Is It Impolite To Return Or Exchange Gifts?

Returning gifts can be a tricky and sensitive proposition, especially if the gift is from a loved one who really thought they had found just the right thing for you. So to help you navigate this minefield, we turned to etiquette expert Anna Post of the Emily Post Institute for advice.

There are some that think it’s never polite to return a gift unless it’s the wrong size or you’re allergic to it. But Ms. Post says that it’s “just fine to return or exchange a gift.”

She explains that returning a gift does not negate the spirit of the gift. The gift-giver “should want the other person to be happy rather than forcing their own choice” upon the recipient.

Ms. Post also says the best way to avoid awkwardness with gift returns is for the giver to include a gift receipt.

“I really like it when people give gift receipts,” she says. “Asking for a receipt is different than returning something that doesn’t involve the giver… The receipt gives you tacit approval to return or exchange the gift.”

So one shouldn’t be offended if they find out the gift they gave a loved one has been exchanged for something else?

“I wouldn’t be,” says Ms. Post. “When i give a gift, I want them to enjoy it…We all miss the mark sometimes, even the best of us.”

What about those situations where you simply can not return the gift — either because it’s non-returnable or because the person who gave it to you will be emotionally crushed?

“Every now and then, you just don’t get the gift you want,” explains Ms. Post. “In the event you can’t exchange something, you may just have to focus on the fact that someone liked you enough to give you a gift.”

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  1. tungstencoil says:

    Agree. In fact, I was brought up that way, and it was something of a shock when I was old enough to be getting/giving gifts outside my immediate family that others did not think this way. We would ALWAYS be sure to exchange/return things we didn’t like. We would even make a day of it: we went shopping together, and it increased the spirit of the gift.

    • Michaela says:

      Wow. I was raised to do it in secret. The original gifter was to never know of the exchange or return, unless that individual directly asks about it.

      • tungstencoil says:

        You poor thing! To expand, we were actually taught it was rude NOT to. You were – in effect – saying you didn’t care enough about the thought behind the gift to take advantage of it.

        I was as shocked to discover everyone didn’t think that way, and thank my parents for instilling that in me pretty deeply.

  2. Michaela says:

    I am still trying to get the courage to return my Christmas gift from my new boyfriend. He got me two scarves that are nice, but in no way my style. Since the relationship is still pretty young, I am terrified he will notice the scarves are never worn and ask about them. He’d then end up embarrassed he got the something I didn’t like (because I know he really did try to get me something I would like), and I would end up feeling like I should have just kept the scarves.

    The best solution I have thought of so far is to keep the one he mentioned liking most (and find an outfit to wear it with) and exchange the other one for something more my taste.

    • Bativac says:

      I have to say, I don’t miss those days. My wife and I (married 6 months but dating for 4 or 5 years) got each other some decent stuff and a couple lame gifts. So, we initially express appreciation and gratitude, then a couple days later let each other know which gifts aren’t gonna work out.

      We know each other very well but sometimes, a husband is going to buy his wife the wrong BBC productions of Jane Austen stories. Who knew there were 3 different DVD sets of 3 different BBC Jane Austen series?

      • Michaela says:

        Haha. I hate when things are mixed up like that! I think that is the issue with the scarves. I mentioned needing a couple new scarves (to keep warm), and he got me two jersey scarves (not warm) in a pattern that doesn’t match my purple coat.

        I guess I should exchange it though. I would hate to know he never used the gift I got him. I paid good money for it, and just wanted him to be happy.

        • cara says:

          Just explain to him that they’re not exactly your style or that they don’t match your coat, but you’re extremely grateful that he listened to what you wanted/ needed. Remember what they always say, its the thought that counts.

          I was extremely lucky that my now-boyfriend saw how much I wanted a pair of sweatpants and a shirt (both with Gir on it from Invader Zim, lol), and how badly I fought NOT to buy them for myself (I’m extremely broke after going all out on gifts this year and few hours ar work) and he knew exactly what to get. Lucky guy. Hahahaha

      • Verdant Pine Trees says:

        Didn’t get the Colin Firth version, huh?

    • Doubts42 says:

      He’s a guy, we are easy. give him really good thank you sex and he will forget all about the scarves.
      My wife can tell you everything i ever gave her, on what date and what color paper it was wrapped in. She has probably exchanged or regifted 50% of it. I couldn’t even tell you what i gave her for Christmas 3 days ago

    • Larraque eats babies says:

      New relationship = be honest.

      If you can’t be yourself then you know the relationship is doomed.

      • trentblase says:

        Ditto. I imagine the relationship blossoming, and next year he gives you another two scarves since you loved the first two! Ten years later, he gives them to you every year because it’s your tradition and you have such a nice collection. The deceit tears you up inside. Finally, when you are old and gray, on your deathbed you look into his eyes and say… I never liked your scarves –I didn’t have the heart to tell you but I wanted to be honest before I died. The shock kills him instantly.

      • Michaela says:

        I commented earlier that I was raised not to ever speak to someone about a bad gift. It just was not allowed in my family. I have tried to get over it now that I am older, but my instant reaction is to always smile, thank the individual for the gift, and then go return it in private.

    • ShinGetterPoPo says:

      I’m a guy who has been in a similar situation.
      I saw something thought my girlfriend at the time would love it.
      She didn’t. She also didn’t tell me. About 3 months later I noticed she had never worn it, so I asked her about it. I was rather irritated by the fact that she didn’t trade it for something she would have actually liked. I’d much rather have my girlfriend trade the thing I got her for something she’d enjoy than have it sit in a closet to eventually be given to goodwill having never been worn.

    • AnthonyC says:

      Unless he’s a clothes horse who thinks he has impeccable taste, I expect he’d much rather you tell him than to keep a gift you don’t want.

      It’ll take time for him to learn what you do and don’t like, and some guys (like me!) never quite get the hang of picking out clothes for our SO.
      I return about 90% of the clothing people give me, no matter who it’s from.

  3. corkdork says:

    With my family, it’s expressly said “feel free to exchange this” for gifts that the gift-giver knows may or may not suit the taste of the recipient. For example, we gave my father’s fiancee a Coach purse — which she returned for a wallet (it was too small for her, but she needed a new wallet, something we didn’t know). When I gave it to her, we called it “a gift card you can wear if you want.” Similarly, when they gave my wife and I some pendant lamps, they expressly told us where they got them, so if we wanted to get something else it’d be OK (turns out they were perfect for our style, so we hung them yesterday).

    I’d be pretty confused if someone was upset about me exchanging a gift, especially one that may or may not suit the recipient (clothes, decorative stuff, wines, etc); if they got me a Chardonnay (which I don’t drink much), it’d gather dust (unless there’s a compelling story behind it — bought at the winery, a rare Burgundy, something like that), but if I exchange it for a Champagne (which I do drink often), I’d enjoy it. Which is part of the point of gift-giving, right?

    • pecan 3.14159265 says:

      I think it’s because no one likes to be wrong, and people who pick things out for you think they might know your style or they genuinely think you’ll like it, and you don’t.

  4. pecan 3.14159265 says:

    It’s only impolite to return or exchange something you asked for and received. Otherwise, I think it’s fair game.

    • Rose says:

      What if you received multiples? I got three blenders for Christmas. Now I have one blender, one coffee pot, a tank of gas, and two boxes of K’Nex for my son’s birthday next month.

  5. spanky says:

    I never returned a gift until last year, when my boyfriend got me an expensive digital picture frame.

    I am not a particularly good photographer, and honestly, I don’t like digital picture frames. They’re just sucking up electricity to display what looks like little corporate Powerpoint presentations looping in your living room. To me, they’re just weird and pointless at best.

    I briefly considered maybe tearing it down or repurposing it somehow, but like I said, it was expensive; and wasted money gives me indigestion, even when it’s not my money. So, after screwing up my courage, I asked him if it would be OK if I returned it or exchanged it for something else. He just laughed and said sure. He said he just wanted to get me something and that he figured it was a type of gadget I didn’t have so maybe I’d want one.

