Modern Etiquette: Gift The Right Gift (And Dealing With the Wrong Ones)

Illustration by Anna Emilia

For the next few weeks, we’re going to be talking about gifts- a lot. This time of year can gross me out a little with all the product talk, but I find it’s helpful to bring things back to the basic sentiment of the season: celebrating the ones you love. To that end, we’re going to spend a lot of time focusing on ways celebrate people without buying things, making things with your own hands and sharing tips from pros that will help you gift more thoughtfully (and cost effectively). But before we start making or thinking about gifts, I think it’s important to think about the actual people we’re celebrating. What makes the best gift for them? I find more often than not, people get stuck on what they would want or what they would want that person to have, rather than considering what means most to that person. I think, at the end of the day, a smaller, more meaningful gift, is way more important to someone than a big showy gift that doesn’t have much meaning for the person receiving it. So the goal of this post is to share tips for gifting thoughtfully and to get us in the right frame of mind to celebrate the people we love in the best way possible (by remembering to celebrate who THEY are what THEY love).

I. A gift is not always required….

A find a lot of people feel pressured into getting everyone gifts (i.e.: all members of a sports team, co-workers in a large office, etc.). That can lead to gift buying (and money spending) that doesn’t necessarily need to happen. A genuine, heartfelt holiday card can go a long way toward serving the same purpose of a gift (celebrating or thanking someone) and can be a much better answer when you don’t know enough about the person you “have” to give a gift to.

II. …But a thank you note is.

If you’ve received a gift from someone, a thank you note is a given. Whether or not you liked the gift- or the recipient- a thank you should be sent. Someone asked me online the other day if they ‘had’ to thank someone for a gift that was given by someone they didn’t like (who possibly didn’t buy the gift with their own money) and it surprised me. Whether or not you love the gift or the giver, a thank you should always be sent for a thoughtful gift. [If you are the unfortunate recipient of some sort of rogue rude gift or gag gift, I don’t think a thank you applies. If someone goes out of their way to be a jerk and send you something that’s crude or inappropriate a thank you isn’t what you need to send- perhaps a letter explaining why it was upsetting would be best.]

III. The most important thing is to REMEMBER THE RECIPIENT

The biggest mistake people make when approaching holiday gifts is to buy what THEY would like, rather than what the recipient would like. Does that mean you have to support causes you’re morally opposed to or companies you don’t like? Of course not. But it does mean that just because you think someone should be dressing a certain way, you buy them clothes that suit your taste. If your brother really loves sports t-shirts, for example, buying him a fancy suit jacket because you think it would look good on him, isn’t the most thoughtful thing to do. If you care about someone enough to get them a gift, consider what they would like. You can put a spin on it that suits your beliefs, etc., but don’t forget the person entirely. For example: If your sister is a huge fan of steak dinners and you’re a vegetarian, you don’t have to put yourself in a position where you are ordering meat from a fancy delivery catalog. Instead you could buy her a nice set of knives (perfect for cutting steak or vegetables!), a gift certificate to her favorite restaurant, a cookbook that includes recipes for her favorite food or even some gourmet spices that would pair well with her meal of choice. And in a reverse example, if your dear friends are vegan but you know nothing about which vegan gift baskets are the best, consider something that would align with their passions, like sponsoring an animal on a no-kill rescue farm, etc. Something like that shows you considered the person and their interests while finding a way to buy something you feel good about.

IV. Gifts should not be tit for tat, period.

I believe VERY strongly that gifts should not be a contest or an obligation. I don’t give gifts in order to receive one in return and would hope people don’t do the same. That said, if there’s a tradition of gift-giving and someone seems to skip you each time, then perhaps it’s time for a conversation about the state of the friendship, etc. But at basic level, gifts should never have to be matched in quantity or cost-point. They should be matched only with genuine celebration of the other person. So if someone surprises you at your door or your desk with a gift, and you don’t have one in return, the most thoughtful thing you can do is to warmly thank them and follow up with a heart-felt thank you note. Nothing makes that situation worse than someone saying, “Oh nooo! I feel so bad, I didn’t get you anything.” That only highlights the gap in gifts, so instead smile and say thank you and how much you appreciate the gift.

I find people often get hung up on price tags. You make someone a homemade batch of cookies (hopefully their favorite kind) and they end up giving you a gift certificate to your favorite restaurant for $200. Guilt sets in and you wonder if you should have spent more, gifted more extravagantly, etc. There are two problems to consider here:

-An expensive gift should not mean the recipient is expected to reciprocate. Sometimes people with larger gift budgets truly enjoy buying luxury items or expensive items for people. If you’re comfortable receiving it and don’t feel pressured to return it, thank them and enjoy the kind item someone purchased for you.

-When giving an expensive gift, consider the recipient. Some people don’t mind- and would love- to get a luxury gift from someone who has the gift budget to provide one. But some people feel as if it’s a flaunting of income or pointing out an economic situation the recipient is unhappy with or wouldn’t like discussed. If you can tell your gift is making someone uncomfortable, consider dialing things back the next year. You don’t need to apologize if your gift was well-intentioned and thoughtful, but if you can tell someone feels uncomfortable or feels the need to save up to reciprocate, consider having a heart-to-heart about the gift and discuss perhaps a type of gift or even a budget cap on gifts (If you’re the recipient, it’s ok to bring this up thoughtfully and express appreciation for the gift but also express discomfort with being given something so extravagant each year. Simply stress the gift that is their friendship and the desire to focus on gifts that are less about the object and perhaps more about spending time together.). When I was in college we agreed, among friends, not to spend more than $25 on gifts for each other. For some people that was a lot and for some, not enough. But it was a number we all worked with and it made everyone feel comfortable and definitely made us all focus on the message of the gift rather than the price point.

V. Belated gifts: sometimes better late than never

I have a family member that always sends gifts wayy after the holidays. I’ve gotten used to it and it doesn’t bother me anymore. I used to take it personally and then realized that it was just the way they functioned and the gifts were always thoughtful, so I was happy to see that the message was still clear, even if a bit delayed.

