How to avoid giving unwanted gifts.

Tips to make your gift giving more valuable.

written by fiona

A group of friends gather at a restaurant to celebrate a birthday. A woman stands to show the gift she has just opened — a watch.

published on June 28, 2021

According to this 2019 survey 61% of Americans admit to getting at least one unwanted gift over the Christmas holidays. That’s roughly 154 million American adults who were faced with an uncomfortable decision. In this particular survey one third said they decided to re-gift and one third said they decided to keep it. In either case it’s not hard to imagine there being feelings of guilt, discomfort, frustration, or even sadness (don’t they know me better?!) — we’ve all been there. This is unfortunate because these gestures were intended to create good feelings. Even worse, 4% of the respondents admitted to throwing the gift away. That’s 6,160,000 things that went directly into the trash.

Unwanted gifts don’t just make for hurt human feelings, they’re an unnecessary burden on a planet already deeply in crisis. Let’s not forget this survey was just for one year and one holiday in one country (albeit a big consumer-y one). We have Christmases, birthdays, Valentines and many other gift-based occasions every year, all over the place! The collective angst and needless waste is distressing to think about.

“Unless the giftee is explicit and specific about what they’d like, they’re going to get what their friends and family think they’d like.”

Some are opting for no-gift holidays, preferring to give when it feels natural instead of being prompted by a calendar date. I support this, and my family have been doing no-gift Christmas for a few years now (occasionally with a sibling or two slipping from the ranks and creating confusion). With birthdays though, we’re still caught in a gifting web. This actually just happened with my brother, so the way it plays out is still fresh in my mind. A few weeks in advance we ask in our family chat if “you want anything special for your birthday this year?”. He says he’ll think about it, but doesn't circle back (probably because he couldn’t think of anything). This prompts a frantic brainstorm in a backchannel chat. We shoot suggestions back and forth, my other brother suggests a Nespresso Coffee maker because he really likes his. I suggest sustainably produced leisure wear because they look really comfy and basic but also, if I’m being honest, that idea was more aligned with my own personal values.

Unless the giftee is explicit and specific about what they’d like, they’re going to get what their friends and family think they’d like. We’re not mind readers and most people don’t broadcast every personal preference. That means the overlap of what someone likes and what we think they like can be small, especially if they don’t live with us. This only gets trickier as the recipient gets older. Not only do they have the resources to buy their own stuff, but they also get more particular about the things they like. If there are no obvious “things” to get — as was the case with my brother — we fall back on the stuff we’d like. Which I suppose would be ok if we could ensure no hurt feelings when they decide to return it or fail to make use of it. But how could our feelings not be a little hurt if we got them something we like — it’s like they’re rejecting a part of us! And hurt feelings are only part of the problem (arguably the less important part). How can we give better and reduce the environmental impact of our giving?

“Spend some time together doing something they enjoy or just sit together doing nothing at all — your presence is the best present.”

For those of us still entangled in sticky gifting webs, there are some things to consider that might help reduce the chances of our gifts missing the mark. I’ve broken these out into "stuff" and "not stuff" categories. In my opinion, the not stuff gestures are vastly underrated — they’re often way better for the planet and more meaningful to the recipient.

Stuff

  • Before making any assumptions, do a little bit of research (public social snooping) — look at the accounts they follow on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok. Make note of the things they’ve pinned on Pinterest, re-tweeted, or shared in their stories.
  • If you can work it into conversation, talk with them about their goals (personal and professional). What do they want to do, learn, or experience this year? Is there something you can get that would support them in these endeavours? What do they enjoy talking about? Knowing what’s important to them can help guide your decision making. For example, if they care deeply about the environment you should probably avoid getting them anything that creates unnecessary waste.
  • When in doubt, find a small business or farmer’s market in their area and get them something nourishing, like a box of fresh groceries or a homemade lasagna. If you like cooking, consider inviting them over to your place and making them a meal, or deliver the food to them! Everybody needs to eat and it’s such a treat not to think about food for a night. If there’s an option to eat outdoors, picnics are also great.
  • Consider the “stuff” that you’ve held on to throughout your life, and what gives it special meaning to you — could you create something like that for them?

“A Fondfolio is both stuff and not stuff. It’s a unique artifact aesthetically, but what makes it meaningful are the intangibles — the memories preserved, the words shared and love expressed.”

Not stuff

  • Are you handy or tech savvy? Maybe there’s something you can help them cross off their To Do List that’s been lingering at the bottom — what a relief that would be!
  • Does this person have a cause that’s close to their heart? Consider donating to a charity in their honour.
  • Write them a letter and mail it. This sounds simple and old-timey, but think for a moment about the last time you received something in the mail that wasn’t a bill/bank statement or junk? The novelty of it alone would surprise and delight them. And even if all you write about is your day it’ll still be meaningful because it’s a tangible reminder that you took a few moments recently to think of them.
  • Similarly, you could get them a nice card and focus on writing them a thoughtful message. That’s almost guaranteed to be more meaningful than any of the stuff it accompanies.
  • Consider what actually matters to most people: other people! Research shows that it’s our good relationships that sustain us through life. Is there something you can do to give them more time with the people they love — maybe offer to babysit for a night, or help them clean or weed the garden?
  • Do they have a favourite movie or activity? Spend some time together doing something they enjoy or just sit together doing nothing at all — your presence is the best present.

Fondfolio falls under both stuff and not stuff. It’s a unique artifact aesthetically, but what makes it meaningful are the intangibles — the memories preserved, the words shared and love expressed. It’s a gift that can only be for and about the person (or people) it’s being given to and that’s why it feels so special to receive. Also, unlike most other gifts, the feelings of joy aren’t limited to the recipient — the giver and everyone who contributes will experience some of that energy — like giving a stranger a compliment, but better!

Some might find it ironic that as the co-founder of a gift-giving business I’m advocating for giving less. But I’m not against gift-giving, I just think it could be more thoughtful and meaningful.


This year I plan on releasing my friends and family from my own birthday gifting web by asking that instead of gifts, donations be made to the Rainforest Flying Squad 🌳✊💚.

written by fiona

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