Our etiquette expert explains how to gracefully handle the awkwardness of receiving (and giving away) an unwanted gift.

By Catherine Newman
Updated May 23, 2016
What to Do With Gifts You Don't Want
Credit: Walker and Walker/Getty Images

Ten years ago, a family friend built us a beautiful bookcase as a wedding gift. We have used it and moved it across the country twice. A third cross-country move is coming up. We don’t want to move it again. It’s huge, heavy, and no longer our taste. We haven’t seen this family friend in a decade. Can we sell the bookcase? Do we have to give another family member the right of refusal? What is our best option? — M. N.

The bookcase has survived a decade and two moves? I would describe that gift as an unqualified success. It was a lovely thing for your friend to build the piece for you, and it’s wonderful that you got so much use out of it. Your loyalty is delightful, but you are under no obligation to hang on to an object that no longer serves you. You loved it; you moved it; you’re moving on. If there’s someone you know who might want it, by all means keep it in the family. If you worry that you’ll regret parting with it, see if you can store it in someone’s basement. Otherwise just bid it a fond farewell.

A good friend of mine gave me two large planters for the front of my house. They are nice, they go well with the house, and I have used them for a year. Now the local nursery has for sale a type of planter that I really wanted. They are as perfect as if I had designed them myself! I don't have the space to use all of them in the front. What should I do? Forget the perfect ones and continue to use hers? Use hers on the back deck? I really didn’t want that many planters, but I could do it to spare feelings. And if I go with the others, what do I say when she comes over? — P. K.

I can’t help it. I am a little bit in love with you for being so excited about those planters. Please, get them right away! And as for your friend, how lovely that she gave you a gift you enjoyed and used well! But that doesn’t mean you need to use it forever. Try the planters around back, if you like, and see what you think. If they don’t work out there, give them away. No need to mention it to your friend. A gift is not a contract with permanence, and you aren’t obligated to account for the change. If she says anything—or if you see her conspicuously noting her gift’s absence—you can explain how happy you were to have those planters (the gateway planters!) and how lucky you feel to be known so well by her.

My boyfriend and I recently marked our one-year anniversary. To acknowledge this milestone, he had a dozen roses, balloons, and a new watch delivered to my office. I was so surprised and appreciative. But after I opened the box that contained the watch, I knew it was not something I would ever wear. I called him and thanked him for the gifts. I also hinted that the watch was too heavy, hoping he would say, "Do you like it? Because if you don't..." But that exchange didn't happen. So now I'm confused. I would love to wear an anniversary watch from him, just not this one. What should I say? — H.R.

Don't worry! It sounds as though you've done and said all the right things so far—from acknowledging your sweetheart's wonderfully generous impulse to mentioning the slight problem with the watch. "I'm so grateful for this gesture," you could tell him. "And I would love to wear an anniversary watch from you. But—I'm so sorry to say this!—I'm just not sure it's this watch, which is a little heavy for me."

Suggest that he return the watch and that the two of you pick out a new one together. That way, he'll still be intimately involved in the gift selection, and he'll learn more about your style in the process. Another option would be to keep the watch on your dresser or desk, as a token of your boyfriend's affection, if not a useful accessory. But in the end, if you do wear the watch, be prepared to deal with other gifts like it down the road.

My future sister-in-law mailed me a small handbag as a gift. It had obviously been used (it was filled with dust and cat hair!). I don't want to hurt her feelings, but I would like her to realize that she needs to be more careful about regifting items. — Name withheld by request

Your soon-to-be sister-in-law is a new arrival on the family scene, and you don't want to create a situation that will make her resent you at the next 20 Thanksgiving dinners (not to mention her upcoming wedding). For now, it might be best not to say anything. But going forward, if regifting damaged or soiled items becomes a habit of hers, you should point out her error. Say something like "It's great that you're trying to be thrifty and green by regifting, but you need to make sure the present is in good condition." Trust me: You'll be doing her a favor. My guess is that many of her other relations and friends would be less forgiving recipients of such a gift.

When I moved into my new house, my mother made me a set of drapes. I really appreciate the work she put in, but the fabric is an ugly pattern in colors I hate. How do I let her know that I want to replace them without seeming like an ungrateful daughter? — L.F.

If I were you, I would be tempted to remove the beastly drapes, then put them back up every time my mother came over—even though an unannounced visit would turn my life into an I Love Lucy–style disaster. And even though it would be dishonest. That said, telling your mother the truth feels harsh. If there's a little-used room in your house, hang the drapes there and point out how perfectly they work in the space. Otherwise, explain to your mother that you're taking your decorating in a different direction. Say, "You put so much work into these curtains, and I'm so grateful, but I'm shifting things around in the house, and I don't think they're going to work anymore." See if she has any use for them herself—or suggest you hold on to them in case they work again at a later date. And who knows? With the way tastes and fashions change, they just might.

