Ask Unclutterer: Receiving unwanted gifts

Reader Wendy submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

What do you do when you come from a culture where gifting is part of etiquette? For example, when my daughter turned one recently, my mother who happened to be visiting from our home country brought back TONS of clothing (whether the right size or not) and toys for my daughter. It was overwhelming. Most of the items are either not usable in the near future, or my daughter has no interest. I don’t have a problem going through and donating or re-gifting, but it takes so much of my time! Should I just talk to my mother although she may get upset? Thanks!

I know it can be frustrating to be bombarded with stuff you don’t need. And, the smaller your space, the larger that frustration can feel. As frustrated as you’re feeling, though, the last thing you should do is tell your mother that she can’t give your daughter gifts.

Showering grandchildren with gifts is one of the joys of being a grandparent. It is clear that your mother is thrilled to have your daughter in her life, and one of the ways she is expressing that is by giving her as many wonderful things as she can. As much as it feels to you like a burden, her generosity is a blessing. Not all kids have grandparents who show interest in them or give gifts or are alive.

Remember that it’s the act of gift giving that is important, not the gift itself. Tell your mother thank you for being so generous with your daughter. Accept the gifts, write her a note of appreciation (have your daughter do this when she learns to write), and then decide what you want to do with the items after your mom has returned home.

Keep the things your daughter wants or that you think she can use in the near future. Donate to charity clothing that won’t ever work for your daughter. Re-gift toys that weren’t a hit with her. If your mother purchased items in the states, see if you can return the unwanted items for ones your daughter can use. It does take time, but not more than a few hours, and it won’t damage your relationship with your mother.

Although you can’t tell your mother what to buy for her granddaughter, you can suggest to her what your daughter needs and wants. Two months before the next gift-giving holiday, let it slip into conversation if your daughter needs or wants specific items like a new bed or new shoes (and what size) or a membership to the local zoo or dance lessons. If she’s computer savvy, create an Amazon wishlist and let her know about it to help her brainstorm gift ideas.

Don’t pressure your mom into buying things your daughter needs or wants. Don’t give her a guilt trip or hint in any way that you have been disappointed with gifts she has given in the past. Just let her know what your daughter could use, and then let it go. Whatever your mother decides to give is up to her, and her act of gift giving should be sincerely appreciated — irrespective of if you keep the gift or not.

As a final note, I want to point out that some of my son’s favorite things are gifts generous friends and family members gave to him that I never would have purchased or thought my son would have loved. Conversely, some things we put on his wishlist that we thought he would love, turned out to be total duds.

Thank you, Wendy, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

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70 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Receiving unwanted gifts”

  1. posted by Natalie in West Oz on

    i think the key in all these posts is that talking to the offender works **IF** you have a GOOD relationship. If you dont, welcome to my world! My husband knows not to buy me flowers (hayfever) and that cleaning something (that was probably his mess in the first place) means more to me in my busy busy world than something else I have to try to find a home for. But his mother wont listen, and nor will my sister. My mother kind of listened and stopped buying me birthday and Christmas presents, but then started buying me ” I saw it and knew you’d like it” gifts of things I wish she’d never seen.

    I’ve tried explaining it from my point of view (my house is full, its hard for me to give things away so please understand that and make it easier by not giving, I’m trying not to be so materialistic, please give me a photo of you so I can indulge in my fave hobby which is scrapbooking). But in my family and extended family, its about THEM not me. My sister admits she just cant NOT buy a present because SHE loves buying, my MIL sees it as a competition. Even when GReat Gran was too old to even think of presents, MIL pushed her and pushed her to come up with presents for every grandchild and great grandchild. We’d have preferred a phone call or a letter.

    SO, all my gifts come with heaps of emotional clutter and none of it is about what the recipient might actually want or need. My MIL, despite being told to please give me nothing but a photo, STILL asks me if I liked the present. I let my husband answer because I refuse to keep lying! (no, telling the truth wont work – read first comment re good relationships).

    I do regift, I do throw out or recycle and my new best friend is Freecycle! There’s always someone out there that wants what I dont.

