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Should You Sell Unwanted Gifts?

in Joan's Posts, Rants, Sell Your 'Stuff'

gift-wrapping

Note: This is a post from Joan Otto, Man Vs. Debt community manager. Read more about Joan.

One of our readers shared the following story and question with me, and gave me permission to share it here:

I’m trying to downsize and get rid of my crap to pay off my debt.  I also don’t like clutter so I want to get rid of my stuff so my family of 3 can comfortably fit into 1100 square feet. But my father-in-law is the king of crap, and gives us stuff we’ll never use and never need. I have 2 hammocks (and live in an apartment), a circular saw, tons of memorabilia from our alma mater, garden gnomes, at least 3 universal remotes (for my 1 television), water skis, and tons of other stuff I can’t even think about. They were all gifts from him and he’s a very generous person, but in the past we’ve tried to explain to him that we don’t need this stuff and never use it. We would rather he save his money for retirement but told him if he insists on getting us anything, just give us the cash instead. But he doesn’t listen. I would feel bad getting rid of the stuff since it was a gift, but I just can’t use it. Is it OK for me to sell this crap as well? Or am I obligated to keep it since it was a gift?

We’ve talked around this issue here at Man Vs. Debt several times, but never addressed it specifically, so I’m thrilled to be able to share my take on this today.

Let me preface this by saying that don’t think there is one right answer to this question. Is it “OK” to sell a particular item? I probably can’t decide that, but I can help you key into some phrases that might help you walk through the decision!

Obligation

I’m starting at the end of our friendly neighborhood reader’s question: Am I obligated to keep it since it was a gift?

My take on this is that if there is anything in your life that’s there because of obligation only, I encourage you to revisit it.

  • Gifts: This is the most obvious one, and the one our reader asks about. Does something being a gift mean you’re obligated – that you have to – keep it? I’m a pretty resounding no on this personally.
  • Time commitments: These are another kind of “obligation.” If you’re doing something that lines up with your priorities and/or that you enjoy, great! But if you’re committed to something – whether leading a Scout troop or attending a monthly potluck with your neighbors or participating in an online class – that you’re only doing because you feel obligated, I encourage you to see whether you can use that time elsewhere!
  • Hobbies: I’ve written about this before, when I talked about what the Olympics can teach us about expensive hobbies. If something isn’t a good fit for you any more, don’t keep doing it because the money and time you’ve already invested make you feel obligated to continue.

See how obligation turns into a code word for “I don’t want to do this but I don’t know how NOT to” in these situations? I give those other examples because I think they sometimes can be easier to “get” than thinking about tangible gifts.

If you’re at the point of describing something as an obligation, I think it’s pretty clear it isn’t something that otherwise lines up with your life and values.

Now, does that mean you can get rid of it? Generally, I say yes, get rid of things you’re not going to love and use. But sometimes obligations go beyond “I have no practical use for this.” Sometimes, we get into…

Sentimentality

A hammock for your apartment and three remotes for one TV are one thing. But as we branch out beyond our reader’s question to the other kinds of obligations we face when it comes to stuff, what about sentimental gifts? Maybe you’re NEVER going to use that falling-apart coffee table, but it was your grandmother’s! Oh, and what about the necktie you get every year for Father’s Day… even though you don’t wear ties EVER?

You know this type of gift. You’re keeping it because it either DOES mean something – or is supposed to.

In these cases, it’s sometimes harder to pull the trigger on getting rid of an item. One of my favorite Man Vs. Debt guest posts of all time tackled that idea with a sentimental scrapbook – a way to simplify by taking photos or keeping particularly memorable items in a simple form. (I have a T-shirt blanket patched with  my favorite old clothes that serves this purpose, for instance.)

So if you’ve gotten a sentimental gift… I still say it’s OK to let it go. But I do think there’s value in documenting the memory or the story of the item when possible, too!

Avoiding unwanted gifts

Our friendly reader actually tackled this part of the situation as well as I think most people can: He’s already had the conversation with his father-in-law about the unwanted gifts.

