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Giving money for Christmas: When and how to do it right

I do a similar post every Christmas, as this question keeps coming up in conversations I have with my friends and readers. First of all, let me demystify something: it’s perfectly normal to have people in your life you simply struggle to select a gift for. So don’t panic 🙂

With the rise of individual wish lists on websites like Amazon and Pinterest, it’s no wonder that many of us would actually prefer to get cash and spend it on something we truly want, instead of receiving an item we would bury at the bottom of our storage cupboard (or for more entrepreneurial spirits out there – sell of on Ebay).

Even Martha Stewart agrees in an interview on Bloomberg (the full article is here) that it’s better to give cash than a bad gift.

Here is my very quick guide to giving cash for Christmas:

Wife/ Girlfriend – Not a good idea. She’ll be upset that you didn’t listen to her hints about “those shoes I showed you on my iPad a few weeks back”. So if you really can’t think of anything better than money to give her, maybe you just don’t have that much in common… But that’s not my area of expertise 🙂

Husband/ Boyfriend – See above, not much of a difference. But he’ll be less vocal about it.

Mum/Dad and grandparents – Yes, but only if you give them something sentimental, as well.  You need to show that you truly value them, so money alone won’t be enough. For them, the thought counts more than a price tag.

Kids and teenagers – Yes, totally fine, but don’t patronise and let them spend it however they please. If it’s decent chunk of money, it will be their first adult experience of spending real cash on something substantial, so even if they get it wrong in your opinion, keep it to yourself 🙂

Brothers and sisters – Yes, especially if you are close (a good trick is to add a note that it’s your input into their fund for larger purchases like a car or a holiday); more distant relatives might feel offended.

Close friends – Yes, similarly to close siblings.

Colleagues – No, you share the same employer, so it’s a bit of a creepy money exchange. The only good way of doing it is donating money to their favourite charity.

Do you agree or disagree? Share you stories with me here or tweet me!

Stay tuned and Merry Christmas,

Ilona x


Charm bracelets: Your perfect Christmas gift for years to come

For many of us, every Christmas is like having to start all over again – making the list of people we want to give gifts to, debating how much to spend and, most importantly, what to get.

Well, luckily, there are gifts that you can draw inspiration from for years to come. My example today is charm bracelets. A good few years ago, I gave my mum a Chamilia bracelet for her birthday. Back then they were seriously competing with Pandora,  but this rivalry has quieted down a bit (at least in the UK Pandora is much bigger now), but I still prefer Chamilia’s charms (so no regrets there!).

What makes it so genius is that every year I give her at least two-three charms to top up her collection. So no headache whatsoever, you just go online and pick something from the new additions.

This year’s theme for me was all about peace, as she’s been upset about the instability across the world. This little globe and a dove, both symbols of peace and unity, will remind her that the good days will come.

the earth charm

the dove

The final charm is a peacock.

peacock 2

She’s been busy recently learning embroidery, and one of my favourite works of hers is this Bluebird of Happiness. I wanted to congratulate her on this achievement by giving her something that would remind her about it.

bird of happiness

If you’re ever in doubt about what to get, consider similar items that require regular top ups. This way you’ll never have to guess what to give 🙂

Oh, and don’t forget to wrap it up well – I opted for a gift bag from Paperchase and some golden tissue paper from Clintons.

chamilia bag

Stay tuned,

Ilona x

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Treat your little sister to some Chanel

Scream queens are the latest obsession for young girls this winter. I used to binge watch Gossip Girl back in my college days, but this year’s school talk is all about the “Chanels”. I admit, a combination of high fashion and serial killings is a stretch, but it seems to be working!

Anyways, the entire reason I’m mentioning these TV series in the first place is because they’ve started a trend of Chanelification (is it a word?) of teens. Most of us will never own a  haute couture Chanel gown, but that’s where French luxury houses excel  – offering an alternative brand experience through affordable items like make up and skincare.

Their make up collections are still more expensive than the high-street equivalents (so you still covet them), but not so pricey that you can’t imagine buying a lipstick or an eye shadow.

Young girls typically survive on make up “dupes” from brands like Rimmel and Seventeen, which work a bit like Zara – successfully copying the most fashionable styles and colours at a fraction of the price, compared to the real trend setters like Dior and, of course, Chanel.