If you’re late sending gifts, just send a simple “So sorry for the delay!” along with a thoughtful gift or card. It’s better to apologize for something that’s slightly delayed than to not send it and have a conversation about why a gift was never sent in the first place. Better late than never (without reason)….

VI. Double Gifts (The forgotten Christmas babies)

I have two cousins whose birthdays are on Christmas and New Years. Every year they get one present that doubles as both their Christmas and birthday gift. I always feel bad for them and, while it’s of course nice to get a gift at all, I’ve always felt like it should be acknowledged in some way that they have a birthday as well as a holiday to celebrate. If finances are an issue than of course cost-conscious or homemade gifts are always a great idea, but if your objection to buying 2 gifts is more of a principled stance, it’s time to put your grudge aside and allow your loved ones to have both a birthday and holiday gift- just like the rest of us every year.

VII. No shame in your wishlist game

If you have no idea what to buy for someone but it’s a given you’re getting them a gift each year (ie: nieces, nephews, in-laws, etc.), there’s no harm in asking for a wishlist. Especially when it comes to people you don’t have direct contact with often (or children who can be hard to buy for at certain ages), feel free to ask people what they’d like. I did this for years with my cousins when they were young and they didn’t feel like talking to an older cousin like me (oh, teenagers) and if it ensures they’re happy with what they get, there’s no harm. But if it’s for someone you should know well (ie: your spouse, best friend, etc.) consider paying closer attention to the things they talk about rather than requesting a list each year.

VIII. Duplicate gifts + Re-gifting + Exchanges

Sometimes you get the same thing twice- double yay! If you need two blenders, keep them and rejoice. But if you don’t, there’s nothing wrong with returning it. However, you don’t need to tell the gifter than you’re doing that. If you’re keeping one of them, they don’t need to know if that’s the white blender they gave them or Aunt Sheila gave you.

If you want to re-gift something there are two things to consider:

-Is this someone who could possibly know about the original gift? For example, if Grandma Pat gave you a reindeer sweater and you re-gift it to her other granddaughter, she might recognize it. So re-gift outside of the family if you must (or outside of your friend group).

-Is the gift worth re-gifting and is it in great/new condition? If you wouldn’t want the gift you received (I once received a torn-up book that had nothing to do with any of my personal interests and wasn’t a collector’s edition, etc. It was just a busted book about space travel. Random) don’t pawn it off on someone else. Donate it if possible. However, if it’s a perfectly good item you just can’t or don’t want to use, and you know someone else it would be perfect for, feel free to re-gift. The biggest question is always how to handle a missing gift the giver notices being absent from your home. If you’re not ready to answer that question, re-consider the re-gifting.

-Exchanging: Straight-forward exchanges (wrong size, wrong color, etc.) are fairly easy to explain and handle. But exchanging something for a totally different object may bring up a different discussion. I think that if someone includes a gift receipt, that’s a message that says, “Please exchange this if it’s not right, I’d like you to have something you enjoy.” I don’t think you need to say anything about it to the giver unless they comment on it. If someone says, “Oh, is that the sweater I bought you…in blue?” You can say, “Yes! I loved it so much but I prefer blue so I exchanged it for this color instead. Thank you again, I love wearing it!”.

  1. Teresa says:

    I was hoping you could give me some advice. Every year I spend a lot of money on presents for my little cousins. I m 22 and they re 3,8,10, and 12. My aunt in law refuses to get me anything or even appreciate it. I am not looking for anything expensive. Even a $5 gift would do or a thank you. But alas no. She acts like I am supposed to do it, like it s my job or something. I have to get my cousins something because I get my other little cousins gifts. My other aunts and uncles appreciate that I do this to encourage christmas spirit for my little cousins. They acknowledge with a thank you or a $5 coffee gift card or other small presents. It s not about how much money I spent. I willingly save for Christmas all year, but a little appreciation or thank you would be nice.

    it would be unfair to my cousins if I didn t get them anything because their mother doesn t know what appreciation is. I would like some advice on m y situation.

    Also, my aunt once asked her why she didn’t get me anything and told her that she should because I always give her kids presents. Her response was that they were poor. I know that they get checks from the government. Enough for her to spend it buying gold jewelry for herself and hundreds on Coach purses, not to mention her shopping sprees $80 dresses etc… All of which she shows off to us after. She never gets anything for her kids. She takes them to the women centre to ask for donated clothes for them. I know that money isn’t an issue for her. It’s her unwillingness to spend it on anyone not her.

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Hi Teresa

      I’m sorry that’s happening. That’s definitely a frustrating situation if she doesn’t show any appreciation. But I think you hit the nail on the head when you said, “It would be unfair to my cousins if I didn’t get them anything because their mother doesn’t know what appreciation is.”

      If you want to, and can afford to, give your cousins gifts, then I think you should continue out of love for them. But if they’re unappreciative as well, I don’t think there’s an obligation to continue. Gift giving doesn’t have to be tit-for-tat, but people do need to acknowledge and appreciate your gifts. Some of your cousins are too young for that yet perhaps, but as they grow up, if they display the same lack of care and appreciation as their mother, I think you shouldn’t feel pressure to continue.


  2. Sue says:

    My daughter has been dating a man for 9 months now. She is a single mom with children 3 and 6. The mother of her boyfriend gave my daughter a Michael Kors purse and gave her daughters ugg boots. This does not sit well with me. I believe this in my opinion is “over the top” my daughter did take the boots back!! Can I please have some opinions?? Thanks!

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      I’m sorry if those gifts feel over the top for you. My two cents would be- how do the gifts feel for your daughter? It’s possible she found someone who just simply likes to gift generously. If she’s comfortable with it, it may be worth letting her enjoy the gifts and her happiness.


  3. Giovanna Bochi says:

    I gave Christmas presents to my 13 and 9 year old nephews. Their mother returned the gifts to me saying that they don’t fit and for me to return them and get the correct size. I’m offended. This seems to be more than bad etiquette. What do you think?

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      If she’s got a lot on her plate and doesn’t have the time to return them with her busy schedule, and she asked politely, it’s not totally out of left field. But if she didn’t make any mention of that and wasn’t polite, than I think it’s ok to just give her the gift receipt and ask her to return them at her convenience.