That’s hard to do, and the exact dynamics of doing so are going to vary WILDLY from relationship to relationship. In general, though, I think having a conversation about gifts is one of the best ways to avoid the bad feelings of obligation and guilt we talked about above! Some ideas for making such a conversation work:

  • Don’t make it about the items. Realistically? You pretty much can’t go to someone and say, “Hey, I don’t like the kinds of presents you give me.” That’s kind of not how being human works, right? The conversation you need to have has to be about giving in general, and is a good time to talk about your values, your lifestyle, and your relationship with the giver. “Hey, is it possible for us to talk about scaling back on Christmas this year? We’d love to be able to spend more time with you guys, so what if we all go away overnight instead of buying each other presents?”
  • Do have some suggestions in mind. Instead of hitting someone with the idea that you “don’t like” kitchen gadgets, or garden gnomes, or designer sweaters, be prepared with some “Hey, this is super-cool!” examples of things you do love. Some families use wish lists, and that can be great. If yours isn’t on board with that idea, even sharing observations while you’re out shopping together, or posting links to things you’re drooling over on shared social networks like Facebook, can be helpful. More times than you might think, you’re getting gifts that aren’t useful to you because your loved ones don’t know what would be!
  • Don’t get defensive (or offensive). Conversations with family members and friends about gifts can be surprisingly heated. (I mean, if you’ve been friends with someone for a decade and you just now are letting them know that they’ve never gotten your shirt size right, that’s a little rough, yeah?) Don’t get defensive and drop lines like “Well, but you GAVE it to me, so I can do whatever I want with it!” The fact is, someone cared enough to spend some of their money on you. If you can actually use the resulting gift, awesome. But even if you can’t, it’s important to respect the person and the effort.

Selling vs. regifting vs. donating

So far, I’ve studiously just been talking about getting rid of items that you won’t use and don’t want.

Is there a difference between donating an unwanted gift, regifting it, and selling it?

I have to admit, I’ve heard a lot of arguments about this, but in my own experience, I haven’t yet found any reason not to treat a gift the same way I would anything I purchased myself.

In fact, I’m not sure I see how selling a gift you won’t use is any different than returning a sweater in the wrong size to a store and getting a pair of pants instead.

But I know this is a HUGE hot-button issue for many people, so I’d like to specifically address this in the comments of today’s post.

QUESTION TO OUR MvD COMMUNITY: If you’re going to get rid of an item that was given to you as a gift, is it OK to sell it, or does it need to be donated? How does regifting fit in?

Discuss. :)

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Den February 17, 2014 at 9:39 AM

Once a gift is given, it is the recipients right to do whatever they want with it – sell it, give it away, donate it, regift it (if appropriate). To me it’s just STUFF…..the thought and love that came with the gift I keep:)

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Joy February 17, 2014 at 9:51 AM

If I don’t like the item or I’m sure I’ll never use it, I’ll sell it. But make sure the giver will never find out. :) If the gift has a special memory with it, I’ll ask myself if I am willing to let go of that memory or not. If yes, then sell it. Another option for me is to give it as a gift to a friend or family member whom I know *needs* it. But if I’m not willing to let it go then I’d better find ways to make use of it so it won’t just be a clutter in the house.

:)

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shannon February 17, 2014 at 10:25 AM

I decided (and talked over with) my kids didn’t need a bunch of presents for Christmas this past year. I sent an email to my family asking that they give the gift of time instead. I asked if they could decorate a “gift card” with an activity they could all do together. My kids thought it was a great idea and are loving the quality time spent with their Aunts and Uncles! Also, when I give a gift, I let the recipient know that it will not bother me if they don’t like the gift and want something else instead. I would rather they return the item for something they like than for the money to be wasted on something they don’t like/won’t use.

