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Re-Gifting or Re-Giving?

Re-gifting or Re-giving?General wisdom these days declares that passing along a gift is tacky. Reasonable people get unreasonably offended when they even suspect that the puce scarf, the mug that says “It is All about Me,” or a silver-plated triple bonbon dish was first given to the giver by someone else.

As with most things, generally accepted “rules” don’t always generally apply. There is more to re-gifting than simply passing the trash.

I like to make a distinction between re-gifting and re-giving. Re-gifting often is an effort to meet an unwanted obligation. Re-giving, on the other hand, is passing along something that suits the receiver and is given with thought and care. Re-gifting is about the gift. Re-giving is about the relationship between the giver and receiver.

The plethora of “shoulds” around holiday gift-giving can strain many folks’ budgets and spirits. As much as they’d like to participate in the office Secret Santa or the family exchange, it may be just too much. For some, the solution is obvious: give away the gifts they got at another Secret Santa, from that package sent from a distant relative or from gifts received last year that have never been used and have been languishing in the bottom drawer. Done in the spirit of “let’s just get this over with,” it’s re-gifting. Done with heart, it can instead be a genuine gesture of friendship and love.

Turning Re-Gifting into Re-Giving

Here are some basic rules for transforming a re-gift into a true gift of giving.

Re-giving is thoughtful. It takes into account the receiver’s likes and desires. Let’s say, for example, that you got a blue sweater from your sister who lives 1,000 miles away. You never wear blue. You never wear sweaters. But a dear friend does. She’d love the sweater that, if you kept it, would join the other unworn sweaters on your closet shelf.

Re-giving means being careful. Being in a rush can cause mistakes. Take the time to be sure there isn’t a card from the original giver still in the box. Never pass along anything with your monogram on it unless the receiver has the same initial. Be sure to check the inside cover of a book in case the original giver put a thoughtful message and a signature inside.

Re-giving doesn’t have to mean “new.” One of my most prized possessions is a brooch my grandmother wore for years. Her mother had given it to her when she was 20. When my grandmother was quite old and on a fixed income, she wrapped up the brooch and gave it to me. When pressed to take it back, she was adamant that it would give her great pleasure to see me wearing it. Was it expensive? No. Was it worn? Yes. But the heart in the gift made it special.

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Re-giving takes the original giver into consideration. If you know she or he will be offended if you’re discovered, don’t do it. It’s not worth the resultant drama. But some friends are close enough you can actually tell them what you’re doing, saying something like, “I love that you still think of me as someone who can wear a sweater with a risqué neckline, but my current soccer mom life doesn’t include events where I’d wear it. Let’s think of someone we can give it to who would enjoy it.”

Then again, there are some people who live so far away and you see so seldom that they’ll never have occasion to see that you’ve passed it on. Thank the sister who gave you the blue sweater. Tell her you appreciate that she thought of you and went to the trouble to send it. All true. Then pass it along with no regrets.

Been Re-Gifted?

If you think you have been re-gifted, consider the source and the intent.

Recognize that not all holiday giving is from the heart. For at least some people you may be one of the “shoulds” (like those famous office Secret Santas). If that’s the case, just say “thank you” and keep your peace. It isn’t worth the hard feelings that would result if you gossip about it at the office coffee pot.

Think about whether the gift did come from the heart even if it didn’t come directly from the department store. When I was 18, my grandmother sent me a perfectly horrible sparkly gold dress that was four sizes too big. Although she was barely getting by on Social Security, she wanted to give me something. Who knows where she found that monster! Being 18 and stupid the way 18-year-olds sometimes are, I was hurt and mad.

Fortunately, I had a roommate who was wiser and who reminded me that it was something my grandmother probably picked up at a thrift store because that’s what she could afford, that it was meant to be a bit of holiday sparkle, and that she probably had no idea what size I wore. Chastened, I wrote Grandma a thank-you note and put the dress in a local clothing bin. P.S. When Grandma asked me how I liked it when I next saw her, I lied. I told her I really loved it for holiday parties and she beamed with pleasure. Sometimes a white lie is its own kind of gift.

Consider whether the giver is too overwhelmed (or depressed or preoccupied) to participate meaningfully in gift-giving this year. When such people somehow pull it together to re-gift, however badly, it’s important to give them the gift of compassion. Express gratitude that they somehow found the energy and time to remember you at all, regardless of the gift.

Laugh it off if someone else is tactless enough to “out” the person who gave you a re-gift. Some people are mean-spirited enough to say something like, “Oh, she got that from her mother last year and now she’s stuck you with it.” Such people shouldn’t be rewarded for upsetting you. Instead, make a joke, change the subject, or derail the meanness with a comment like “Isn’t it wonderful that she thought of me?”

Then again, there are people who delight in being the Scrooge of the season. They may pass along things they don’t want or don’t care about just to get the whole giving thing over with. Say “thanks” and let it go. There’s no point in getting into it with them. Scrooges like being Scrooge. Don’t let it dampen your own Christmas spirit.

Exchanging holiday gifts is intended to be a way to honor and please people in our lives. When we give gifts, whether new or a pass-along, it really is the thought that counts. When we receive a gift, someone had to pick it out, wrap it, mail it or deliver it. All that effort deserves our appreciation even if we think it might be a castoff; even if it isn’t something we want or like. After all, being a thoughtful giver and a gracious receiver is what the season is all about.

Re-Gifting or Re-Giving?

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Re-Gifting or Re-Giving?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 12, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.