How to (politely) avoid getting unwanted gifts

Getting gifts you don't want or need is a disappointment for the giver and the receiver. Here's how to delicately send a hint.
Young girl running with large gift at Christmas
Want to avoid gifts you don't need or want? Use a gift registry like Amazon Wish List. David Trood / Getty Images
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By Kim Fitzsimons

Even if it’s better to give than receive, getting a holiday gift you like is always a nice surprise. Or maybe it’s not a surprise if the giver has asked what you wanted and has actually gone and gotten it (maybe because you sent a link to the specific item), but it’s nice all the same.

Not as nice are the gifts you don’t want or need. Gifts you’ll never wear or use, never eat or drink, and never, ever display in your home or office. These are the gifts you exchange, if possible, or sell, donate, swap, regift, or just throw in the trash.

Although some gifts should be trashed, like the seven-year-old box of cookies my aunt gave me one Christmas, most unwanted gifts aren’t as guiltlessly ditched. Nor should they be. This is especially true when it’s obvious that the giver has spent a fair amount of time and/or money procuring it, and clearly anticipates your delighted response.

So how do you prevent this, as politely as possible?

Suggest alternatives

If your ultimate goal is to avoid wasting resources (which ideally it should be) as opposed to scoring something better for yourself, one strategy is to suggest alternatives to the traditional physical gift. If possible, this should be before the giver has started shopping says Elaine Swann, lifestyle and etiquette expert and founder of the Swann School of Protocol.

“If you have an individual in your life who is a habitually bad gift giver, you can say, ‘Let’s do something different this year … why don’t we do this instead? Why don’t we give to a charity?’ You can also find things that you both really like to do, and give toward that for one another,” she said. Examples of these types of gifts include movie and event tickets, music lessons, cooking classes, etc.

Ask for the gift of presence

Another approach is to tell the giver you’d prefer the gift of his or her presence, says author and consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow. “The conversation might be to suggest we all have enough and so let’s just exchange warm wishes, a chat, or some other type of connection,” she said. “Alternatively, start a fundraiser and ask people who would normally give you silly or unwanted gifts if they would consider donating to your fundraiser instead.”

All of the above, of course, depends upon the individual and circumstances. If the clueless gift giver is someone close, who really does want to give you something you’d like, you can probably skip these kinds of discussions (unless you actually don’t want anything) and just ask for what you want. That cozy Batman snuggie, for instance, or an elegant afternoon tea hamper for snacking on the go.

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Say nothing

In other instances, it’s best to avoid requests or suggestions altogether, says Swann. This is particularly applicable to those who like to give handmade gifts or are on fixed incomes, or both. The same can apply to older relatives she said. “This could be someone from another generation who sees value in giving certain types of gifts each year, like hats and mittens and scarves.”

Suggestions and requests are also best avoided in certain other circumstances, like when you’re dealing with a not-so-nice giver. These are the folks who’ve previously used gift giving occasions to make a statement (usually not positive), via intentionally bad gifts (e.g., a self-help book, weight loss equipment, or a Cardinals hat for a Cubs fan). In this case, the less said the better.

Suggest a consumable

In yet other scenarios, when you’ve got a friend or relative who loves to shop, and who can’t resist a good deal, suggesting anything specific (if asked) can be a crapshoot. You never know what will come of it. Generally, what this person believes will spark joy isn’t a modest but useful gift, but whatever’s on sale. In this case, you could potentially get something you’d like or need, but if your request is considered too expensive — like that $25 pair of hiking socks you’ve been yearning for — you’re probably out of luck. What you’ll likely get instead from this bargain-conscious individual is $25 worth of something else, like crew socks.

What could work here is to suggest a consumable gift, since saying you don’t want anything probably wouldn’t work. This type of gift can consist of things like wine, artisan teas, chocolates, dried fruits, or condiment sets, which are less likely to go to waste. Even if you don’t personally consume these, you can always serve them to family and friends.

“Food is obviously one thing that always comes to mind,” agrees Chantal Boxer, co-owner of the Boston-based Fini Concierge, which offers, among other things, holiday gift giving services. “There are so many wonderful gift baskets out there, and we especially like to encourage gifting from local vendors that provide unique or regionally sourced food and beverage options, which comes with the added benefit of supporting your local community."

Recommend a registry or regift

Boxer also recommends using a gift registry, like Giftster, CheckedTwice or Amazon’s Wish List, to provide specific suggestions. This not only lists things that you and your family truly want or need, but can also reduce stress for those trying to come up with ideas, she said.

An additional strategy, which could apply to almost any potential gift giver, is to request a regift or used item, to reduce one’s carbon footprint. This, an increasingly popular option among millennials and Gen Z, could be something the giver has received and no longer wants or needs, or something purchased from a flea market, yard sale, or thrift store, or site like thredUP, Sell and Tradesy.

This accomplishes several things. It reduces waste, usually costs less, and can result in some interesting gifts. If it’s a regift, it can also free up space in the giver’s closet.

Say thanks

In the end, though, regardless of what we receive, it’s helpful to keep in mind that it’s only a gift. Usually, anyway. And while it may miss the mark, there’s really only one way to respond. Smile and say thanks. You shouldn’t have.

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