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Leah Spinrad February 17, 2014 at 10:38 AM

I asked for and received an electric guitar from my Dad and Step-Mom for my 14th birthday. I am 30 now and positive I will never ever play the guitar. My Step-Mom had it for a while- then it was in storage at their 300 sq. ft. cabin, My mother thought she was going to play so she has it now- but then it became clear to her she was never going to use it either. Its time to sell it- but I asked my parents if they wanted it first. They told me to sell it an enjoy the money.
In general when it comes to gifts the issue that took the longest has been re-training my parents that I don’t want “stuff” the way I used to. I was a hoarder and a clutterer when I was a child and nothing made me happier then a figurine or a candle holder or some other silly bric a brac. I have certainly gotten rid of many many presents they have given me, if I hadn’t I wouldn’t fit in my 750 sq. ft. house with my fiancee. At Christmas this year I got very little stuff! I think they finally got it.

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Chris February 17, 2014 at 11:59 AM

Great story, Leah. I think it’s great that you asked for and got their blessing to sell the guitar. But, on the other hand, I think that a clear “statute of limitations” had passed on this one, right? …. I think once a certain time period has passed, anything — with the possible exception of heirlooms — is definitely fair game. The question is: What is that time period. I guess it varies by family. … Here’s another question: What if you’re *finished* with the item? What if you got the new 900-page hardcover from Stephen King and then you read it in 10 days? Can it be immediately donated, sold, etc., if you don’t want it taking up valuable shelf space?

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Pat February 17, 2014 at 11:00 AM

I agree with Den. Once you gift something then it’s up to the receiver what they do with it. No shame; no blame. If it’s something that is considered a family heirloom then I would go back to the person you received it from and offer it back to them. Otherwise, do what you will with it. When we keep things out of guilt that sucks our energy. Often we don’t realize it until it’s gone. Free your space – free your mind. You’ll be amazed at how much clarity you’ll have and that will give way to ideas that can generate more money!

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Erin @ economag February 17, 2014 at 3:17 PM

The person who was given the gift has the right to do whatever they want to it. So I say sell the gifts, especially since they told the giver they didn’t want them. Everyone has family members that dump unnecessary stuff on them, and if everyone kept that stuff, minimalism would, sadly, not exist.

I make it clear to my family members I don’t want “stuff”. If they still give me stuff, I sell or donate it.

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Lisa February 17, 2014 at 3:40 PM

I personally do sell gifts that I am given that I will not use or no longer serve me. As I am wanting to reduce debt this is one of the best ways for me to generate some extra income to help towards the reduction of the debt.
If it is a recent gift I do tend to wait a couple of months before loading it up onto the online sites like Ebay, etc
If I can’t sell it after a month, I will reduce the price for the next month, if still not sold – then I would look at donating it to the charity organisations as it was an item I did not want anymore so there is no reason to hold onto it if I couldn’t sell it.

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Rebecca February 17, 2014 at 4:29 PM

I say it is ok to do all three if necessary. If you have asked for something specific from a close family member and they do not listen to what you would prefer instead.

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Hannah February 17, 2014 at 4:57 PM

Call me hard-hearted, but I don’t keep a gift if I don’t like or use it.
It is messed up to keep something just because someone gave it to you, or it was something your ancestor-from-three-generations-ago had.
If you Like it, or Use it, or Love it, then by all means keep it, within reason.
But please please don’t keep your house filled with stuff that is there only because it was gifted!
I am de-cluttering hard-core, and I’m not keeping anything unless we Love it or Use it.
This is a good reason to talk to others about gifting, especially at Christmas. Express that you don’t need anything right now and would love if they would donate to so-and-so charity instead!

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Rebecca February 17, 2014 at 7:24 PM

It’s very rare that I sell a gift. If I do, it’s because I already had it or I wait a few years before selling it. I received a DVD boxset a number of years ago that I watched many times, but realized that the last time I rewatched it was years before and I had no interest in rewatching it again. I sold it for $20 and didn’t feel too guilty about it. I do have somethings that I won’t sell, but probably won’t use (sentimental value?)

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Jason B February 17, 2014 at 8:44 PM

I’ve sold some gifts before. I will probably sell some more. I don’t see a problem with it.

