An Alternative to Overspending on Presents

Gift-giving is a beloved—and expensive—tradition. But some people have found a way to partake without the cost.

illustration of several unwrapped presents
Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic

Anna Rollins and her father have a valued Christmas tradition. For several years, the two have exchanged books with political themes that reflect their respective ideologies. They’re confident in their choices, because they’ve typically already read the book—usually the same copy they’re now giving away. The practice may be unorthodox, but according to Rollins, it has allowed her and her father to better understand each other’s points of view. “I’ll give him a book that is meaningful to me, and he’ll read it and come at it from this very open space,” the 34-year-old educator in Huntington, West Virginia, told me.

She’s one of many people I spoke with who have found creative ways to give holiday gifts without spending money. Some scour community-exchange groups for free items. Others “shop” their home for items such as books, mugs, and bottles of wine. If the idea of gifting something you happen to have on hand strikes you as odd, you’re not alone. Buying presents is deeply ingrained in our culture—84 percent of Americans plan to do so this year, according to a NerdWallet survey. However, with inflation above 7 percent and more than a third of U.S. households saying their financial situation is worse this year than last, many people are looking for ways to put less strain on their budget. For some, this means opting out of presents entirely. But clever used-gifters have found another path—one that lets them experience the fun, festivity, and joy of the tradition without the economic burden. Their thoughtful choices prove that a present does not need to cost anything to have value.

Such a generous perspective on used gifts is a significant departure from how practices like these have long been seen. The term regifting was popularized and demonized by a 1995 Seinfeld episode featuring a label maker that passes from one person to another—and then, covertly, to a third. “You’re a regifter!” one character shouts at her friend after uncovering his shameful secret. But our anxiety might be overblown. The people I spoke with told me they felt their used offerings were well received. Similarly, a series of studies conducted in 2012 showed that people overestimate the extent to which givers are offended by a recipient’s decision to regift.

Those researchers found a simple way to help participants overcome their fear of insulting others: by telling them that it was National Regifting Day. They theorized that this would essentially socially sanction the process, letting people partake without worrying about breaking communal rules. One of the authors of the paper, Gabrielle S. Adams, a professor at the University of Virginia, admitted to me that she engages in the practice all the time—most recently with a purple leather wallet that she knew her friend would like better than she did. Passing along unwanted presents to someone who might actually enjoy them isn’t just thrifty; it also makes sense. Why keep something you won’t use, when someone else will?

The biggest hurdle to cost-free gifting is likely the long-standing social norms dictating that gifts be brand-new, and that used items are lesser. Change may already be under way. The nonprofit Freecycle, which facilitates the exchange of free items, helped one man I spoke with find presents for others. Buy Nothing groups, which are generally informal and hyperlocal, have also grown popular worldwide. These communities have made it easy to get used things for yourself—so why not apply that frugal generosity to others as well? Even the Emily Post Institute—the go-to source for American etiquette—has come to accept the practice of regifting.

Following a few guidelines can help make sure no one’s feelings get hurt. For instance, as the book Emily Post’s Etiquette cautions, you shouldn’t regift something that was homemade or personalized for you. Ideally, the gift should be unopened and in its original packaging (unless it’s an heirloom). And tactful honesty about the source is the best route. “I usually tell the recipient that their gift is a regift and give them the choice not to accept it,” Adams told me.

Children may be particularly accepting targets. Multiple parents I spoke with mentioned giving their children items they’d acquired for free, either through Buy Nothing or by swapping with other families. In some cases, kids were none the wiser. One parent used it as an opportunity to talk about sustainability and saving.

Regardless of where one sources a present from and whom it’s for, experts say it really is the thought that counts. A series of studies Adams co-conducted in 2009 found that givers overestimate how much people care about an item’s cost; price didn’t have any influence on how much recipients appreciated a gift. As with all presents, “a regift shouldn’t be an issue as long as it’s given with some kind of intention behind it,” Julian Givi, a professor at West Virginia University who studies gift giving, told me. Maybe it’s a book you love or an item that holds sentimental value (such as a piece of jewelry passed down through generations). Even if the meaning is tongue-in-cheek, as was the case for a man who gave his brother a package of hard candies he knew he wouldn’t like as a joke, the gag could be a way of saying, “I know and understand you.” In that instance, the brother regifted the candy back the following Christmas, creating a tradition they kept up for more than 30 years.

At its best, finding presents without opening our wallet can force us to give with greater care. According to Givi, gift giving can sometimes have selfish motivations. We think, “If I give a really good gift to someone, that can make me look good,” he explained. But perhaps if we’re less focused on whether something makes us seem cheap, we can devote more attention to the people we’re giving to. Elsa Lindholm, a 29-year-old web developer in Duns, U.K., did this when she gave a friend her fleece coat after learning they were having a hard time finding one. Although a used coat may seem like a humble offering, in this case, it fulfilled all the criteria of a great gift: It was useful and, most important, showed the recipient that they were listened to and cared about. The fact that it was free was just a bonus.