Ask Unclutterer: One person’s gift is your latest frustration

Reader SK submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

We have recently moved into a smaller apartment and have uncluttered most of our belongings … My problem is that my parents recently gifted us a new vacuum cleaner, complete with cord, attachments, and replaceable belts. We are pretty happy with our little cordless rechargeable vacuum and told my parents so — bookending this information with thanks and appreciation to be polite. My dad insisted that this new vacuum is better — picks up more dirt, etc. We don’t really care. Normally, this is a no brainer, say thank you and quietly return the gift — but Dad comes up every week to watch my daughter and will notice and comment on the new vacuum’s absence. (Mom’s already said she’ll give me the receipt and it’s fine if we want to return it) I’ve already explained the no space situation, but he dismissed the concern. Returning this thing is going to cause some hurt feelings and awkward, difficult conversations — please help!

This is one of those situations where I can’t give you a “do this and be happy” response. But, I’ll give you some ideas that might be able to spark a solution that will be the right one for you and your family.

Option 1: Ask your parents to care and store the vacuum in their home since you don’t have the space in yours. You can borrow it when you really need it for twice-yearly deep cleanings or before a party, but the rest of the time your parents can benefit from having it and using it in their home. Since your dad comes to visit once a week, you must live close to each other, so transporting it shouldn’t be that big of deal. And, if your dad balks and says he already has a vacuum and doesn’t need this fancy one for his house, he’ll at least be more empathetic to your situation.

Option 2: Return it and immediately have a conversation with your dad explaining that you returned it and why. Offer to give him his money back. His feelings will be hurt, but he’s a grownup and will eventually get over it. You’re not returning his love, you’re returning a vacuum.

Option 3: Buck up and keep the vacuum. To find space for the new vacuum, go through your home and decide what you value less than your relationship with your dad, and get rid of that item and the rechargeable vacuum you currently own. Then, let go of your animosity. Use the new vacuum and think fond memories of your father and your relationship with him.

Option 4: Check the comments to this post for even more suggestions from our readers.

Thank you, SK, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I’m honestly not sure what I would do in this situation. I hope that you find the right solution for you and your family.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

40 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: One person’s gift is your latest frustration”

  1. posted by Jc on

    Wow, kind of stunned by #3.

  2. posted by Jason on

    I would say go to your Dad and present the option of having them store it (Option 1) or returning it. I would also wait until he visits and can see the vacuum cleaner sitting in the middle of the room/in the way because there isn’t a place for it.

  3. posted by Kay on

    I was taught as a child if someone gave me a gift, I accepted it graciously with no comments about “I don’t need that” or “I already have one”, etc.
    It was explained to me that it would be very rude to say such a thing to the person who took the time,spent the money, made the effort to pick out a gift for me. And that being the case, I would not want to hurt someone’s feelings.

  4. posted by Rebecca | Seven2Seven8 on

    It would be rude to refuse the gift, and it would be rude of your father to insist to know its whereabouts if you decide to return it. That said, the discussion is already happening, so:

    I think asking your parents to store it is an acceptable option (if you never ask to come get it, that might send a message, but if you can use it, do). I also think you could get the receipt from your mom and tell her you aren’t sure about returning it because you value your dad’s feelings but also want to feel happy and not overwhelmed by your possessions in your new space and you’re going to sleep on it. Do so, and then return it if you really want to. I agree with Erin – this shouldn’t affect your relationship with your dad long-term. If it will, then swap it for something less important. Alternatively, you could just ditch or donate the attachments and keep the main vacuum. I do that with things all the time.

  5. posted by Pammyfay on

    Or, since your Dad comes up every week to spend time with your daughter … maybe say to him, “I really appreciate your thoughtfulness, but with the apartment being so small, we really don’t have the space for it. What if you keep it at your house and then bring it up once a week when you come up? And hopefully in the future we might be in a place that will allow us to find a proper storage space for it.”

    (my hidden agenda: maybe he’ll give your place a quick vacuum? but really, he’ll know that you’re appreciative, and i think that’s what he really wants to feel.)

  6. posted by Gil on

    While the thought is nice, it is your house and you alone should decide what stays and what goes, especially if it is something you don’t want to keep.

  7. posted by Jeannette on

    I, too, believe that we graciously accept a gift and are appreciative of the giver’s thoughtfulness, but… I learned a very helpful lesson recently with a very good friend. I had given a friend a copy of a book that I had read and enjoyed and really thought he would enjoy/use, etc. (Nonfiction, daily commentary on a particular topic, so you could read a page or two at a time.)