      1. Giovanna Bochi says:

        Thank you! Good advice!

  4. Linda says:

    A few of us gave our knitting instructor an expensive yarn winder for Christmas. She told us she didn’t want to use it until she got into her new location…….which was earlier this week. Should we now get her yet another gift for her re-opening?

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      I think some flowers or a nice card would be nice, but it’s definitely not required :) Showing up to support the opening sounds like the best idea.


  5. Brett says:

    I gave my sister a framed print that, although I really liked it, she told me several times that she did not like it, including when she opened it in front of a group of people. I recently asked if she still had it because I wanted to give her a new print of her choosing for the existing frame. She told me she no longer had it. I am certain she threw it away. I am offended and sent her an email that if she was going to throw away a present I gave her, that I would prefer to have her return it to me.

    I would like to know your thoughts on this.

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      I think you’re in the right. That sounds incredibly rude of her to say she doesn’t like it in front of other people. I’m sorry that happened. I think you spoke your mind, and there’s not much more to do after that. If she doesn’t respect your gift and your generosity, perhaps it’s time to ask her what she wants for a gift if she’s not open to your interpretation of what she’d like? If she’s still rude then, perhaps she doesn’t need a gift if she can’t be appreciative.


  6. eB says:

    Dear Grace,
    You helped me with an earlier question. I have another question. I work in a very small office. There are just three of us. It was my second Christmas at this company, last year I was so new that I was not included in the bonuses that were given to us by the people we work for. Every year two of the people/families we work for send delicious and very expensive food gifts. Think gourmet meats, cheeses, etc. (The other people give monetary bonuses to us.) My boss is a vegetarian and my other coworker has several health issues like IBS that prevent him from enjoying the food. In my thank you note would it be alright for me to mention that I was able to enjoy the food exclusively since my coworkers are on health and diet restrictions? My family and I loved the bonus gourmet food – but I was thinking of a gracious and gentle way to let them know that my boss & coworker, who have worked the longest and the hardest for them, cannot enjoy their gift. It would be more equitable in the future for another type of bonus to be given that ALL three of us could enjoy, and perhaps this could explain the situation while thanking them at the same time. What do you think?

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      How close of a relationship does this client have with you and your boss/co-worker? If it’s close and friendly it may be worth mentioning (along with a very kind thank you note). But if it’s not close, it may damage the client relationship so I would just let it be…


      1. eB says:

        My boss & co-worker have run this office & program for 8 years and are very well acquainted and on friendly terms with the gourmet food givers, and they work very hard for them. I do want my thank you be kind and very grateful & appreciative. Yet… if there was a delicate way to mention the fact that the main intended recipients can’t enjoy their generous gifts for practical reasons. This is seriously hundreds of dollars worth of gourmet meats & cheeses to a lactose intolerant vegetarian and an IBS & Diviticulitis sufferer. Every year they have been passing the food on to other people. This is the first year it has been given to me rather than a combination of random people. It’s a shame, really.

  7. eB says:

    Sample::: Dear Mr. & Mrs. Jones,
    Thank you very much for the gourmet steaks, ham and bacon and the Chicago style deep dish pizzas. They are incredibly delicious and our family is positively spoiled by your generosity – having received the lion’s share since Kenny’s intestinal condition has worsened this year and Betty is more fully committed than ever to her healthy vegetarian lifestyle. I am savoring the goodies and appreciate your thoughtfulness! ::::

    I appreciate your honest opinion. And also your time. -eB

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      I think this sounds like a nice way to let them know.


  8. Grace Bonney says:


    I’m sorry that happened, especially when she asked specifically. I think an honest course of action would have been to ask for gift receipts for the other gifts and then use that money to get the scooter. I would sit down with your mother, politely thank her for the gifts, but ask about why she asked about the scooter if she didn’t get it? It may have been an issue of money or perhaps something happened at that store when she went to get it? I would give her a chance to explain, listen with an open heart and go from there. If it truly is that she didn’t care, then I would just refrain from telling her specific gifts so you’re not counting on her to bring that one item to your child.


  9. Chloe says:

    Hi Grace,

    I have a question regarding gift etiquette and you love your advice.
    In my groups of friends we usually pool money to get a cake and gift when people have a birthday and have a meal together to celebrate.

    It was recently my birthday and my friends didn’t get me a gift, just some mini cupcakes. It made me feel really unliked since in comparison, only a month before, we had 2 birthdays and those friends received really thoughtful gifts. I don’t understand why I was the exception to the trend, should I bring it up with them or just let it go?

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      I’m sorry that happened, that is indeed odd if you have a precedent of including gifts. I would bring it up with them thoughtfully and ask if everything is ok or if perhaps financially it was better for everyone if gifts were left out going forward?


  10. Nina says:

    Hi Grace,

    This is not holiday-related, but my boyfriend of a few months has invited me to his close friend’s surprise birthday party – a friend whom I have never met before.
    While helping him shop for his own gift to him, I was debating on whether it would be strange to get him a gift as well or if it would be frowned upon to come empty handed.
    Should I get a small, generic gift for his friend? Or would some nice balloons and snacks be more appropriate?

    Many thanks,

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      I think some balloons and snacks would be appropriate- helping out is a nice gesture for someone you haven’t met who is connected by a relatively new significant other.

      Grace :)

  11. Anna says:

    Awesome article to read and Great tips.I Love it….Thank you so much…

  12. Dayna says:

    Nice article and Great tips…Thank you..I Love it…

  13. Alina says:

    Great article to read and very Nice tips…….

  14. Skylar says:

    Is a gift really a gift if there are expectations attached to it?

    My father has a habit of throwing money around in gift form to create almost a barter system with your love. It is a form of manipulation that he thinks goes unnoticed.

