How to Stop Receiving Unwanted Gifts

Earlier this week, I asked my Instagram followers for a topic to write about in this week’s blog post. I wanted to know what information people would find most helpful. I received a pile of great ideas!

Bento bag in action

One topic came up several times that I also struggle with.

After I posted this response, many people said they needed ideas for dealing with this

When people ask me—and I hear this question often—what I find most difficult about zero waste, I say other people. After many years of living this way, I have my routine down, I don’t find it difficult where I live and I enjoy it immensely. But sometimes, well-intentioned friends and family wanting to do something nice for me try to give me stuff I just don’t want. They may not understand what zero waste means or they may not take my lifestyle seriously. And I probably haven’t explained well that I really don’t want gifts. Or they might not realize that I don’t merely write about this stuff, I actually live by my religion. And I am observant! 

If you no longer want to receive gifts—either the quality stuff or just the landfill in transition—with some friends and family, you can have a frank discussion about gift giving and with others, you simply cannot. These suggestions won’t work in every situation. But if you can convince even a few people to fulfill your request, you’ve made progress!

1. Manage expectations

To reduce disappointment, let your family and friends know well in advance that you no longer want to receive gifts. I asked my kids last month to please donate to for Mother’s Day and I repeated my request this week. MK said she already donates to monthly, so she said she would donate to NRDC instead.

If you’re planning a birthday party or wedding or baby shower and don’t want gifts, drive the message home by adding “No Gifts Please” to the invitations.

2. Explain why you no longer want to exchange gifts

Tell your friends and family that you don’t have room in your home for more stuff, that your kids have too many toys as it is, that your home is a plastic-free zone, that you’re broke and can’t buy anyone gifts and so accepting them will feel awkward, that you just Maria Kondo’d your home and have it just the way you want it or whatever other reason you have. 

3. Tell them how they benefit

This is your best bet for convincing people to do things that they don’t want to do. Tell them what’s in it for them. Point out that they will save money and time by not shopping and will experience less stress worrying about what to get you. 

4. Suggest some alternative gifts

If they still really want to do something for you, tell them you’d love to go to your favorite restaurant or spend time together or you crave a batch of their famous chocolate chip cookies or you could use a massage or you’ll take the cash instead (maybe don’t say that…).

You could ask grandparents to buy your kids stocks or bonds. I bought my daughter MK Microsoft stock with any money people ever gave her, beginning at birth. It paid for half a year of university 19 years later!

5. Go to the top

If everyone in your family listens to your commanding grandmother, for example, enlist her to your cause if possible. This will help others fall in line. 

6. Realize that some people will continue to buy you gifts you don’t want or need

No matter how well you explain your desire to opt out of exchanging gifts, or how often you explain it, some people will insist on giving you gifts. Just accept that they haven’t heard you and thank them for the present.

When my daughter MK was little, her great grandmother sent crappy gifts—once literally! One Christmas, Great Grandma sent MK a secondhand onesie with a brown streak down the inside back. I don’t understand how she could have possibly missed it. 

MK was only two or three at the time but after that experience, we practiced how to receive gifts with gratitude rather than a dry heave. I would hand MK an imaginary gift and tell her what was inside. She would pretend to open it and then look up at me and say something like, “Thank you for the box of dirt.”

7. Be diplomatic

Preachy does not work. When someone gives your child yet another junky plastic toy built to break, resist the temptation to get angry and yell “Are you trying to kill more whales?!” You won’t win any supporters if you judge people.

You might not want to then and there say “Please don’t buy us presents.” The person will feel insulted. Try numbers 1 and 2 later on before the next gift-giving occasion. (It depends on the person though.)

8. But at the same time, stop worrying so much about being nice

Some social norms need to end—including the exchange of useless gifts on every occasion and the expectation that women please everyone all of the time. (Ninety percent of my readers are women.)

In late 2018, the UN issued the IPCC report, which states that we have only 12 years (now, 11) to implement the drastic measures necessary to keep warming from exceeding 1.5C between 2030 and 2052. Scientists concede that 2C warming is dangerous and that 3C—the level of warming we are on track to hit by the end of the century—threatens our civilization as we know it.