I have an aunt who saved all of her children's clothing, and now she's giving it to me. I'm perfectly fine with my children wearing used things, but these clothes are decades outdated, stained, and sized for the wrong seasons. I understand that she has a strong sentimental attachment to these items, but I do not. I've tried telling her that I don't have room to store the clothes, but she still gives me a bin almost every time I see her. How can I stop being her middleman to the thrift store without her thinking that I don't appreciate her generosity? — J.R.

It can be awkward to inherit sentimental objects when you don't share the feelings attached to them. I've been on the receiving end, too. But at least my grandmother's terrible oil paintings fit in my attic. You have a bigger and more immediate problem. Try transparency with your aunt: "I wish we had more room, but we don't, and I simply can't take these clothes you've been so kind to save for us." Temper the rejection, if you like, by inviting her to pick out one or two special things to give you from the lot. Or, if you're feeling generous, volunteer to sit with her and look at old photos of her children wearing the cherished clothes. Sometimes the foisting off of hand-me-downs is just a form of nostalgia, and a walk down memory lane might help satisfy the impulse. "I can't believe my cousins ever fit into these clothes," you can say. "Show me pictures from when they did." And one last thought while we're talking about good deeds: If you can bear to, consider simply continuing to make the thrift-store runs and allowing your aunt to imagine that her children's precious things are being put to good use. Which they surely will be, even though it's not by you.

A certain family member likes to give things that she clearly received for free. (Light-up Lipitor pen, anyone?) It has become quite offensive. Is there anything we can do? — K.E.

I'm sorry. I know this is a real issue, but I can't stop laughing at the image of unwrapping a light-up Lipitor pen and feigning excitement. ("This is just what I wanted!") I'm aware that regifting of all kinds is a serious and rampant epidemic. And people who are prone to it—because of either financial restraints, laziness, or genetic predisposition—are unlikely to give it up. For the recipient, there's always that sting of "Ouch! You couldn't buy me a real gift?" along with the icky element of being part of an elaborate theater of deception. She's pretending to have bought you something; you're pretending to believe her. I say, if you're going to commit the act of regifting, just be honest and say, "OK, I got this as a present, and it's wonderful, but I'm never going to use it and thought you would love it." Then everyone feels a little less slimed. But as the recipient, no matter what useless piece of junk it is, your job is to accept it graciously. The truth is, a gift is just that: a gift. So I'd suggest adjusting your expectations along with your own, uh, generosity when planning the regifter's gift in return.

If you exchange a gift, should you tell the person who gave it to you? — Name withheld by request

For my birthday, my wonderful, generous in-laws sent me a number of DVDs from Amazon. The fact that I already owned most of the movies they had chosen didn't take away from the thoughtfulness of the gift. In fact, it proved how well they know me and my taste. I wrote them a thank-you note, praising their choices and saying (OK, fibbing) that I couldn't wait to watch them. I then returned the DVDs to Amazon, thinking that at some point I would pick out a few different films—or books or diapers or face creams or whatever other new, crazy thing you can now buy on that site.

A few days later, I received an e-mail from my father-in-law acknowledging my thank-you note but expressing confusion about an e-mail he had received from Amazon telling him that I had returned the gifts. In other words, not only was I busted for sending back the items but I was also busted for thanking my in-laws for something I had sent back. Yes, I'm officially the most polite liar ever to walk the planet. Knowing that the cover-up is always worse than the crime, I confessed to everything.

While my first reaction was to channel my humiliation at Amazon, upon reflection, I realized that this situation raises a larger issue: Even if you're pretty certain that the gift givers would prefer you to exchange their gift and be happy (as I'm sure my in-laws would have been), is it necessary to communicate such information? And if so, how? There's just something tacky and ungrateful-seeming about picking up the phone to say, "Thanks so much for the slow cooker. I already have one at home!" Or, worse, writing a thank-you note that says, "That scarf you gave me was so beautiful, I went ahead and exchanged it for something else."

But I have another perspective on this predicament. My sister has returned many a present I've given her over the years. And while it used to sting when she told me, I now know not to take it personally, and I actually love getting the call in which she excitedly describes the new earrings she picked out for herself in exchange for the sweater I gave her. So I say that if you're close to the giver, or if she has said something like "The gift receipt is in there—please use it," then by all means take her up on the offer and let her know that you did. As for the rest of the gift-giving population? There's a real chance they might be personally offended, and in those cases, if you must return their gifts, keep that information to yourself.

Luckily, my in-laws were quick to forgive and even started ribbing me about the whole DVD fiasco. So, for me, maybe the moral of this story is to read Amazon's return policy very closely. And always buy my sister a gift certificate.