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What to Do If You Receive an Unexpected Gift

Some holiday situations are as sticky as peppermint candy canes, including the uncomfortable instance of receiving an unexpected gift. Usually it's easy to assume who will take part in a gift exchange, but we all know that assumptions don't always pan out the way you predicted.

That friend you haven't heard from in a month, but gave you a gift last year, might come bearing a present around the holidays. And your chatty co-worker whom you call a colleague? She might think you have moved on to friend territory and wants to let you know how much she appreciates you with a gifting gesture. To see suggestions for handling such situations,


  • Friend: You can be pretty honest with a true friend. After graciously thanking her for the present, apologize that you don't have anything for her. Tell her you're sorry and that you'd love to have her (and possibly a plus one) over for a home-cooked meal of her choosing sometime soon. When she calls and asks what she can bring, tell her nothing at all and mention that it's your gift to her. Open a bottle of her favorite kind of wine to serve with the dish she requested, and the time you spend together will mean more than a purchased gift.
  • Family: It really depends on how close you are to the family member, but it's always best to be honest and say you didn't expect to exchange gifts this year. Send a warm thank-you note for the gift you received and include a batch of your homemade cookies or hot cocoa mix.
  • Co-worker: After apologizing for not being prepared, take her to lunch and give her a card making light of what a procrastinator you are.
  • Boss: This one is easy — just give an appreciative "thanks!" You don't need to feel pressure to reciprocate your boss's gesture.

Have you ever received a gift without having one to give in return?


Join The Conversation
PiNkY-PiNk PiNkY-PiNk 8 years
this has never happened to me. but these are all great ideas for future reference.
Spectra Spectra 8 years
Oh, I'm all about the "generic" gifts. I buy a few bottles of really nice lotion and some nice scented candles and a few Visa gift cards to give to people that unexpectedly give us gifts.
ilanac13 ilanac13 8 years
there has been an occassion or 2 that i've gotten a gift and not had one prepared for friends but that's just something that i deal with in my own way. i kind of feel like i've been very transparent with people for the longest time that i don't really have funds etc to buy presents - (even more than this year) and well - if ppl want to get me something, then i just let them know that i'll get it back to them some how - in some time.
Mesayme Mesayme 8 years
Oh. I usually have chocolate on hand for ladies and something salty or an unusual bottle of hot sauce or barbeque sauce for the fellas. Pretty much does the trick. :)
yellowshoe yellowshoe 8 years
Great advice! I always have some generic gifts! Nice picture frames, usually. Great advice, as usual!
gemsera gemsera 8 years
We are keeping a gift (generic) in each car in case the boss or someone we see we forgot about... and a few at home too. We can always give them to friends of the family for birthdays etc. I go overboard with presents for others so never really been in that situation...
GlowingMoon GlowingMoon 8 years
Personally, I always express thanks, and confess I don't have a gift for them. The next day, I would mail them a handmade thank you card. I may be considered rude, but I don't feel the need to give a gift in return. But I always express gratitude, and mail handmade thank you cards.
laluna laluna 8 years
This happend to me last year. My boss gave me an unexpected present the day after xmas, it was only something cheap and maybe a little ugly but it was a nice thought. There's a certain aunt, uncle and cousins who only come up for xmas every 2 or 3 years. I'm never sure if they've bought me something as our family usually just buys for the kids (like under 18) and our nanna. This year i've bought boxes of chocolates just in case and if i dont need them, i'll give them to all the elderly neighbours i have around me.
Mesayme Mesayme 8 years
Usually feel guilty.
candace87 candace87 8 years
My boss and I exchanged gifts last year, but it's a very small company so it wasn't weird at all. Also, I always have a few extra boxes of chocolate and a few bottles of wine for those unexpected gifts. Attach one of those generic cards you buy in sets of like 50, and theres an instant present:)!
skigurl skigurl 8 years
syako...this year my mom even found a cool box of wine glasses in her closet wrapped from last year...she never found anyone she needed to give them to. stuff like that can keep, so even if you end up using them the next year, whatever, at least they're there!
syako syako 8 years
Yeah I agree with skigurl on her "number 4." Every year I buy one or two extra "miscellaneous" gifts that are really impersonal just for those times when I get an unexpected gift. They have come in handy (and some years, I end up with a new scarf if I don't get any unexpecteds!) ;)
krae85 krae85 8 years
great advice from skigurl! the photo makes me laugh.
skigurl skigurl 8 years
1. for friends and family, i just say thanks so much, gush a little, and don't mention the fact that i don't have anything in return. no need to make it awkward. just say thanks and move along. 2. for coworkers, it's not hard to handle - since you go to work every day, you could just say nothing but bring her something the next day. Xmas is weird because people come and go around that time, and you're never sure who will be in the office anyway. just say thanks, and reciprocate another day. or if it's Xmas eve and it's obvious you brought nothing, then lie and say you forgot it at home. make an elaborate story about your husband taking your car to work or something. 3. whose boss gets them something? probably not mine. but i will get him smoe wine or something similar. do the same. suckups make it places in this world. 4. always have an extra gift on hand for someone who drops in unexpectedly. make it a christmas ornament or bottle of booze or chocolate or wine glasses. have it prewrapped. make it generic so it can go to anyone.
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