Six months later, the UN issued another distressing report stating that 1,000,000 species face extinction, threatening human society—species such as the insects that pollinate our crops. Our very life support systems have begun to fail.

These dire warnings put things into perspective. We can no longer continue to consume mindlessly, often for stuff we don’t actually need. If my pleas for no gifts render me a nasty woman, so be it. The parts of my brain that deal with worry are busy with other concerns.

13 Replies to “How to Stop Receiving Unwanted Gifts”

  1. Sally Goodman says: Reply

    Great advice!!

  2. Stories help.

    Here’s a podcast guest who decided to reduce waste in his home with his family — just reduce, not target zero. It happened during December, so the family decided to forego wrapping paper. That decision led them to replace material gifts with time together, which led to what they described as their best Christmas ever, not *despite* the lack of material stuff but *because* of it.

    He’s a Colonel heading a department at West Point, hardly a bastion of tree-huggers.

  3. rmwillcock says: Reply

    Thank you!! Its so hard with 5 kids and 3 sets of grand parents! I may be reading this article a few times!!

  4. While I appreciate the fact that many do not wish to receive gifts and I often feel that way myself, I think you have to look at the fact that denying people the opportunity to give give, robs them of the joy of giving. Many people are natural “givers.” I think it is much better to offer suggestions. Everyone needs something, even if it’s normal household items, a gift card for a meal out, etc! I tell my kids what I need/want. One year for Christmas I told my kids I wanted items to pack shoe boxes for needy children. My gifts came wrapped beautifully and were full of fun items that I am sure the needy children enjoyed. For those with children who get too much plastic junk, every child needs clothing in the next size up, or maybe some tickets to the zoo or an educational venue. Ask for those kinds of things. Don’t steal the joy of “givers.” Get creative!

    1. I have friends and family donate to a cause I really care about instead of buying me gifts. It’s a great way for everyone (me, the giver, and the cause/project/organization) to benefit!

  5. this is a great topic. i so want to stop exchanging gifts. although we have really cut back, i would much rather spend time with the ones i love then receive a gift that will more than like end up at Goodwill in a year or two.

  6. It has always bothered me that my sons spend money they don’t really have to spare, buying gifts for me. My solution is to tell them exactly what I need or want.

    This mothers day I need geraniums….all mine died last year when I waited too long to get them inside for the winter.I managed to find a package of seeds and I grew some red ones, so my sons task is to find me geraniums other that red.

    I usually send them links to books I want or items I use in my zero waste endeavours eg: essential oils, and many times they buy me plants for the garden.

    My one son is a computer geek so he gets the things we need to keep our computers going.

    I know telling them what to buy spoils some of the surprise but it beats wasting money and their time.

  7. These are some great suggestions! I’ll definitely be needing to put some of these into practice because my husband and I are having a baby this August. She isn’t our first (but is definitely our last haha) so we really don’t need anything for her and we’ve also decided to purchase anything we do NEED second hand or find from swapping and finds on our local Buy Nothing group.

  8. Love your style Anne Marie. Will implement this, with more gusto than I have before, to my gift-loving family-in-law 🙂

  9. says: Reply

    Great post. My mother-in-law was a wonderful gifted. One year she donated to the heifer foundation in the name of the kids. Maybe wasn’t the best first non gift because my son kept asking to visit his chickens in Africa. She gifted little trinkets from her home that she saw they admiring. She made board games from doodads around the house. One year she gave them a packet of gifts she didn’t buy them…it was full of outrageous, ridiculous, definitely don’t need things- we had so much fun laughing over those silly things that people actually buy.

  10. […] both ways: I feel guilty for not appreciating the gifts I am given. Zero waste chef wrote in her blog post about “how to refuse gifts and still be a socially acceptable human.” I’ve never […]

  11. Maureen Suttman says: Reply

    How about learn to use words to tell people how much they mean to you instead of buying or baking or making anything. Give the gift of the word you hide from saying when you give something a thing. Words people. Use your words.

  12. Alida Franco says: Reply

    It is a sad commentary on our society that the only way people seem to express giving is through material gestures. What ever happened to friendship, a phone call, a hug, good wishes or sharing some moments. It is so easy to dispatch a gift.

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