Thoughtless Gifts: Disappointed by Cheap Gifts

How do you respond to thoughtless gift giving? I spend a lot of time choosing gifts for others, but I feel like one particular person spends little to no time choosing gifts for me. Should I continue searching for the perfect gifts or resort to buying thoughtless gifts as they do for me?

Thoughtless Gift Giving

Being on the receiving end of thoughtless gift giving stinks. Every Christmas, I spend countless hours buying gifts for extended family members. Yet I often receive generic, thoughtless gifts like candles, mugs, tea, coffee, and personal hygiene products like soap or loofahs in return. Last year I received a particularly crappy, five-dollar present during a family gift exchange. 

Before anyone jumps in and says, “maybe the gift giver can’t afford more than that.” I know with absolute certainty that they can. This person had no problem providing more thoughtful, expensive gifts to other family members.

It’s obvious they don’t want to spend the time searching for gifts for me.

Thoughtless Gifts

I spent a good deal of time and money buying gifts for that person, but as the calendar rolls into December, I’m not sure I want to get burned again. I’m not sure how to handle the exchange of gifts this year.

Do I spend energy searching for gifts when I know full well that I won’t get anything decent in return, or do I throw in the towel and buy this person something equally crappy? 

Ninety-nine percent of me thinks I should do the right thing and buy this person a lovely gift. The other one percent says forget that; put very little thought or money into it, and call it a day.

When Someone Gives You A Cheap Gift

A cheap gift is an inexpensive present the gift-giver didn’t spend time or attention picking out. Rather than thinking about your likes or dislikes, they found something inexpensive, shoved it in a bag, and handed it to you.

Cheap gifts include unwanted items that don’t match your interests and regifted gift cards to stores or restaurants where you don’t eat or shop. Among the cheapest gifts are partially used products and anything worn or outdated.

What do I do when a family member or friend gives me a cheap gift? Of course, I don’t comment on the quality of the present. Instead, I say, “Thanks for thinking of me,” and fake a smile. It doesn’t matter who gives me a cheap gift. No matter who the gift-giver is, I always react the same way. I say thank you.

Sometimes I try to put myself in their shoes and wonder if they’ve had a busy week, feel overwhelmed at work, or have some other reason to present a thoughtless gift. Other times I try to focus on the idea that at least they didn’t show up empty-handed.

Either way, there is a time and a place to tell someone you don’t like their gift, but sitting next to the Christmas tree isn’t one of them.

Ending Gift Exchanges

Two years ago, my brother and I stopped giving each other gifts for Christmas. Without a bit of remorse, I’m glad we ended the exchange. 

It became more challenging to decide on a gift every year, and the added stress and cost weren’t worth it anymore. It was a mutual agreement; my brother was just as happy to end the swap as I was.

Honestly, I wish I could end the majority of my gift exchanges. I prefer Christmas to work like Thanksgiving, where we drive to someone’s house, eat good food, spend quality time together, and head home.

Unfortunately, I cannot envision a way to end the exchange altogether. That would be my preferred solution to this problem, but I don’t see a way to make it happen without a more massive conflict arising.

So what do you think? Have you ever faced a terrible gift giver who hands out cheap, thoughtless gifts? Do you have advice on how to handle my situation?

18 thoughts on “Thoughtless Gifts: Disappointed by Cheap Gifts”

  1. Is this a continual problem with this person, or just one bad year? If it was just one year, I think I’d forgive, and keep giving nice gifts. Maybe they just forgot until last minute, had no good idea, or lost yours and had to replace quickly last year, and they feel bad about it. Or maybe they honestly thought there was something about the cheap gift that would have made it something you would really like. Sometimes cheap doesn’t mean thoughtless and they really thought you would like the color, etc.

    If it is a chronic problem, I think I’d go with cheap gifts.

    If you really want to be sneaky, buy and wrap two gifts for them, one nice, and one cheap. Wait until you have opened yours, then give them the one that corresponds to the one you get this year. Then return, keep for yourself, or gift to someone else the other one. Of course this will only work in some situations, not one where everyone opens the gifts at once.

    • This comment cracked me up. Unfortunately, it has not been a one time problem and I am absolutely in love with your idea of doing something sneaky. We open all of our gifts at once, so it would be hard to do, but maybe I could say, “ooops looks like I left a gift out in the car” and then decide which present to get out of the car based on the cheapness of the gift I’m given 🙂

  2. Last year I was that person and I felt horrible. All year long my mother commented on how amazing the gifts I gave people were. She frequently told people that I was the best “giver” in the family…. and when Christmas rolled around I had absolutely no idea what to get her. I finally settled on a borrowing one of her cassette tapes and upgrading it to a CD for her. It was cheap and more than that I could tell she was disappointed, especially seeing the carefully picked gifts I got other people but I was at my absolute wits end trying to find something she would enjoy. This year I am double freaked out. She is still the last person on my shopping list but I AM going to get her something awesome….

