Minimalism & Gifts

Image by Jess Bailey from Pixabay

At a recent meeting of Minimal Quest – a monthly virtual meet-up for those interested in exploring minimalism – I gave a presentation on “Minimalism and Gifts.” Gifts play an important role in our lives, being one of the many ways we express love, gratitude, and care. We had a very lively discussion, generating a variety of thoughts on how to give and receive gifts well. Since the holidays are just around the corner, I thought I would share a summary of my presentation with you.

When it comes to gifts and living an organized life, it is important to acknowledge that gifts are a common source of clutter. Much like the two sides of a coin, gifts contribute to clutter in two different ways:

  1. We receive gifts that we do not want.
  2. We give gifts to others that they do not want.

I’m going to address each of these aspects individually. Let’s begin with the gifts we receive.

Remember, when it comes to gifts, we are not only referring to those exchanged in December. Rather, we receive throughout the year. A gift is any item that comes into our space without a financial expenditure on our part. This may include, but is not limited to:

  • Holiday gifts
  • Hostess gifts
  • Gifts to acknowledge a milestone (e.g. a birthday, wedding, baptism, graduation)
  • “Hand me down” gifts (e.g. a bag of children’s clothing from a friend)
  • Inherited gifts
  • “Free” gifts (e.g. promotional items)

Often, gifts are items that we not only didn’t buy, but also didn’t want. For example, a parent cleans out her home and sends a box of “gifts” to her daughter. Can you think of one (or more) objects in your space that you received as a gift but never wanted? If you can, you are in the majority.

A 2019 survey by Finder.com found that 61% of Americans admitted to getting at least one unwanted gift over the holidays, representing an astounding $15.2B.  The most common holiday gift to go awry was clothing.

Unwanted Holiday Gifts

  • 43% Clothing/Accessories
  • 20% Household Items
  • 12% Cosmetics & Fragrances
  • 8% Literature
  • 5% Technology
  • 4% Food and Drink
  • 4% Music

The obvious next question is what did people do with the gifts they received but didn’t want? As a professional organizer who regularly helps people sort through accumulated belongings, I wasn’t surprised to see the answer:

  • 31% Keep Them
  • 31% Give Them to Someone Else
  • 20% Exchange Them
  • 7% Sell Them
  • 4% Give Them Back
  • 4% Throw Them Away

That first 31% is a problem, especially for those seeking to live a more minimalist lifestyle. Joshua Becker of “Becoming Minimalist” describes minimalism this way:

At its core, minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of everything that distracts us from it.

~ Joshua Becker

By holding onto unwanted gifts, we violate the second principle of minimalism. Rather than prioritize our space for endeavors and belongings that mean the most, we are allowing them to become clogged with distractions.

The question, then, is how do we avoid getting unwanted gifts? There are a couple of possibilities to try:

=> When hosting an event, such as a party or birthday celebration, be proactive in making clear to invitees that you prefer they not bring gifts. A simple “Please, no gifts” can get added to an invitation. Make clear that is their presence, not their presents, that you are seeking.

=> If you are in a situation where gifts have historically been exchanged, have the courage to suggest a change. You may be surprised to discover that many members welcome your suggestion and the alleviation of pressure to constantly buy gifts.

=> If you are part of a large group who exchange gifts, suggests shifting to a model where each person draws one name from a hat. This allows everyone to spend more time, money and thought on the selected individual, instead of struggling to come up with ideas for a large quantity of people.

=> Suggest alternatives to exchanging gifts. For instance, suggest meeting up for a special (socially distanced) coffee date, or schedule a zoom call when the two of you can truly focus on one another.

=> Share your true desires with givers, such as via a retailer’s registry, or an Amazon wish list.

Admittedly, even when we go to extra effort to avoid unwanted gifts, we will still periodically receive something that we do not want. When that happens, the appropriate response is twofold. First, be gracious and say, “thank you.” After all, someone made an effort, so we can appreciate their intentionality, if not the actual item. Second, move the unwanted item out of your space before it becomes a squatter. You can find an unwanted gift a new home either by donating it, returning it, exchanging it, or even re-gifting it to someone else.

[Precaution: if you plan to regift an item, remember to put a note on the item to remind you who initially gave it to you. You don’t want to regift it back to the giver unintentionally!]

Now let’s shift our attention to the gifts we give. How can we be givers of good gifts?

Take a moment to consider one of the best gifts you ever received. What made it such a wonderful gift? Typically, good gifts meet one or more important criteria.