    We ended up returning it and ordering a Chumby, which is 1) something I was interested in but would not have just bought myself, and 2) a multi-function, tweakable toylike gadget that includes a digital picture frame app. So his intent dovetailed nicely into something I really do appreciate and enjoy.

    And I’m glad I worked up the courage, because if I still had that frame around, I’d probably still be getting a stomachache when I saw it.

  6. Portlandia says:

    I don’t understand why people hang on to gifts they can’t/wont use rather than try to return/exchange them for something they need?

    As a gift giver, I want people to be happy with what I give them. If they didn’t like it I would much prefer they exchange it for something they want then have the purchase languish in a drawer or be tossed to goodwill.

    People go SO overly sentimental with gifts.

  7. dolemite says:

    My wife’s feelings were hurt when I returned my birthday present. Why did I return it?

    #1. I told her if she had to use the credit card to buy me a gift, I’d rather having nothing since our CC debt is out of control.
    #2. She bought me a digital camera. I take maybe 1 picture a year. It’s like getting a deaf person some headphones.

  8. Ilovegnomes says:

    When it comes to etiquette, I need someone to explain why some people think it is rude or tacky to have a gift registry (a list or guidelines of what you really wanted in the first place and is what will make you happy) for events other than a wedding, but it is okay to go return gifts that are given to you to get what you really wanted in the first place.

    • Portlandia says:

      I believe the whole gift registry thing has gotten so out of control. The purpose of a gift registry used to be that people could see a list of things a young couple need to set-up house for their new life together.

      I’ve seen more than one registry recently that was full of expensive electronics (they had a freaking gift registry set-up at Bestbuy!!!) and $700/ place setting china sets. These were both from people that did not have extravagant weddings NOR did they really need anything to set-up house. They had lived together for over 2 years before the wedding (no judgment) but you could tell that they thought the wedding should be a giant payday. This couple even
      set-up a website with details on their honeymoon and ways people could make “contributions” towards their vacation. They set-up packages where you could pay hundreds to send them to dinner or couples massages. The entitlement mentality of brides/grooms to be has gotten out of hand. Finally, since I’m on a diatribe, one of these brides also had TWO wedding showers, and TWO bridal showers which she set-up herself.
      She felt very entitled to lots of gifts because she was having a wedding and inviting lots of people.

      So, when you ask why people think gift registries are tacky, it’s this kinda of attitude that ruins it for everyone.

    • sprybuzzard says:

      There is nothing horribly wrong with them, but some couples turn it into a greedy grab fest. Others will put expensive things on it only to return the items for cash. If a couple keeps it reasonable with a variety of price options, I think it’s fine. Some people will say that they should know the couple well enough to know what they want. You’ll never get everyone to agree on this.

  9. SG-Cleve says:

    One time I saw my nephew sell my gift to him on eBay.

  10. Kishi says:

    I hope not, because my mom gave me two books I already owned. They’re going back for credit.

  11. Miss Dev (The Beer Sherpa) says:

    I think it’s perfectly acceptable to return items that don’t fit or you don’t like or won’t use.

    What’s unacceptable is announcing this intention as soon as you open the gift. There’s no need to be callous. It’s much more polite to thank the gift giver then inquire about returning it in private (if a receipt wasn’t included). I received boots from my parents this year that didn’t fit, but I made sure to let them know that I loved the gift, but I needed to return them for my size. No biggie, especially because I let them know I appreciated the gift before asking if I could get a receipt.

    I gave my boyfriend’s dad a really nice Columbia vest for Christmas this year, and as soon as he opened it he said “it looks kind of small. Can I return it?” He hadn’t tried it on, and this was in front of his whole family. I don’t care if he wanted to return it, but it did feel like he thought my gift was crummy and felt the need to announce it.

    Next year, I’m getting him cash.