Which makes choosing Christmas gifts for teen girls so easy and fun at the same time. All you need to do is inspect her make up bag, find the items she’s currently using the most and replace them with the “real deal”. Like this limited edition Chanel lipstick in a gorgeous berry shade (347 La Merveilleuse).

Other items that would work incredibly well for teen girls are luxury make up brushes and sponges, like these by By Terry which can replace the ones from Topshop and Real Techniques (yes, everyone owns a brush from one of these two).

by terry brushes

Or what I’ve personally found to be extremely well-received is replacing friendship bracelet dupes with the ones from Monica Vinader.

vinader bracelet

Good luck and stay tuned,

Ilona x

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Gifts for men: Kiehl’s skincare

This title image is a bit deceiving, as I didn’t end up using this wonderful packaging by Peter Max, but let me not get ahead of myself and start from the gift itself.

This duo of tried and tested skincare products is an absolute saviour when you genuinely struggle to choose something for a man. Firstly, it’s actually very useful, particularly in winter when everyone’s skin (including the manliest of men) goes a bit try.

I’ve praises this zero shine Kiehl’s lip balm in one of previous posts, as it really is the most non-girly lip moisturiser on the market. But for a more substantial gift, I’ve added the Ultra Moisturising Facial Cream, which can protect his skin from the harsh winter weather. Rumour has it, this cream was used by the heroic team who did Greenland’s First Ascent, so if it’s good for them in the most extreme parts of the world, it must be OK for our mild UK winters 🙂

Now, back to gift wrapping. I’m generalising of course, but men and women tend to get excited by different things (reminder: I’m talking gift wrapping only here!). Whilst women like to see their favourite brands before they open the gift (think luxurious Chanel gift bags), men are quite indifferent to where your gift is coming from.

Instead, they want to see their favourite themes (the funkier the better!) and have multiple layers of wrapping so they could think carefully how to best open the gift.

So for this gift I ignored the undoubtedly talented design offered by Kiehl’s and opted for a cosmos-inspired gift bag by Paperchase. After all, the new Star Wars movie is launching soon!

kielhs 2

This black bag with planets is still not too over-the-top, and the tissue paper is very reminiscent of a starry night sky (or at least I think so!).

kielhs paper

Very  sci-fi, very old school, but very Christmassy 🙂

Stay tuned,

Ilona x

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How to ace your Secret Santa gift

I always dread Secret Santa gifts…They tend to belong to two categories: “attempting humour” (all sorts of pranks) and “last minute” aka “bought on the way to work” (generally Cadbury chocolates, novelty games and books).

“Funny” gifts are rarely that good, unless the person knows you well. And in worst cases you spend the rest of your office Christmas party trying to figure out who’s given you a tasteless sex toy (happened to me, for real!), so you can openly hate them for the rest of year 🙂

OK, I’m overdramatasing, no one really cares that much. But hey, nothing is stopping you from actually acing it and becoming known as the most thoughtful person in the department.

So, where do you begin? Research is key! At work we use,  a website which almost does the job for you – all names are entered onto the system, and everyone is randomly assigned one person to get a gift for.

The best part is that it’s linked to Amazon, so you can pre-select a few things from thousands of items and add those as “suggestions” for your Secret Santa. So far so good. The budget was set to £10 (I think it’s pretty standard).

Now, this is what I ended up this year…

drawnames snap

Jess from my team (I really hope she’s not reading this right now) has chosen a make up sponge and some chocolate. Pretty easy, right, just click “Buy” and wait for the goodies to be delivered. But that’s hardly a surprise, and if you ask me, a Secret Santa gift should be a mystery.

From this selection it was clear that she really wanted a sponge, but chose the chocolates on top to get to £10. So I’m already pretty certain she won’t mind if I skip the sweets.

I then googled other make up sponges on the market, discovering that the famous Beauty Blender was way above my budget (at £16), plus it came in an ugly box. I then came across a beautifully packaged Dior sponge for £12 (unbelievable, considering how premium their make up is!). £2 doesn’t even cover your morning coffee, so spending a bit extra is not a crime (underspending is!).

