What To Do With the 'Perfect' Gift

In these last days of 2005, Christmas lights will bathe our homes in their soft glow, freshly fallen snow will blanket the earth, and the number of eBay listings will skyrocket. Why? Well, it may have something to do with inefficient gift giving and a phenomenon known as “regifting.”

The term “regifting” was coined on the TV sitcom Seinfeld in an episode where Jerry received a gift from his dentist. The gift (a label maker) was the same gift that Elaine gave to the dentist just a few days earlier. Elaine became furious that the dentist had “regifted” her present to Jerry, thus the new name for this common phenomenon was immortalized in popular culture.

Regifting happens when someone receives a gift he doesn’t like enough to keep. Instead of throwing it away, he gives it to someone else. The timing of Christmas parties and year-end get-togethers often creates an ideal environment for regifting. I have taken advantage of the opportunity to regift quite a few times.

But despite its popularity, regifting carries a social stigma. Many gift-givers, like Elaine on Seinfeld, become indignant if they learn that their present has been regifted. Some would call regifting distasteful. Perhaps — but if you ask me, it’s not wrong.

The cynic may view holiday gift exchanges as simply an inefficient transfer of wealth. The fact is this: I have no way of truly knowing what someone else wants unless he tells me directly. Unfortunately, most people refuse to specify gift preferences because “it ruins the surprise.” If somebody asks me what I’d like for a gift, I always tell them specifically. I’d rather get something that I honestly want than a “surprise.”

During the holiday season, when the expectations of gift exchange are typically in full force, this creates an interesting situation. People feel obligated to buy gifts for family, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances. But few people actually know what the recipients would like to get. So they guess. Sometimes they don’t quite hit the mark. It is naturally impossible to know someone else’s wants better than he knows them himself. Wealth-transfer by gift-giving could never be as efficient as a market, where prices and preferences choreograph the exchange of goods.

The recipient of an inefficiently chosen gift feels obligated to pretend that he likes it (in front of the gift giver). Most people act this way out of a desire to protect the gift giver’s feelings. They also do not wish to appear ungrateful or rude. After the gift giver leaves, some people put the gift on a shelf and use it for dust-collecting purposes. Others re-wrap the gift and give it to someone else. Others know the old adage, "one man’s trash is another man’s treasure;" they sell their bad gifts on eBay.

Once you receive a gift, it becomes your property; you own that object and you are free to use it however you wish. If you think you’d have more happiness by selling your gift and using the proceeds for another purpose, how could the person who gave you that gift object to your doing so? The gift giver presumably gave the present in order to make you happy. As long as you own the gift, you are free to choose how you make use of it. Most likely the “victim” of regifting is just balking because you have sent him a message that he chooses presents for you inefficiently.

The choice to get rid of an unwanted gift is a choice like any other. What does it cost you to regift a gift? Well, you won’t own the thing anymore. You’ll probably need to wrap it and deliver it. And there is always the risk of offending the original gift giver. Also, you must consider how much you care about the recipient. Are you giving him a gift merely out of a social obligation, or do you genuinely think he would enjoy it?

What does it cost to give a new gift? There are money, time, and perhaps materials involved in buying or making a new gift. You’ll still need to wrap it and deliver it. There is no risk of offending a third party here, but there is always the risk — even in the case of a regift — that the recipient will not want your gift. If you won’t be hurt or offended in that case, the above risk is minimal for you.

You may choose to regift. You may choose to sell your gift. You may donate the gift to your favorite charity. It makes sense in a variety of circumstances! It doesn’t make sense to keep something that you will never use or enjoy.

Gifts with greater liquidity are regifted with the least frequency. A gift certificate allows its recipient to choose his own items. The company issuing the gift certificate earns revenue just by selling a piece of plastic, a sheet of paper, or a code. There is always the chance that nobody will redeem the gift certificate, or that the recipient will buy something that exceeds the gift card’s value. Even if the gift giver has no idea what type of store the recipient would like to shop at, there are gift cards from credit card companies that can be redeemed virtually anywhere — and of course, there is always cold, hard cash. Who could ask for more?

Really, though, the obsession over holiday gift giving gets pretty ridiculous. I prefer to think of a gift simply as something given to show affection or appreciation. I don’t think that a gift should be an obligation, nor a chore, nor an expectation, nor some kind of cryptic indicator of one’s true feelings for another person. Unfortunately, it isn’t always that simple. People give gifts for a variety of reasons — sometimes motivated by various social pressures more than a desire to express affection for the gift recipient.

So regifters, hold your heads high and proudly put those unwanted presents to better use! Your detractors are missing the point.

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