Thanks, I Hate It: How to Deal with Unwanted Gifts

A festive young woman takes a selfie with a gift to say thank you
Adobe Stock

As a wise woman once said, I don’t want a lot for Christmas.

In fact, I don’t really want anything. Don’t get me wrong–I’m not a Grinch. I’ll be baking pound cakes for my family this year and dropping them off on doorsteps like a socially-distant Santa. But my house is already fully stocked with all the knickknacks, coffee mugs, and books that a lady could ever want. At this point, if something new comes in, something else has to go out.

Because of the pandemic, most of the events that require you to buy gifts for people you barely know have been canceled. Office Secret Santa exchanges, awkward holidays with cousins you only see once a year… without those annual traditions, there’s just not as much need to buy novelty socks that have “If you can read this, send wine” printed on the soles.

Those impersonal, obligatory gifts are pretty easy to navigate, at least in terms of etiquette. You say “thanks!” and then discreetly donate the item and never speak of it again. That won’t necessarily work for your close friends and family, though, especially if they’ve put time and effort into choosing something for you. So what do you do when someone you care about gives you an unwanted gift?

The Reason for the Season

Regardless of your faith, holiday gift-giving is supposed to be a way to show your friends and family how much you care about them. Unfortunately, that can sometimes get twisted into how much you value them by putting a price tag on it. There’s a lot of pressure to get it right–although we’ve got some ideas on how to navigate the rocky shoals of buying gifts during the pandemic as well.

But keep in mind, as you consider what to do with any unwanted or unneeded gifts, why we exchange presents this time of year. Gifts are an expression of the giver’s feelings, so hurling those feelings into the nearest Goodwill bin is obviously going to hurt.

The best way to avoid this problem is to set boundaries about gifts and make it clear that you value the person’s company far more than material goods. But it’s a bit late for that now, so as 2020 draws to a close, you’re just going to have to deal with it.

The One Thing You Must Always Do

Okay, so you’ve gotten a dud of a gift. Doesn’t matter why–you don’t need one, you already have one, or you just don’t like it! Regardless, you have to say thank you. Ideally, you’ll do so in a thoughtful way. Comment on something–anything–that you like about the gift. Express your thanks to the person for thinking of you. Do it in writing, if possible, so that your expression doesn’t give you away.

If you’re opening gifts in real time, either in person or on a video call, now is not a teachable moment. Don’t remind them that you actually requested an iPad, not a Kindle, when you discussed gifts earlier this year. Or that you’ve never been a fan of the works of Thomas Kincaid and would sooner set this 2021 calendar on fire than hang it up in your home. Criticizing someone over the gift they chose for you is deeply rude. Even joking about it could end up being hurtful if the other person honestly tried to get you something you’d like.

Remember this script: “Thank you, that’s so thoughtful! I really like [some aspect of the gift that is not horrible].

Regift, Recycle, Resell?

Is there ever a situation in which you can refuse a gift? Possibly… but it’s very difficult to do without hurting feelings. The only exception could be gifts that are literally too big to fit in your living space, too dangerous to keep around kids or pets, or at odds with your core beliefs.

If you’re a no-alcohol household, for example, then politely declining a bottle of wine acceptable. But most of the time, you’ll have to figure out a way to get rid of the unwanted gift later.

If you regift, strip the item of all evidence that it was given to you by someone else. That means removing it from the original wrapping or bag. Check for any kind of cards, tags or personalizations, too. Ensure that it appears to be a brand-new piece of merchandise, and then tuck it away in a closet or box for future use as a last-minute present.

Never regift in the same circles–if your work friend gave you a candle, don’t give it to another coworker later! Don’t regift homemade treats or opened packages of food, either.

Donating items to charity is slightly better than throwing them in the trash. However, charities are overwhelmed with donations right after the holidays. That continues through January as people attempt to declutter after New Year’s. You might want to hold onto any unwanted gifts until February or even March, if you have room.

But what about returning or even selling the gift? Let’s say your aunt gave you a leather jacket. It’s a big-ticket item! She probably wanted a leather jacket when she was your age and now you get to live her dream! But it doesn’t fit… or work with your aesthetic… and you’re a vegan.

If you know where she bought the jacket, it’s possible that you could return it to the retailer for store credit even without a receipt. If that’s not an option, then you could theoretically sell the jacket on a site like eBay or Poshmark. If you feel guilty about it, donate the proceeds to charity.

Avoid putting gifts out at a yard sale, however, as there’s simply too much of a risk that you’ll get caught.

Sometimes You’re Just Stuck

A final word of warning about handmade gifts. There are two types–amateur efforts made from craft store supplies, and skilled work by someone who is passionate about their hobby. I’m a knitter, and I’ve learned the hard way that not everyone values handmade socks made from (expensive) wool the way I do.

Be extra cautious about regifting or donated handmade items that were made with care and quality materials. That’s also true of rare or antique items that might have both sentimental and monetary value. This type of gift might not be your cup of tea–especially if it’s a literal antique teacup–but the kind of people who give this stuff are even more likely to be upset if you don’t like it.

Sometimes, your best and only option is to accept the gift with enthusiasm and then put it in storage until one of you dies. If it’s wearable, then wear it the next time you see them. If it’s something for your home, bring it out of storage the next time (or three) that they visit.

Of course, this increases the risk of getting similar gifts in the future. If you want to dodge that obstacle, then set those “no gifts, please” boundaries in advance for next year.

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