When choosing a gift for a friend or relative who's out of work, what's the best path? Do you go the practical route with something that pays the bills and risk reminding them of the sting of unemployment? Or do you give them little luxuries they've had to forgo?

The answer might depend on how long the person has been out of work, said Trish Olson, Family Resource Management program leader at the University of Minnesota Extension Service. "Think about what that person needs right now, besides a job," Olson said. It might mean a phone call, a lunch date or a walk around the lakes to get a sense for what they need. "Chocolates are tempting, but pay it forward," she said. "Maybe you're buying a gift card for car repairs to get to an interview on time, nice paper for résumés, or an Internet service extension to apply for jobs online."

Nearly anyone who has been unemployed for a long time will appreciate some relief for bills, said Peggy Byrne of St. Paul, creator of MinnesotaUnemployed.com, a comprehensive resource to help unemployed people with housing, health care, food, money, faith-based resources, transportation, bargains and leisure time. Still, after checking with family members and friends, Byrne said that even a practical gift can be softened by presenting it in person. One of the worst parts of unemployment is isolation. Job seekers miss the socialization that's part of a typical workday, so with or without a gift, they'll appreciate being invited to a social or business event or just lunch.

As an alternative, send a Christmas card with a note letting the person know you're thinking about them.

Byrne, who is unemployed herself, said she recently received an early Christmas present when her dislocated-worker counselor informed her that she was eligible for a one-time payment of her December mortgage and health care premium.

Byrne, Olson and several attendees at the Out of Work camp in Edina offered these gift suggestions:

Practical gifts

• Printed, generic business cards for résumés or a gift certificate to a printer.

• Kinko's gift card (or any printer for résumés and work samples).

• Salon gift cards for haircuts or manicures.

• Hardware store gift cards.

• Dry cleaners gift cards.

• Annual membership to a warehouse club.

• Restaurant or supermarket gift cards.

• A bag of the recipient's favorite coffee or tea.

• Payment on electric, heat or garbage bills.

• Minutes for a prepaid cell phone or Wi-Fi.

• Car repair shop gift card.

• Membership to a professional organization in their field.

• Subscription to a professional journal.

• Computer repair shop gift card.

• Coffee shop gift cards for networking or pre-interviews.

• Frequent-flier miles to visit relatives.

• Veterinary or pet shop gift cards.

• Newspaper or magazine subscriptions.

• Gift card to an organization such as WomenVenture, which offers job hunting classes.

• Résumé writing service gift card.

• A ticket to a special event in their line of work.

• Drugstore gift card for prescriptions.

• A prepaid Visa card available at a bank for use practically anywhere.

Personal gifts

• A handmade certificate for a free lunch with the giver.

• A home-cooked meal followed by a card game or board game of choice.

• Gym or swimming with a gift pass for the guest.

• Happy hour get-together with appetizers.

• Tickets to a movie, concert, play, museum or sporting event together.

• A stay at a family cabin.

• A commitment to call every couple of weeks to say "Just wanted to touch base," not "How's the job search going?"

• The name of a networking contact you know who might be of help.

• Small splurge items such as high-end soaps or toiletries or foods such as jams, cashews, spices and truffles.

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633 or jewoldt@startribune.com. If you spot a deal, share it at www.startribune.com/blogs/dealspotter.