in a variety of styles.

It doesn’t take much thought or money to put an exclusive spin on a popular gift item, so remember that no gift is worth breaking the bank. After all, my sisters and I combined forces (and finances) to afford our mom’s bracelet, and it meant more to her coming from all of us than if it had been given by only one member of our family. If jewelry or personalized accessories are out of your budget range, make something by hand! It doesn’t have to be a huge, daunting project, but simply making a gift yourself showcases the time and dedication that you put into your relationship. If you simply want to surprise someone with a thoughtful gesture, a mix CD is a great way to vocalize your feelings in a way that is cheap yet not time-consuming. Accompany it with a handwritten track list, with notes on why you chose each song or memories that you associate with each tune. For a more light-hearted option, print up a customized coupon (or even create a book full of them) that the recipient can redeem at any time, like “a night out dancing,” “full control of the TV remote,” or “a kiss when you’re upset with me.” If your loved one has a Pinterest page, there are bound to be some DIY crafts they’ve already expressed interest in doing: Either create the project yourself and present them with the finished product, or else give them all of the supplies and offer to make it with them!

Just be sure that you keep the recipient’s tastes in mind rather than your own. While it is nice to give something that reflects a favorite hobby, sports teams, or musical performer, you could dive even deeper and pave the way for your friend’s first steps toward achieving unpursued goals or dreams. If he or she has mentioned wanting to learn the guitar or a second language, how about paying for introductory lessons? If it’s someone you’re very close to, you might purchase something you can enjoy together, like charms for personalized wineglass markers for a girls’ night out. If your brother has “writing a novel” on his bucket list, get him a journals pre-printed with his name.

If you’re not sure what the recipient might like or need, bounce some ideas off of a parent, sibling, or close friend (ask someone who’s good at keeping secrets). Just keep in mind that when you give a gift to someone, you are celebrating who he or she is as an individual. When it comes to gifts, I’ve learned that if it’s from the heart, it’ll be just what they’re looking for.

Noël Fanti is a Midwest mama blessed with the perfect husband and a beautiful baby girl. She enjoys spending her little bits of free time volunteering with her church’s youth group, writing about what inspires her, and throwing small parties with neighbors and friends.