    My father and I went to rival schools. I recently received tickets from him to attend a sporting event involving my school and a local school. I also received tickets to attend a sporting event two days later with his school and the same local school mentioned earlier. This sporting event is not something that I have an avid interest in, nor would I spend my money to attend. To prove my point, this will be the first time I have attended one. It seems thoughtful, and it’s something we can enjoy together. He has attended my schools sporting events with me before. He is kind enough to wear my school colors when he attends. I have never asked him to wear my schools colors for any event. I’m not comfortable wearing his schools colors ever. I have attended sporting events for his school, I usually wear neutral colors and clap when appropriate to support his school. He gave me the tickets as a gift and said he expects me to wear his schools colors for their game. He justifies his request by saying he does it for me. He knows it bothers me a lot. I would rather not go to either event than wear something I’m uncomfortable with, especially seeing the manipulation that goes along with this “gift”. I don’t want to be ungrateful, but Is this really a gift, if there are expectations that are attached to it?


  15. I gave my client a cleaning visit as a thank you gift. She sent a message saying she wanted me to supervise the cleaning to make sure it was to her standard. She also later said “Since its my gift should it not be to my standard?”

    I was very disappointed and it hurt my feelings that she reacted this way to a gift. A gift given out of care and gratitude should just receive a thank you.

    I had also offered to provide a gift certificate for her to have the work done when it suited her. She demanded I schedule the visit. So I don’t think she has the right to complain and I hope manners prevail.

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      That’s totally not ok. I would tell her the gift is hers to use or not use as she sees fit. I’m sorry she handled that poorly.


  16. sally says:

    What do you think about getting a gift for someone you dislike and who also can’t stand your sight?

    I’m currently living in a dorm with a few other people, and I get along with most of them just fine. However, I’ve been having issues with this one girl in particular and when I went to discuss them with her, she completely flipped out and then acted like nothing happened. Unfortunately, after our conversation, she has been really passive aggressive and rude to me whenever our other roommates aren’t around. Sometimes, she makes passive aggressive remarks in front of our roommates, who don’t seem to acknowledge what is happening.

    Anyway, I’m done living with them and am moving to a different part of town, so this is my last year with them. I was thinking of getting all of them a gift except for the roommate I dislike. My experience with them has been much better, barring this one roommate, and so I thought I would do something to show my appreciation. Should I avoid getting my rude roommate a gift, or should I still feel an obligation to give her something too?

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      If you admit you don’t like this person, don’t get them a gift, period.


  17. Andrea says:

    I’m not American, but I’m married to an American man. In my culture it is very rude to mention to the receiver how much you spent on the gifts you gave them however, my husband always makes remarks either with the actual numbers, or just by saying he spent a lot of money on the gifts he gives me. I feel offended and had told him about it before (to me it feels like he’s presenting me with the bill, so I can pay him back), but he says I’m overreacting. Is it really okay in the American culture to disclose that information?

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      I’ve never done that, but I think each family has their own styles of discussing gifts. But the bottom line is that you share your life with someone and you both need to respect each other’s comfort levels. He should respect that this makes you feel uncomfortable and respectfully stop bringing up the cost of gifts. If he can’t, try explaining it from the angle of how you feel (rather than what he’s saying) and hopefully he can connect with those feelings and not want to have you feel that way. If not, it may be worth discussing with a couple’s counselor to find some common ground.


  18. Krystal says:

    Hi Grace,
    My close friend gave me an expensive black onyx bracelet for my birthday. I liked the bracelet but would prefer it in white mother of pearl. She didn’t give me a gift receipt but I know where it came from. Do you think it would be OK to let her know that I would like to exchange it? I really don’t want to hurt her feelings.


    1. Grace Bonney says:


      I think it’s definitely ok to express that, because if she invested in it, she really wants you to have something you love. :)


      1. Lauren says:

        Hi there,
        I received a watch from a very close friend who was visiting from overseas.
        It is a nice watch and fairly expensive but just really not me. I do not ever wear the colour of the waych and it doesn’t match any of my other jewellery pieces. I told her I really liked it at the time but now dont know what to do. I know i will hardly wear it. I don’t know if i should tell her it is just not right for me and try to sell it and get something i really like? I can not return it as it was purchased overseas.
        I am in a tough situation!
        Please help!!

  19. Julie says:

    I am in a tricky gift receiving situation with my husband. My birthday is approaching and I have been telling everyone very clearly and politely that I really, really don’t want any gifts. We consolidated two households over the past four years and I have very much been trying to unload “stuff”. If there is something specific that I want, I get it when I find the right thing.
    My husband ordered something online a few weeks ago (the charge came through our bank account) and wants to give it to me in a big gathering of all of the children. I have insisted that it is not a good idea. I have tried very hard to say, “No thank you,” but he keeps pushing and is now upset that I have ruined his experience. At what point is my behavior rude? I think I have been very clear about this all along and I am beginning to feel shamed into accepting something I don’t want.

  20. Nicolina says:

    Hi Grace !

    I have a difficult situation and would love your insight . I have a neighbour friend who was truly a close friend of mine. She decided , for reasons unknown , to be a mean girl on a girls trip , singling me out and ignoring me and treating me poorly. After this trip I had no choice but to reevaluate if I needed a friend like her . I have been respectful, cordial and helpful with her daughters and pets. She has deliberately excluded me from any get togethers with mutual friends, and i always find out about it leaving me feeling less than and hurt . Yet she will stop in her car and ask me how things are etc.
    I had purchased a few specific items that were specific to her as her Bday gift. She was appreciative. Since then , she has organized a few more get togethers where I am clearly and deliberately not invited. So I’ve had to put in a lot of mindful thought into pulling away from such a hurtful relationship – knowing that no one needs a demeaning person in their life , and that for whatever reason she is on this particular path and perhaps this my lesson to learn.

    My Bday came and went and she sent me a generic happy bday text which was more than I expected . I came home this week to a gift bag on my front porch … Oblivious to who it was from I slid my hand in the bag to find a card . It’s from her. I cannot bring myself to even open the gift as it all feels very awkward, disingenuous , manipulative and empty . What should I do ??

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      I would open the gift and the card. If they’re not something that feels like an extended olive brand and genuine offering, it may be time to let this chapter of your friendship with her close and move on to friends that you feel more supported by.


  21. wendy says:

    Hi Grace,
    Would love some advice. My daughter recently had a Bat Mitzvah. We have two gifts with no cards and several people who appeared to not have given a gift. How do you suggest dealing with this?

