How to deal with unwanted gifts

You’ve done your best to minimize the wrong-for-you gifts. Perhaps you’ve politely discouraged gift-giving in general or you’ve directed people to the types of gifts that would be welcome. But, you still may wind up with well-intentioned gifts that totally miss the mark for you. So, what do you do?

Express your thanks

You may not be thankful for the gift itself, but you are thankful for the love, friendship, and/or camaraderie that was behind the gift.

As Richie Frieman said: “If someone took time to consider, buy, and wrap a gift for you, they deserve your gratitude, regardless of what’s inside the wrapping.”

Don’t feel obligated to keep it

“The bottom of my wardrobe is stuffed with thoughtful but unwanted gifts,” wrote a commenter on The Frugal Graduate.

This is a pretty common situation, and it seems so sad to me. Having a bunch of stuff shoved into closets or buried in basements doesn’t do anything good for anyone. As Deron Bos said on Twitter: “Your friends gave you the gift to bring you joy. If it doesn’t, imagine that their love also grants donating it to others for another try.”

Are you afraid the gift-givers will inquire about those gifts, especially if they don’t see them being used? As Erin noted a few years ago, most givers will never ask you about the item. Some gift recipients choose to have some white lies prepared, in case they are asked. These suggested responses were mentioned by commenters on Apartment Therapy:

“Well, a friend of mine saw it and was absolutely smitten with it, and frankly although it was lovely it wasn’t quite my taste, so I gave it to him/her.”

“It got broken in the last move, unfortunately.”

Here’s a slightly different approach, which tries to prevent future off-the-mark gifts:

“I shamelessly blame my cats for knocking it over or throwing up on it. Then I say, ‘It was such a sweet present, but maybe, given those rascally cats, we should just go out to brunch next year.'”

And another Apartment Therapy reader chose to be more blunt:

“We addressed it head on by saying, when someone asks where that hideously freakish tchotchke they’d gifted happens to reside, that it found a happy home through eBay and the proceeds went to benefit the local animal shelter or food bank in their name.”

Real Simple summarizes it well: “When you receive a present,” says Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan “… your duty is to receive it and thank the giver — not to keep the gift forever.”

Remember there are always exceptions.

Example: You enjoy doing extensive holiday decorations. A beloved family member, who usually selects great gifts, buys you a decorative item for your collection. It’s not hideous, but it’s definitely not your taste. But, it’s only going to be on display for a few weeks each year, it doesn’t have to be center stage, and the beloved family member will be delighted to see it gracing your home each year when she stops by at the holidays.

There are no absolutes; sometimes we do choose to keep something because that makes someone else happy or avoids hurting someone’s feelings. But, in most cases, we can keep the warm wishes behind the gift, and exchange the gift itself or move it along to a better home.

18 Comments for “How to deal with unwanted gifts”

  1. posted by Diane on

    I always figure I can keep/use/wear it for about a year if only when I expect to see the giver. Then I donate it to a charity. By then the giver has seen it in my possession and will forget about it after a few months or think I have worn it out.

  2. posted by Leslie on

    My mother has a tendency to try to buy affection through gift giving. It’s not what she buys or how the receiver feels about it that matters to her, but how she feels about it. I’ve fought with her for years (since I was 16) and tried appealing to reason (if the receiver doesn’t appreciate the gesture and the point of the gift is to please the receiver, then maybe you need to rethink this?), but it doesn’t work.

    What did work for a number of years is after the holidays, I would ask to borrow whatever card she used because I wanted to exchange the item/s and didn’t want to deal with any headaches during the process (obviously this won’t work for everyone). I would then return the item and have them credit her card. It was usually May before she even noticed the credit to her account and by then, I could vaguely say something along the lines of not finding what I wanted. She would accept that.

  3. posted by adora on

    I’m hopelessly utilitarian. My friends complain it’s impossible to buy me gifts. They don’t like the idea of giving me things that I need (such as pens and notebooks). Or something I buy often (such as a rose tea I order from London) because it’s not “special”.

    They know I donate what I don’t need. Recent years, they have resolved to getting me things with my name engraved or with my picture printed on it. (So creepy to receive a pocket watch with my facebook profile picture on it!)

    I find it very troubling. Not only do I not need a pocket watch, I can’t donate it to someone in need. They have wasted money, and earth resources just to give me a burden. When I give out unwanted gifts to someone who find it useful, it gives me joy. But instead, they seem to fixated on occupying square footage in my home.

    Any advice on unwanted custom or engraved gifts?

  4. posted by [email protected] on

    That’s definitely a tricky situation. Great ideas, though. And I appreciate that you differentiated between gifts like Christmas decorations and other types of gifts. That was important.

    But I agree – you don’t need to keep it forever or even at all.

  5. posted by Greg Moore on

    We struggle with this every year. I have a garage full of things that we never wanted in the first place and have absolutely no value in our lives. Each Spring, I clean it out and take a SUV-load of things to Goodwill.

