I used to be famous for my annual birthday party, what I dubbed the Post-Holiday Regift Yankee Swap Extravaganza. I piled the dining room table high with pigs-in-blankets, deviled eggs and, after my friends started having children, applesauce in pouches. I invited guests to rescue unwanted gifts from around their homes, wrap them, and bring them to the party.
Most of the presents were funny and a little odd: a toilet paper holder shaped like a Christmas tree or an ugly kitchen clock. My brother once brought a supermarket birthday cake from a party he had hosted the weekend before. (They blew out the candles but never got around to cutting it). Other times people brought gifts that didn’t get any use, like a George Foreman Grill or a portable work light for a garage or workshop.
After some snacks and socializing, we started the main event. During a Yankee Swap (the Northeasterner’s White Elephant), each player is given a number and selects a gift in that order. A player can keep the gift she opens, or swap it for one that has already been opened. The rules of the game vary from party to party, but at my house the swapping was brutal. Guests developed techniques to subtly hide the best items so that other players would forget about them.
An eerie pattern emerged at nearly every party. Forsaken gifts seemed to travel to their rightful owner. One friend, who lives on a sheep farm, opened a basket filled with small stuffed sheep. Another friend fell in love with a purse that had been collecting dust in someone’s closet. My brother’s cake was meant as a joke (he brought an extra regift for whoever opened it), but my cousin was thrilled to bring it home to her kids.
A few weeks ago my husband and I decided it was finally time to clean out our basement clutter. When we got married, we bought a house and dumped the stored remains of our separate lives down there. A year later we had a baby and the basement became one more house project we didn’t have time for. Yet, I knew from my regifting party that this unwanted stuff could be a source of great happiness. All we had to do was find rightful owners.
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My husband was full of springtime efficiency. “We’re going to clean the basement this week,” he said. “I’m going to drag everything we don’t want outside. On Saturday, I’ve hired two people with a truck to haul away anything that’s left.”
My thrifty New England blood ran cold at the thought of perfectly useable toys, appliances, and clothes being dumped into the landfill. But when I suggested that he try offering our things for free on local websites, he stood firm. “If I have to talk to people and coordinate a bunch of pickup times, I’m going to lose steam,” he said. “But why don’t you see how much you can give away before Saturday.”
He was right. To overcome the inertia of avoidance, we both needed concrete tasks and a timeline. And now I had two of my most effective motivators working for me: a looming deadline and my instinct for thrift. Was I ready to talk to people and coordinate a bunch of pickup times? Yes I was.
I already belonged to a few local Facebook groups that facilitated the exchange of free items between neighbors. I am also a big believer in the “Free Stuff” section of Craigslist, where I once literally gave away a pile of rocks my husband unearthed while digging a hole for a koi pond. Over the course of a few hours, I listened to my favorite podcasts and took pictures of everything I wanted to give away: a pink sparkly “Bride” baseball cap, supplies for a departed pet, a spare base for our infant car seat, and much more. I posted each photograph to a Facebook freebies page, with the name of our neighborhood and a request for “porch pickup.”
The replies came in faster than I could keep up. I used private message to confirm the pickup time and our address. A humidifier, a box of vases, and a toddler bike seat all disappeared from the porch. A hiking backpack and a foam kneepad for gardening went off to their new homes. Most people picked up from the porch without my seeing them, but I had a chance to chat with a couple of them. One helpful neighbor noticed the flurry of activity and offered to drop off toys to a play center where she volunteers. Another neighbor took our gently used stuffed animals to give away for Halloween. As the day went on, grateful strangers sent enthusiastic thank you texts. I was astounded at how happy people were to take home these things that had been driving us crazy.
That same day, I made two donation piles: clean toys for a re-sale shop that supports the local library and a box of maternity clothes for an organization with a nearby bin. I dropped off a carload of donations that very day. As I watched the basement clutter disappear over the course of only a few days, I felt energized to do more. I was thrilled that this dreaded task turned out to be simple to complete and helpful to others.
On Friday morning, my husband dragged up a television that played VHS tapes, some bookshelves, a toddler bed, and other remaining items. I added a cheerfully urgent “free stuff” Craigslist ad to the last of my Facebook posts. By the next morning, almost everything was gone.
After the truck arrived to haul the very last items away, I took a walk around our newly spacious basement. I hope our neighbors need coffee mugs and serving platters, because I’m already planning another regift extravaganza for later this summer—this time, from our kitchen cabinets and dining room.