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      Based on who else attended, can you narrow it down at all to a few people? If so, you could call them to ask if that’s their gift. I’m sure people will understand :)


      1. wendy says:

        I was thinking about texting them….wasn’t sure it that was about the etiquette on that…..

        1. Grace Bonney says:


          I would pick up the phone. I think with gifts and someone being generous toward your family, it’s nice to speak directly.


  22. Patty says:

    Grace: Here’s my situation. I have always thought that you could tell something about how the other person feels about you by the gifts they give you. Not that they have to give gifts even if they care, but if they do give you a gift, it can be an expression of how they perceive the relationship. As my step-daughter grew up and began exchanging Xmas gifts, she has tended to give me gifts that seem a little strange. She will give my husband “real” gifts such as a set of wrenches for his tool kit whereas she might give me a package of muffin mix, which she then wants us to make right away for breakfast. This has gone on for several years. The gifts to me seem like after thoughts, – a bar of soap or a grocery item (which I’m expected to share immediately). It’s embarrassing but also makes me feel she’s trying to tell me something or that she is being passive aggressive. I’ve never mentioned it to her but have asked my husband to try to let her know how it looks so maybe she can change it. He won’t run interference, so it continues year after year and makes me feel a bit tense at Xmas gift opening time. To be fair, I know that her mother does also tend to give gifts that seem very minimalist, inexpensive, and like after-thoughts (soap, candles, jar of jam). So I think it could just be what she’s learned until I notice she does not do that with her father. It seems she should have caught on by now (15 years) that I give her something thoughtful for herself and not cost-based. But I see little sign that anything has changed. What do you think? I wish it would change so maybe i could feel she cares. But perhaps she just doesn’t. Thanks so much!

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      I think this is a very complicated situation, but I think the answer is simple (albeit, not fun or easy): I think you have to lead by example and let her figure out on her own that the way she MAY be behaving (passive aggressive gifting to express any issues she may have related to having a new step-mom) is unkind to you.

      I think this is one of those situations where her being a young child (I’m assuming?) may mean you need to take the high road and just lead by example. Divorce isn’t easy on anyone and she may need to work through some feelings she has about her parents’ split and they may need to do some work with her on that, too.

      If she’s old enough to have a mature conversation, you could express that when you receive these gifts, you feel like they’re communicating a lack of care or respect for you. But that sort of conversation could backfire if she’s not old or mature enough to understand your feelings. I would hope your husband would care enough about both of your happiness that he would be involved in working with her on this. I think this is definitely something to be figured out among adults…


  23. Lizzie says:

    Hi Grace,
    I love your gift giving advice and found myself feeling frustrated recently. My little neice who I rarely get to see had a birthday this last week. When I asked her parents what was best to get her (they live in a small house and are picky about her toys), her mom recommended something and I got it. Meanwhile, my aunt asked the same thing. They told her that she wanted a kids camera – I am feeling very upset that they didn’t tell me that because I am a photographer as a profession and that would have been the cutest and more appropriate gift for me to give her. My aunt that gave her the camera is like a second mom to me and she also didn’t say anything. She is a horse person and always gives “horse” gifts. I’m quite sure she would be offended if anyone else got her a cute horsey gift as its her “thing”‘- I just think the connection between my goddaughter neice and I (since I live on the other side of the country) would have been built even more through our connection of a gift like that. Am I wrong to feel this way? What do you do in a situation like this?

  24. Betty says:

    Hi Grace,

    My question to some may seem a little selfish; but, for me it is somewhat painful. Even though I am not a plant person, my daughter constantly sends me plants as gifts. Yet, she sends my husband more personal gifts that he can use i.e., a computer bag, etc. Also, for Christmas, her fiance gave me candy (he literally bought bags of candy from 7/11), and he knows I’m diabetic. I have to add that I do not really know her fiance, as we live in different states, and I have only met him 4 times – they have been together for 5 years. What’s painful for me, is that it feels like my daughter is giving me gifts that she doesn’t have to think about – giving me a gift just to give me a gift.

    The thing is, I saved every gift each of my children either gave or made for me when they were younger. I would rather she give me a handmade gift, than just sending me the generic plant gift. Am I wrong? Should I say something to her?

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      That’s a tough situation, but one that deserves to be discussed face to face with her. However, I would discuss this with your husband first. To me, a plant and a computer bag seem like equal degrees of “personal” gifts (ie: not super personal). Perhaps he doesn’t feel his gift is particularly thoughtful either, and it’s less of a “you” vs. “him” thing.

      That said, bags of candy for a diabetic is just plain thoughtless. That sort of gift definitely can be discussed directly. I find these are things better discussed in the moment sometimes (i.e.: handing them back and saying, “Thank you so much, but I’m a diabetic and I cannot eat this candy.”) but since that’s not an option for another year, I would try to bring this up in person (or face to face over Skype) with your daughter and see if there’s a root cause under this.

      It could be as simple as she’s very busy right now and hasn’t had the time to put into gifts, or perhaps their budgets are tighter than normal. It’s human nature to assume it’s something personal and related to you, but it’s highly likely it isn’t. If you can express it from the position of how YOU feel and not from the angle of “here’s what YOU did wrong”, hopefully she’ll be able to hear you and understand where you’re coming from. If not, it may be something you just have to accept. Not everyone is a great gift giver and, not counting the candy (not thoughtful atall!), a plant isn’t exactly the worst gift in the world, it just isn’t your cup of tea.

      We all have people in our lives that gift based on what they would want rather than what you would actually want, and at the end of the day, it’s better to have those relationships than to worry too much about the quality of the gift. True, it would be wonderful if everyone nailed the most thoughtful, personal gift each time, but I think at the end of the day, assuming there’s no larger problem beneath the gifting issue, it’s worth moving past.


