What Do You Do with Gifts You Don't Want?

December 28, 2016

There’s no way around it—on some holidays, you may be given a present you didn’t quite want. What do you do with this? How do you diplomatically accept a present from someone and then decide how to dispose of it? Perhaps you were a kid who got clothes for Christmas; maybe you were hit with a truckload of presents you didn’t quite want one holiday. For years, I had my own surfeit of presents from board games to DIY chemistry sets just accumulating in the crevices of my closet.

This problem is a thing of the past for me, personally. But I’ve always felt that, for those of us who have the luxury of getting presents at all, we don’t talk about this pink elephant enough: the churn of holiday gift-giving inevitably leads to the reception of gifts you just don't see yourself using.

My parents and I struggled with this for years. We found the practice of re-gifting—that is, repurposing our unwanted gifts and handing them out to others at a later date—karmically unsound. I’ve spoken to others outside my family who see nothing wrong with this; to them, it's utilitarian. My family's proposed solution, which gave us peace of mind, was to give gifts to local churches.

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I know there are many more options, and perhaps you’re mulling them over right now, in the twilight of the holiday season. So, really, I’d like to know: What do you do with presents you don’t want? Consider my request to speak about this more openly, and to de-stigmatize this cultural silence. What’s the best way of getting rid of these gifts that doesn’t completely pervert the spirit of giving—or, to put it another way, a method that preserves that spirit?

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


Amy P. January 2, 2017
I tend to accept it and express gratitude, then quietly donate it after a little while if I'm confident it won't be noticed by the giver (so close friends/family I'd probably wait; more distant people I'd donate it immediately). My parents are very upfront about wanting to know if they can exchange anything for us, so occasionally that happens. In my husband's family I'm afraid we were a little rude at first because his mom kept insisting on buying us very expensive gifts, some of which we had no use for! I'd say about half of them we asked her to return; we couldn't in good conscience allow her to waste her money like that, although in retrospect maybe we should've tried to keep a few more of them at least for a little while so we didn't appear so ungrateful.

With gifts given to my kids - if it seems like an inappropriate gift (not rude, just not fitting for the kid), and if they don't notice, I try to slip it away in its original packaging to regift. My daughter is five and she still hasn't realized that some of the gifts she gives at parties were originally given to her, which helps me justify taking those gifts away from her (clearly she didn't care for them!) Apparently at kids parties these days the kids often don't even open the gifts until after the guests go home, taking away the opportunity for kids to learn to politely express gratitude and generosity in a social environment. I get that the parents are probably trying to avoid embarrassing moments, but it's much easier to suffer through them at age 3 or 4 than later on. My daughter was crushed the first few times this happened, as she had excitedly helped choose a gift and wrap and embellish it herself.
Sauertea December 31, 2016
I re gift or donate. My immediate family and I make suggestions to each other about possible gift options. I also consider who gave the gift, Most people give with a pure heart and even if it isn't quite what I would like, I appreciate the generosity of the giver and pass it on.
BellaBee December 31, 2016
My mother in law mailed back to me a trilogy I gifted to her. In the enclosed card she told me she didn't care for that kind of literature. It would have been vastly preferable for her to donate the books or to give them to someone instead of send them back as she did. I was hurt and embarrassed that I had sent her a gift she truly despised. I will no longer send her gifts.
Amy P. January 2, 2017
I'm sorry; that sounds painful! It's one thing for her to admit that the literature wasn't her favourite and that she gave it away; but to pay for mailing it back and informing you unasked that she didn't like it is pretty harsh! I hope you're able to make peace with the situation on your end and find a way to move past the hurt so your relationship isn't sour forever, although I agree that I probably wouldn't send her gifts anymore either. Not out of bitterness, but practicality.
BerryBaby December 29, 2016
I donate them to the Cancer Foundation resell store. They really appreciate the new, unused items.
Jana D. December 29, 2016
I am part of a Buy Nothing group. Things that we won't use are posted there and people who can genuinely use them ask to receive them. It is great because I know the gifts are going somewhere that they are already appreciated. Food gifts are always immediately register at parties because we have food allergies in our household. People understand that, once we remind them, and seem to be ok with the immediate regifting.
foofaraw December 28, 2016
Definitely regift (not the one you have tried/opened) to people from different circle of friend/family that you think would be a great fit.

I don't mind getting regifted gift even if I know it. The only thing I hate is getting a used gift, excluding vintage and antiques. Vintage or antiques have good reason to have used status, but not a new-ish items. We one time get a used wine picnic basket that still has watermarks from water condensation (ugh!). If you want to give/get rid of a "usable" used-gift, best not giving it as a gift - at least that is my own rules.
E December 28, 2016
This hasn't happened in years but if the presents are from my parents, I tell them (kindly), and either have them exchange it for something else, or ask them if they would rather have it back.

For all other gifts that I haven't wanted... if it was a treat food item, I share with co-workers and friends, or if it is a food item that can be donated to a food pantry or food kitchen, I've done that in the past too. One of my very best friends bakes a ton for her gift to loved ones, for example, and I can't eat all of it. So I share the wealth.

If it is an item from my immediate friends and loved ones... I keep it around if I know there is sentiment attached to it. But thankfully, haven't been in a situation where I was gifted something from immediate loved ones that I did not want.

If it is a material item from anyone other than close friends and immediate loved ones (so think secondary and tertiary people in my life), I donate it or ask my close loved ones if they'd like to have it. That might sound crappy, but I am not big into keeping things I won't use, esp in a small NYC apartment, so if someone else could get joy from it, sure - I hand it off. Last time this happened, I received a slew of high end make up, but as someone who doesn't use most cosmetics... asked my mom and girl friends if they wanted the stuff instead. They practically tore the stuff from my hands lol.

I haven't and won't tell the people who have given me these unwanted items that I don't want them barring my parents. It seems unnecessarily awkward, and asking for hurt feelings. But like the other commentators, I can't just hold onto items just because they're gifts if I won't use them. No space in my apt, and there's always someone else who will appreciate it.
HalfPint December 28, 2016
I hang on to the gift until I find someone who would appreciate it more than I do. A cousin gave me a water fountain/fog machine (that lit up) as a wedding present. I ignored my highly incensed mother's advice to re-gift t to this cousin's daughter when she gets married. Eventually, I gave it to a coworker who liked it because she was setting up a meditation/crystal room and the water fountain would really fit into the whole theme of the room.

With edible gifts, I bring to the office and it's gone by lunch time. The office break room is the best place to offload any food that you cannot finish or don't want around. There's always someone who likes it. Even if it's the stale gingerbread house that the kids made weeks ago.

I don't find it necessary to tell anyone that I don't like the gift because that's just all sorts of awkwardness and karma will bite you in the a-- some time in the future.
ktr December 28, 2016
If I know someone who would truly appreciate the gift, I have no problem giving it to them. Otherwise, I either donate it, or if it is from certain family members that I know wouldn't be insulted, I tell them I appreciate the gift but it just isn't my style and then return it. I can't see holding onto something that I won't use and don't appreciate when someone else could get some use out of it.