The Guide to Bad Gift Giving – How not to suck at it

It’s that time of year where everyone is focusing on gifts. More specifically, people are focused on BUYING gifts — making a list, checking it twice, reading gift guides, sourcing good deals, finding shipping times that work for last minute splurges, and of course, all that wrapping.
Can I tell you a secret?
As a professional organizer, you might be surprised how much time I spend with my clients editing their possessions and how often the answer to letting go of something was “But this was a gift…” That’s right. Loved ones are giving gifts that are weighing people down in clutter and in guilt. Do you know if you’re one of them?   
This time of year, the consumer products industry and the retail sales industry are putting ALL of their marketing dollars into hoping you want to buy, buy a lot, buy often. They’re willing to sell you everything from cars with big bows on top to the candy-cane-flavored lip balm at the register, and everything in between.
They are more powerful than us, and they’re winning. We’re losing. A lot of us are losing BIG, and not just financially, but in this war against clutter. The clutter we invited into our homes, like a vampire. Or the clutter that comes as a gift from someone who loves us. 
If you want to express your love and gratitude for people with a gift, but don’t want to be a part of the problem, let’s talk about some things to keep in mind. 
handing a goldwrapped gift

Let’s talk about the gifts that are voted “Most Likely to Become Clutter”: 

A I’m sure there are plenty YOU can add to the list, but here is MY idea of the categories of gifts that just don’t land or don’t last:
  • the ”not quite rights”  It’s KIND of like what someone wanted, but they wanted something VERY specific, and this isn’t it. U remember in the 80’s when a friend of the family bought us a ”not the real Trivial Pursuit game, because that’s sold out everywhere, but this one is fun, too!” — When someone had their heart set on something, but it wasn’t quite right, and there’s no easy way to say or, worse, return it.
  • the past pasttime” gifts — For the person you think still collects unicorns, or love baking, or binged-watched The Office: if you’re getting a gift that’s attached to something that you think you know about them, you might want to check if that’s still something they’d VALUE as a gift today. “I know you loved “The Office” so I got you this Jell-O mold with a stapler in it for your desk!” 
  • the I didn’t really put any of that thought that counts into this generic gifts. I mean, fine, if you’re into the dance of exchange gifts, but not really into the art of SELECTING gifts, by all means, please include a return receipt. Nothing says, “I remembered you just as I was approaching the register”  or “This was on a pretty good sale and I hate to pass up a bargain”
  • the “trojan horse” gifts — any gift that isn’t pure in its intention or has some hidden message built in. The exercise equipment that someone thought, ”Well, if you just had the right tools, maybe you’d be motivated to do something about your health.” The ”you never dress up anymore” sweater you hoped someone might love and change their looks for you. The cookbooks intended to improve someone’s cooking, because YOU don’t like eating their food. These are not gifts; they are items you think this people might use in order to conform to your expectations of them. These are judgements wrapped in a bow. Just don’t. 
  • the “gender-specific” gifts, when gender isn’t so specific anymore — treading lightly here, when there are family members who don’t quite understand, don’t realize, or don’t support someone’s gender fluidity and station on that journey, the gender-specific gifts that are not affirming in the gift-receiver’s eyes can be anywhere from unappreciated to downright hurtful. An example might be the pretty dress you want to get your niece because she “always dresses like a tomboy“. (See: “trojan horse” gifts) In general, when you can stay away from gender-conforming gifts, maybe do that. 
  • the ”takes more than it gives” gifts —
    • something that requires a lot of assembly without someone to assemble the gift
    • something that needs a bunch of different accessories to commit to and own as intended, or even one, like a bike without a helmet
    • something that just takes up so much room you’d need to sacrifice a piece of furniture, counter space, or a whole cupboard  for. Please, no giant life size teddy bears
    • And please, no surprise live animals, from goldfish to golden retrievers, unless you know everyone is ALL IN on this. 
  • the I guess I’m stuck with this forever because it has my name on it gifts — Personalizing seems fun, but this now becomes something that not only can’t be regifted or donated in the future, the receiver will feel obligated to hold onto it FOREVER, even if they don’t need it, use it, or love it. It’s a prison sentence for the gift and the giftee. Don’t sentence your loved ones or your resources to prison. (PS – on a related note, if you are giving a BOOK, awesome – personalize a note to stick INSIDE the book as a bookmark. Personal messages inside the book make it harder to donate that book in the future, because people think, “No one will want this; it has a personal note from a friend written on the inside flap“.
  • theI’m cleaning out my house regifts — Now, normally, I’m a big fan of regifts. But the point here is that you want to make sure you know the gift receiver will love it, not just that it’s making YOU feel good that you found something a new home. Unless you know for a fact that this person has been marveling, coveting, or truly NEEDING what you own, don’t make this their gift. Give it to them on a random Thursday, but still, because you’re sure they want it.
  • the “five-seconds fad” gift — if you’re excited about the reaction someone’s going to get when OPENING the gift, but can’t picture how it will continue to be a part of their life after the first day or even first five minutes of receiving it, this is pretty much instant clutter.
  • the this is so cheap it broke right away, and now I have to figure out if I want or can fix it gift. If it’s a bargain and made in a country not known for its lasting and durable items, there’s a good chance that it could end up broken, and fast. Now, your giftee is left with something that may or may not be fixable, and it will surf the kitchen counter in a “will I or won’t I?” pile for 6 months while they decide if “well, it was a gift from so-and-so, so we should probably try to fix it” is a louder answer than “It will never get fixed, and we can’t donate it because it is broken. It goes in the trash.” A few years ago, the most popular gift in this category was The Drone. Broken, lost, broke something else… this was a quick-to-be-clutter gift!
woman disappointed opening a gift box

So, what IS a good gift that won’t become clutter

Got a gift  you received that you just don’t want to keep? Remember, the person who loved you enough to get you a gift would love for you to have your sanity more. Let’s normalize regifting.  Let’s normalize sharing items with neighbors in a Buy Nothing or Everything is Free page on Facebook. Let’s normalize donating brand new items. Heck, even sell it on Facebook Marketplace and take that money and apply it somewhere else you’d love, even if it’s not for you. Something that doesn’t cause clutter because it will actually be loved and used: 

Experiences Give the gift of learning, joy, adventure, memory-making! Whether it’s a membership to a local zoo or museum, tickets to a show or concert, or a class for something they’ve expressed they’d like to learn, the experience gift is often the big winner of the day!

