Clark Howard

Regifting the right way: 8 rules for upcycling gifts with style

Last year I obtained a $25 gift card at a conference – and promptly designated it as a Christmas gift for a relative.

Was this person any the wiser? Nope. She had a nice time treating herself with the card, and I had a nice time paying for one less present.

Part of the fun of the holidays is giving the kinds of presents that will delight your family and friends. Does it matter where you get these gifts? Maybe. Maybe not.

Many frugalists love regifting. A couple of years ago the American Express Spending & Saving Tracker survey noted that 76% of people believe the practice is acceptable. That number had inched up in the previous few years.

The Emily Post Institute, on the other hand, isn't wild about the practice. An article on the Institute's website, All About Regifting, says that at best it's "lazy" and at worst it's actually dishonest. They say that to wrap and give a gift you already have is "inherently deceitful…an attempt to pretend you went out and shopped for this item with the recipient in mind."

Done poorly, regifting can be low-rent: "Hey, I can de-clutter AND not have to spend any money on holiday gifts – I'll just give away all my junk!"

Done smartly, though, the practice is a budget-booster and a clutter-buster – and eco-friendly to boot.

Obviously you wouldn't re-give a bad present. But how many of us have received things that were great – just not great for us?

The etiquette of regifting

That article from the Post website suggests a couple of situations in which regifting might be okay. One is when you've been given the same gift twice. It's acceptable to give one to a friend – but unwrapped, and specifying that you got two and want him to have one.

(No gift wrapping, no element of suspense as it sits under your friend’s tree – where’s the fun in that?)

The second scenario: “Your sister’s coffeemaker just stopped working and her birthday is days away. You, who are on a budget, have been given an extra coffeemaker. Instead of stashing the extra coffeemaker in your closet, you wrap it in its original box and present it to her. She’s delighted.”

Wait: Re-gifting is permissible if you’re broke, but unacceptable otherwise?

O, earnest heirs of Emily Post, I respectfully disagree. Not all regifters are living paycheck to paycheck. Plenty of them are smart consumers who want to stay under budget, prevent waste and, yes, clear out some gifts that just didn't click but that might make someone else very happy.

Use the following tips to be savvy, not tacky.

Rule #1: Don’t regift junk

Your sister – such a joker! – gave you a DVD of some of the worst made-for-TV romance movies in existence. A co-worker presented his self-published science fiction novel to everyone in the office. Great-Aunt Edna wrapped up a set of lotions and bath salts that smell like insecticide.

If you can't get far enough away from gifts like these, why would you even consider passing them along?

Maybe the charity thrift shop will take them. But if not, don’t feel too much guilt about disposing of such items instead of re-homing them.

Rule #2: Don’t regift fruitcake

Do I really have to explain this? It’s been suggested that there’s really only one fruitcake in existence – it just gets passed around from household to household, year after year. Essayist Calvin Trillin claimed that “nobody in the United States has ever bought a fruitcake for himself.”

Or not. Some people love those fruity doorstops.

If that’s not you and you receive a fruitcake from the boss, don’t think about pawning it off on a friend. Or on an enemy, for that matter, even if he’s really asking for it. Christmas is a time of good will toward men, remember?

However, feel free to regift wine or spirits, as long as they’re unopened. Fancy chocolates or coffees are often handed out during the holidays, and are generally welcome regifts. And if vanilla-wafer-tongued you were to receive a gift basket of hot sauces in the office gift exchange the week before Christmas? Go ahead and wrap it up for your brother, he of the asbestos palate.

However, make sure that you observe…

Rule #3: Remove initial-gift traces

When I was an impoverished midlife college student, the school newspaper editor gave me a book about the history of the movies. (I was the oldest living cub reporter, and one of my jobs was to write about films.) A-ha! I thought. I can give this to my BFF, a former movie reviewer – what a great boost to my nonexistent budget.

Except that I neglected to note the inscription he'd left on an inside page. You know, one that mentioned me by name and also noted the date of the gift. Awkward.