    To answer your question, I don’t know. I agree with Jenny above, if it’s something they do every year then I would put less thought/effort into it (regardless of the price). Just keep in mind this year they may have found you an absolutely brilliant gift and you’ll probably feel terrible if you don’t do the same. You may also consider dropping hints like “I love the color purple” or “I wish I had some board games for family night” because it may just be a situation where they think you’re so awesome that you already have everything you want (thanks mom. LOL).

    • Thanks for the comment! I’m sure your mom knows how much you love and appreciate her no matter what you buy, but I totally understand why it stresses you out. Especially if she seemed genuinely disappointed.

      I think the pressure of gift giving is the worst part about it. My husband is an amazing gift giver and began to feel the stress of finding the perfect present too. For three years he wowed everyone with ‘just the right thing’ and the following year couldn’t come up with any ideas for people. I think it soured the entire experience for him. He was also sad that no one seemed to think of him in the same way that he was thinking about everyone else. He took so much time to select presents and received socks, underwear and pajamas in return.

      Unfortunately this is a repeated pattern and I’m not sure I ever really have the heart to buy something cheap for someone, no matter how disgruntled I get about it. I suppose I always wish, (like you suggested), that this year will be different 🙂

  3. We were able to come out and say that we’re done exchanging gifts with other adults in our families. We are happy to shop for our nieces and nephews, but we’re done buying stuff for people who have their own money. Some people are miffed that we are “ruining” Christmas, but this works better for us. And yes, last year we sat around while everyone else opened presents and we had nothing to give and nothing to open, and it was fine.

    This year, the entire family suggested doing a name drawing to buy one gift for one other adult, and we agreed to participate – it’s a middle ground and we thought we might compromise. As it turns out, I’m feeling a lot of pressure about getting the right gift again (especially because this time I only have to buy ONE, so of course it has to be PERFECT), and it’s making me rethink participating next year. We’ll see what everybody else thinks about it.

    • Interesting. I hadn’t considered that only choosing one person to give to means you have to find them the most perfect gift. If the goal is to reduce stress it seems that solution might not be working for you.

      In the case of my brother and sister-in-law they seemed genuinely relieved, which made the decision really easy. In the case of my parents we only buy one gift for each and this year I convinced them to only buy my husband and I one too with no pressure about making it something we love 🙂

      Did anyone say why they weren’t happy with your decision? I am surprised that people still want to give gifts when giving the opportunity to get out of the tradition. It was such a relief to me.

      • They just felt we were being grinches and “ruining the spirit of Christmas”. I was surprised, too, because I find buying gifts to be so stressful, but I guess they don’t feel the same way – but I really think it’s that they have this idea of what Christmas is supposed to be, and opting out doesn’t match that idea.

        Funnily enough, my MIL sent out an email last night that some people are complaining that it’s really hard to shop for the people whose names they drew and so would everyone please put together a short Amazon wishlist so that they could pick from that.

        So, I don’t know what’s up with my in-laws. It’s no fun to not shop for everyone, but it’s too hard to shop for any one person without a specific list to choose from. I can’t win! (And as much as I’m complaining, all of this has been good-natured ribbing, and Christmas will be fun no matter what happens. I’m already done with my shopping/making because I wanted to get it done before the baby arrives, and I didn’t even need an Amazon list!)

  4. I have a sister in law that has given our family crappy gifts for the last 20 years. Before kids, we had a $50 per person limit. One year my husband and I got school supplies. Spiral notebooks and folders. We were taking some college courses, but we’re well into the classes and certainly did not need these.
    Fast forward to the last few years. I carefully pick out clothing for her children, she gives my son a best buy gift card and a box of candy, purchased on the way to the hosts house. She attaches the gift receipt, so I can tell it was bought last minute. I wouldn’t be mad if she did not go all out on other nieces and nephews.
    I sadly have to just take a deep breath and deal with it.

    • Thanks for the comment! One of the worst parts of the gift giving experience is watching everyone else receive thoughtful gifts and then opening your gift and finding office supplies or in my case tube socks! Tube socks? Seriously, cheap, generic and definitely not something I asked for though I suppose they are something I can always use.