I went to Selfridges in Oxford Circus where they wrapped it for me and put in a pretty branded bag, so it now looks even more luxurious than it actually is 🙂

I can’t wait to see her face when she discovers this gift. I bet she’s expecting her chosen items (and that’s the best case scenario in her mind). And I will try my absolute best not give myself away, which will be the hardest part, probably harder than choosing the gift itself 🙂

Stay tuned and don’t forget to follow me on Twitter

Ilona x

Vanity Fair on Gifts: Uninspiring but Caroline Issa might have just saved it…

I always look forward to my December delivery of Vanity Fair magazine, as it comes with a chunky supplement titled Vanity Fair on Gifts. Now, don’t get me wrong, most of the stuff featured is totally out of reach, but articles tend to be inspirational (rather than preachy) and the photography is first-class.

Well, not this year. I planned an article on it, since it’s a lovely tradition of mine (see last year’s verdict here), but I’m struggling to write anything positive. It feels very “tired” with predictable edit of Valentino shoes and Sisley skincare, plus pages of advertorials on GHD hair straighteners that look really out of place.

But what topped it off for me was a very bizarre article on gifting experiences, with highlights including… and I’m not kidding.. a session with a “spiritual counsellor” at Hotel Café Royal for £360 (a 2-hour consultation) or… *drumroll*…the naming rights to a species of micro orchids, costing up to £20,000. I guess a botanist would know what a “micro orchid” is, but frankly, I didn’t even bother googling it, that’s how absurd this sounds.

Now, I was almost ready to write an angry tweet to this year’s editor, but a small, easy to miss article stopped me. It was a Q&A with Caroline Issa,  a talented Fashion Director of Tank magazine, who shared her tips on best gifts found in London.

Some great places that I am already planning to check out myself in the run up to Christmas include Cocomaya bakery & chocolatier (just look at their Instagram page!), Absolute Flowers & Home (with the most stylish Christmas decorations that don’t cost an arm and a leg) and an independent bookseller that looks like it belongs in a Harry Potter movie  – Daunt Books.

So, I guess this post is a thank you to Caroline Issa for saving a disastrous magazine supplement with her tasteful take on what it truly means to give great gifts at Christmas 🙂

Stay tuned,

Ilona x

Cards Against Humanity or “How to organise a perfect pre-Christmas house party”

I know, the name of this post is way too long, but if you can’t be bothered to read any further, it pretty much summarises why Cards Against Humanity should make it to your Amazon Christmas wishlist this year.

In short, for those not in the know, this card game must be the highest rated adult game EVER, with an incredible Amazon 3,200 reviews out of which my personal favourite is “Completely disgusting. This game is an abomination that left me and my friends unable to look each other in the eye. Five stars.” Contradictory, right? 🙂

So what is all this fuss about? Well, rules can get quite complex and players are encouraged to create more ridiculous rules themselves.  But essentially it’s a game for around 6-10 people with two sets of cards: black for questions and white for answers.

Each player gets a set of 10 random white cards, one person picks a black card and asks a question – as an example – “Next book by J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Chamber of <your answer>“.

The task for the rest is to pick the funniest answer out the 10 cards they’ve been given earlier, with all answers read out aloud and everyone agreeing on their favourite answer. The person who came up with the answer gets the point and asks the next question. In the end, whoever gets the most points wins.

Sounds straightforward, right? Not quite! The answer cards are full of borderline rude, racist and utterly disgusting answers, so you end up with very unpredictable question-answer combinations.

Not strictly a game for a Christmas family get-together , but absolutely fantastic as entertainment at your pre-Christmas house party with friends and “optional” mulled wine.

I organised such an evening a few weeks ago, and this was the single most fun event I’ve ever hosted. Period.

As mentioned, alcohol is optional, but it does encourage riskier (read: funnier) answers. And yes, awkward looks for days to come when you sober up and realise that your best friend has a secret fetish for male politicians.

Enough said. Just get it here.

Stay tuned,

Ilona x

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A a science book for Christmas? Yes!

I vividly remember the excitement of finding carefully wrapped books under my Christmas tree when I was a kid. Don’t get me wrong, I was also expecting Barbi houses and pretty dresses, but my parents did make sure I was hooked on books early on.

It’s a tough task for any parent to engage children in reading, especially if it’s related to science. It’s much easier to get distracted than to focus on the words you don’t know about things you’ve never heard of before.