  25. Gillian says:

    Hi Grace,
    I am wondering if you have any advice on thanking people for gifts of money. With other gifts, I mention the item in my thank-you note and describe something specific that I appreciate about it. With thank-you notes for monetary gifts, I feel awkward writing “the money” or “the check” and end up saying something vague like “thank you for the gift” – what wording do you think is proper? Also, is it necessary to write something specific about the gift, like how I will use it (especially for smaller gifts that I’m unsure how I will spend) or ok to stick to more general words of appreciation?
    *thank you!*

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      I would say “your generous gift” and not necessarily say the amount or the word “money” :)

      I think it’s nice to say what you’re putting the money toward if you know, but no pressure ;)

  26. Sara says:

    I’m the oldest 1st cousin on both sides of my family, 3 of my first cousins are graduating college, including my own brother. I am attending with my parents, brother and my husband a party that one of my Aunt’s is having for both her boys. My parents are giving a check for each of their nephews, my brother won’t be giving a check to his own first cousin, why should I? My mom thinks that I should but I’m the same relationship to them. I don’t think that I should be giving a gift to them, driving 5 hours to gather with the family seems like enough to me and I’m not an Aunt to them, (nor close to them). What do you suggest? It seems weird for me to give them a congratulations card with nothing in it though, is it best to just do nothing? I can’t find anywhere online about gift giving to basically your peer!

  27. Meg says:

    Hi Grace,
    I see that this post is from awhile ago, but I’m hoping your still handing out advice. I write as tears are swelling up in my eyes after my husband just gave me earrings. We’ve only been married 5 years And this is the 4th piece of jewelry he has bought me from his mother’s favorite store, not mine. I’ve hinted over the years that it’s not my style, and he knows I hate the bracelet he got me one year. Our anniversary isn’t till August but he gave me the earrings today because he “couldn’t wait, and thought I could wear them today” Not wrapped, no note, lying in my pjs, and now I won’t get anything when I give him his in August. I feel extremely guilty for being so upset, he looked so happy to give them to me, and I should be grateful that my husband wants to buy me things. But it’s put me in a horrible mood that I can’t shake, and makes me question if he knows me at all. He really is a sweet guy, and is thoughtful in other ways, I should just let it go, right? Thanks:)

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      This is a tricky one because it sounds like your husband is definitely thinking of you and wanting to express his love through these generous gifts. But you have every right to gently bring up that these pieces aren’t your style.

      I don’t think there’s an easy way around this. I think you need to sit down and gently tell him, directly, that you greatly appreciate these gifts, but that they are not your style. Express your appreciation but ask if he would be ok with you exchanging this most recent gift. Not everyone would agree with this, but I think if someone is spending a lot of money on jewelry, they should be making that a good investment- not one that will sit, unworn, in a box for years. So kindly explain that that’s not your style (hopefully he’ll be open to learning what IS) and that you love the generous gesture, but would love to open the door to a conversation about gifting in your relationship and what you each truly like (it’s possible he may not love the gift he’s received, so opening the door lets you hear his side of the story and learn more about him, too). I think that conversation would be a good time to express that you’d really love to keep gifts to your actual special day so you each get to open something together.

      It’s hard to express these things and hurt feelings may happen, because all of these gifts are most likely coming from such a great place and great intentions. But stay calm and clear and hopefully both of your feelings can be heard and understood going forward.


  28. Kathryn says:

    Hey Grace,
    I am in a bit of a pickle. My boyfriend is currently living with his ex girlfriend and another roommate, and she wont be moving out until next year. The roommate and I get along very well, but there is a lot of animosity between us girls. I feel that in order to keep the peace within his home, I have to give her something for Christmas, as I plan on getting the guys each a gift. That being said, I know nothing about her and have no idea what I should do. Please help?

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      Do you live there as well? Is he planning on remaining friends with her? If she’s going to remain in your lives, yes, it may be worth trying to learn more about her and become friendly. But that is a MAJORLY awkward situation and I understand why either of you would feel tense. But honestly I think this is your boyfriend’s issue to handle and smooth over, period. I don’t know how he can expect either of you to get along when you’re still living together and seeing each other every day…


  29. Marcy says:

    my husband just gave me a birthday present (bought the same morning from the gift store down the road -as usual). While I was opening it he said I could return it if I didn´t like it. It was a silver bracelet, I didn´t dislike it per say, but I have so many silver bracelets. I deceided to return it the next day and get a ring from the same jewelery line as I thougt I would use it more. Now my husband is furious with me, saying I´m ungraitful. I don´t understand his reaction, I have never returned any gift from him before in our 20 years relationship, and he did say I could. I´m I being ungraitful?

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      I’m sorry that happened. I think you should explain to him that you have a lot of bracelets and that you took him up on his offer to return it if you didn’t like it. He shouldn’t offer that if he’s unhappy with the results and perhaps it can open up a discussion about putting more thought and time in gifts if they’re always rushed and last minute.


      1. Marcy says:

        Thank you Grace.
        I did tell him all those things when I was trying to explain myself, I was just so surpriced about his reaction. Why would he care so much if it is a ring or a bracelet if he just ran into the store for 5 minutes to get me something/anyhing? I would really like a thougtful gift sometime or if he´s having trouble finding a nice gift he should just ask me what I´d like, but he never asks.

  30. RR says:

    Hi, Grace… you’ve been offering wonderful advice to everyone here and I thought I’d share something that’s been gnawing me for quite some time. I went to visit a friend and took some gifts for her twins and for her. While I was talking to her FIL, she inevitably came to know that a book I got for her was expensive and probably felt obliged to get something of equal value for me.Anyway, she got a gift for my son but almost immediately I noticed that the original price tag had been cut out and a different price tag had been stuck in its place.

    I wouldn’t have minded one bit if she hadn’t given us any gifts at all or if it had been a small, inexpensive one but I feel saddened that she felt it necessary to be dishonest. Somehow, I don’t feel the same joy about our friendship now…Do you think I’m overreacting?

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      I would let this one go. If that change was coming from a place of wanting to (even if totally unnecessary) impress or show you that she cares, it would be hurtful to accuse her of something worse. Her actions were probably coming from a place of insecurity and I wouldn’t read anything worse into that about the nature of your friendship.


      1. RR says:

        Thank you, Grace! You are right of course and I’m glad I shared it here instead of worrying about my own assumptions.

