The Burden of Gifts


Hello, groovy freedomists. Today we are proud to offer a guest post from Penny, a terrific blogger who blogs over at

Mrs. Groovy and I are big fans of Penny. And before we tell you why this is so, we want to share some pertinent facts about Penny.

Penny is a teacher and a reformed hoarder of shoes. She blogs about decluttering, spending, and living a more purposeful life. But most importantly, she blogs about battling six-figure debt on two teachers’ salaries (her husband is a teacher as well). Great freakin’ stuff.

So why is Penny one of our go-to bloggers?

Well, for starters, who doesn’t like to read about a real groovy person battling a loathsome debt monster? And who doesn’t like to read the work of a blogger who has such command of the English language? Very few bloggers we know can use a word such as “perspicacity” and still maintain a very inviting blog. But most of all, Penny is one of our go-to bloggers because she has a great moral sense—and has a great knack for keeping Mr. Groovy in line. Whenever Mr. Groovy veers off into ethically questionable territory, she is there with a kindly comment to guide him back into the human race. Heck, if it weren’t for Penny, Mr. Groovy would still maintain that higher education was created by the devil to pollute minds and drain wallets.

Without further adieu, then, here’s an example of Penny’s exquisite moral sense applied to something we don’t normally think is fraught with ethical challenges—gift-giving. It should come in very handy this Christmas. Enjoy.

“You haven’t given me a gift. You’ve given me an obligation.” Of all the witticisms, one-liners, and pearls of wisdom that Sheldon Cooper has uttered, that gem about gift giving is one of my favorites. He spoke those words in regards to the implied reciprocity of gifting. While it may be taxing to some people to determine an equally exciting gift of similar value to give to the gifter on the next gift-worthy occasion, for me the real headache lies in determining what to do with a gift after I’ve received it. More specifically, are we obligated to keep the gifts we receive not because they offer utility or add fulfillment to ours lives, but simply because they have been given to us by someone else?

In a word, no. But let’s back up. Recently, I joined a decluttering/minimalism group on Facebook. Virtual pandemonium ensued when a women posted that she was going to donate a necklace that her mother-in-law had gifted to her. It was not a family heirloom nor anything of great expense (I believe it still had a Goodwill tag on it!). But she might as well have said she was selling her grandmother.

The assaults on this woman’s character were vicious. No wonder you have a strained relationship with her. She’s showing you affection the only way she knows how. How ungrateful. All of sudden, the same people that advocated getting rid of beloved children’s toys that were no longer played with and favorite books that were no longer read wanted to get sentimental, lampooning someone else for not doing the same. While that “ungrateful” woman and I may be equally horrible people, I maintain that once a gift is given, it up to that individual to do what he or she would like with it.

If you give someone a frame, do you tell them where to hang it? If you buy someone an outfit that doesn’t quite fit, should he or she gain or lose weight? If you send someone cookies, do you tell them how to eat them? These questions are all absurd.

The entire notion of a gift receipt is centered on the fact that sometimes people have different tastes or need different sizes. I can no longer think of a single store that doesn’t have a “gift card mall” in it. Nevermind choosing a gift card for the store you’re shopping at, choose a gift card to any store in a fifty-mile radius. I’m fairly sure one of the reasons why gift cards have become so popular is the belief that receivers will be able to choose something they really love. Why, then, do we feel so obligated to keep things that were given to us?

I’m not suggesting that every gift you receive should be exchanged, sold, or donated. If it means something to you, treasure it. If you’ll use it, be my guest. I do, however, think that if a gift does not bring joy or usefulness to you, it is perfectly reasonable to part with it. Be grateful and sincerely appreciate the sentiment behind the gesture. Then, donate away.

So Tell Me…Am I an ogre? Have you ever felt a sense of obligation to keep something? Would you be offended if someone returned or exchanged a gift you gave them?

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  1. What interesting points to think about!

