Picky Gift Recipient – To Give Or Not To Give, That Is The Question

by admin on December 5, 2013

I have a story about my mother-in-law’s rudeness and I am also looking for some advice on the best way to handle the situation.

This past Christmas was the first year that both my husband have professional careers. We decided that we would both spend a good amount on our parents as a way to thank them for supporting us over the years of college and grad school. My MIL is a difficult person to shop for so my husband thought it best to ask her to pick out what she wanted. One of the gifts she wanted was a wrapped canvas picture of their family pet that passed away that year. We picked out our favorite picture of the pet and since it was only cost about half of what we wanted to spend we bought her a few more gifts of items that she uses.

Christmas morning comes and when MIL opens the portrait she just stares at it and tells us, “Oh, pet looks old in this picture. I wish you picked a different one.” She put it aside and the picture is still sitting in a closet. My husband was upset but I didn’t think much about it until a week after Christmas. When I got home from work sitting on my kitchen table was the other items that we had bought all still in their gift bags. I made sure to include the receipts with the gifts since I know how difficult my MIL is to shop for but she apparently didn’t even want to trouble herself to exchange the gifts. My husband called her to get an explanation and she told him that she didn’t like the scents (candles) and never wears the piece of jewelry we bought an accessory for. Her other excuse was that we needed the money more than she needs the gifts. Not only did she deny our gifts but she thinks that we are poor and need her to help us.

Fast forward to this weekend and MIL wants to give me a Valentine’s day present early. It’s a charm for my bracelet that happened to be the same one my husband just bought me. I was so tempted to tell her no thanks I already have that one and not accept it but I just smiled and thanked her for the gift. MIL does the same thing to my husband’s father and sister. My father-in-law no longer buys her gifts but my optimistic sister-in-law thinks every year she’ll get her mom something that she actually likes. My question is, do all you etiquette savvy folks think that we should still give gifts or should we just stop giving her anything? Should my husband tell her we are not buying her anymore gifts because of how she treats them or should we just keep ignoring the behavior? I want to just stop giving her anything but my FIL is always appreciates what we give him so it would be really awkward to give something to everyone else but her. Thanks for your input!

I’m of the opinion that grown adults should not be expecting to receive Christmas gifts from each other or feel this burden to give gifts out of a sense of duty and obligation.   I’ve reached the age where I really don’t want any more knicky knacky stuff, no more clutter, no obligatory gifts.    You’ll have to get more creative in your gift giving to MIL.    Take your MIL to a nice restaurant.  If they travel by car, give gift cards to nice highway restaurants like Cracker Barrel (this one went over really well with my in-laws).   Make and can some unusual food items….I made Strawberry Margarita Jam one year that was a huge hit.   I get hard to give women chocolate covered strawberries from Shari’s Berries.   Send a beautiful evergreen centerpiece from the florist.


{ 50 comments… read them below or add one }

NostalgicGal December 5, 2013 at 3:44 am

My mother was and still is impossible to buy for. One of the classics; dad had shelled out a LOT to buy her a really nice cashmere sweater one year. It went in a drawer for several years, never even tried on, and. I got to the age and size I could wear it; AND they’d come in as a very hot fashion item; so she SELLS it to her sister, and for a fraction of what dad paid for it. My MIL, bless her, had 7 children and lots of grandchildren, so buying her something was hard also; just because. If you spent a lot on her she got mad. And if some of DH’s siblings got together to get her a large gift we always got left out on it and were made to often look like we didn’t care… though she knew otherwise.

Between me and DH, I usually have to wrangle the budget to get stuff, so in the fall or so of the year we discuss what Santa should bring and usually decide on stuff together; then it gets purchased.

OP, I’d ask FIL what MIL needed. He ought to know. If he can’t pinpoint anything; then I’d do food. Whether it’s gift box/basket (hand selected and assembled) or a gift certificate to restaurant (or more than one) of a place she does enjoy eating at (ask FIL).