Scrutinize that unwanted present before you pass it along. Maybe you never took that lime-green wallet all the way out of the package, and thus didn’t see notice that the giver had it monogrammed for you. Or perhaps inside that seashell-decorated jewelry box was a note from Uncle Bob, fondly recalling all those summer beachcombing sessions at the Jersey Shore.

Trust me: “Awkward” isn’t an emotion you want connected to your gift-giving.

Rule #4: Don’t regift old-looking stuff

That is, unless it’s a fabulous antique whose age is part of its charm.

But what we're talking here is non-gently-used stuff. If some of the pages in those "Outlander" novels are tear-stained, the books will not make good gifts even if the covers are new-looking. That burgundy pashmina shawl is pretty, but suppose the recipient remembers you wearing it last New Year's Eve?

Don’t give a gift card with a weird partial balance, either. Imagine unwrapping $19.33 worth of Walgreens scrip. Can’t exactly feel the love, can you?

Rule #5: Sometimes it’s OK to wrap old-looking stuff (but only sometimes)

Suppose you and your sis are both wild about vintage Pez dispensers. These things are old by definition. Giving her your super-rare “Creature From The Black Lagoon” dispenser will make this the merriest Christmas ever.

See also: rare books, sports memorabilia, coins, stamps and just about any other collectible.

Rule #6: Make sure the recipient isn’t the original giver!

I once heard about a woman whose wedding gift to a nephew and his bride was a cookbook with a $100 bill hidden inside. Two years later, guess what she got for Christmas?

And yes, it was the same book – the Benjamin was still tucked within.

The solution: Label each item with the giver’s name and the date you got it, so you don’t mess up. In fact, it’s a good idea to have an ongoing list of what’s available in the gift stash. Should your own nephew surprise everyone with a fiancée, you’ll know at a glance whether you have a picture frame or a journal (or a pashmina) you can quickly wrap for the new family member.

(Also: If someone gives you a book, flip through the pages before regifting it.)

Rule #7: Don’t give away handmade stuff (unless you made it)

If someone gives you a hand-painted ceramic snowman or a crocheted toilet paper cover, you don’t have to display it — but you shouldn’t give it away, either.

Really can't stand that mud-colored pottery bowl or super-amateur seascape? Try to remember that such things are the result of hours of dedication. It's the thought that counts, etc. Bonus good-guy points for bringing the item out whenever the giver is visiting.

Rule #8: Match the gift to the recipient

If your cousin is all about geocaching, don’t irritate her by wrapping up a scented candle from your regift closet. However, maybe that small backpack would be perfect for carrying her flashlight and other geocaching tools.

Uncle Joe has gone vegan. Do not give him that barbecue cookbook. But he might like the decorative bowl you got in the Secret Santa exchange. Tell him it's perfect for quinoa or tofu (or both).

Grandma has moved into assisted living and her place is small. Instead of giving her yet another framed picture of her grandkids, check your closet for something experience-related: a movie gift card (paired with a promise of rides at least once a month), or a blank book so she can write down the story of her life.

Just as you wouldn’t buy presents on autopilot, you shouldn’t regift that way, either. Look over your stash and think about what might surprise and engage the recipient. (Hint: You probably won’t be able to meet all your gift-giving needs this way. Be prepared to go shopping as needed.)

In closing….

Does regifting feel wrong? Then don’t do it. Frugal hacks should make you feel happy, not queasy.

If you do this the wrong way, you’re putting people’s emotions at risk. As the Emily Post Institute notes, any savings you realize wouldn’t be worth “the cost of hurt feelings or a damaged friendship.”

And, seriously: Don’t regift fruitcake. It just isn’t done.

Donna Freedman created the Smart Spending and Frugal Nation blogs for MSN Money and has written for dozens of other blogs, newspapers and magazines. She is the author of Your Playbook For Tough Times: Living Large On Small Change, For The Short Term Or The Long Haul and its sequel, Your Playbook For Tough Times, Vol. 2: Needs AND Wants Edition. Donna blogs about money and midlife at, and is at work on her third book.