  2. posted by Tabatha on

    I don’t seem to have this problem anymore. I’ve become pretty minimalist and made such a big deal out of it about how happy I am with less stuff people seem to be catching on and just not going out of there way to buy me something unless they know I need or want that specific item. like for my last birthday, i got a few small gifts but mostly i just wanted to go out with friends and that’s what I did, people know me well enough to know I don’t want more stuff.

  3. posted by Ed Decatur on

    Fascinating topic! I wasn’t until I read these comments that I recognized the connection between overgifting and shopping addiction. It seems so obvious now.

    It seems that one thing to consider is whether you want a closer relationship to the giver or not. If so, the communication about excess may very well bring you closer. One key that someone mentioned is making it clear that the overstuffed house is your own problem, not that the giver is doing something wrong.

    It might help to answer, “How are you?” or, “What are you up to?” with details about closet cleaning, lack of space, trips to charity, etc. You could make comments along the lines of, “So many people have taken an interest in Junior, and they have been so generous, it breaks my heart to have to give away items he has hardly used.”

    These kind of conversations between special occasions could then be segued into more specifics as the holidays approach. “We are constantly struggling with lack of storage, so it would help us out a lot to receive less this year.”

    On the other hand, if your relationship is already as close as you want, or you don’t have confidence that you can express your desires without offence, then the advice to say, “Thank you,” and quietly regift is probably best.

  4. posted by Thankful on

    First world problems, eh?

  5. posted by C on

    I ended up focusing more on the first sentence – “What do you do when you come from a culture where gifting is part of etiquette?” – than anything else, so I’m going to focus on that instead of the specific tricky issue of “gifts from grandparents.”

    In a lot of Asian countries, gift giving is a KEY social skill. Not giving a gift when you visit someone reflects really badly on you, and image is terribly important. I was raised in the US with a Japanese mother and I give gifts anytime I visit someone’s house, attend a party, someone isn’t feeling well, etc. In Japan, you’re expected to bring back omiyage from every trip you take. Hungry for Words: Mostly Japanese has a really good article about that here:

    The first rule she lists is “The best omiyage is something that can be consumed” and this is the main rule I follow. (I don’t really follow the others, unless I’m gifting a Japanese person.) For really close friends, I’ll make cookies or cupcakes that I know they really like, even if the recipe is a lot of work. For business dinner parties, a bottle of wine for the hosts and a bottle of wine to be consumed at the party. For those who don’t drink, if I know their food habits, I’ll substitute a food gift basket (pastas and sauces in a colander for the pasta lover, gourmet spices for the cook, tea for the tea lover, coffee, etc.) Harry & David and Williams-Sonoma are great places to pick up gourmet foods. (If you’re looking to not spend so much, H&D items regularly go on clearance in store and you can pick up still-good gourmet foods at places like Ross, TJ Maxx, and Marshalls – although, keep in mind you’ll want to look them over to pick items with non-damaged packaging.) I very rarely stray from giving consumable gifts and I’ll have people telling me for weeks afterward how delicious the X was.

    On the flipside… I suppose the trick to the grandparent gifting might be to say, “It’s nice of you to give little Suzy the socks – she won’t need any more for a long time. By the way, she really loved the apple juice/strawberry drops/whatever-food you brought.” Maybe this will encourage less Stuff-gifting and more Food-gifting

  6. posted by ninakk on

    Thankful mentions the concept of ‘first-world problems’ and it is very true, but the feelings above are as true so it won’t do to just raise an eyebrow and feel superior because one has got one’s priorities straight or something similar. Frustrations can cause many problems, as can be seen from many comments and I’d like to remind everyone to please be as considerate while gifting as you are gracious while receiving. Both are true art forms.

    I would never ever ask about something I gave on a previous occasion, because it might mean that the person I gave something to could lose his/her face. There’s no reason to cause such an embarrassing moment. Nowadays I only gift an object that a person has mentioned in a sentence where ‘would like to have’ also appeared or the item is a consumable of some kind or it is an experience. My closest friends don’t have that many kids yet, but once they grow I think I’ll consult the parents before purchasing anything. I’ve also begun to ‘let go’ of anything I give, meaning as soon as I’ve gifted it the new owner is free to do with it whatever they want.