Lex December 5, 2013 at 4:25 am

I agree with the admin on this one – ungrateful MIL will NEVER be happy with the gifts you buy her, so stop opting for something ‘personal’ and opt for what I term a ‘gesture gift’ instead: The floral arrangements, food hampers etc.

My Sister has this exact problem with her MIL, FIL and GMIL. GMIL is always complaining (to her face) about the gifts. GFIL is a lovely, sweet man, GMIL is one of those women that has no class and is as mean and graceless as possible all the while boasting about how much everything costs and comparing how much she spent on everyone – it’s very tacky behaviour and I struggle to hold my tongue when I witness it, all the while giving thanks for my own good fortune that I happen to have quite easy going in-laws. Last year she bought her FIL a lovely item only to have it handed back to her by MIL the next day and told to take it back and keep the money because FIL wouldn’t use it. She was upset and mortified. When I asked her why she didn’t let her husband take care of gifts for his family her response was that she couldn’t rely on him to shop for everyone and preferred to take care of it herself.

I am fortunate in that my own partner is a loving, sweet, generous man who takes great joy in gift buying and whose parents are quite easy going and fairly predictable and modest so we have a routine in our household that works well – I take care of gifts to my family (both in the choosing, wrapping and financially) and he takes care of the gifts for his family. Obviously there is some discussion (particularly where spoiled nephew and greedy brother are concerned) but ultimately the gifts LeBoyfriend chooses for his parents tend to go down well – his mother (for example) uses a fairly expensive brand of face cream which she cannot justify purchasing for herself on their limited incomes so my partner always puts together a gift bag of this product for her which usually lasts until her birthday when she gets more. She’s happy with that. FIL is less easy to buy for but generally gets clothing or pyjamas which he’s happy with.

The point of telling you this is that you will never change MIL so you have one of two choices – you get her a ‘gesture gift’ or you leave your in laws to your partner. I know gifts cards seem to be unpopular as people (particularly my mother) feel that they are ‘cheating’ and show that you couldn’t be bothered to shop for a gift, but in the case of ungrateful relations, a gift card for their favourite restaurant or for her favourite department store might be a better option – that way she can choose something to her own satisfaction.


Celia December 5, 2013 at 5:27 am

I had to read Admin’s reply a couple of times because I didn’t quite understand the first part “…grown adults should not be expecting to receive Christmas gifts from each other or feel this burden to give gifts out of a sense of duty or obligation” followed by “You’ll have to get more creative in your gift giving to MIL.” It seemed contradictory. However if Admin meant what I think she meant “If you want to give your MIL a nice gift that she will appreciate, and it’s not from sense of burden or obligation, then you’ll have to get more creative.” I agree with this wholeheartedly. Especially the idea of some food items, or to take her to a nice restaurant. Or some other gift of an experience with you and your DH – a show, play, day trip to a winery if that’s her thing.
If your MIL seems intent on you not spending money on her, then spend TIME instead. Depending on how active she and FIL are, maybe offer to do some yard work for them or some other work type thing you could do at their place followed by a nice dinner.
Or have them over to your house for a special meal and cook her favourite things.


Comradde PhysioProffe December 5, 2013 at 7:01 am

Although this is implicit in the advice given, it’s worth making explicit: You absolutely keep giving MIL gifts in keeping with the standard family tradition, and keep pretending that she is a normal gracious gift recipient no matter how she reacts. This is because MIL’s behavior is designed to make her an aggrieved party at the center of dramatic attention, and making a point of no longer giving her gifts will just reinforce and amplify her annoying behavior.


AvidReader December 5, 2013 at 7:03 am

OP might want to re-think her gift strategy for her MIL. Many people of a certain age are not difficult to shop for, but simply.do.not.want.more.stuff. I’m in that crowd. For these hard-to-please people, I usually give something seasonal that will not last. I’m with admin, I’d rather receive a seasonal table or other decoration from the florist than a piece of jewelry, which I don’t wear much of (and for which I am exceptionally picky), or some other trinket that I will have to put someplace. The gift of an experience for example, a restaurant gift card, a day spa gift card (but only if she goes to day spas), theater or movie tickets comes to mind. For out-of-state families on our gift list who receive a single gift rather than one for each family member, we often send a gift food basket with specialty items our state is known for.