    I kept asking him how he liked it (I wanted to discuss some bits with him) until he finally said, politely, that he hadn’t read it and wasn’t sure he would as he really does not like to read (Shock! Seriously. I am a huge reader and he knows I always want to share.) He reminded me, politely, that since it was a gift given freely, he was under no obligation to keep it or use it.

    I thought about it and realized that he was correct. THe giftee is under NO obligation to keep or use a gift. Nor should we make them feel obligated as the father is doing here.

    The father means well, but …when it comes to such gifts, people should consult with the giftee. And if you don’t, then you should be prepared to have them either return it (and not get offended) or indicate that it does not work for them.

    It’s an idea about storing it at his place…but it’s best to let people understand the real reasons. If the father is hurt, he needs to rethink his own gift-giving strategy and know that the giftees love him enough to speak the truth (which can prevent further awkward situations).

    FYI: The same friend who I gave the book to was given an iPad by his family. He had it for a year, barely used it and one family member in particular kept pressing him to the point where he used and almost ruined the thing.

    A close friend (me) who had encouraged him to use it from day one, finally questioned why he was holding on to something that he wasn’t using when there were people in the world (no, I wasn’t hinting. Truly) and that it was bad karma to keep such a useful item sitting away and not being used. He went thru a whole guilt trip about how could he do that to his family, etc. Then, he started really thinking about it and spoke to his family and said, basically: This was a great gift. But as you know, I am not into tech stuff and in over a year haven’t been able to master the learning curve. Also, as great as it could be, I am not using it and I know someone who would. Would it be OK if I gave it to X, who I know will use it everyday? Some members (the kids) objected but the heads of the two families (the women, his sisters, who had told the males in the family who initiated this to NOT get it in the first place knowing their brother’s lack of interest) said: Please. Give it to someone who will use it.

    He surprised me with it and a lovely note that said both he and his family would take the greatest pleasure in knowing that it was now in the hands of someone who WOULD use daily (I do!). For all, a valuable lesson: It’s not about how much something costs, but rather if it is suitable and is something someone can use.

    Moreover, they all learned the lesson that it is wonderful if you want to give someone something, but if they are not going to use it, and the reasons don’t matter, then it makes no sense to gift them with an item.

    A real gift reflects the giftee’s needs. THoughtful gift givers inquire, check in advance and don’t take it personally if it turns out that they “goofed” in gift giving.

    And let’s be honest. Sometimes people give you gifts for reasons that are beyond the obvious, as in they think you SHOULD want or use it. But it isn’t up to them.

    Freely give. Freely allow the giftee to do what they want. Don’t confuse the gift with love. Keeping gifts should not be a case of “If you loved me, you’d appreciate, keep, use it…even if you don’t want or need it.”

  8. posted by egirlrocks on

    Jeanette — excellent post! Thank you . . . it was something I needed to hear.

  9. posted by Barb on

    Well the other view is your father is at your place every week and maybe he doesn’t think your little cordless rechargeable vacuum is really doing an adequate job. He’s too nice to say your apartment is dirty.

  10. posted by Lindsey on

    I might be the only one, but I suggest Option 3. I think it is the most gracious response. It’s been pointed out that the reader can do whatever he/she wants because it’s a gift, and the father shouldn’t get his feelings hurt if they return it. The fact of the matter is in a situation like this, returning the vacuum will likely hurt the father’s feelings and could, for a time, put a strain on the relationship. I personally think that trying to justify hurting his feelings with, “Well, he should have been more thoughtful in gift giving” is cruddy way to think toward someone who sounds like a caring father and is already providing a valuable gift in the form of child care. Life is short and you often don’t have as much time with your loved ones as you think you do. In this case, I’d say don’t hurt his feelings and strain the relationship by returning the vacuum. Keep it, get rid of the old one, and tell him you appreciate the fact that he wanted to give you something nice.

  11. posted by Laura on

    I think that if you cannot find a place to store a vacuum cleaner, your home is too small! Isn’t there a place in the garage … or the corner of your daughter’s closet … where you can keep an upright vacuum?

    I agree with Barb. I don’t know how old the daughter is, but keeping an apartment clean with a Dust Buster just won’t cut it, and if the child is three or younger, imagine what she is crawling on and putting in her mouth.

    Keep the vacuum. Use it.

  12. posted by Marrena on

    True story. My mother gave my sister-in-law a nice vacuum when she had her third child (the other two were still little ones). My sister-in-law did not receive it graciously, and my mother has never spoken to my brother or sister-in-law since. And that was fifteen years ago. My mother will go to her grave estranged from my brother and her three grandsons over a vacuum cleaner.

