personal finance

How to Tell People You Don’t Want Gifts

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Every holiday season, I get the itch to declutter. Last Christmas, I off-loaded all the weird booze we’d accumulated from house parties over the years (good-bye, dusty bottle of pumpkin cream liqueur), found a home for the Crockpot we never used, and donated a bunch of baby things that my son had outgrown. In the past few days, I gave away a bag of clothes I forgot I owned, shipped off more baby things, and slid a pair of stinky old shoes down the garbage chute.

“Are you moving?” a neighbor asked after I offered him a barely used cat water fountain (don’t ask). “No,” I responded. “We just have WAY TOO MUCH STUFF.”

You can imagine my ire, then, when a delivery of Christmas presents arrived yesterday from a relative who shall go unnamed. I wasn’t just annoyed; I was borderline offended. Where would I put this crap?! I also resented the obligation to research, buy, and foist gifts upon this relative’s family in exchange for the ones they’d imposed on mine. I could feel the objects sucking my time and energy through their wrapping paper.

This relative had good intentions, and I know I sound ungrateful. But I also know I’m not alone in feeling that the best gift I can imagine is an elf (or, more realistically, a professional organizer) who will disappear half the contents of my home. In lieu of that, however, I’m happy to settle for the next-best option: nothing. No new items to shove into cupboards or figure out where to donate; no boxes to haul up to my apartment, open, empty, break down, and take out again. We’re so lucky to have everything that we need, and I want to appreciate that instead of feeling like a one-woman army fending off an invasion of more tea towels or scented candles or whatever else pops up when you Google “gifts for a busy mom.”

“I think a lot of people would be open to a conversation about de-escalating material gift-giving,” says Megan McCoy, a licensed therapist and professor of personal financial planning at Kansas State University. “They’re just not sure how to bring it up.”

Moreover, many people (including me, in specific instances) love giving and receiving presents. They treasure the hunt for the perfect thing, the ritual of anticipation, the elusive “surprise and delight” factor. So how do you graciously say that you’d prefer to be left off their gift list? Below, a guide to broaching the topic.

1. Focus on what you do want, not what you don’t.

“There’s never been a better moment to suggest an alternative to the way you give gifts,” says Tanja Hester, the author of Wallet Activism, a book about aligning your finances with the people and causes you care about. “The fewer things you’re buying, the less you’re exposed to inflation, stressing your finances, contributing to global warming, and so on.”

But maybe don’t lead with those reasons — it can come across as a little self-righteous. First, give concrete examples of what you’d appreciate (or want to give) instead of material things. For instance, this year I asked for online cooking classes from Julia Turshen; McCoy recommends offering to cook someone a meal or plan an activity that you’ll both enjoy. Hester suggests making a registry at So Kind, a platform specifically geared toward nonmaterial gifts like charitable donations, experiences, and “presents of time and skill.”

2. Don’t overexplain.

“When people anticipate a potentially awkward conversation, they often feel defensive even before it starts, and that doesn’t allow for discussion,” says McCoy. “You’re not a lawyer stating your case. Try to be curious. Express what you want — like, ‘It would mean a lot to me if I could make you a nice dinner instead of giving you a present this year. What do you think?’ — and then stop and see how the other person reacts.”

There’s a good chance they’re in the same boat and will be thrilled to accept your offer and do something similar in return. Or, if they seem confused or affronted, you can share your reasoning (“I’ve just been so overwhelmed by all the clutter in our apartment and I figured you might feel the same way,” blah blah). The best way to avoid conflict is to stay open.

3. Be as direct as possible, but also be flexible.

A few years ago, my sister-in-law asked, “How do you feel about not doing Christmas gifts? I don’t need more stuff in my life, and I’m guessing you don’t either.” It was great! Now we just exchange cards and call it a day.

But if your “no gifts” policy isn’t met with enthusiasm, consider it an ongoing experiment. “Maybe your loved one has already bought you a gift, so it’s too late,” says McCoy. “If that’s the case, you’ve sowed the seeds for fewer gifts next year.” You could also brainstorm other ways to buck tradition, like proposing a family-wide Secret Santa. “There are so many creative ways to scale back on the gift-giving arms race,” says Hester. Ultimately, you know your loved ones best, so use your best judgment in approaching them — and compromising when you need to.

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How to Tell People You Don’t Want Gifts