Lo December 5, 2013 at 7:04 am

She’s definitely handling this badly.

Though I would have called her on her bluff when she returned the gifts and said you needed the money. more than she needed the gifts. It was an out for you to stop buying her presents and I would have taken it.

As someone with the stubborn pride that comes from living a long time without a lot of money I too have taken offense in the past to suggestions by my parents or my inlaws that we shouldn’t spend our money on them. Both sets of parents are far more well off than we are and can afford to spend more on us than we can on them. But the idea that we shouldn’t get them anything is hurtful and offensive to me. I’m no one’s charity project.

So I completely understand how you feel. But try to compromise with her and I would start by spending less money on her gifts and returning them yourself if she rejects them. (and not buying a substitute, that’s her loss) If she does the same thing next time that’s your cue to stop buying her personal gifts. You will have to buy gifts she can share with your FIL.

I think admin made awesome suggestions. Gifts of food are always good!


haji December 5, 2013 at 7:18 am

One other thought for thoughtless, my MIL is sort of the same way in that she’s hard to shop for and since she was widowed has more money than she knows what to do with. Every year, we take our gift budget for her and give to charity in her name. I realize that some people may not like this idea, but it has worked for us. We normally split between the Breakfast Mission (which helps the homeless), the Food Bank, and Habitat for Humanity.


essie December 5, 2013 at 7:43 am

Look her in the eye when she complains about the gift and say, clearly and emphatically, “You’re welcome.” If she continues, “Yes, it’s always nice when one’s efforts are appreciated.”


PM December 5, 2013 at 7:44 am

I have to respectfully disagree with the Admin. The LW shouldn’t “get more creative.” They should stop buying gifts for MIL all together. Her behavior is hideously rude. She’s made it clear she doesn’t want their gifts. So stop trying to find something she will like. Either MIL really wants to save the LW and her husband money and thinks she’s doing them a kindness (and receiving the gifts could actually be causing her stress) or she enjoys the power she gains from rejecting their gifts and making them “jump” to try to find something she’ll like. Either way, the best thing to do is to drop the rope and walk away.


Wendy B. December 5, 2013 at 8:19 am

This is a bit of an involved answer:
We’re settling the estate of a friend. She and her twin sister became friends with my mom about 50 years ago, and so they were part of the scenery when I came along a few years later. Every year we would have a gift exchange at Christmas. It was a case of two spinster school teacher sisters whose family was in good shape financially before they started working, so they rarely, if ever, hurt for money. But my family struggled for many years. Each year it became a challenge for my mom to a) find gifts they would like and b) find enough gifts. As I got older, I started arguing with my mom to stop trying to keep up with them, knowing that no matter how many gifts she got them, they would manage to out do us somehow. (There’s a lot more involved here.) Towards the end she did start listening to me about getting gift cards, etc. at least, because we had a suspicion they weren’t using the “things” we got them.

Sure enough, when we started cleaning out the house, we kept finding unopened or unused things that we had purchased for them, as well as things other people had given them as well. They had a huge duplex house and every unused room was stuffed with…stuff.

BUT, here’s the kicker. Often, when we’ve found things, we’ve been able to laugh, or cry, or both AND remember some good times and some funny times. And we were able to find homes for many of the things…some we kept for ourselves, most we gave to friends and people we knew could use them.

I tell you all that to tell you this: don’t kill yourself trying to find the “perfect” gift. If she doesn’t like what she gets, it’s not your problem. Someday, and this is the honest truth, you will look back on this and laugh…and cry. Meanwhile, if you must get her something she’ll like, find out what her favorite stores/restaurants are and get her gift cards.


The Elf December 5, 2013 at 8:28 am

She needs to learn to be more grateful about gifts received.