    • stint7 says:

      I have a sister that keeps a running total of her gifts as compared to everyone else. She gets very offended if someone else gets more or if she gets something that she doesn’t like. There has been many Christmas mornings in which my mom sat in the living room crying because my sister threw a fit about her gifts.

  12. brinks says:

    I’ve never returned or exchanged a gift. It was free, I paid nothing for it, and if it sucks, it sucks. I’ll save it for re-gifting purposes later (and I know THAT’s impolite) or just donate it. In the case of some collectible mouse figurines (WTF?) from my grandmother, I ebayed those suckers.

    I find making a trip to the store to be way more of a hassle than the alternatives.

  13. vega503 says:

    I think a better question is “Is it impolite to give a crappy gift that forces someone to make an extra trip to the store to return/exchange it?”

    • pecan 3.14159265 says:

      Sometimes it’s not crappy, just a mistake. One year I got the same book twice from different people. I had to return one of the copies, but it wasn’t a bad gift.

      • stint7 says:

        Books are tricky. My dad used to read a lot of Stephen King, John Grisham, and a lot of other authors Some of the times he simply had the book, had borrowed the book, etc.

  14. Incredulous1 says:

    I’ll never forget the time my “best friend” gave me back an sweater I bought her, and asked me to return it and get her a different size.
    Ah hello – I bought it, wrapped it, gave it to you, and you want me to return it!!
    I’d rather they do it and not hear about it!

  15. stint7 says:

    Sometimes people are not easy to buy for, so getting the perfect gift is more like taking a shot in the dark. I am in no way offended if someone returns a gift I bought them. I got my wife a necklace for Christmas and she liked it but came accross another one the next day that she liked more. No problem, get something you enjoy.
    I also am one that thinks gift cards are perfectly fine. I know that it isn’t very personal but to me it says, I’m not going to pretend I know what you want, but I know where you can find it. I can’t tell you how many times a few Wal-Mart cards came in around the holidays when my wife and I are stretching our income thin.

  16. alamochica says:

    I’m pro-exchanging/returning gifts. I’ll never forget the Christmas years ago when my boyfriends parents bought me clothes for my present. It was a generous thought, but we had only been dating 6 months and what they picked out were not my style at all. After the celebration, I privately pointed this out to my (upper-middle class) bf, but was told that I wasn’t allowed to return the items. The reason being that I would exchange it for money and not a gift. Keep in mind that this was my first year out of college and even with a full time, salaried job, I was trying to keep my middle-class spending in check. Guess what was put in the donate pile when we broke up 6 months later???

    After that horrible incident, I always try to include a gift receipt if possible, or tell the person where I bought the item. Even if it’s something that I know the recipient asked for, he/she may have two of the item, or in the case of toys for kids, the parent may not like the item for whatever reason. As many of the other posters said, I’d much rather the person have something they want, even if it is cash :-) And on that note, it’s not uncommon in my family for one person to ask for gift cards to the same place so they can put together the gift cards and cash to get an expensive item.

    • stint7 says:

      He was being ridiculous. I get clothes for Christmas a lot and I like what I get, it sometimes is just the wrong size. If a reciept isn’t available, i’ll usually just try to get some kind of store credit.

  17. outshined says:

    At Thanksgiving, my uncle saw how much fun we were having with my parents’ Ipad and then bought us a Sony Dash which is sort of “Ipad Lite” for Christmas .

    Since we purchased new smartphones the weekend after Thanksgiving, we’ve got the whole internet-at-our-fingertips thing covered. My uncle means the world to me; I’d hate to hurt his feelings but I don’t know what to do with this thing. Best Buy, Walmart, etc carry it. Can I just go in there and return it or do I ask where he got it?

    • stint7 says:

      It should be universal unless it was packaged especially for a store (i.e. came with a carrying case or a gift card when purchased). I would attempt to take it back to a store. The worse they can tell you is no.

    • Portlandia says:

      Bring it to Walmart…they will take back just about anything. They’re really good about it. If they sell it, they’ll take it back.