  13. posted by Diane on

    This is exactly the reason I like to ask everyone what they would like for holidays, birthdays, etc. What you may think someone would like or need, may not be what the person wants or needs thus you have wasted money & energy picking the gift out. I purchased a baby shower gift once, spent 45 mins putting the baby tub together with gifts for the tub & she received two. Never again!And she had a baby register! I am giving gift cards from now on. I hate receiving a gift that I know I am not going to use. My husband likes to surprise me however after 20 yrs. of returning gifts, he now takes my suggestions. As for the vacuum, I would ask dad if they could keep it then bring it when they visit.

  14. posted by Emmers on

    Laura – The thing is, they already *have* a vacuum cleaner, so the first part of your “if” clause is not valid. It’s like saying “Well, if you don’t have space to store a car…” when someone has a Compact-sized parking spot at their house, and parks their compact in it, but *you* think they really *ought* to own an SUV.

    If the dad thinks the apt isn’t clean enough, that’s an entirely separate issue.

  15. posted by Rae on

    I think dad is saying the apartment needs some cleaning. I could be projecting here since there was a time way back yonder when I was a student and my mother came to visit me for a week. A few days after she got back home, I got a call from the Sears counter informing me my order was in. What order? A vacuum cleaner…

    Now, as someone who lives in a tiny home (RV), I can tell you it’s possible to compromise between a vacuum that you can actually store in your small space and one that will do a good job.

    So my proposed solution is to return the good vacuum for an equally good but smaller one that you can store more easily. (I don’t have carpets, so I use a Bissell Magic Vac for most jobs (it’s an upright that converts to a dust buster) and a one-gallon shop vac for messy jobs.)

  16. posted by NoAlias on

    Could you ask Dad to come with you when you return the vacuum, to help you pick out something you do need/want that is similar in cost? Kitchen appliance, bathroom storage cabinet, granddaughter’s room toy box, etc?

  17. posted by Dorothy on

    I’m with the “your dad thinks your house is dirty” contingent.

    You’ve already told him you don’t want the thing, but he insisted on giving it to you, anyway. I think you should sit down with him and figure out what’s motivating his passive-aggressive actions — He knows best about what vacuum cleaner you should own and make room for, or He thinks your place is a pig sty.

    There’s more to this than the etiquette of gift-giving.

  18. posted by Kalavinka on

    Similarly, I have 2 vacuums, brooms, etc. but with pets, one must be diligent. My mom who visits often thought I wasn’t doing enough and she insisted on getting a roomba. I refused, told her to save her money. Eventually, she bought it but I wouldn’t let her leave it at my house. She has it at her house. Sometimes she brings it over when she visits. That minimizes the uneasiness of the situation. If that is too troublesome or would still hurt your dad’s feelings, perhaps you could talk to your mom more and put the issue back on her. She’s willing to give you the receipt so perhaps she can convince your dad not to insist on this gift, perhaps get something that you would benefit more from, whatever that may be, so both feel happy. If anything, groceries are always good and grandparents love spoiling/contributing to grandchildren so it could be redirected to your child.

  19. posted by XYZ on

    I vote for #3. My parent died and suddenly it changed my perspective.

  20. posted by Barb on

    I have been gifted with several small kitchen appliances too large for my tiny kitchen. I put them out on ‘permanent loan’ to friends who can use them, who will loan them back when I need them.Problem solved!

  21. posted by Ginger on

    Yep, it could be that your father thinks your place isn’t clean as it could be. Sometimes people get used to a certain degree of cleanliness that really isn’t that clean. It’s kinda like washing clothes in an older washer and thinking they’re clean until you use a really good washer and then see how clean your clothes should be. Try the new vacuum. You might actually like it. If not, return it.

  22. posted by SK on

    This was my question, and a lot of you make valid points.

    I can see that maybe Dad was insinuating that our place isn’t clean. Based on our old apartment before we decluttered, I can see his point. The new place though – we’ve done a much better job of keeping up with the chores. Vacuuming happens, especially since our daughter isn’t even two yet. Lots food ends up on the floor under her booster seat.

    In the end, we ended up sending the vacuum back with mom & dad, reiterating how appreciative we were and how, once we get a house and actually own and care about our carpets, it will be more useful. We lavished on the praise about how helpful they were, dad especially, and agreed to let the baby stay overnight with them for some unsupervised grandparent spoiling time.

