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 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.


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


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?

30 thoughts on “Minimalism & Gifts”

  1. What great advice and we decided for this Christmas for the gifts on my in-laws side with the grandkids (my kids are 2 of 10 grandkids) to do a Secret Santa and to just go with gift cards as the kids are all getting older and harder to pick out gifts that they actually want or need. But this way, they can use the gift card to buy what they want themselves. So, totally agree with that suggestion as it just makes sense.

    1. We made that exact same shift to gift cards as my girls got older. It just became too difficult for relatives to figure out what to get. Young people love receiving gift cards so they can pick out exactly what they want, and it gives them a bit of independence, which is so terrific!

  2. What a robust post, Seana! A few thoughts… I would love to meet someone in the 4% category who actually gave back an unwanted gift – I don’t think I could be that gutsy. I love the graphic you included on the characteristics of a good gift; it really lays out what makes an item a hit. Lastly, your reminder about putting notes on gifts for regifting so you don’t give them back (unless you’re in that 4%) to the person who gave them to you is super helpful!

    1. I would never return a gift either, Sarah… awkward! I think that is why we simply keep them. We feel bad doing anything else. As we know, that just creates a future problem.

    1. Experiences are the gifts that keep on giving because the memories live on. A bit more challenging this year, with so many things shut (especially up here in the northeast, maybe it is easier in TX). We have given many experiences and found they are almost always a success, and give recipients something to look forward to after the holiday season has passed.

  3. I love the deep dive you made here, Seana, with receiving and giving gifts. The stats on the gift-giving side were especially interesting. Some non-clutter presents like sharing experiences instead of things are off the table right now because of the pandemic. But I’m sure other creative ways of creating an experience, such as cooking a special meal for someone in your household or having popcorn and “home” movie night would be great too. The best gifts received are the ones where, as you said, “make you feel known.”

    One of the best gifts I ever received was from my husband for my 60th birthday. He arranged to have our kids surprise me and come home for the whole weekend. He knew that the gift of time with our kids was the best present he could ever give me. We shared meals, talked, played games, and just hung out.

    1. I would have loved that gift as well, Linda. At this stage of my life, nothing makes me happier than seeing my girls. Their “presence” is the best “present” for sure. Giving experiences is tricky here right now, but hopefully we will be pulling out of this rough spell soon, and having the promise of a fun even to look forward to might be just the thing we need to stay positive!

    1. That is a wonderful comment, Sabrina. Again, it makes you feel known when someone supports you and your business because this is important to you. It is so thoughtful when someone observes a need and then steps in to help without being asked, but just because they care about you:)

  4. Many of the best gifts I’ve received have been consumables. I love trying different types of tea, so that’s always a favorite, whether it’s a new flavor or one I’ve enjoyed previously. When my husband was in the hospital, someone sent me a large fruit basket, and it kept me eating healthy for several weeks.
    Janet Barclay recently posted…Break Time: 2020 Reading ChallengeMy Profile

    1. That is such a great comment, Janet. When we are going through difficult times, like having a spouse suffering in the hospital, healthy eating falls to the bottom of our priority list. Sometimes we don’t even feel like eating at all. How kind that someone made eating well easy for you by providing that lovely gift. If it is easy to access, we are much more likely to make a good choice!

  5. I love the way you addressed this timely topic, Seana. Your graphic for giving gifts is fabulous! Taking the time to figure out what the person would like to have is a process. Sometimes it’s best just to ask. I asked my son and daughter-in-law what they would like for Christmas this year. They told me that they wanted to decorate the landing in their new home and also to buy a storage piece for their daughter’s toys. I made a contribution toward their effort. They were so happy for my help with their project.

    1. Asking is such a wonderful tip, Diane! Often what people really want is one large-ticket item, rather than a bunch of smaller things. A contribution to something expensive is a perfect way to show care and love. Of course, as an organizer, kuddos to your son and daughter-in-law for wanting a storage piece:) I would definitely donate to that endeavor!

  6. So much wisdom here! One of the best gifts I’ve ever received was for a personal retreat. My husband knew I’d been dealing with a lot, and so for Christmas one year he created a little flyer with some choices of places for me to book an overnight stay on my own. I chose a retreat center not far away, took some hiking boots, books, and my journal – and I was off! It was a great way to renew, and nothing I had to think about storing. 🙂 Thanks for all of the great reminders to give thoughtfully this year.

