White elephant and Secret Santa gift exchanges can be hit or miss, especially when the most popular item also seems to be the wackiest — and the neatest gift winds up being a total dud. Adding to the challenge is the fact that you’re shopping for an array of people with different tastes, senses of humor and preferences, which makes a one-size-fits-all gift tricky to nail down.
Alcohol is always a popular choice (at least around the CNET office), but our best suggestion is to bridge the gap between an item with strong appeal and one that’s actually useful. Junk and gag gifts may be funny, but if you wouldn’t want to be saddled with it for an entire year, don’t force your colleagues to do the same.
All our brand-new suggestions listed here cost $20 or less (a typical cutoff range for the anonymous gift exchange) and are generic enough to give to just about anyone, but also good enough to keep around for yourself. If you have a big budget or you’re just looking for other options, check out our other gift guides below for some holiday inspiration.
The porcelain mug and infuser from Sweese is a thoughtful choice, especially for the chilly season. I have this tea mug (and my colleague swears by Sweese bowls), and the extra fine infuser is terrific. I’ve gone through so many infusers that let my loose-leaf tea seep through that I nearly gave up. For $19, this mug’s infuser brews tea easily.
OK, so it isn’t a top-of-the-line product, but this $19 microphone can be used whether you’re gaming, creating a podcast or interviewing. This works for just about anything you would need a microphone for, and it’s easy to use. Just plug it in and boom, it’s up and running.
I got this aromatherapy diffuser for $15 and use it all the time. It makes my home smell great and has a ton of rotating colors to give you a change of scenery in what would be a potentially drab room. What I love the most are the misting modes. Intermittent mist, my preferred choice, sprays out scent and pauses every 30 seconds to keep a continuous aromatic mist going until the water runs out.
Chances are, there’s someone in your gift exchange group with an interest in plants. This $19 book is great at explaining the ins and outs of plant caretaking, especially for newbies. With care instructions for over 100 houseplants for every climate — from tropical plants to succulents — it contains practical advice for growing and sustaining plant life.
Gamma Ray Optix
I’m a huge gamer and I stare at my laptop or TV screen pretty much all day. The glare has really done a number on my light sensitivity, and I am constantly dimming the light sources around me. The $16 blue light glasses from Gamma Ray come with UV400 protection (100% protection from UVA and UVB waves) and reduce glare. They’re a practical gift to help manage dry eyes, visual fatigue and headache.
Any time tools pop up in a gift exchange, they’re usually the first to go. You don’t have to have a DIY bent to understand the versatility and necessity of a screwdriver or wrench. At some point in life, the need arises. This $20, 39-piece set has heat treated and chrome plated tools that resist corrosion from long use. There’s a claw hammer, slip joint pliers, Phillips screwdrivers and that’s just the beginning.
Clean makeup brushes are a must. They’re also a hassle to maintain. At $15, this automatic brush cleaner will gently clean your giftee’s make-up brushes — and dry them as well. It also comes with storage for keeping those freshly cleaned brushes.
Multifunctional and breathable, this $14 microfiber towel is great for active people. Just soak it in cool water, wring it out, shake it and wear. The cooling towel can drape around the neck, head and the arm to cool down hot or sticky skin without weighing you down.
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