  31. Shal says:

    Dear Grace,
    My husband has three nieces and a nephew. We have not been married log and when we were getting married one of his nieces, a 20 year old could not attend because she was studying abroad. Now she has started demanding gifts from him saying that she owes him and some of them are ridiculously expensive gifts. First she wanted a DSLR camera that would have cost us no less than 500 $. My husband told her that it was too expensive for us to buy at the moment and offered to buy her a Fitbit HR instead. Now she wants nothing less than a diamond necklace. I am from a middle class family where money was strictly budgeted and our parents taught us the value of money in our childhood.
    My husband says that his niece was spoilt as a child and she is being so demanding with him because is very close to his nieces and nephew. What I want to ask you here is, is this a normal request? I do not want to interfere but we live frugally and the thought of spending somewhere between 500-1000 $ on a gift sounds ridiculous to me.

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      Gifting is different from family to family, but since you are now a part of that family and (I’m assuming) your finances are now joint, you have a right to discuss those purchases with your husband. I would focus less on the dollar amount and more on the supposed “demands”, as that’s the most upsetting part here. No one should be told they “owe” someone anything like that.


  32. Silkers says:

    Some advice would be great…My Brother in law and sister in law don’t have a lot of money. They aren’t rich or poor, but like to give gifts that are way too expensive or that they know I won’t like. For example I mentioned a brand of dolls that I thought dressed inappropriately that my daughter liked, but I didn’t..and that’s what she got for her bday and not just 1, but 3. On more than one occasion I have asked for budget limits or have told them I would rather my children share experiences with their cousin (all 3 children are close in age.) I have threatened to start withholding gifts from them if they continue to blatantly disrespect my wishes. What else can I do? I have taken my nephew to a movie and dinner and let him choose 2 books from a book store and they are gifting my children expensive electronics and gift cards to stores…it’s just not equal.

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      This is a tough one. But I think the best course of action is to sit down with your BIL and SIL in person and ask them why they continue to go against what you have asked them to do regarding gifts for your children. I think opening a dialogue here is the best way to start. If they continue to ignore your requests, you may need to either let this issue go or decide to not accept gifts from them, which would potentially be upsetting for your children. I think discussing this as adults and making yourself VERY clear is the important first step.


  33. Janice says:

    I received a thank you note from someone who thanked me for a gift I did not give instead of the one I gave. How should I handle this?

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      I think a quick call or email to clarify is totally fine :)


  34. Laura says:

    I’m curious how to handle a situation.

    My brother and I are not on speaking terms as of three months ago. Since we quit speaking, my sister in law addresses everything from my 2 year old niece. I recently had a birthday as did she. I didn’t send her anything as pretty much everything I send, gets taken back. Recently the last several years, while my brother showers everyone else in gifts, I get a hand me down. The latest hand me down was a re-gift of a present (novelty piggy bank) given to my 2 year old niece for her birthday six months ago. I just turned 32 – so far from age appropriate. I want to politely tell her that id rather not get a gift at all than one that just declutters their house. Is it out of line to mail the gift back with a note saying I don’t want to take away from my nieces birthday gifts?

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      Yes, you cannot tell them you’d rather not get gifts. I think the best thing here to do is to take the high road, thank them for the gift and move on. It seems like gifts are being used to express underlying issues between both families, so I would suggest sitting down face-to-face for a conversation. Until those issues are resolved, gifts will continue to be the conduit through which hurt feelings are expressed.


  35. Laura says:

    Today was my out-of-state nephew’s third birthday and I spent a lot of time picking out a large wooden train set and extra train cars as a gift. I have a very small family and am very close to my brother, but not my SIL.

    My brother called me this evening and said he and my SIL had looked at the gift before giving it to my nephew and wanted to have me give my nephew a fire truck that they had purchased for my nephew’s birthday instead of the train. He said they plan to give my nephew a wooden train after he is potty trained for Christmas and wanted to give the extra train cars I had purchased as rewards during his potty training.

    I told my brother that I wanted to give my nephew the gift I had purchased for him for his birthday and not the fire truck and that I thought it was rude for him to call and make such a request. He never even thanked me for the train. He made it sound like they either wanted to not give my nephew the train at all or give it as their Christmas gift to my nephew. I told him I had already found accessories to give my nephew for Christmas as well.

    Do you have suggestions for how to handle a situation like this?

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      I agree, that request was rude. I’m sorry that happened. The good news is that if your nephew is that young, he will not remember this “missing” gift, so I would express your feelings and how this made you feel and hope they can understand.


  36. cmpace says:

    Hi Grace,
    My issue is that a few years ago my new neighbour gave me a present of her hand made pottery which delighted me. I gave her a small picture I had painted in return. She also gave me a birthday present of her pottery. I did not have anything hand made to give her on her birthday so gave her flowers. I’m not usually given to tit for tat gifts but felt the contact when giving is a good thing. We don’t see each other too often otherwise because she works full time. I’m feeling that the present giving has become a bit forced because it is no longer hand made, and not even personal. I don’t mind the giving but feel it was only ever meant as a way for her to present the joy of hand made gifts. There are only so many pots you can give, I suppose ! Should I go on trying to find something suitable twice a year or try to call it a day?

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      First, I think it’s lovely that you’ve got a long-term friendship that you still make the effort to connect over two times a year. Second, I think bringing someone a small gift when you see them is totally ok. It doesn’t sound like we’re talking about super expensive jewelry or anything, so I think a handmade gift (like a pot) or something gathered (like flowers), is totally ok. It doesn’t seem as though gifts like that are given in an attempt to make you feel guilty or somehow indebted to that friend. I have friends like this that always arrive with a gift from their studio or collection (without any need to gift, ie: no birthday, etc.) and at first I felt like I needed to reciprocate and then I realized that was just their way of expressing care and love. If you feel comfortable just accepting that that’s how she expressed her care for you, I would just let it go, thank her for her gifts and just enjoy the friendship. IF she speaks up and says “what about my gift?” then I think you’ve got a case for concern…


  37. Angela says:

    I received a gift from my older sister for my birthday who we have no communication with each other and she’s been abusive to me over the years. We have a 8 year age difference and after years of verbal and emotional abuse, I wrote a quick email stating I needed to take a little break from the relationship to process feelings that haven’t been dealt with over the years. That was almost 2 years ago and she has blocked me from all social media and the only contact is a Christmas and Birthday gift. I finally feel free from this toxic and abusive relationship, even though we are sisters. I don’t know what to do about her birthday. I feel if I send her a card – it will not be enough – if I give her something similar to what she gave me – it would be given from the goodness of my heart. I finally have peace and no longer want to be a participant of this game but not sure what the appropriate and least damaging response would be. I’m just so tired of 40 years of verbal abuse. I didn’t even open the Amazon box for over a month and then gave the tumbler to my son because of the feelings it brought back to me. Any advice would be appreciated.