    It worked out fine – I think dad might be a little annoyed with our decision, but he understands. He’s seen (again, after our initial conversation) how little space we have, how hard we’re working to keep it clean, and how little time I actually spend there.

  23. posted by SaL on

    Give the vacuum to a shelter for homeless people or battered women.

  24. posted by AinOakPark on

    Boy, do I get a lot of this whole situation. The love of my life feels personally insulted when I return a gift, but is getting better at taking suggestions.

    I agree that Dad probably thinks the apartment is still too dirty. I think it probably is, given the comment about “once we get a house and actually own and care about our carpets”. You mean you only take care of things you own? You LIVE in the apartment. It is your HOME. In that sense I believe you should care, and take care of the place where you exist (and your child exists).

    On the other hand, my husband’s family gave us stuff we “couldn’t” get rid of, and I must say that I hated looking at the cheap plastic table and chairs they gifted us for our balcony when we moved into a new place. I hated them every day. My husband’s brother returned a telescope they gave him when he moved to a place with a view. That created more trouble and grief than he ever imagined and he had grown up knowing the grief they could spread.

    I think the best solution is for Dad to bring it over every week and for you to use it in his presence for the 15 minutes it would take you to make him happy. You might even like the results, since no stick vac will ever do enough on a carpet.

  25. posted by Leanne on

    I would love to see a future update on what the letter writer ended up doing and how it worked out.
    This comment thread is very interesting to me. It can be so much more difficult to balance your own personal boundaries/preferences in situations with your parents than with peers.

  26. posted by Carol on

    Boy, did this hit home with me. Just last month I visited my daughter (who lives 500 miles away). She has 4 large hairy dogs and little space to spare. She sweeps all the dog hair once or twice a day or lugs out her big upright vac (with all those attachments). I gifted her a cheap little stick vacuum from Walmart for under $15Befor I was leaving. She thought it was easy to use but habits are hard to break. I told her if she really doesn’t use it,she can give it back to me when I see her at Christmas….no hard feelings. I think your Dad is just trying to make your life easier and he thinks all the attachments will help. I think you should explain that it’s been sitting for a month or more and you still haven’t used it and you’d like to return it and just put the money in an account for the granddaughter! I don’t think Dad could be upset at that. After all, You gave it some time to see if you would use it and you’re thinking of his grandbaby! Also, Mom seems to understand so perhaps she could “soften” Dad up before you talk to him.Good luck with however you handle the situation.

  27. posted by reenie on

    Sounds like everything is working out with the new vacuum cleaner and I’m glad.

    The reason I’m compelled to post, however, is to beg everyone to remember that the word gift is not a verb, it’s a noun. We are not gifted a vacuum and no one gifted it to us! Give, gave and given are the verbs to use. Try them, they work.

  28. posted by Middle Finger Project on

    Really enjoyed read this. It’s so true!

  29. posted by Jeannette on

    If the father gave this to them because he had an issue with cleanliness, then, for sure, they should have no issue with returning it or leaving it at the father’s.

    I don’t care if it’s family or friends, when someone has an issue with you, they can act like a tactful adult and bring it up. Don’t fee “secure” enough to bring it up? THen deal with the response to an unwanted gift.

    I have an issue with people who over-sentimentalize all this and are so worried about hurting a parent’s feelings. What about the feelings of the giftee, who, it seems may actually be getting a gift in the form of a veiled negative comment on their housekeeping skills?

    As for the woman who did not speak to her family members after they returned the gift? There was something else going on way beyond that gift being returned. Sane, stable human beings do not ditch people over a returned “gift” particularly if the gift was NOT something agreed upon in advance (a house, a car, an education, for example). Abandonment for this reason is not the sign of a mentally healthy individual.

    If that sounds judgmental, sorry. It’s way judgmental for someone who gives a gift to act so badly when the giftee does not want the gift.

    Again: Gifts = freely given with NO STRINGS attached. Period. If the giftee MUST like it or use it or whatever, then it is NOT A GIFT!

    The person giving the gift must also exhibit graceful behavior. Not just the giftee.
    Families are often big on emotional blackmail, especially with gifts. That’s not love. It’s emotional blackmail. And you can make all the excuses you want but a spade is a spade. IMHO

  30. posted by Twosavoie on

    I’m glad to read that you have worked out the issue. I did want to add that your Dad may not feel that your place isn’t clean. Similar to Jeanette, I’ve given gifts because I think they are just so cool. He might just think it is an awesome vacuum and he wanted to share his find with you. I’m trying to curtail this behavior in myself because your reaction in this situation isn’t uncommon in my experience. As I was told by a friend “sometimes you help people who don’t want to be helped”. Perhaps your dad is similar?