  7. My favorite quote: ‘A good gift always makes the recipient feel known.’

    Being a ‘top-notch’ gift-giver is a skill that starts with looking at and really listening to the person/people you wish to bestow a gift upon. I’d love to see your above Venn Diagram posted on billboards at holiday time. In the age of consumerism, it would be a gentle reminder to put thought into a gift so it doesn’t end up as ‘gift clutter.’ Thoughtful gifts are always remembered and treasured. With a little thought and effort, we can truly bring gifts of joy and not ‘gifts of clutter’ to others.

  8. I think you nailed it with a good gift means feeling seen. And by the way, I have worked with Wolferman’s on my Instagram and they are a delicious consumable gift!
    My good friend here turned 50 a year or so ago and I remembered a conversation we had had years ago about a tiny chocolate shop her friend owns in Salt Lake City. So I thought, “what do I have to lose?” and I emailed that shop to see if I could get a custom box of chocolates that my friend loves.
    The shop happily worked with me and when I gifted it to my friend, she said, “I feel so seen.”
    Tamara recently posted…Exploring All That California Has To OfferMy Profile

  9. I love your thoughtful approach to gift giving! While I read your post I glanced around my bedroom and noticed several “squatters” that I’ve never really used. Your gift ideas focus on minimalism from the most important perspective – being intentional. I really appreciate the reminders and ideas. I’ll definitely be sharing this one!!

  10. Thanks for sharing those amazing statistics!! One of the best gifts I’ve received was on my 30th birthday. I was living at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. A dear friend sent me a package with 30 cards–one for each year. She enclosed something special to go along with each year. It was wonderful!! I have since done that for each of my daughters when they had their 30th birthdays.

    1. What a thoughtful and generous gift! That took a lot of planning and effort, and I’m sure it meant the world to you being so far away from home. Thank you for sharing this story, Olive!

  11. Gift giving can definitely be a challenge, starting with what to give. Just today, I heard a story that a friend shared. She asked a family member what they wanted for the holidays. And without hesitation, the recipient said, “ I want a Peloton.” That’s quite an ambitious gift!! I guess if you’re going to ask… lol
    Gift cards are always a hit especially for the younger set. I also liked your food giving idea. Doesn’t everyone like food? I do. A client once gave me a huge box from Harry and David, which you have on your list. My entire family dug right in.
    Your statistics were really interesting. I shared them in my Instagram stories With credit to you.
    This is a super post!
    Ronni Eisenberg recently posted…How to be a Hit in the Kitchen with these Thanksgiving Day Tips from the Best Cooks I KnowMy Profile

    1. Thanks for the share, Ronni. Those statistics are quite eye opening, and a good reminder as we head into the holiday shopping season. Someone else commented that they made a contribution toward a large gift… that would be my reaction to a Peloton! That is a very expensive gift for sure:)

  12. What an encyclopedic look at the important elements of gift-giving, and you ended it on a story that made me sniffle! I often think that an impersonal gift (a candle, a picture frame without a meaningful photo, etc.) is a waste of energy; for people who aren’t good at figuring out gifts, and really there’s no shame in that, you’ve given some superlative guidance. (And seriously, everyone should keep a wishlist, Amazon or otherwise. It just makes things easier for everyone.)

    Thank you for your posts, Seana, because they are gifts that brighten our lives!
    Julie Bestry recently posted…Organizing in Retrospect: A Confessional Look Back at 2020My Profile

    1. Thank you for these kind words, Julie. Those examples at the end had a couple of us tearing up at our meet-up. Some people are so incredibly thoughtful that it really touches us, right? Gifting should be a privilege, not a burden.

  13. When buying a gift as a thank you to someone I usually buy cut flowers. It’s something that most people like but don’t buy for themselves. They also don’t last forever and I like that they are temporary, so they don’t require the recipient to be responsible for anything for long.
    But I do struggle with holiday gifts for my family. My two adult sons do not or want anything, but I still want to get them something they would like. A difficult task for sure.

    1. Definitely gets harder as the kids get older, especially when they are living in tiny apartments. My oldest daughter has been “staying at home” with her husband in 940 square feet for months. Not easy! The last things she wants is things that take up space. Furthermore, it is hard to give experiences right now as so much is limited or closed. We are trying to come up with something creative for Christmas morning that will be fun but not a burden.

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