  7. posted by Christina on

    I see both sides of the situation. It does seem like you shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, and be grateful that there are people in your life who want to shower you with gifts. You should accept the gifts, but you also shouldn’t feel obligated to keep them (or even transport them) if you don’t want them and they place a burden on you to store, display, care for, or otherwise be the steward of such a possession. As a gift giver, you should give freely and not make someone feel obligated to keep something just because you were the one who gave it to them. You shouldn’t ask someone after you have given them a gift what they did with it–but if you do, the recipient should be tactfully honest with you that they gave it away or returned it b/c the gift didn’t fit their life. As a gift giver, I’d much rather give someone a gift I know they’ll use and enjoy, then to assume I know what they want and then get upset when they don’t appreciate the gift like I thought they “should.” And as a gift recipient, I feel it is best to be honest with people if they inquire after the gifts they’ve given you, so that the gift giver can change their gift-giving strategy if they don’t like the way the recipient has dealt with the gift (even if that strategy is to simply stop giving me gifts). This is slightly different when children are involved, but I like Erin’s solution of going through the gifts with your child and letting them decide, too.
    There is a way to be a gracious gift recipient, but there is a way to be a gracious gift giver as well–and that means caring more that the recipient will actually derive enjoyment from the gift than you might have enjoyed giving it to them.

  8. posted by Mauro on

    For all you unclutteres, let’s see who wins:

    Messy v/s Tidy

  9. posted by Suzanne on

    Excellent Post!
    I wanted to let you know that I liked it so much I linked you on my blog

  10. posted by Jenni on

    I have a follow up question to this: What about presents for older kids?

    My mother-in-law has yet to grow out of this phase and it’s getting a bit frustrating. The toys she buys do not fit with our lifestyle and the values we would like to instill. We originally decided to allow (most of) these items while de-emphasizing them and encouraging other toys. Over time, storage has become an issue. We instituted a new policy that all toys have to fit in the existing storage system. If there are too many toys, some stuff must go to goodwill until they all fit. Our son recently turned 8 and got almost enough toys to completely refill his room. I expect him to be able to perform a reasonable amount of de-cluttering and purging, but I just feel that she’s making it extremely difficult on him. We plan to talk to her and ask her to limit her presents to 3 items and absolutely no candy, but I would love to hear any suggestions.

  11. posted by Laden with Crap on

    I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who struggles here. I do generally have a good relationship with my family except for the gifts. It is precisely because I love my sister (who is unemployed) that I was upset when she bought so many gifts for me as I know she’s been switching off the heat at home to save money.

    But I agree with what has been said in that we can’t control other people’s behaviour. It is her choice not mine; I don’t need to feel guilty about it.

    Thanks everyone for the comments; I think the next family occasion will be easier.

  12. posted by Milk Donor Mama on

    One year, my inlaws gave me several gifts that I just had no use for- knickknacks, mostly. After I asked for a gift receipt for exchange (one item was missing a part), which didn’t go down well… they stopped buying “stuff” and switched over to buying us a zoo membership and science museum membership (this also coincided with the birth of our daughter). This is so much better. Could you suggest experience gifts over “stuff” gifts?

  13. Avatar of

    posted by Charity on

    Having a gift-showering MIL (who constantly checks up on what has been done with her gifts and throws tanrums if the kids are not dressed head to toe in items she gave them) is really not easy. If people here think I’m ungrateful, so be it, but I really wish she would abide by our direct requests not to give any more. It is very sad that my 6 year old says “I have a Grandma who plays with me and another Grandma who gives me stuff”.

  14. posted by Elaine on

    Oh, come on you people! The first poster had to take PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION HUNDREDS OF MILES to get home. How was she supposed to get all the huge things home?

    Years ago, I learned a valuable lesson. Give a person what THEY want, not what YOU want. You didn’t have much as a child, so you over-give to your grandchildren? If you need to give give give, how about savings bonds? Gift cards? Cash? A charitable donation in the person’s name (I would like that!)?

    Giving what you want makes it all about you. Giving what they want makes it about them. Gifts can be small tokens instead of burdens.

  15. posted by Delores on

    Some photos of the daughter in clothes that were a hit or with a favorite new toy would let the mother know her actions are appreciated and might reinforce what the girl really likes for future gifting. “All of the clothes were delightful, but Mary looks so good in red I just had to send you a photo of her in this wonderful outfit”. “Mary likes all her toys but she lives, sleeps, and eats with this one.”

  16. posted by Melissa A. on

    Personally I think if someone can’t be more thoughtful when giving gifts, then they shouldn’t give them. Just giving for the sake of giving is not thoughtful. Put some thought into the gifts you give and listen to your loved ones and there shouldn’t be a problem.

  17. posted by TerriAnn on

    This is an emotional subject for people, and always interesting to read.

    We do an wishlist for our children and send the link to family, hoping it will be used. Sometimes it is and sometimes it is not. If someone doesn’t use the list, then it is clear that the gift giving is all about them and not what the child needs or wants. Why wouldn’t they want to know what would be needed and used.

    Telling family to not give gifts, decrease gifts or follow a wish list shouldn’t be a problem for them unless they have a selfish need to fulfill by not respecting what the parents or child requests.

    As someone else stated, grandstanding or gift giving with a passive aggressive agenda needs to be stopped immediately!

    My husband’s family was a bit over the top with gift giving. There was a lot of pressure to buy the “perfect” expensive gift for all holidays, Christmas, birthday, Mother and Father’s Days, even Easter. It was overwhelming to me as my family was never like that. This was fueled my MIL, who becomes passive-aggressive if the correct gift is not received. While we were getting out of debt, we told my husbands siblings that we would not be buying them gifts for Christmas. We felt we needed to reset the bar. I would like to stop giving his siblings gifts altogether, they are in their 30s and 40s, why do they need a gift from us. But now we only give gift cards and I feel we are taking baby steps to no gifts. We have already discussed next Christmas and we think we will give Dinner at Our House coupons instead of buying a gift card to a restaurant. The birthday and Easter gifts have stopped between siblings.

    Now we are working on Easter. We have two girls and get and Easter basket from 4 people for each girl. So excessive and wasteful. It all goes to the Salvation Army. I am hoping this year the message will get through. We are the only ones with children in his family, so we are the ones setting the gift giving mood for the future.

  18. posted by Jennifer on

    I disagree with the idea that you should lie to your family and let them think that you appreciate the plastic toys (when you asked for only wooden toys), Chinese made items (when you gave them a list – at their request – of locally made goods), dozens of battery operated geegaws (when you’ve told them that you’re trying to reduce your use of powered items), and dozens more toys that make noise (when you’ve asked multiple times – and even told them that they get “broken” – for toys that are for quiet time) even the books they give have made noise, and when you tell them the size clothes your child is wearing or the style of clothes he will or will not wear they go out and buy a size too small (never too big, sadly) and in a style he refuses to even try on.

    I agree that many people don’t have grandparents who like to shower them or their kids with gifts. But when gifts end up generating bad feelings EVERY time you receive a package from them, this is just as bad for family relations as never getting anything does.

    Why should the daughter be grateful that her mother is teaching her daughter to value “stuff?” Why should the daughter be grateful that her mother is teaching her daughter that respecting people’s wishes is not important?

    Personally, I love getting and giving gifts. But I have also learned that not everyone feels the way I do. I hope to teach my son that giving a gift should be about who you’re giving it to, not just the thing that you’re giving. Giving is supposed to be an act of unselfishness, not glorying in your ability to “shower” someone with presents they neither want nor need. When you do that your gift becomes about you, not the act of giving.

    My son’s birthday is in 4 weeks, and I’ve been telling everyone that gift certificates to movies or memberships to museums zoos and science centers will be much more appreciated than more loud, battery-operated Chinese plastic toys. But I know that that will be ignored. I’m trying to collect my calm right now and the boxes to take to Goodwill the day after they leave. The boxes are easy, the calm not so much.

  19. posted by JJ on

    Very good advice, and sensible as well. Sometimes the greatest joy for some is in giving.

  20. posted by Chris Smith on

    This is a great post. It’s tough dealing with unwanted gifts from family members, or good friends. I’m on a tight budget, so when a gift comes along that I don’t like, I usually exchange it, regift it or sell it – quietly, of course. My latest method of selling children’s clothes, toys, etc, is to open a “store” at StorkBrokers. This way, you can list it with no fees and, if someone else likes it, they will buy it and you can ship it off. Here is the link:

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