  18. AnthonyC says:

    I’m definitely in the “I’d rather you return it and get what you like” crowd. I used to return about half of the gifts I got- as the only boy of my generation in my extended family, no one knows what to get me. So about 8 years ago I just decided to maintain an Amazon wishlist, and my relatives may choose to consult it, or my mom will often direct people to it if they ask her what to get me.

    The only exception is one aunt (wonderful person, not the best gift giver) who buys me clothing (always XL, though I’ve worn M since 10th grade), and cuts off the tags before sending them. Those get donated right away. Which is fine by me, as long as someone gets to make use of the stuff.

  19. Carlee says:

    I’ve returned gifts before, but usually (never ever?) let the gift-giver know. It would be embarrassing for the both of us. Obviously, though, it would be good to let the gift-giver know so that he/she could avoid a similar situation the next year, but I just never speak up.

    I’ve gotten clothes from the GAP for a couple of years from someone and always took the clothes back for store credit (never got a gift receipt so I couldn’t just get a refund). Of course, I don’t usually buy stuff from the GAP so store credit was kind of pointless…

    I’ve also returned stuff that I don’t necessarily “dislike” but that I think is not worth the money spent. Like a boss once gave me a scarf from Macy’s that cost like $30. I took it back for a gift card. Not that you can find much at Macy’s for $30 (I don’t really know, since I don’t usually shop there) but a $30 scarf just seems like a bit of a waste.

  20. Outrun1986 says:

    Unfortunately in my family everyone gets extremely offended if the gift is not liked right away, which really isn’t the way to do things these days. Add to that the fact that no one gives receipts with the gifts either. At the very least, the items should be donated instead of just sitting around the house, and if a kid does not like their gifts, they should be taught that there is someone out there who is less fortunate then them that would probably love the toy they received that they didn’t like because it was the wrong color..

    Fortunately the people that get offended just give money or gift cards, which are hard not to like.

    Another tip, NEVER BUY CLOTHES FOR A TEENAGER!!! Unless they ask for something very, very specific, you will be disappointed with the reaction, and they won’t like what you buy them 99% of the time.

    • HogwartsProfessor says:

      Or for another adult either. Thanks, family, I can dress myself and I don’t wear the kind of stuff you wear. So please stop telling me “YOU HAVE TO HAVE THIS.”

  21. cara says:

    Going through that process right now.
    My mother bought me beautiful cashmere sweater… but she bought it in a large instead of a medium, thinking a shirt underneath would take up enough space.
    It doesn’t.

    I HATE returning gifts. I feel like I’m not grateful for it or something along those lines. My mom had to explain to me that she’d rather I be happy than never wear it.
    So I’m exchanging it tomorrow for another cashmere sweater. :3

    She did hit the mark with what I wanted though, I was very envious when she bought my older sister one.

  22. jedifarfy says:

    I used to get embarrassed when one parent would get me something the other got me too. I then starting making two, distinct lists that never crossed paths. Of course, this was the first year I used Amazon WishList for my mom, and she decided to follow their recommendations rather than my list. So, two things sent back that I already had. After an already disappointing Christmas, I bought myself the items I wanted.

  23. SilverBlade2k says:

    I do not think it’s impolite to return or exchange gifts. If I’m not going to use or, or it’s not my size, color, style, or something that will be gathering dust, I view it as wasted money.

    I think it’s MORE impolite to NOT take hints from somebody on ideas for gifts. “Hey, I’d like this” “This is something I can use.” etc.

    My brother ‘reminded’ me of the time that my parents gave me a book (I was young, don’t remember the book title, or anything about it). He told me I was very excited, but then extremely disappointed by the fact that I got a BOOK, when my parents KNEW that I have an extreme hate for books (I view books as work and chores – unless I’m getting something out if it, I don’t read) The book sat for years, unopened (waste of money). But it was a lesson learned on their part, as they never gave me a book again.

    So, I totally agree with exchanging/returning gifts. It’s better that the receiver get something that they’ll use/enjoy, instead of getting them something that the receiver will just hate.