    I completely agree with all the advice in the article.

    It saddens me that in this day and age that there are still people who insist on mindlessly purchasing persistent gifts for those who aren’t in need of gifts. It’s wasteful.

    Gifts ought to be something that you know someone needs or wants. Our code of keeping up appearances in our communications with each other doesn’t help us. But, that’s perhaps an issue for another day.

    I’ve had a high level of success in giving consumables as gifts – handmade/homemade food items, mostly. Most folks are grateful for the gifts and remember them year over year. Most of our friends and family have told us they look forward to the Moore family gifts from our kitchen!

    There are a small handful of relatives that have steadfastly told us they don’t want homemade/handmade gifts and that only store bought gifts are acceptable (unfortunately, this is close family). To make matters worse, they insist that we return the favor for like-value gifts.

    My wife and I find ourselves VERY frustrated every year at this time. Every year, the family members find ways to force us into this consumption minded ‘tradition’ that we do not want to participate in.

    Every year, we end up with gifts that go to rest in the garage until we discard them or are returned for store credit for something else we may need from that retailer at some point in the future.

    The spirit of Christmas, or any gift giving occasion, is quickly diminished by this sort of carelessness. Every year becomes more laborious to keep our frustrations to ourselves. I fear our daughter will pick up on our frustration with the practice at some point and it will diminish her joy with the season.

    We live simply – with very little clutter and stuff. Our hobbies and interests are experiential in nature (vs collecting stuff), so we find little value in anything purchased unless it’s for a specific need or project. We guard what comes and goes from our home carefully and have absolutely no interest in participating in mindless consumption.

  6. posted by Melanie on

    Not sure how somebody is “forced” to participate in consumption. You don’t have to purchase gifts and you don’t have to accept gifts.

    My experience is that if I quit giving gifts to a someone then after 1-2 gift-giving occasions they will quit giving me gifts. That solves the problem. Sometime I give the person a warning that I will not be exchanging gifts with them in the future. But not always.

    This has worked with my immediate family. The only exchange we do now is cards at Christmas and birthdays. No gifts. No cash. No expectations, frustrations or disappointments. We simply gather from time-to-time throughout the year and enjoy each other’s company, talk, eat a nice meal and maybe play a few games.

    This has also worked with friends and co-workers. I no longer participate in any obligatory gift exchanges with anyone, including secret Santa and white-elephant exchanges.

    You might feel left-out at first; and there may be some push-back from others, but it can be done. And you will feel so free. Think how much time (not to mention money) I save, especially this time of year, not having to do any gift shopping. Nice!

    @adora – Goodwill and Salvation Army accept engraved gifts. People will buy them. My favorite bread knife has some couple’s name and what I guess to be their wedding date engraved on it.

  7. posted by Greg Moore on

    @Melanie Certainly we could turn down gifts and opt-out forcefully from gift exchanges. It’s unfortunately emotional warfare with family members if we attempt it. We pick and choose our battles. Such is life. 🙂

  8. posted by Christina on

    We’ve gotten to the point where almost no one (except my mother) gives gifts that aren’t wanted. My in-laws do not live in this country and when they do visit, they don’t bring us big bags of stuff we wouldn’t want. Some of the stuff (clothes, toys, etc.) they bring for our kids is not our style, but for the most part we can use it.

    My mother, on the other hand, gives gifts that she wants to give, not what the receiver wants. That’s fine if it’s my husband or myself, but what do you do if it’s your kids? They don’t want the gift; sometimes it’s something she got for free or from someone else, and it ruins the gift giving process for them and for us. We’re forced to pretend that we love receiving what amounts to crap that the kids will never use, and the kids have to pretend they’re excited.

    We keep telling her that experiences, a horseback riding lesson, some fabric to make them a costume, etc. would be so much more useful, but she still buys them stuff they do not want. We do donate it, but it ruins the season for them as she gets very angry if we don’t go over the top with our effusive (but dishonest) thanks. She complains that it’s too expensive to buy them what they want, but doesn’t want to save her money and just spend time with them… Sigh.

  9. posted by JC on

    Christina: My grandmother sounds a lot like your mother. Growing up I received the weirdest gifts (mostly cheap and awful). What was worse than the junk, was the fact that the extended family met together on Christmas Eve and my cousins and older brother (the favorites) always got fantastic things. Grandma started having strokes when I was in my very early 20s. Her personality changed for the better over the years, and we developed a very close relationship that lasted until she passed a couple of years ago. When she finally had to move into a nursing home, she gave me her most prized dishes, some of which had belonged to her mother and some my grandfather had purchased for her when they were first married.

    I feel badly for my sister. Her in-laws draw names and pass out wish lists. She has three children and a fairly low income. They are still expected to get the main item from the wish list, no matter the price.

