Vega, 34, who is head of a social media consultancy in Scottsdale, Arizona, hastens to say that her gift list hasn't always been quite so long. Seven years ago, there were a mere 50 names on it. But because she has moved a lot, collecting friends in each new location, and because she got married a year ago, collecting several new family members in the process, additions have been all but unavoidable. And as far as Vega is concerned, the more the merrier—it's part of her genetic code.
"I think I inherited a lot of this behavior from my mother," she says. "She always had a long list, even though I grew up poor. Shopping throughout the year became important because that way she could spread things out financially. She also taught me to listen to conversations to hear what people wanted."
Thus, several months ago, Vega snapped to attention when her friend Missy mentioned that she loves it when friends bring her Christmas tree decorations from far-flung places. So on two recent trips, "I picked up an ornament for her in Italy in the shape of the Colosseum, and one from Boston that's shaped like a swan," says Vega. Then there's her friend Nicole, who had long talked about her desire to lose weight but, having just started a new company, had no extra cash last year to pursue her fitness goals.
"I was looking at a catalog on a plane and saw a funny talking scale that goes 'You look fabulous!' when you get on it," she says. "That's what I got Nicole last Christmas. It reinforced her goals, and it wasn't expensive."
Now, about the cost involved in bringing joy to her world. That's something Vega's husband is curious about. "He's like, 'How much do you spend on presents? This is insane,'" says Vega, who estimates the annual expense at $4,000 to $5,000. "I try to do $50 for most people. For close friends, that goes up to $100 or $150." Sometimes it's considerably more. "But it's not like I pull a big chunk out of the account in December," she says. "I buy throughout the year."
To simplify that buying, Vega keeps a spreadsheet on her computer with columns for names, addresses, and recipients' areas of interest, plus a column where she places a check mark once a gift has been ordered. Gifts contemplated but not yet purchased are highlighted. Vega also keeps a copy of the spreadsheet on her phone, "so when I'm hanging out with someone and they mention something they want, I can make a note of it." For further inspiration, she subscribes to 30 electronic newsletters that reflect her friends' interests.
A guest room closet fitted with extra shelves is the officially designated gift repository. (Overnight visitors are sternly warned against snooping.) There, Vega stashes sweaters and serving trays, chafing dishes and jewelry, CDs, concert tickets and Waterford vases, the airplane carry-on bag she bought as a Christmas present for her assistant ("She's been borrowing mine and I thought it would be nice if she had her own"), and a Kindle. "It's for a good friend who's an avid reader," says Vega. "The last time we traveled together, he brought along three huge hardcover history books."
She has little tolerance for people who simply buy a battalion of fruit baskets for everyone on their list and call it a day. "I do think it's the thought that counts—the thought behind the gift," Vega says. "It should represent appreciation for the value a person brings to your life."
It's a lesson she's trying to teach her new husband. "He and his friends don't exchange gifts, and I tell him, 'You should express your gratitude for their friendship.' He says, 'Well, they're not going to buy me a gift.' And I tell him that's not the right way to think about it."
Once people get on Vega's list, they tend to reciprocate. "I think it raises their game," she says. "But my husband thinks I'm stressing out my friends. He claims I set the bar so high, they're starting to compete with me."
Lots of luck with that. Vega's holiday shopping for next December 25 will commence on December 26. "Christmas Day is a great time to collect information because people will always talk about what they wanted and didn't get," she says. "And the day after Christmas there's always a big sale. Last year, that's when I bought more than 30 presents."
Joanne Kaufman is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal.