Gifts

How to (Politely) Deal With Unwanted Gifts

In a small space, even the most well-meaning gifts can add to clutter

December 13, 2021
Photo by Whitney Leigh Morris

No Space Too Small is a brand new column by Laura Fenton that celebrates the idea that you can live well in a small home. Each month, Laura will share her practical findings from years of observing how people live in tight spaces, and her own everyday experiences of living small—from the hunt for the perfect tiny desk and managing everyday clutter to how to smooth the frustrations out of cooking in a galley kitchen.


I love the holidays, I really do, but as someone who lives in a small and, ahem, full apartment, gift-giving and -receiving can be fraught. Well-meant gifts can quickly clutter up a small home, but forgoing gift-giving altogether feels unnatural: I’ll confess that when a family member says “No gifts, please,” I find it hard to oblige—even if they, too, are pressed for space.

Over the years, my family has experimented with different gift-giving strategies, including no gifts, just one gift, and dollar-amount limits, to try to stem the tide of consumerism. However, we still haven’t perfected the art of minimal gift-giving. (I’m not alone in my anxiety about how to manage the onslaught of the holiday season. Blogger Alison Mazurek even went so far as to write a template for a letter to family members asking for no gifts!) So, I called on a few of my fellow small-space experts, including Whitney Leigh Morris, the author of Small Space Style and the blog Tiny Canal Cottage whose adorable cottage is shown above, and asked for their advice: How can I give gifts that won’t eventually feel like excess in a small home? How do you (politely) deal with unwanted gifts? Their answers will help us all navigate the season with a smile.

Make it an experience

The mantra to “give experiences not things” is minimalist gospel. Museum or garden memberships, class vouchers, or restaurant gift certificates indeed make wonderful gifts, but I will confess that I feel that experience gifts sometimes lack the joy of opening up a bright shiny present-especially for kids. Melanie Gnau, author of the blog A Small Life, suggests giving a small consumable gift to represent the experience. “For the movie tickets, you could wrap a bag of popcorn, and with arboretum tickets, you could give flowers or a small potted plant,” she suggests.

Give consumables

Melissa Breyer, the editorial director at Treehugger.com and a mom of two, says her favorite kinds of gifts to give are ones that will disappear, like special foods, interesting ingredients, and soaps. “With things that are consumable, there is no storage problem,” she says. Better still if it’s something you’ve made or that comes from a maker in your local community.

Think multipurpose; not niche

Breyer warns to steer clear of anything that serves a single purpose, and instead give multi-purpose gifts that are designed to last a lifetime. She notes that this is especially true of gifts for cooks: Instead of a mango slicer or an egg slicer, give a really high quality paring knife that they can use for all kinds of tasks. “This is great because you can have less stuff to store, and better practice to be consuming fewer items,” she says.

Make books your go-to

Ask for books if you live in a small space, and give them to other friends short on space. Even in the tiniest homes, there’s almost always room for another book. Plus, as Whitney Leigh Morris, the author of Small Space Style and the blog Tiny Canal Cottage points out: Books are one of the easiest things to donate or pass on once you are done with them.

Upcycle your wrapping

Morris hasn’t bought gift wrap in years (and as a result does not have to store any gift wrapping supplies!). “Even though we live in a small space and don’t have many spare supplies sitting around, it’s still surprisingly easy to shop our own home for items that can be repurposed as playful packaging,” she says. She often uses children’s book jackets for wrapping and saves bits of ribbon, muslin bags, and fabric scraps to use as gift wrap. Personally, I love cutting up a brown paper bag to use as wrapping paper.

Regift gracefully

“Regifting is taboo, but it shouldn’t be,” says Breyer. “I’d love to normalize secondhand gifts.” She’s a big fan of the practice because it is a win-win: You clear out some space in your home and you delight a friend with something she will use. My mother often gives me and my sister preloved gifts from her own home and they are truly among my favorite possessions, including the mug I drink out of each morning and favorite pieces of jewelry.

Appeal to their eco-side

If your family has a hard time hearing “no, thank you,” try appealing to the do-gooders in them. “We gently tell our friends and family that the absolute best gift they can give to our son is an inhabitable planet for his generation and those that follow, and that giving him stuff doesn’t help him in the long run,” says Morris.

Make exceptions for joy

While I prefer gifts that can fit in a shoebox or smaller, I am not a total scrooge. When my son repeatedly expressed a fierce desire for a very large stuffed tiger, I gave his grandma the okay to buy it. The stuffed tiger is as big as my kid and frankly, a ridiculous addition to our small apartment, but it has brought outsized joy into our home. My son’s love for this giant toy far outweighs the extra space it is taking up.

Accept gifts graciously

If someone does give you something you don’t have room for: Don’t refuse it! This will only result in hurt feelings and a returns hassle for the giver. Instead, graciously accept the gift, write the "thank you" note, and then make a plan to pass it on to someone who can make good use of the item.

Donate what you don’t need

When you receive items this year that you know you won’t use, pass them on without guilt, says Morris. “I look at it this way: If someone circles back and asks me to reveal the whereabouts of a present they once gave us, that relationship is probably one that needs some reconsidering or deep work,” she says. Plus, as Morris notes, there are so many people and organizations in need. If you tell your mom you gave that breadmaker to the local soup kitchen or the large ride-on toy to the church daycare, she’s unlikely to feel badly.

Finally, consider ditching the gifts altogether

A few years ago, Gnau had what she says was a very honest conversation with close family members. “I told them that I'd prefer we didn't exchange gifts. In my family, gift-giving falls to me and it was stressful, I didn't enjoy it and honestly I had everything I needed,” she says. To her delight, many of her family and friends understood. “The holidays are much less stressful now. I give and receive less gifts and I can focus more on spending time with my loved ones, which is what the holiday is truly about.”


Shop small and local

Supporting your neighborhood businesses goes hand-in-hand with clutter-free gifting. Some of my favorite gifts to both give and receive come from local shops and businesses. Here are ten ideas to get you thinking:

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Also Buy Nothing Groups or FreeCycle is a great way to get what you don’t want into the hands of someone who does want it. Traditional donating sites are inundated with stuff especially after a popular organizing show has new episodes on Netflix. So much so, that they throw things away; there is a really popular dumpster diver who shows that traditional donation places throw things away, sometimes brand new things. Also clothes are creating clothe deserts in pillaged nations, we need to be mindful of the “I’ll just donate it” mindset. We have a religious and cultural tradition to gift money for one of our two religious holidays, I think I am going to continue that tradition with my family. Also during a ceremony for a newborn, the parents gently asked for no gifts and asked that people donate to one of their favorite charities in their new daughter’s name-what an awesome thing to do, will copy it if we ever throw a party for our own kids.”
— Fatima I.
Comment

​​- Museum membership
- Coffee beans from your local roaster
- CHOCOLATES!
- Potted plant
- Delicious dessert—and if it’s homemade, the recipe to make it
- Gift certificate to a specialty food store
- Beautiful basket of interesting citrus fruits
- Subscription to the local newspaper or magazine
- A class: yoga, surfing, flower arranging!
- Spa treatment

What's your strategy for curbing unwanted gifts? Share 'em with us in the comments below.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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    Medora Van Denburgh
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Laura Fenton

Written by: Laura Fenton

Laura Fenton is the No Space Too Small columnist at Food52. The author of The Little Book of Living Small, she covers home, design, and sustainability. Laura lives in Jackson Heights, Queens in a 690-square foot apartment with her husband and son. You can follow her on Instagram @laura.alice.fenton.

2 Comments

Medora V. December 27, 2021
I'm with Fatima, though I had to be dragged kicking and screaming. Year after year I have sent a sumptuous food gift to my sister-in-law; year after year she has said, "You don't need to give me anything." This year (after I had already ordered the delectable snack basket), she said, "Give to your favorite charity instead." I got the message. In the future, she and I (and the animals) will be better off. Earlier today I read about a large family who had agreed that only the children would receive gifts; the adults give one another boxes of crumpled paper and have an uproarious paper fight. I'm not quite there yet but am inching my way in that direction.
 
Fatima I. December 27, 2021
Also Buy Nothing Groups or FreeCycle is a great way to get what you don’t want into the hands of someone who does want it. Traditional donating sites are inundated with stuff especially after a popular organizing show has new episodes on Netflix. So much so, that they throw things away; there is a really popular dumpster diver who shows that traditional donation places throw things away, sometimes brand new things. Also clothes are creating clothe deserts in pillaged nations, we need to be mindful of the “I’ll just donate it” mindset. We have a religious and cultural tradition to gift money for one of our two religious holidays, I think I am going to continue that tradition with my family. Also during a ceremony for a newborn, the parents gently asked for no gifts and asked that people donate to one of their favorite charities in their new daughter’s name-what an awesome thing to do, will copy it if we ever throw a party for our own kids.