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 I 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!
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…
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?