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Unusable Gifts: how to word your thank you note, when to tell the truth, and is it ever OK to ask for the gift receipt?

A sweater that's three sizes too large... or too small, a roast ham (for a vegetarian), or some other item that for whatever reason you simply cannot use: unusable gifts present some awkward issues regarding thank you notes and when and how to explain the problem to the giver.
As a general rule, gifts that you dislike or will never use should be acknowledged with a gracious thank you note and that's it! There's rarely a need to upset the giver or risk causing bad feeling by pointing out that their gift was a big failure.

If the offending item came with the gift receipt then exchange or return it if possible. If the gift receipt was not included then re-gift the item to a friend who can/will use it, donate it to charity, or sell it on Ebay. Remember, it's just a gift! OK, it's hideous and you will never ever use it, but in the vast majority of cases it's not worth making an issue of it.

Having said that, there are some rare occasions when you may need to come clean regarding the issues you have with a gift you can't use. Examples are:

1. When there is a high probability that the giver will eventually find out (from meeting you, or via family or mutual friends) that their gift was completely unsuitable, causing embarrassment on both sides.

2. When the giver is likely to be more offended about you not telling them (if and when they discover the truth) than about you telling them.

3. When you have a serious allergy to something you are given.

4. When you repeatedly receive a type of gift that you can't use.

It's a sensitive area, but think of it this way if you had carefully picked out and spent good money on a gift that the recipient will never use, is allergic to, or that is completely the wrong size, wouldn't you want to know?

Certainly, I would appreciate the opportunity to put things right, rather than have the embarrassment of discovering (months or years later) that I'd been wasting my money on bottles of premium malt whisky for a teetotaler!

Asking for the gift receipt...

In most cases, this is a big no-no. Even if you decide to tell the truth about the gift in your thank you note, it's best just to explain the issue and leave it at that, letting the giver decide what if anything to do about it. He or she may well offer to exchange or replace the item for you, but I don't think this is something you can actually ask them to do. And if you don't get the response you would like then just let it drop. After all, it's just a gift!

Bear in mind that the fact that the gift receipt isn't included with the gift may mean that the giver hasn't kept it. Asking for it therefore risks causing real upset and embarrassment.

Wording your thank you note for an unusable gift

Here are a number of 'hopeless gift' scenarios, with suggestions on how to deal with them:

1. The giver is almost certainly going to find out...

Gift: A beautiful (and expensive) hair accessory/clip.

Background: The recipient has had long hair for many years, but recently had it cut short, meaning that she can't use the clip. The giver is an old friend who will be coming to visit in the near future, and therefore will inevitably discover the truth.

Thank you note sample:

Dear Katherine,

How lovely of you to remember my birthday, and thank you very much for the beautiful hairclip, all wrapped up so prettily.

It's really lovely, and just my style... but I have to tell you that I finally took the plunge and got my hair cut really short last week (see photo)! Of course I should have told you, but I wanted to surprise you when you visit next month.

I don't know when, if ever, I will have long hair again, and the clip is far too lovely not to be used. Do you think it can be exchanged? Can I give it back to you for you to wear? Or do you think, perhaps, that Lindsay would like it?

I'm very sorry to cause this fuss, and I want you to know that I do so appreciate you thinking of me on my birthday thank you!

Really looking forward to seeing you and catching up (hairstyles and all!).

Much love,

See also this example of an unusable gift that has been exchanged.

2. The giver is likely to be offended that you didn't tell them...

Gift: Clothing that is several sizes too small.

Background: You have gained weight in the past year. You know that the giver wanted to give you a treat with this clothing and will be very upset with you if you don't explain the issue, awkward though it is.

Thank you note sample:

Dear Auntie Karen,

How lovely of you to send me a package of lovely clothes for Christmas. You have such a good eye for finding beautiful things, and you real spoil me.

I'm embarrassed to say, though, that I've put on quite a bit of weight this year, so I could really do with a bigger size. Do you think it would be possible to exchange the clothes? I'm so sorry about this, but I thought it better to tell you than not.

How was your Christmas? It must have been wonderful to have been there for little Chloe's first Christmas!

Thinking of you, and looking forward to seeing you sometime this year,

3. You have a serious allergy to the gift.

Gift: A big box of peanut M&Ms.

Background: You have a serious nut allergy, which the givers should be aware of (you have previously told them about it). You feel strongly that they need to understand this fact.

Thank you note sample:

Dear Shannon and Rick,

It was lovely to see you last week, and I'm so glad that you enjoyed your stay. I really appreciate you thinking of me and sending a present thank you. However, I have to tell you that unfortunately the allergies I told you about include peanuts, in fact they are one of the nuts that I must particularly avoid. Don't think that the candy will be wasted though, as I have passed it on to a friend who loves peanut M&Ms, so my bad luck with the allergy has turned out to be her good luck!

Thanks again for the thought, and I hope you're settling in a home again after your long trip. It was great fun seeing you both, and I hope we'll have another chance to get together soon.

Wishing you both all the best,

4. You repeatedly receive a type of gift that you can't use.

Gift: A smoked salmon from a luxury food store (last year was a gourmet ham from the same store).

Background: You are vegetarian. Having written a simple thank you note for the ham last year (even though you gave it away), this year you feel it is time for a little creative 'bending of the truth'.

Thank you note sample:

Dear Josh and Natalie,

What a wonderful surprise to receive a Christmas parcel from [name of food store]. What a treat thank you!

I shall be indulging in quite a feast of all my favorite foods this year as my New Year Resolution is to become vegetarian.

It is something that I have been thinking about for a long time, and although there are foods that I will miss, it is something I need to do.

Thank you again, then, for a tasty gift I will always remember.

Wishing you a wonderful Christmas Season. How will you be celebrating this year? Do you get in touch if you're ever over this way.

All the best to you both,

See also: