Over the years, I've taken it upon myself to speak for dads everywhere around this time of year by ranting about what's wrong with Father's Day gifts. I've cited some of the worst gift ideas going, and also made the case that perhaps the best approach is to not give anything for Father's Day.
Too often, the problem is that no actual dads are consulted in the process of putting together the Father's Day gift guides that are supposed to be full of options for "What Dad Really Wants." Instead, they are cooked up by marketing people (who are trying to sell stuff) or people who love shopping and the newest trends (who often are thinking of themselves, not the recipients). What's obviously missing here is input from the dads who will have to put on those fake smiles of appreciation when some supposed must-have fashion accessory or mystifying and unnecessary new gadget is presented to them on Father's Day. When dads are asked what they want for Father's Day, the surveys often give them a limited, pre-set list of standard gifts to choose from—hence the explanation for "clothes" regularly getting ranked as a top pick by dads.
This year, instead of focusing on what dads don't want for Father's Day, I'll offer up some suggestions for what they very well might want. Dads like being acknowledged for all they do, naturally, and many appreciate being given truly thoughtful traditional presents. On the other hand, many dads would prefer that money not be wasted on them, not even if it's intended as a display of gratitude and appreciation.
The ideas below may not seem like "real" gifts—they're not purchased at a store—but they all follow the Cardinal Rules for Father's Day gift giving explained by frequent Money contributor Kit Yarrow. Namely, they are simple and thoughtful, and when money is being spent, it's done wisely, not wastefully.
Conveniently for gift givers, these ideas are easy to pull off at the last minute, and they're pretty much guaranteed to save you money compared with a trip to the mall to buy something highlighted by a Father's Day gift guide. Giving one of these will also save your dad from having to produce that forced smile on Sunday.
Two Words: Dad Nap
Perhaps this seems like a non-gift. In fact, there is little many fathers want more than some surprise rest, especially on a day that's often hectic and overscheduled. Don't worry about sending the message that he's just some feeble old-timer who needs to be put out to pasture. The Dad Nap is cool. Even Kanye West is into them.
Tackle Some Chores
Another way to give dad some much-needed rest—perhaps while he's literally resting—is to tend to the household or yard chores that he usually handles. This might include but doesn't have to be limited to: mowing, raking, weeding, dusting, changing the oil, hedge clipping, planting stuff, cleaning the garage/office, and so on. Be careful about over-organizing any of his stuff, however: If he can't locate items after you're done, your gift has turned into a headache.
Feed Him Un-Fancy Food
Most dads love a good steak dinner, right? Not on Father's Day, according to a new Zagat survey, which surveyed just dads (Thank You!) about what they really wanted for Father's Day. More than half (52%) said they'd prefer to say home for a family meal, compared with only 29% who opted for dinner out at a restaurant. (Another 14% of dads said they simply wanted to be left alone.) When the question was asked specifically about where to eat for Father's Day, 56% preferred grilling at home, 18% chose a basic neighborhood restaurant, and just 14% went with the high-end steakhouse.
In the survey, the vast majority of dads (80%) said they do indeed enjoy dining out in general, just not so much on Father's Day. Dads don't want to deal with the logistics of kids and driving, having to pay the bill, or feeling compelled to go out at all on Father's Day, according to the top reasons given for why they'd rather say home.
This is the gift that keeps on giving, and that conveniently requires the giver to do very little upfront. The idea here is to hand dad a booklet of customized coupons that he can use in exchange for little gifts or special treatment whenever he's in the mood. There are coupon books you can buy, but it's not too difficult—and will seem far more thoughtful and personal—if the kids create a booklet from scratch with construction paper and crayons or markers.
The coupons can consist of anything that your father might find appealing—pancake breakfast, family bike ride, shooting hoops in the driveway, watching his favorite movie. If he never redeems some of them, that's OK. It truly is the gesture, and the willingness to put a smile on his face at a moment's notice, that counts.
Do Something He (and Maybe Only He) Loves
If there are activities that your father enjoys, and that he's occasionally tried but failed to get others interested in, Father's Day is a very good excuse to be a good sport for the old man. Perhaps there's a train enthusiast show or a minor league baseball game he'd love to attend. Maybe it's as simple as joining him—with no attitude or reluctance—on a shopping trip to the garden store.
This too is another "gift" that requires almost no effort upfront, and it's totally OK if the man of the house never takes you up on the offer. (Some dads like it that their hobbies involve no other members of the family, and there's nothing wrong with that.) It's a nice gesture regardless. Just make sure it's not hollow, that you really do make a heartfelt plea to try and enjoy some special activity with him.
BONUS IDEA: Maybe Just Leave Him Alone
See above, in which 14% of surveyed dads said their ideal Father's Day celebration would be heavy on "me time."