Here’s the thing with gift-giving: It’s the thought that counts. Granted, this can sometimes be a disturbing thought (i.e. the time my brother bought me a minions shirt for Christmas), but mostly it’s an important reminder that someone went to the trouble of picking out a present for me. It’s a nice, touching act that I should be grateful for, even if they missed the mark.
But unfortunately for me, remembering this mantra just means I feel guilty for ultimately throwing out a gift, even if I truly never use it. Not to mention, the earth doesn’t really need more stuff in landfills, so throwing pretty much anything in the trash can make me feel bad. However, living in a tiny apartment (Manhattan rent is not kind, unfortunately) necessitates me only keeping items that I use frequently or that genuinely spark joy. Please don’t tell my aunts this, but shoes three sizes too big paired with a sweater two sizes too small don’t quite give me that Marie Kondo feeling.
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So, I’ve built up some experience with gifts that I don’t want, but I also don’t want to throw away. For everyone looking to lighten their load after the holiday season, here are a few ways I try to thoughtfully recycle gifts:
Do a white elephant gift exchange
In the past, my friends and I have gathered after Christmas to declutter and exchange gifts. We’ve done a Yankee Swap, where everyone brings a gift (or multiple!) they weren’t thrilled with, and partakes in a semi-traditional exchange where everyone picks a gift, or steals one that suits their fancy. (I have a friend who’s slightly bitter that I took her cat socks seven years ago. But, to be fair, I do still wear them! Fight me, Hayley.) In my experience, everyone ends up with something they’ll likely use, or at the very least, they don’t have to worry about their old gift anymore.
Plus, this is easy to do virtually and is a great way to extend the joy of the holiday season a little longer.
Donate to your community
While it’s always good to check in with local shelters to see if they’re in need of anything you can provide, that’s not the only way to donate gifts that just aren’t for you. For one, try your neighbors! In my apartment building, a lot of old-but-still-good items sit in the lobby for the taking. There are plenty of benches, crock pots, books, and more that have disappeared quickly.
If you don’t think your neighbors would appreciate the clutter in common areas, there are, of course, ways to find willing recipients online. I’m part of my neighborhood’s “Buy Nothing” Facebook group, which allows people to find a new home for things they need to part with. Sometimes I might scroll through the group and think, “Who would want that?” only to immediately find the answer is “at least two people in my six-block radius.” There’s also the NextDoor app, where you can chat with your community and find out if anyone wants your unwanted items.
It’s easy to just say, “Give it to someone else!” But I think the important thing is to pass it on with some integrity: Think about someone in your life who might really enjoy the gift, and let them know why. Give someone else the lovely “I thought of you!” moment.
Recently, my roommate’s boyfriend, who works in a hospital, received a lot of general wellness donations (including lotions, essential oils, gift cards and more) from people wanting to show their appreciation for frontline workers. He was overwhelmed with many presents he couldn’t possibly use by himself, and my roommate went through the items he accumulated and picked out some things she thought I might be interested in. While neither he nor she were excited by sheet masks or a massage ball, let me tell you, I was thrilled. One man’s useless trigger point ball is another (horrendously postured) woman’s saving grace.
Receiving a present should never be something that stresses you out (or, in my case, makes you think about the mortality of the earth). It’s important to remember you can appreciate the gift, and then move it to a loving new home when the opportunity arises.
Originally published January 13, 2021