The trick that worked well for me was illustrated encyclopaedias, where serious subjects like General Theory of Relativity were explained using images as much as words, with helpful pointers and highlighted boxes to keep me entertained. I could spend hours browsing History, Geography and Biology tomes, fascinated by the richness of imagery. I didn’t fully understand everything, of course, but it trained my brain into being constantly curious about the world around me.

The one book that I would recommend as a universal all-rounder with amazing quality of illustrations is Science: The Definite Guide, edited by Adam Hart-Harris, a famous British polymath and BBC presenter. Rarely you have a person who can masterfully combine “popular science” with academic credibility, which I think is the main secret of this book.

It would make a fantastic gift for everyone aged 5+, even I got one for myself to start off my own little science collection (my childhood books are still in my mother’s house waiting to be collected for my future kids).

It’s £16 on Amazon in hardcover, which makes it cheaper than most toys on the market.

If your kid is already into science and no further “help” is needed, I suggest you give him a subscription to BBC Focus 🙂

Stay tuned!

Ilona x

My favourite beauty stocking filler

This little invention under £5 is my top 2015 beauty discovery. Every year there’s this one beauty stocking filler that becomes a hit (last year I got three Beauty Blenders for Christmas!). I think this year it’s going to be Invisibobble.

These little transparent spirals may not look like something useful or sturdy, but the difference they’ve made to my hair routine is unbelievable.

My beauty-savvy colleague told me that I’ve been breaking my hair with conventional elastic hair bands. These little spiral bands apply even pressure to minimise breakage and are surprisingly good at holding my heavy straight hair in a pony tail even during exercise.

Ideal for those hair days when you just want it up, I’ve just bought ten of these in different colours to give to my girlfriends as little add-on Christmas gifts, and I cannot wait to hear their thoughts about it.

If you’re even thinking whether you need it or not, it’s currently £3.75 with free delivery on Amazon, so I’d say simply buy it and see how you get on.

Beauty bloggers out there, what are your top stocking fillers this Christmas?

Stay tuned!

Ilona x

How to much should I spend on gifts?

Christmas is a budgeting nightmare. To help us figure out how much to spend and on who, even MS Excel offers a ‘Holiday Gifts’ template. But ultimately it’s up to us to decide, and it’s a bloody hard task.

There is no gifting etiquette which would clearly establish how much you should spend on a gift for someone. Our society has come up with all sorts of precise instructions for various social interactions, leaving gifting completely out of the equation.

Gifting for me is as much a creative process, as it is a pragmatic calculation of your current resources, so it’s really important to know what you can afford.

A favourite designer of mine, Artemy Lebedev, argues that his best creative ideas never come out from the “outside the box” thinking. Instead, having clear boundaries and goals can help you streamline your thinking. It allows you to focus on the problem at hand – so you are essentially “inside the box”.

In the context of gifting, think of “the box” as your pot of money, and work with what you’ve got.

I use my own of system, which is not perfect at all, but it keeps my bank statements happy (oh, by the way, underspending is also a crime!).

Firstly, separate all potential “receivers” into four groups:

  • Very outer circle – “I barely know them through a friend of a friend”
  • Outer circle – “I know a bit about them and we speak sometimes”, like your college mates and colleagues
  • Social circle – “We go out together and I know them well”, so your friends
  • Inner circle – “I care about them a lot”. These people are your core support, like family, best friends and your partner.

Set up an amount you would be happy to spend on somebody from your very outer circle. The simplest calculation that does the trick for me is a bottle of wine you would carry to a random party, depending on your current situation. This will be our X.

Now here comes the mathematical magic!

As the very outer circle rarely ends up on Christmas lists anyway, if you really need to give them something, limit it to the X itself.

Multiply this X by 2 for the “outer circle” and by 3 for the “social circle”, and apply to all occasions, including Christmas.

The inner circle would require a separate blog post another time, but broadly:

  • Multiply the X by 5 for random surprise gifts
  • By 10, if there is an occasion that requires a gift, but you don’t consider it significant (in my case that would be Valentine’s)
  • By 20 for special celebrations like birthdays, anniversaries and Christmas, of course 🙂

Does it make sense to you? Share your budgeting tips with me!

Stay tuned!

Ilona x