    I make a lot of consumable gifts with prettied up practical things: Hand embroidered tea towels and bread; embroidered face clothes with homemade sugar scrubs; hand-warmers and hot chocolate; rice filled shoulder heat wraps with popcorn and a movie; reusable shopping bags with flavored popcorns, etc… I do think about the recipients’ needs/wants/personality. I have found new homes for the “off” stuff I have received. I’ve also been lucky in that people don’t ask me about gifts, have recognized my tastes and adjusted accordingly, or just don’t care :).

    When we were first married and very tight on money, I gave my husband’s young niece a new Barbie and some homemade fashions for it. She opened the doll and declared, “I don’t want it. I already have this one.” I sat down in front of her and gently told her that when someone gives her a gift, whether she likes it or not, or even already has the same thing, she needs to smile and say thank you. She said, “oh, thank you.” We decided that she could have a lot of Barbie twins.

  10. posted by henave on

    This must be a universal experience. I have vivid memories of an out-of-touch family member giving my boys age-inappropriate presents when they were much younger (ex. Elmo for a 2nd grader). These were given and required to be opened at a big family gathering. It was a challenge to prepare the kids for the idea that the present was most likely not going to be appropriate but that they had to pretend like it was. An extremely tense and awkward time was had by all.

  11. posted by Lisa on

    I found something that she liked that I could also enjoy. I mentioned how much I liked her Fenton glass pieces and would like to have a collection myself. After that she would give me a piece each year instead of buying me clothing that I absolutely hated! Win – win!

  12. posted by Her from There on

    @Melanie, you ask how can someone be ‘forced’ to give or accept a gift? Well, you ‘forced’ others to accept your method by not playing along which is the same thing in the opposite direction. I don’t say that unkindly but to point out that in every exchange there are two sides.

    My inlaws have been asked very nicely to please not give me any gifts a number of times and they think it means I dont like what they give me. It’s not that (well, sometimes it is but that wasnt the reason for the request)but more that I have a house full of stuff and I find it very hard to move things along so I’d just rather not have them to start with. I asked for a photo of themselves instead (since both are keen photographers) so I have updated shots to show their grandchildren but for some reason they found that offensive. So now I simply say thank you for the gift, refuse to elaborate (because MIL just wants me to go on about what a great choice it was, and it often isn’t)and then put it in a charity box OR list it on Pay it Forward (like Freecycle).

    As a churchgoer, I love the idea of Christmas. However I HATE this time of year for exactly what Greg said. Its forced consumerism to keep certain people happy and it’s horrible. I think we should all go to church and come home to a nice lunch to celebrate the beautiful gift of Christmas itself and that should be enough.

  13. posted by Gypsy Packer on

    My family of origin got secret lulz from wildly inappropriate gifts. For years, I would haul them to the flea market and use them–gifts and microaggressive kin–for joke punchlines while waiting for a purchaser. Have a morning’s entertainment, take a friend and one shop while the other sells, meet new people and score bargains.

  14. posted by Mara on

    Ugh. I have an in-law who is the type to look around and ask, “where is the such-and-such that I gave you?” “this isn’t the ____ I gave you, didn’t you like mine?” I think that there is something rude in that kind of behavior, to give a gift is nice but to be very demanding about it being used/ displayed later on is questionable.

  15. posted by pwm78 on

    I usually love consumables, but please, if you consider sending something as particular as very strong, smelly cheeses, ask if the recipient might like them first. 🙂

  16. posted by eileen on

    I have a long term co-worker (15 years) who recently asked me if I still had the humming bird he gave me. I have several collectibles and didn’t recall the exact one he gave me.
    He has also given me several kitchen/serving items that I either never used or only a few times and then passed on when I got married and had to combine households. I know I have given away quite a few of the presents he has given me, except for the wine and bubbly. This year I emphasised consumable gifts. We’ll see what’s under the tree this year.

  17. posted by E.D. on

    Thank you for your perspective. It is my opinion that if someone gives you something you don’t want or need, either donate it or, for the sake of the relationship, make it work with something. The reason someone would give you a gift is usually out of love and thoughtfulness and it is only courteous to honor their gesture with sincere gratitude and go out of your way to include it into your life somehow. However, if you would rather not get a gift from them in the future, I would encourage them that a card with a beautiful message is all you need , maybe a donation to your favorite charity, and do the same in return.

  18. posted by Melanie on

    @ Her from There – My choosing not to participate in gift giving doesn’t force anyone else to do anything. In fact, it is giving them the freedom to decide for themselves whether to give me a gift by removing the obligation of gift giving.

    In fact, some of my friends have told me that removing this obligation is the best gift anyone has ever given them. By removing this obligation most of my relationships have improved; and none have been negatively affected.

    For me, obligation is the very antithesis of gift giving; and this obligation (which so many on this thread speak of) is what ruins the gift giving experience (and sometimes the relationship) for them.

    No need to attack. I was just sharing my experience.

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