    I think that when someone gives you something that isn’t useful or wanted, your only obligation is to show gratitude for the thought they put into giving it. I don’t buy into the idea that you have to hold on to the gift for years and years–donating or regifting is totally fine in my book.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      Good point, Mrs. Chedda. The gratitude should be for the fact that someone cherishes you enough to give you a gift. What you do with the gift is really your business. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

  2. Thanks for sharing the wisdom of Sheldon Cooper. A gift certainly becomes yours as soon as you have it and this is surely what Ebay is for. Every Christmas we have a stash of ‘stuff’ to sell after the event but then I have little sentimentality about things. If we can exchange we will and anything we can’t sell we take to the charity shop. Particularly with Ebay I sometimes get feedback from buyers who are really pleased with their purchase and value some piece of stuff that we didn’t want to give house room, it is good to spread the joy of gift giving.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      I love that Carol! “It’s good to spread the joy of gift giving.” And I would never have thought to sell gift stuff on Ebay. Thanks for sharing.

  3. If I receive a gift I will not use, I promptly donate it (after I graciously accept it and thank the giver, of course). It took doing this a few times before I actually stopped feeling guilty about it, but I see no reason for stuff I don’t use to sit around and gather dust when someone else could be enjoying it.

    I try to be very careful about the gifts I give. I like to give useful (or consumable) gifts as well. If I can’t figure out a useful gift, I simply give a gift card.

    We once gave a gift card as a thank you to someone who had helped us out. They gave it back to us, right out refusing to accept it. I admit, I was a bit hurt (and put off) by the gesture. I do believe it is important to be gracious in accepting the gifts you are given (even if you don’t keep them).

    • I don’t know how I would react if someone tried to give me a gift back. I suppose they can do what they please with a gift — and giving it back could fall in that category. The only time I’ve ever given something back (or at least tried to) was the times when my grandma tried to give me money. We’d fight about it all the time. I thought I’d outsmart her and just hide it in her wallet. Then she’d hide it back in mine!

      • Mrs. Groovy

        I wonder if they viewed the gift card same as cash? I’m not excusing the behavior because I think it was rude. But some people are squeamish about receiving cash.

  4. I wouldn’t feel offended if someone returned something I got for them (and I definitely give gift receipts). I feel like a total ogre about the whole gift giving “thing”. I’m fine doing it for kids, but in our family we ended up many years just exchanging gift cards – which was silly. I agree with TJ that if I see something that I like for someone – I just get it and give it to them. We try to do “experience” gifts or visits where we do something to spend time together. We don’t have big shoppers in the family 🙂

  5. Perspicacity and moral guidance, wow! It’s an honor to share space with a fellow blogger on This Groovy Site. Congrats, Penny, on your friends and a great post.

    Ah, yeah, sell the junk! When we downsized, we sold a 100 year old credenza from my Grandmother for ~$100. The clutter’s gotta go!! They gave it to you, it’s yours to do with, as you like! (You may not want to tell them….)

    • Mr. Groovy

      Haha! I love it, Fritz. Whenever I go on one of my rants, I wonder if I’m going to get smacked down by Penny. She has me blogging on eggshells–but in a good way. I admire her sense of right and wrong and always welcome her thoughts–even if it’s a stern rebuke.

    • Kudos to you for selling the credenza if it felt like the right thing to do. I’m not a fan of keeping things that people don’t need or want. I’m also not a fan of getting rid of things just because that’s starting to trend a bit now. And it sounds like someone will really enjoy that credenza! 🙂

  6. I’m not one who tends to keep a lot of mementos around. I might end up regretting that someday, but I agree with Mr. Sheldon Cooper on this one.

    I just don’t like reciprocal gift giving. I’d rather just buy something for someone when I see something that reminds me of them, not because it’s socially expected or required, that defeats the whole purpose in my opinion.

    If someone wants to allocate their financial resources towards me, I’d rather have the cash so I can use it go kayaking or have a BBQ, more often than not, something sits on shelf and never gets used. The exception is when there’s something I would otherwise buy for myself and i just send a list of things I’ve been eyeing to the gift-buyer.

    I understand that some people just prefer giving physical gits as a way of expressing love, and I’ve learned to be more appreciative of that, but man, it’d certainly make my life easier if it wasn’t the social norm. It’s pretty stressful to find someone a gift that isn’t crap.