Gift cards/Gift certificates — When you can help people finance the activities they always do or dream of doing, you’re giving a gift that can make a difference year round, on their own terms. Be sure it’s for something you know they’d truly love and do. I recently helped a client pass along a gift certificate for a massage; this wasn’t a great gift for someone who genuinely doesn’t like to be touched! I personally let go of a spa certificate that I received for a place that would take me an hour to drive to; I’d undo the value of the massage on the drive home! I’d rather pass it along to someone who will appreciate it, and I know the gift-giver just didn’t think about the big picture of it when they gave it to me. I’m not *obligated* to go through an experience I won’t appreciate JUST BECAUSE IT WAS A GIFT. 

Edible gifts  okay, this isn’t 100% clutter free, especially if you’re giving a gift basket full of a lot of different foods that you don’t know for sure will be consumed. I liberate a lot of pantries of jellies, odd-flavored crackers, and the wrong-grind-of-coffee-for-my-coffee-maker gifts that came out of baskets and now we have to decide if it’s suitable for a food pantry or becomes trash. BUT, if you know they’re a crowd pleaser for the giftee, AND you know it’s not conflicting with some of their goals (like watching their weight or cutting back on alcohol), edible gifts are less likely to be clutter 

Time Sharing time with others or investing your time so that you can do things for others (or they can do things because of your help) can go a long way. Offering to babysit, pet sit, run errands, be a driver, just give the value of your TIME so that things can happen in their life can be a priceless gift!

Charity — So many people are saying “I have ENOUGH stuff… I want to help others”. Reach out to those people you’d normally buy gifts for and say “In lieu of stuff this year, I’m open to supporting a cause you really care about. Would that be something you’d appreciate this year?” 

Cash towards a bigger cause/wish For your loved ones who say “I have enough stuff” but are also struggling to do things they really care about, like take the family on a vacation or get that roof replaced or a pool installed, they may very well appreciate the money. Feeling like cash is impersonal? Make it personal with a heartfelt note: “I know you don’t need a sweater or a scarf or a book you won’t read. Here’s a gift towards that BIG project I know you care about and has been keeping you up at night. I love you and care about you, and hope this makes a difference.”


And the even more controversial: Don’t give gifts at all, or cut way back on the what and the who.

I know this one seems like a big move, too scary, or at least too much to do all at once. Maybe you put in a multi-year plan around reducing the number of people you exchange gifts with or buy for, or the size/amount you’re spending on items that are destined to be edited clutter in the future. And yes, some of your family members might find this a hard one, so a long-term communication strategy might help. Here are some strategies to make a shift.

– To the friends that keep exchanging gifts out of habit and tradition: “Let’s not exchange gifts this year. Let’s go out and enjoy an evening together.” 

– To the person who truly wants to provide great gifts, but can’t come up with ideas they’re happy with: “I’m cutting back on physical gifts this year… I see and hear so many people feel overwhelmed with clutter and I don’t want to be part of the problem while I’m trying to share love and gratitude. Is there something special you’d love that wouldn’t be “stuff”?”

– To the Grandparents/Aunts/Uncles… if you are being told “please, your grandchild has enough stuff”, I’m begging you, listen to them and RESPECT them! You may feel entitled to shower and spoil your grandchild/niece/nephew with things, but if you’re hearing from the parents that this is a problem for their home — for the parents OR for the kids — find another way to indulge in joy. When they tell you “what the kids would really love is to spend more time with them,” believe them.  

– For the adult siblings and their spouses – maybe go from a “everyone buys for everyone” to a “let’s pick a name out of hat and just give and receive one gift each per adult. 

I’m not trying to be a Grinch or take the joy out of the holidays and gift giving.


I know this one was a bit in-your-face. I’m hoping to shed light on the fact that consumerism has control over so many people, and the gift-giving season is its secret weapon.

When I work with clients who look at gifts and say to me, “This was a gift, I’d feel too guilty to let it go,” I try to remind them that the person that gave it to them definitely didn’t intend for you to not have control over what you own in life.

They didn’t give it to you to make you feel guilt and fret.

I remind them that their loved ones care about their happiness more than they care about whether or not you still kept that chafing dish from your wedding, even if you registered for it, if all it is doing is, well, chafing you.  

Shop wisely, my friends. Or, you know… not at all.

Happy Holidays!




[Ready to tackle YOUR clutter? The 2023 Clever Girl Organizing Challenge registration opens November 23-Jan 8.]





  1. Hazel Thornton

    I LOVE THIS POST! I’ve written about gift giving myself — a few times — but this one really levels up. I hope you know what I mean by that, because I’m not sure myself, lol! (I agree with every word.) I just wanted to say way to go, Clever Girl!

    • clevergirlorg

      Aw, thanks so much, Hazel! Love that you checked it out and appreciated it enough to share such a rave review! Thank you for taking the time and for tackling this tricky subject in your own media, too!


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