Minimalism & Gift Giving – How to Talk to Friends & Family about Unwanted Gifts

book gift with red ribbon

What do you do if you’re trying to live sustainably or minimally but your family or friends love giving presents? This can be a difficult topic and conversation to have. Gift giving a certain way can become a tradition for families and people generally aren’t happy with change – especially with traditions.

I’ve been very fortunate where gift-giving isn’t a big deal in my family, as a kid we never had mountains of presents (it’s crazy how that’s advertised as the “perfect” Christmas) and my family has generally been very practical with gifts – giving things the person has asked for or they know will get used, gift cards to favourite places, consumables, or experiences like a meal out. Instead of gifts to each other my husband and I plan a little weekend away together, since we live away from our families they usually also get involved and will treat us to a nice dinner out on our trip, it’s a lovely time and so much more meaningful than some stuff we don’t want.

Tips to Reduce Unwanted Gifts

Keep the conversation positive

I think this is the most important. Telling someone you don’t want “junk” or their sweatshop-made gifts is hurtful and will make them upset and defensive. Instead focus on how other gift ideas make you happy or bring you joy. For example you could explain that you really care about a certain cause so it would mean a lot if instead of gifts they made a donation to a charity/organization, or how you feel so much happier having worked hard on decluttering and instead of physical gifts you’d love to spend some quality time together. If there’s something specific that you’d like, instead of talking about how other similar items might be unsustainable or unethical, focus on how that item would work really well for you and you would use it all the time.

You want them to see how this is something that would make you happy, not feel bad about their gifts or like they are unappreciated.

Make alternative suggestions

Maybe your family or friends are feeling the same way about all the gift-giving but no one else has expressed it. They might be very open to other ideas:

  • Instead of getting individual gifts you could suggest that everyone draws names and buys 1 gift for 1 person. This way you can spend a little more on the gift and get something the person truly wants.
  • You could agree to gift experiences – dinners, movie tickets, coffee dates, or any activity they enjoy. Instead of giving gifts why not spend time together doing something you all enjoy?
  • If you’re all into food and cooking you could decide to gift consumables like homemade cookies, coffee/tea, favorite liquors, etc.
  • Or another option if you’re all crafty is to give handmade gifts
  • You could all use a wishlist. There are apps like Giftster where everyone lists things they’d like, you can share it with a group and mark things that are purchased so there won’t be duplicates. This way people can ask for things they actually want and it makes shopping easier for everyone.
Cookies and presents

Show extra appreciation when people respect your wishes

Remember that it can be a big deal for some people to change their habits. If your relative who loves giving knick-knacks gave you a charitable donation like you asked, they might be worried that it’s “not enough” or you won’t be happy when everyone else get their gifts. Make an extra effort to thank them and explain that it’s a wonderful gift and really means a lot to you. Of course you should show gratitude, but taking extra time to explain how meaningful it is will help the person know they made the right choice and they’ll also likely remember for the next time how special that gift was to you.

What about when you receive an unwanted gift?

I think it’s important to be gracious receiving the gift and then try to find that item a home where it will actually be used. I really like how Courtney Carver explains gift giving, that the “gift” isn’t the physical object, the gift is meant to be an expression of love or appreciation so you can keep the intention of the gift but still let go of the object, the person who gave you the gift likely wouldn’t want it to cause you stress or negative feelings.

If you know someone who would use and appreciate the gift, re-gifting can be a great option. Also look for charities you might be able to donate it to, for example if you received skincare products that you won’t use try to find a local shelter that takes care and hygiene products.

I would really love to hear your thoughts and tips on this topic! Are unwanted gifts an issue for your conscious lifestyle? Have you tried talking to others about it or suggesting alternatives?

Photos from Unsplash

4 Responses

  1. Johanna
    | Reply

    A couple years ago, my family decided to go for the 1 gift for 1 person “secret Santa” style. Best thing we ever did, now it’s a fun part of every christmas! Along with the name, everyone has to write a suggestion for what they would love to recieve. This way every gift is well thought through and a little bit more special. Last year I got a two year subscription for an online, vegan cooking magazine – so much joy throughout the year and I know I just would never have got it for myself 🙂

  2. Jenny
    | Reply

    Great post Erin! I’m having a hard time with gift receiving when it comes to my family. I’ve been living abroad for almost 4 years now, and making gifts is the way my parents show me how much they miss me and care about me. 2 days ago I received a surprise package from my parents with lots of stuff in it for me and my partner. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve very much appreciated the thought behind it and the gesture, but a part of me was very upset: lots of waste (especially plastic wraps to keep the stuff protected), lots of food (that’s not really a big deal because we can slowly finish everything up or give away to friends), and 2 sweatshop made jumpers bought during a Black Friday Sale. Basically everything I try to avoid and I am against condensed in one big Christmas box. I tried already to explain them my life and what I am trying to do, and my parents are usually very kind and supportive, but it was somehow for me easier to explain them, and for them easier to process and accept, that I turned vegan rather than I am a minimalist trying to be conscious and to reduce my waste. Focusing on positive alternatives or options like you suggested might actually be a great idea for my next talk with them about this. Probably it will be much easier to focus on the positive rather than just hear what upsets me and I am trying to fight. As always, thanks for being such an inspiration Erin! xoxo

  3. Melodie
    | Reply

    That article is just what i needed!! My mum always goes way overboard with Christmas gifts and i’ve been trying really hard these lasts few months to make her understand that i don’t want 10 gifts like she always does but that i would much prefer 1 or 2 gifts, that respect my values and ethics (my boyfriend is helping me in that by texting her little reminders like “don’t even think about fast fashion she’ll be super sad” etc.! I don’t know if she’ll respect my wishes but if not, i tried and i’ll follow your last advice then! Thank you so much for this post it’s super inspiring because i think many people don’t feel like talking about gifts in that way so thank you for sharing this and i hope more will dare to speak up because of you! xo
    Melodie |

  4. Pia
    | Reply

    I love this article! I agree that it is a tricky topic. From my experiences in the past I think I was too rude and not considerate enough of other people’s feelings and point of view. However, in my experience if you appear really against certain types of presents the people close to you will eventually accept it. But it takes time! What I like to do, if the person I want to buy a gift doesn’t come up with a wish of their own, is to gift things I really would like and I believe the receiver enjoys as well. So for example, I bought my best friend her favourite chocolate for her birthday and another one got some organic shower gel. By doing this, I’m hoping that the people pick up on it and consider it the next time they want to get me something. Besides, I always try to get something they can use up, so it won’t clutter their space for ever. If I cannot come up with an experience, I also like to come up with something – I think – the receiver will use almost everyday.

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