      It sounds like you continue to provide thoughtful gifts and I’m afraid to say as much it frustrates me I probably will too 🙁

  5. This year my sister and I decided we’d just buy for the kids and I’m very happy with our decision.

    In your case, maybe talk to the gift giver to set some parameters for your gift exchange this year. They might be just as put off by last year’s experience if they feel that you had got them something too nice.

    If not, I’d just focus on the joy of giving and get them whatever you’d like to. Expect something crappy and you might be surprised.

    • I definitely keep hoping that this year will be different. In the mean time, as much as I want to, I don’t have the heart to buy something crappy. It’s just not in me.

      I really wish we could stop the gift giving tradition among siblings on my husband’s side. We can all afford to buy our own things, I just wish I could find some way to broach the subject without everyone thinking I don’t like this particular family member. This is the first year this particular couple has a child, so maybe taking the ‘kids only’ approach can be my suggestion for next Christmas.

  6. I’m a single parent with very limited income, but I have always bought or handmade meaningful, personal gifts unique to each person. Meanwhile, my parents and sibling – both quite wealthy – give my children and I literal garbage – used and broken dishes, used and stained clothing like men’s sweatpants three sizes too large with an open fly (I’m a business woman not a lumberjack who pees in the woods), defective items the local charity store would not accept, musty junk from their basements, an expired box of cake mix, etc. Rather than throw their trash out – they simply stick it in an overused, mangled gift bag with someone else’s name written on the tag…and give it to me. Since childhood, for birthdays, dad likes to play a sadistic game – telling me he will “help” with something he knows I need … but has no intention of following through. As a child at Christmas, he’d bring me to look at the gifts my mother had wrapped beneath the tree, tell me to find a package with my name on it. He would then tell me he was returning the item because I didn’t deserve to receive any gifts. He would explain that they didn’t love me, and how my existence was a financial burden.
    There was physical abuse to accompany the emotional and verbal.
    No wonder I throw up every Christmas. Most dreaded time of year.
    I often think of the sentiment “It’s the thought that counts.” Precisely.

    • Hi Brenda, Thank you for leaving a comment. I am sorry to hear about your situation. I do hope you learn to enjoy Christmas again one day. It sounds like you were in a very abusive relationship and I do hope you find the peace you need to clear these thoughts from your mind. Everyone deserves to feel love in the gifts they receive. It would be better to get a hand written card of appreciation than a pile of stuff that feels thoughtless. I wish you the very best this Christmas!

    • @Brenda,

      It sounds like you need to have Christmas with just your children. Let your toxic family members have Christmas by themselves. Say you’re sick one year and try it.
      Wish you the best. And I hope you have a peaceful holiday season.

  7. I know no one has commented here in awhile, but reading these stories made me want to share. I also have a thoughtless gift giver family member. She makes me so irritated! It has nothing to do with the monetary value. It’s the fact that there’s absolutely no planning and zero thought involved.
    She could give me nothing and I’d be happier with that. For years, I’ve given her sentimental presents I knew she’d love. And she has. One year I got her a necklace with a heart shaped pendant that had a pic of her and her recently deceased mother on it. I also got her a custom bangle with her name on it. Another year I bought her snow boots and a matching jacket with her initials on both. Another year, some beautiful leather boots she mentioned she wanted. Her usual routine is, on the way to my house Christmas Day, she will stop at CVS and get me chapstick, a coffee mug, some socks. Another time, socks, lotion, body wash. One year it was a box of chocolate and some tea. I don’t drink tea and she knows that. Then she says, “sorry, I’m broke,” or “I didn’t have time.” Which isn’t the truth, she just places zero effort into it and uses that as an excuse. She works for a giant, national retailer, and has all year to prepare, and use her employee discount! *end of rant*

  8. I got the worst gift ever a used dirty coffee mug with hair on it not even in a box, snack size trail mix, and a calendar. In a nice huge gift bag. This was from my friend. She is very frugal. But this was horrible and really hurt my feelings. Also old candy that was worn and when I opened it was crusty chocolate tearing package. It was like imitation rolos. I couldn’t believe my friend would give me this. My mom says it’s the thought that counts. I don’t mind giving me a gift from the dollar tree but pick something out for me not something used and dirty laying in your house!!

    • I once received a dirty gift that I believe was a hand-me-down or purchased from a thrift store. I’m not sure which one. At the time I was very upset, but over time I’ve come to see that this particular gift giver was giving all she could. I think that’s the thing about gifts. Only you know if your friend could’ve done better. I’m sorry you feel disappointed by the gift you were given. I hope that your friendship survives the bad gift.


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