Characteristic of A Good Gift

At the center of the diagram is the “sweet spot” of gift giving. A good gift always makes the recipient feel known. Rather than being the latest trend or most expensive toy, a good gift reveals the investment of thought and energy by the giver into selecting a gift that truly aligns with who the recipient is and what he/she values.

With this concept in mind, let’s transition into some practical principles to keep in mind when choosing gifts to give.

Avoid giving gifts that requires care, ongoing payment or significant storage.

Examples here include:

  • Living things, such puppies, kittens, plants, etc.
  • Subscriptions, especially those that will shift to auto-billing if the recipient fails to opt out
  • Large stuffed animals, giant toys, etc.

Consumables are a nice option.

Items such as food, drinks, stamps, lotion, soap, etc. have the benefit of decluttering themselves as they are enjoyed. Of course, be sure to select consumables that your recipient actually likes. There are a wide variety of companies offering consumable gifts. A few examples include:

Gift cards or gift certificates are still good gifts.

Gift cards have a bad reputation for being impersonal, but many times these are a wonderful gift. For example, maybe you are buying for a relative who lives far away and you have no idea what he/she wants or needs. Perhaps your recipient will be traveling and won’t have the capacity to tote physical items. It could be you need to buy a gift for someone about whom you simply don’t know very much. Take the time to select a vendor that is a good fit for the recipient’s tastes and situation.

Experiences can be a nice option.

Tickets, memberships, excursions, classes, etc. can make lovely gifts. However, be sure to do your research before buying a gift that will require something of the recipient. For instance, don’t buy tickets without being certain that the individual is free on the date of the event. We never want to make someone feel guilty because they can’t – or don’t want to – participate in an experience we have selected.

Don’t give “gifts” that are just disguises for decluttering.

You may have some lovely items in your home that you want to pass on to someone else, but never assume someone else wants your belongings. Always ask before passing on your possessions to someone else. Giving an item to someone else with the goal of “keeping it in the family” puts a lot of pressure on the recipient to keep an object he/she may not like or want.

Give the gift of service.

Time is one of the most valuable gifts we can give. Many people today are more in need of helping hands than they are of physical things. There are an unlimited number of ways we can use our time and talents to love another person, including:

  • Offer to pick up items for someone else on your weekly CVS run
  • Prepare and freeze meals that can be kept in the freezer until needed
  • Give a number of hours of your time to help clean, organize, do laundry, sort through memorabilia, etc.
  • Offer free babysitting to a young parent
  • Repair a recipient’s broken item

The better you know a person, and the more aware you are of his/her needs, the more meaningful a gift of service will be.

Make a donation in the recipient’s honor.

There may be people in your life who need or want very little. Finding the perfect gift for these individuals is challenging. Instead, make a donation to a cause or charity that is important to the recipient, or give a humanitarian gift via a gift catalog such as World Vision or Heifer International

One last suggestion: whenever you give a gift, remember to also give the gift of saying, “Do with this whatever you wish.” Clearly and intentionally articulate your permission for the recipient to keep, donate, exchange, return, or re-gift the item. We never want to give the gift of guilt, making a friend or loved one feel burdened by something we have placed in their life.

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Before I wrap up, I thought I would share three examples of terrific gifts. All three check the boxes of making the recipient feel truly known and care for.

Terrific Gift Example #1

My husband booked me a nice hotel room the night before Prince William and Kate’s wedding so I could wake up really early to watch it and then go back to bed. I had three children under 4 at the time, so it was a precious gift, and I will forever treasure that much-needed break doing something I absolutely loved.

— Casey Kitchens, O reader

Terrific Gift Example #2

My mother and I had a tenuous relationship at best. For my high school graduation, I saved my babysitting money to get a dress made but didn’t have enough to buy a purse. My mom spent all night sewing my leftover dress material onto one of her old clutches. I remember being gobsmacked. I still have it and occasionally hold it close to my heart when I miss her.

— Caterina Salvatori

Terrific Gift Example #3

I’m a special ed teacher, and one year a boy in my fifth-grade class lost his mother in a car accident while the family was traveling. I had him again the next year in sixth grade. At Christmastime he saw the other students giving me gifts, so he came in with a two-liter bottle of ginger ale. He said he looked around his house and wanted to get me something special, and he knew I liked soda. I cried. This boy has now graduated, but I never forgot the gift he gave me. It was truly from the heart.

— Diane Castellano, O reader

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Giving and receiving gifts should be a positive process, not a burden, and not a source of stress.

What is one of the best gifts you’ve ever received and why?