    • So my dad’s family does the DUMBEST grab bag ever. Everyone makes a list of things they want for $40 or less. Then you pick a name and shop for them off their list.

      I would either skip it entirely or just save myself the trip and swap $40 😉 Although, I do try to be really creative. Once, I had a cousin ask for cash, sushi gift cards, or jewels and gold. I know it was sarcastic, but I blinged out a pair of chopsticks and then wrapped the money around them. That was kind of fun. But mostly still just an exchange of dollars.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      We do well with giving gift cards or buying consumable items – like we’ve sent steaks to Mr. G’s father and spice or olive oil sets to his mom.

      Personally, I hate receiving clothing and always appreciate if the receipt is included. Chances are the item won’t fit me properly. And I’ve felt awful when I ended up throwing something out (usually after tucking it away in a drawer for several years).

  7. Wow, that sound like a terrible group to be a part of if the goal was to get tips on decluttering/minimalism and end up getting personally attacked when you try and do just that. Ouch! Tough crowd.

    I agree in theory with your premises, I just think many people don’t want to hurt feelings when it comes to certain family members. They would rather hold on to someone unwanted or not useful to avoid a situation of being called out on it.

    We do give gift cards as give but typically to a restaurant or an event like movie theaters, so it’s an experience gift and not just other department store.

    • I completely understand not wanting to hurt people’s feelings. And I really am sincerely grateful to be thought of.

      But I’m also learning that that doesn’t mean keeping things I don’t want. My mom once put it to me in a way that made things really clear. She said, “If I’m spending money on you, I want you to have what you really want or need. Or give me my money back!” Ha! So I really don’t have many qualms with parting with most gifts that aren’t for me.

      • Mrs. Groovy

        I agree about not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings. It’s such a touchy subject. Penny, I love your mom! She’s awesome!

        We also do a grab bag for Christmas with gifts $25 and under. And we allow stealing so the whole ritual is a lot of fun.

  8. Gah. Presents are bad enough, which is why I’ve tried to give mostly consumables (chocolates, bread and booze, or gift cards) to adult family members. Fortunately, we’re scaling back on gifts in the family this Christmas.

    My real issue is that I want to give away some of the stuff that was my mom’s (or my grandmother’s), but feel incredibly guilty about it. So much guilt in getting rid of anything like that, even though we don’t really have the room. But what am I going to do with a prayer stand, even if it was my Nana’s? Or more lovely pottery than we could ever display/use?

    • I’m a huge fan of gifting consumables or experiences! That’s my home-run swing for the holidays! As far as giving away things that belonged to loved ones, I struggled with this a lot when my nana passed away. I still have one of her cozy sweaters that I wear around the house, and I have one pair of shoes. It sounds crazy, but she is where my love of shoes came from. She had hundreds! And she kept one pair of stunning black and white heels even after she had her hip replaced. Maybe one day I’ll let them go, but for now…they’re mine 🙂 My mom had the rest of her clothes. She and her sisters weren’t sure what to do with them. So we found a women’s shelter that takes casual clothes and another organization that takes dressier clothes to help with job interviews! My mom cried most of the car ride to drop the items off, but I know she felt so good about it afterwards!

    • Mrs. Groovy

      Emily maybe you could try selling some of those items in a consignment shop? You won’t get nearly what they’re worth but they might be useful to someone else.

  9. I’m really enjoying these mash-ups of my favorite bloggy friends!! Great post.

    We definitely have no qualms about returning, exchanging, or re-gifting things. In fact, we had to reign in the kids because they were getting a little rude about it. They learned not to open birthday presents unless they really like them, so we can consider whether to trade them in for something else. For example, Goofball got a Matchbox car track as a present. He already has one and never uses it. He’s obsessed with Legos and was saving up for a Jurassic Park set. Why in the world would we keep another track that’s just going to take up space, when he can use it towards something he actually wants?

    Our post-birthday routine includes a trip back to the store to use gift cards and make exchanges. The problem is that the kids started saying things about returning the presents. I’m trying to teach them to convey gratitude, but that people don’t need to know what happens to the gifts afterwards.

