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3 Types of Holiday Gifts That Can Backfire

Geoff Williams

Americans are set to spend a whopping $602.1 billion on holiday gifts this year, according to the National Retail Federation. But not all gifts are created equal. Some gifts, as we know, kind of stink. (In fact, there are websites, including whydidyoubuymethat.com and reallybadgift.com, devoted to such misfires.) Most of the time, these off-the-mark gifts are tossed in the trash and chuckled at, or returned and exchanged, and life goes on.

Some gifts, however, are so unappreciated that they do the opposite of what was intended. Instead of making you happy, a gift can make you quite sad. A good rule of thumb is if the gift will mean extra work for the recipient, even if he or she doesn't use it, you may want to reconsider the purchase.

You'll see what we mean in a moment. The following are a few areas of gifting you should tread carefully.

[Read: The Worst Holiday Gifts.]

Animals. You may think just what your dear old dad or aging aunt needs is a pet. But keep in mind, if you're surprising someone - especially with a dog or cat - you're giving them a gift that must be taken care of every day, for years. Even a goldfish requires a clean aquarium and regular feedings.

According to Colleen Safford, a dog trainer in New York City, a puppy is one of the worst surprise gifts. "People don't consider the cost of emergency surgeries, training and boarding," Safford says. "People also don't recognize that what you see today is not what you necessarily have tomorrow. Today, you have a cute puppy. Three years from now, you may have a dog with a behavior issue that warrants professional advice or a medical issue that requires lifelong management or treatment."

Also consider that your gift "could be setting a friend or family member up for mental anguish when considering returning the pet," Safford adds.

This doesn't mean you shouldn't buy a family member or friend a puppy or kitten. But if this is an idea you've cooked up on your own, and you haven't talked it over with the prospective pet owner first, you're taking a big risk.

Self-improvement gifts. You may think you're doing someone a favor by surprising them with boxes of nicotine gum or patches, or perhaps a self-help book. Maybe you know he or she desperately wants to quit smoking or gain self-confidence.

But before you purchase a self-improvement gift, consider who the giftee is and your relationship to him or her. Make sure this is an area your friend or family member wants to improve in, and not something you would like to see them improve on.

[See: 10 Saving Strategies That Can Backfire.]

Some potential danger areas: how-to parenting books (especially if your recipient isn't a new parent), how-to cookbooks (if you're an in-law), cleaning tools or supplies (again, it depends on your relationship) and certainly exercise and weight-loss DVDs (particularly if the giftee hasn't expressed interest in either).

Memberships or subscriptions. You may feel that your husband needs to lose a few pounds and could benefit from a gym membership. You may think it's a great idea to pay a gym almost $1,000 and then lock your spouse into a two-year monthly contract in which he pays $30 a month, whether he goes to the gym or not. You may not consider that your spouse will need to spend a small fortune in gas to drive to the gym, about a one-hour round trip from your home. No matter how well-intentioned you are, the writer of this article can tell you, it matters - and this is not a great idea.

For similar reasons, you may want to avoid a satellite radio as a gift (the recipient must pay a monthly fee to listen to it). And think carefully before buying someone a membership or subscription they'll have to pay to continue using in a few months. Of course, it depends on the gift. But generally, says Michelle Geib, co-founder and president of the national gift company Xperience Days Inc., making someone pay for their own gift means you aren't really thinking things through.

Last Christmas, Geib's boyfriend of eight months gave her what she considers to be the worst gift ever.

"During the weeks leading up to Christmas, he made, in my opinion, his first mistake asking me what I want for Christmas, repeatedly. When you first start dating someone, you want everything, including them, to be perfect, romantic and special, especially for your first Christmas together. I didn't want to tell him what I wanted; I wanted him to know," says Geib, who lives in Steamboat Springs, Colo. She admits: "Perhaps that's my mistake."

[See: 12 Money Mistakes Almost Everyone Makes.]

When Christmas arrived, her boyfriend gave her some thoughtful gifts, like a backpack and hiking gear, but her big gift from him was for a winter driving school, which sounds weirder than it is, as gifts go. Geib was interested in participating in the program for reasons related to her own business. But long story short, Geib's boyfriend worked out a deal in which he received half off the winter driving program, which they would both participate in. His half was free, and all Geib had to do was spend $250 for her half.

Wow, thanks, Geib sarcastically thought.

"I was speechless for a few minutes as I processed this," Geib says. "While our relationship officially ended about two weeks later, it was over for me Christmas morning ."

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