The regift: Friend or foe?

Christmas is over. You received some thoughtful presents, but also got some duds. That collection of cooking spices from your Aunt Madge? You hate to cook! Here's some sage advice from Marie, a self-confessed re-gifting addict.

Regifting has a tarnished reputation in today's consumer-driven society. Perhaps it's driven by businesses hoping to convince us to spend more money, or by a misguided quest to shower our loved ones with extravagances we can't really afford, or simply by a fear of seeming cheap. Regifting can not only be appropriate, but frugal and fun. Regifting is recycling elevated to an art form. Here are a couple points to keep in mind before you put away this year's Christmas presents.

The number one rule of regifting is: Mark who gave it to you and when you received it. While regifting in itself is nothing to be ashamed of, shame on you if you give it back to the person who originally gave it to you! I usually try to avoid regifting within the same social circle. If I got scented potpourri from someone at work, I may regift it to someone in my book group, but not to another co-worker. Marking items is crucial because you probably won't remember who gave you the gift six months later. Nothing kills a regifting possibility faster than forgetting the giver — that potpourri is going to sit there until I meet someone from another continent who couldn't have possibly given it to me in the first place.

Once an item is accurately labeled, it may be regifted as:

  • The Gag Gift. Do you do a group white elephant or yankee swap for Christmas? Know someone that has everything (including a sense of humor)? Sometimes the gift you got is so bad it's hilarious. Instead of tossing it, save it as a gag gift. After all, laughter is one of the best presents around. My gag gift drawer seems to be a popular destination for gifts from one particular relative of mine. They are purchased in earnest, but boy are they bad. So, give them a second life. If you find yourself with an inordinate amount of bad gifts, perhaps it's time to suggest to your family/friends that the gift exchange stops, or to name a charity to which they could donate in your name instead.
  • The ‘Thank You' Gift. Many gifts around the holidays are non-descript gifts meant to show a little appreciation or affection. It's not the money; it's the thought. You probably got some this year: mugs, generic stationary, candles, holiday ornaments, humorous little books, knick-knacks. And you probably will give some next year. Do you really need another mug, or can you repurpose it? I always give something to our wonderful mail carrier (who makes sure the packages are under the porch roof where they won't get rained on), to the support staff where I work (these type of employees are chronically under-appreciated), to our fabulous neighbors, and to other people who help me during the year. Often these gifts are cookies or candies that I make myself, but I like to tuck them into a regifted mug, or to adorn with a regifted ornament. This costs me nothing extra, but makes the gift more complete. (Reminder: For some services, an actual cash bonus is more appropriate and welcome. Housekeepers or live-in nurses, for example, deserve more than a plate of cookies at the end of the year.)
  • The Specialty Item. You hate it, but someone you know will love it. There's nothing wrong with saying as much — nicely. Snowman cookie jar? Give it to the snowman collector. Or cookie jar collector. Or the person who is famous for their holiday baking.

Regifting can also be applied for free/bonus items, such as those you receive when placing an online order. For example, if you order often from an online cosmetics retailer such as AVON or Garden Botanika, you can accumulate a nice assortment of free samples: lipstick, lotion, perfume, etc. Tuck a few of these into a pretty basket or a cosmetics pouch for a quick gift for a teenage girl or for somebody going on a romantic getaway weekend.

Here are some other tips:

  • Regift someone else's gift. Think garage sales/tag sales. Just because it's used doesn't mean someone on your list won't love it. Vintage dishware? Antique tools? Decorative bottles? But be selective; don't just buy it because it's a bargain — have a giftee in mind and be confident that they will like the gift. You may score great gifts with “online garage sales” like eBay or craigslist, too, if you're willing to budget for postage or do a bit of driving. Be a savvy shopper and read descriptions well so you won't be disappointed.
  • Regift those containers. Save those baskets, giftbags, wine wrappers, etc. They're too nice to throw away after just one use! Encourage others to reuse by labeling them in such a way that they aren't destroyed. (I know someone who writes the recipient's name in permanent marker across the entire side of a beautiful giftbag; a better choice would be to dangle a small giftcard from the handle with ribbon. The card can easily be removed so the bag can be reused.) Americans spend a lot of cash on wrappings that are admired once and then trashed.
  • Regifting don'ts.
    • Food. No one wants stale chocolates, flavorless coffeebeans or expired canned goods next December. Either pass it on quickly or dispose of it.
    • Crap. Try to avoid regifting things that you yourself think are tacky, poorly made, etc. Put these in the garage sale pile, or donate them to charity. Someone may buy them, but at least they don't have to write you a thank you note.
    • Know when to stop. Don't regift just to have something to give. Your gift should still be well-chosen for the recipient and show that you put some thought into it. Otherwise, don't be surprised if that gift is regifted once again! If nothing is appropriate, make or purchase a gift. Or, if you need to be especially thrifty, a sincere and warmly written letter expressing your love/appreciation/gratitude can be the best present.
  • Keep track of your gifting. I use a spreadsheet to organize the year's gifts. I can see at a glance for whom I still need a gift (or recipient). All the gifts are stored in a central location, out of the way. My spreadsheet also allows me to take advantage of sales. If I see something in January that's perfect for my sister-in-law, I know if I already have her covered for her August birthday and next year's Christmas. This is also handy if a last-minute gift-giving situation arises — I know what I have on hand and if anything fits the occasion.

You can combine this spreadsheet with your budget for the next year, or start now and keep notes on what you spend in 2007. Gifts can be a huge expenditure, often unplanned for. Knowing what you spend in a year will help you make adjustments if your gifting line item is more than you'd like. And, if you save each year's gift list, you won't accidentally give Uncle Bob the same CD twice.

Beware — one downfall of purchasing gifts year-round is the inevitable urge to buy more in December. The carols are playing, the stores are beckoning, the tree could certainly use just one more present beneath it… Resist, resist! A gift is a message from you to the recipient. Keep in mind that the message should be about thoughtfulness rather than about how much you charged to your credit cards.

Look for more frugal tips from guest authors later today.

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