    Now, my mother is a different story. I tell her over and over again to stop bringing “presents” for the kids every time she comes to visit. She brings them junk from the dollar store or who knows where, and it just creates clutter in my house :/

    • It’s such an honor to hang out here for the day! 🙂

      I like your strategy! I try to be really mindful of what my sister in law tells me when I ask what my nephews might want or need. I don’t want to add clutter. But I also think that’s because as someone who is struggling with decluttering I’m really sensitive to “more stuff”.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Urrggghhh! Clutter is a pox on the human condition. I have a hard enough time keeping clutter at a minimum–and I don’t have kids. Good luck with mom. I’m sure she means well. Can you convince her to give the kids gift certificates to McDonald’s or Pizza Hut instead?

      • Good suggestion, but she has suffered from financial issues for a long time – which is why I beg her to not spend money. So, she ends up finding something super cheap to give the kids. It’s just something to give them, not anything that can be re-gifted or put to any other use. She just can’t stand coming over to the house empty handed :/

        Once and a while she brings some sort of snack or candy – I tend to prefer sugar over the junk that clutters up our house.

    • We have the same problem with grand parents dumping the content of the local toy store on us what seems like weekly. We’ve taken to heading off some of them and repackaging for gifts to our sons friends on their birthdays. Between that and goodwill our kids are not overwhelmed with toys. They don’t have fun when there are so many toys they can’t move.

      Do I feel bad about the regifting? Not really as the grand parents even know we do it and yet they still drop off. It’s like a compulsion I guess.

      • It’s interesting to me how people feel like they can’t break the gifting cycle. I’m in a similar boat with one of my best friends. We always used to swear to each other, no gifts. We’d buy anyway. Now we just treat each other to coffee or manicures so we can spend time together and not deal with actual stuff.

        • Mrs. Groovy

          Some people just have a tough time visiting empty-handed when it comes to grandchildren. At least it doesn’t create any angst between you (FFT) and the kids. To me what’s worse is when grandparents buy expensive items that don’t fit within the value system of the parents – the values they’re raising their kids with. Then there’s trouble because the children want the gifts and the grandparents act like you’re denying both the children and them if you refuse the gifts.

          I much prefer the coffee and manicures between friends, Penny.

  10. It’s a shame the virtual Jeckyll and Hydes gave this poor lady such a hard time. Of course she can and should do what she wants with a gift. Sometimes it’s appropriate to ask the giver if he/she wants the gift back (let’s be honest, despite our good intentions most of us end up buying gifts that we’d like to receive ourselves), and sometimes that would be more awkward or hurtful.
    It does drive home the point that experiences can be better than stuff in so many ways. Even if you don’t like the event, at least it doesn’t take up space in your home for eternity!

    • I don’t know that I’d ever really be comfortable turning down a gift with the exception of money. Maybe I would…I’m not sure! But I definitely always give gift receipts if I’m not giving an experience or something people can eat/drink!

    • Mr. Groovy

      Thank you Julie and Penny. Great freakin’ advice. First rule of gift-giving: experiences over stuff. Second rule of gift-giving: if you must give stuff, include the gift receipt.

  11. The poor woman! Who cares what she does with it? no offense, but that FB group sounds like it is full of a bunch of ninnies…minus you, of course! 😉

    It’s so funny, my mom has this folding rocking chair that my aunt gave her 10 years ago. It matches nothing in her living room, is tiny and low to the ground (maybe for sewing?), and nobody ever sits in it for fear of breaking it or falling off…depending on their weight or how many cockatails they’ve had. The chair floats around the living room to different spots to be put out of the way of one thing then in the way of another (It’s a small room). Anywho, I asked my mom why she doesn’t just get rid of it and she says she can’t. Aunty gave it to her and would be very upset if she didn’t see it when she comes over. What a burden!! My mom has since decided to keep it in the basement and only bring it up whent Aunty is expected. I still think we should pretend someone broke it and chuck the thing! 😉

    • Mr. Groovy

      Definitely keep us updated on the rocking chair saga. I personally wouldn’t care if someone exchanged or sold a gift I gave him or her. But some people take it as an act of disrespect. Human nature is surely a fickle beast!