Image: Gift © RubberBall, SuperStock

3. The unwanted present

Reindeer sweaters, anyone? The gift misfire is as much a holiday tradition as fruitcake and just about as welcome.

My Facebook fans offered up a host of gift misfires that they'd received, including a meat grinder given to a vegan, a Candy Land board game given to a 15-year-old and an IOU given to a wife.

"Never did get the present, but eventually I did give him a divorce," she wrote.

Economist Joel Waldfogel, the author of "Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays," posits that a big chunk of holiday gift spending is "deadweight loss." That's his term for the billions of dollars wasted when people get gifts they don't really like or want and wouldn't buy themselves.

You could, of course, avoid gift exchanges entirely, opt to make charitable contributions instead or wimp out by using gift cards (more on that in a moment).

If you still want to give presents, though, here are a few suggestions for making sure those gifts are wanted:

  • Review your gift-giving list. If you don't know someone's tastes and habits well enough to know what he or she would want, maybe it's time to halt the annual exchange with that person.
  • Pool your resources. Sometimes you can wow someone with a $10 gift. More often, though, wowing requires serious dough. Going in on a gift with other people not only means you can afford more, but you'll have more people vetting the idea of what present to buy. Sites such as Shareagift.com can help you coordinate the fundraising. (Read "New way to shop online: Group gifts.")
  • Quiz their nearest and dearest. Parents will have ideas for kids and teenagers. Significant others, siblings or best friends can be great resources for other folks.
  • Ask the recipient for suggestions. If she's one of the increasingly rare folks who is shy about asking for what she wants, you might suggest taking her out for a picnic in the park or some other outing where you can spend time together in lieu of spending a lot of cash. She'll either be charmed by the idea or will quickly pony up with some better ones.