  31. posted by MizLoo on

    Could you not ask Dad if he thinks there’s an area that isn’t clean enough for the kiddo & when he comes over, he can use the vacuum. Good for kiddo & less work for mom/dad/whoever.

    BTW – if he does think there’s a cleanliness issue, listen, discuss and ask him to be direct in future. If mom is so willing to operate behind Dad’s back, she knows what he thnks. I find her kind of involvement troubling.

  32. posted by Leslie on

    I really appreciate Option #3 – the mental tweak of making room for the relationship rather than the item, since that is why you are choosing to keep it.

  33. posted by Marie on

    What is it about vacuums specifically that cause bad feelings? My new MIL bought us one with no consultation or discussion, and I was really miffed because she knew that I am a severe allergy sufferer. I need the HEPA or bagless models. The one she bought spit out more dirt than it sucked in. For years my husband and I fought about it. I finally bought a quality vacuum and he still refuses to toss hers, claiming it’s “good enough” for the basement…so apparently my asthma attacks are okay as long as they occur below ground.

  34. posted by Shadlyn on

    Mom sounds reasonable. I’d say sit down with her and seriously ask about Dad’s motivations. If he’s babysitting your small child, he may feel concerned about the cleanliness of the carpet – even if they are clean – just because parents worry about these things.

    Mom can probably let you know if that’s the case. But be prepared for an honest answer and DO NOT be offended, no matter what. Remember it’s love for you and your kid that motivates, and take deep breathes and move forward.

    If, on the other hand, Dad just wanted to get you something nice, then I’d agree with a poster above. Ask his permission to return it, but see if he’d be willing to go out and help you pick something you WOULD use and love – either a new thing, or an upgrade for something you have that’s “good enough.”

  35. posted by Brooks on

    Option #2 makes the most sense.

  36. posted by cindi on

    Very thoughtful and creative options.

    I was also raised in the “don’t insult the giver” mindset, and believe we should express gratitude to the giver. However, over the years, I realized that the best gifts are ones that the recipient wants, not ones that the giver believes the recipient needs. My mother used to give me all sorts of things that she simply loved and assumed I would also love, but my tastes in clothes, home decor and kitchen tools simply wasn’t the same as hers. Finally she realized she was buying stuff that fit her tastes, not mine, and started paying more attention to what I liked/needed. Now her gifts are simply fabulous, and both of us are happy.

  37. posted by Kate on

    Only you know how much of a control issue this is between you and your parents or in-laws. Because if returning this item will cause hurt feelings then it is not about this item is about how much control he has over your household.

    Older generation will call it respect, listening to your elders and other things (things they themselves had to do to and for their elders) and now many feel it is their time to be listened to. However it is a matter of how much control they have over your life and how much control they had over their lifes at your age. (Most of the time.)

    However saying that I and my mate and child are on our own (No family ) so whatever we do is fine as long as it is fine with each other. However there are no phone calls saying “J has a minor fever what do you recommend?” to grandma, that phone call goes to ask a nurse. There are no gifts from grams or gramps and more importantly No babysitting or j knowing an older generation.

    Only you know how your dad will respond and if the hurt feeling or being estranged is worth giving up the control and keeping the Vacuum (or letting this go and where to draw the line the next time.)

  38. posted by SK on

    Me again, the original poster. :-)
    Regarding the cleanliness issue: yes. We both work full time and are currently living in this tiny apartment we don’t like and don’t particularly feel attachment to or responsibility for. We plan to move within the year, two tops. If our carpets are merely passable instead of routinely deep cleaned we are okay with that.
    However, we sometimes feel so much like drowning in the chores that need together done in this tiny space that we are going to offer Dad some money to do light housekeeping during the toddler’s nap or at the very end of the day when my husband comes home (dad leaves before I get home). Hopefully that’ll be a win win solution all around.

  39. posted by pat on

    Well – it seems that you are continuing to work it all out – good for you! It is amazing how much discussion this engenders – wow – a hot topic that many people encounter indeed. I probably would have left it in the living room and disguised it as a coat tree – your decisions are much better.

  40. posted by Karen on

    Reenie, yes, “gift” is a verb. Dictionary.com states it is a verb when used with an object. Example is “to present with as a gift; bestow gifts upon; endow with.” Webster states it is “the act, right or power of giving.”

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