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      There are a lot of things going on here, and I think some of them may have been lost in translation, so to speak. But what I’m hearing is that you want to find a way to acknowledge her birthday in whatever way feels right to you, is that right? I think you’re the only person who can answer that. If you feel a gift would be “from the goodness of your heart”, then yes, do that. That’s the only place a gift should come from. Or was that a typo and you meant it wouldn’t be from the goodness of your heart?

      If you’re totally out of touch with each other, I would suggest putting this whole gifting idea aside. You need to work on the relationship before worrying about gifts. Are you open to seeing if she’d attend some family counseling sessions with you? That could be a better use of gifting money and time.


  38. Joanne says:

    Dear Grace,

    I recently purchased a baby gift for a friend and his wife. We were invited over to see the baby and celebrate his mother’s birthday. When I arrived they were busy in the kitchen so I left the gift on the table. After dinner, I noticed they (her and her mother) were not outside with the other guests and she came out and asked if I had made the booties that were a part of the gift. They went inside to open the gift I brought and left me outside! I found this highly offensive. Any advice?

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      I don’t think they meant anything by that. A lot of people (like me) feel very uncomfortable opening things in front of people and making it feel like a performance or show. Did they say thank you? Or just ask about the boots?


      1. Joanne says:


        1. Assuming that they didn’t mean anything by that, you’re forming an opinion about people you don’t know. Not everyone makes a mistake like that unintentionally.
        2. Again, assuming that she (like you) felt uncomfortable opening gifts in front of people, the answer was quite simple, all she had to do was wait until everyone left. I didn’t expect her to open the gift in front of everyone, just me and I certainly wasn’t expecting a performance or a show! Someone gave me some good advice once: Don’t assume anything!

        1. Grace Bonney says:


          I think assumptions are being made on both sides of the equation. What I’m suggesting is that, in the interest of saving a friendship, you don’t assume she meant anything harmful by the method of opening the gift.

          Regarding my earlier question- did she lead with saying “thank you”? Or did she just walk out and ask if the shoes were part of the gift? If it’s the latter, that would irk me, too.


  39. Brenda May says:

    I really could use some advice on this issue. It’s just about ruined my relationship with my Son and should have brought only happiness. Here is the problem.. I was without a vehicle for awhile, I missed having a car but with insurance, registration all the expenses that go with having a car, I couldnt afford one.
    My Son bought me a BMW older, used 2003. It was supposed to have been dependable. And had just had the transmission fixed.
    Well it hadnt. Besides the 500. to register it, he has told me I have to get the work done myself. He wants nothing to do with it. If I mention that I am unable to drive it he says its not his problem and I am ungrateful. Am I wrong to expect he should make it right or take it back? I never asked for it, besides… I feel he gave me a broken gift.
    I am trying to be appreciative, help..

    Brenda May

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      This is a difficult situation and I understand why both parties would be frustrated here.

      The gift you were given was generous and kind, but if it came with problems, that makes things difficult. Do you have a total cost for the repairs that need to be paid? And who is currently paying for the car’s registration and insurance so you can drive it?


      1. Brenda May says:

        He paid the registration . And I the insurance. I couldnt afford all the expenses thats one reason I didnt have a car. My son has no lack of funds. I have never felt entitled to anything ftom him. And am sorry he would think Im ungrateful. I just want to enjoy the gift not have it be something I have to fix before I can use it.

        1. Grace Bonney says:


          I hear you. Did he know about the problems with the car before gifting it to you?

          Is it something he could take back to the dealer to return? If it’s a bigger hassle than it’s worth, and you didn’t ask for it in the first place, could he/you simply sell the car back and be done with it?


  40. Brenda May says:

    The car was bought from an auto repair, friend of his. It had a transmission problem that was going to be repaired before he gave it to me. Within dsys the problem reoccured and he told me tske it in and they would fix it. 3 weeks later they still have the car, but he wont call them he feels they wouldnt respond any different than they would if I called. I think they define5ly would. He never even drove the car before he bought it. I now feel like he only wanted to look good by saying he bought me a car. But if it isnt drivable how much of a gift was it? He reminds me how much he spent every chance. I feel he should have at least made sure it worked before giving it. I love the car and am grateful he would be so kind. But part of giving a gift so expensive is msking sure its a good purchase, isnt it?
    Thank you

  41. Neaj says:

    Dear Grace!
    İ need your advice about the situation that happened with me today. One of my friend (we have made friendship ona week ago, our kids go to the same class) went abroad and told me that she will bring me some present from there. Today she gave me the presents and told that even though she was very busy she could take some time for me to go shopping. She hoped that İ would like her gift. İ told her that İ am sure that i will like it. When İ have opened this İ have realized that there were the old used dresse, they even were dirty. İ was so shocked! Even though it is very rude i gave it back! İ feel myself so bad! There are two reason of my sadness: first of her relation and second my behaviour…. Please advice me something

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      What did you say when you gave it back- and why did your friend say?


  42. Nellie says:

    Dear Grace,

    I live in a different country from my family and usually get them small presents when I visit home. My sister had enquired about a home appliance that she was interested in and I offered to get it for her as a present. Initially she agreed but has now changed her mind and asked for a lot of other things instead — the overall cost is lower but these items take a lot more space and a more inconvenient for me to carry. I will live with her for the 5 days of my visit and I and happy to get her the presents but I am also perplexed by her behavior.

    Is there anything wrong with her behavior? She is 35 years old and not a young child. Also, how would you recommend thanking her for letting me stay with her?

    Confused sister.

  43. Natalija says:

    Dear Grace, what would be appropriate gift for my son’s doctor who was very engaged in his treatment for a long time?
    Thank you in advance.


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