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Marie February 18, 2014 at 12:40 PM

I come from a long line of pack rats. I think it is in my genes. I have had to learn to get rid of stuff and still have a way to go. I have learned that letting of physical stuff, for me, has allowed me to drop some emotional baggage as well. I never expected that to happen, but it did. It is so much less stressful when you have less clutter. I have a place for everything and can generally find things much easier.
I have tried to make good use of the sentimental items, even if I have to re-purpose them. I have an old coffee table that belonged to my dad and we are going to rework it to use in the garage for our shoes. I gave an OLD table of my dad’s to my step daughter to use. That was very hard for me, but what is the use of a table if it isn’t being used AS A TABLE!
My suggestion: just try it. Pick one thing at a time that you are attached to and make a decision to find some way to use it yourself or get rid of it. Would your loved one want you to just let it go to waste? Rework it or let someone else get some good use out of it.

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Cara February 18, 2014 at 4:18 PM

I agree, I wouldn’t advertise to the giver that I was getting rid of it (selling, regifting, etc.). Once the gift has been given, I think the receiver has the right to determine what to do with it. If it will be of more benefit to someone else, then it would have more value. If you think it has sentimental value, take a picture of it and keep the picture.

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Rhia February 18, 2014 at 4:36 PM

I’ve done all 3 with gifts and will do it again. Once its yours, you should do with it what you see fit and if its not something you want why not make sure it goes to good use with someone who does?

I remember reading on one of those de-clutter shows once as well, when getting rid of impractical things you feel obligated to keep, pick them up and think about how they make you feel. If there is no positive emotion from the item – get rid of it.

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tINA February 18, 2014 at 5:00 PM

I agree with that Leah’s parents told her. Sell the gift and enjoy the money.
It will mean more to both the giftie and giver if you use the money for what you enjoy. I know it’s hard especially when the gifts have sentimental value. But in the end you have to ask will this be of use in my life and will it bring me joy. If the answer is yes to either I would keep it but when the answer because no to both time to pass it along.
Great post!

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Mark February 20, 2014 at 5:09 PM

Sell the gifts or donated them to charity so they can find a home with someone that can use them. I don’t know how many countless times I’ve tried to explain to family and people that are close to me not to buy me materialistic things but instead, just spend time together or cook a nice meal for us. Almost 95% of the “stuff” that people give me as gifts ends up as a donation to charity shop for someone who could actually use it. As a society, we need to re-think the whole gift giving idea and stop passing the antiquated idea on generation to generation. Gifts with sentimetail values are things passed on that are priceless, not something you can run down to Target and buy. Giving gifts seems to be an easy way out for people to show they care about you. We are all in short supply of time these days, but finding a way to give the gift of time with the ones you love is much better than giving a materialistic item that will just end up in a land fill someday. Love your blog post Joan! I myself just became debut free after eight years of paying off all of my debut by myself. There is light at the end off the tunnel, the tunnel can just be a little long sometimes…

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martha preston February 22, 2014 at 4:26 PM

My rule is if enough time has passed and I haven’t used then its wasteful to keep it when someone could use it. Plus never give gifts to someone who might have a connection to the person who gave it to you

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Petrish @ Debt Free Martini February 23, 2014 at 8:09 AM

Everyone is yelling sell the gifts, but no one is thinking about the negative impact this could bring to this man and his father-in-law relationship. I know money is important, and trust me I’m dying to get rid of my debt, but family is more important. In fact the last time I checked family is more important than money.

Listen to big momma. Talk to your father-in-law one more time and explain to him that you need the money to make a better life for his daughter and grandchildren. I’m sure he would understand, and if he doesn’t, at least he got the heads up that you’re selling the gifts. That way it’s not a secret and you don’t have to sneak around him about this issue. At the end of the day he will be proud that you took a stand to take care of your family. I’m sure he wants you all to prosper.

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Lars February 24, 2014 at 9:35 AM

I re-gift instead, it saves me from buying another gift when someone has a birthday (I make sure they don’t know each other!) That said, I have never gotten hammocks, saws, water-skis or big ticket items of value – it’s usually make up or clothes/accessories – I think that it would be reasonable to sell those. It’s the thought that counts!

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Mark Thomas March 6, 2014 at 6:05 PM

I think it’s okay to do if you’re in a rough financial situation and selling the gift would truly benefit you. If the person gave you a gift then they obviously care about you, so it seems logical to me that they would want the best for you.

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