Each family has their own traditions of how to do Christmas gift giving. There are no children on my side of the family, and it’s a small family, so we all give larger gifts to each other. There are children on my husband’s side of the family, so we give bigger gifts to the kids and small, token, gifts to the adults. Since the tradition appears to be gift giving to adults, then you’d create more problems by bucking that tradition. You might want to suggest a Secret Santa or something, so that you’ll only have to figure out a MIL gift on the years you draw her name. Whatever you do, make sure your husband is on board since it is his mother and he’ll have to deal with any backlash.

I’m a little more shocked that MIL was giving a Valentine’s Day gift to OP. I realize I’m pretty much anti-VD, but isn’t that pretty much for lovers? No matter.

When dealing with a difficult gift receiver – not just one who is hard to shop for but is ungrateful about the gifts she receives – and you know you have to give a gift (because of family tradition), you have two options.
1) Give something you think she’ll like, include a gift receipt, expect the refusal, have a plan in place to politely suggest she return the item for something she likes more. Don’t let the refusal get to you. Repeat “This is about her, not me” as needed to yourself.
2) Give cash, a gift card, or something consumable like wine. Again expect the pushback, but at least it won’t be returned.


Barb December 5, 2013 at 8:28 am

I agree, give a donation to her favorite charity.


Daphne December 5, 2013 at 8:41 am

All of the above suggestions are fantastic. But if the food, flower, charitable or combined gift ideas don’t work, and you still feel the need to get her something, get her something you would like for yourself. Then when she gives it back to you, you’ll be happy to keep it!

And remember that some people just feel more comfortable being upset, and making others feel the same way. So, it might help you get through it this season to keep in mind that the real gift to them is letting them complain about gifts. 😉


Huh December 5, 2013 at 8:44 am

Those are all great suggestions Admin gave. However, if the OP’s MIL is like someone I know, she still won’t like it.

My ex was/is notoriously bad about gifts. Always claimed he didn’t want any, but the few times I did exactly that, he was angry and sulked. He never liked anything anyone got him, including things he specifically asked for (kinda like OP and the painting) and would get angry. We are divorced so I no longer go through that agony of trying to figure out what to do about the holidays and knowing I’m going to get yelled at no matter what.


hakayama December 5, 2013 at 9:14 am

Sounds like the solutions offered by Lex and haji very neatly wrap up the gift problem. A contribution to a worthy cause, topped by a token unreturnable item (a book comes to mind), just can’t be beat.
As for offering TIME, with some rogue characters that’s the last thing I’d be willing to give. As “time is the stuff that life is made of”, it’s not something I’d willingly squander on those bristle cones.

And, OP, how did your MIL get into your kitchen during your absence? Another shudder here, just THINKING that such a character would have a key to my home… 🙁 >:/
(P.S.: I had a great MIL, and she did have full access to my home and my child. It was her son that had to be dumped. ;-))


Mae December 5, 2013 at 9:14 am

I started doing flowers for hard to buy for/please relatives, as well as for my father, several years ago.

My father is elderly, lives in a 1 bedroom senior apartment- space is limited and he does not like clutter or knick-knack items. I send him flowers for his birthday (blue larkspur) and then a holiday arrangement at Christmas. I have a friend who does photography on the side, so I get him to do professional quality portraits of the grandkids, then I will frame them and send them to my dad on father’s day- he loves those. I also send birthday and holiday flowers for my aunt, who lives near my dad and watches over him.

I think when someone is thinking about a “gift”, flowers do not always come to mind but I think they are the perfect gift!


AMC December 5, 2013 at 9:25 am

The problem isn’t your gift-giving skills; it’s your MIL’s inability to accept gift from others. Maybe she has control issues. Maybe she has self-esteem issues that make her feel unworthy of gifts. Whatever it is, she will never gratiously accept any gift you and your husband (or your SIL or FIL) give to her. Your father-in-law figured this out a long time ago. You could try giving her a giftcard, which would allow her to buy what she wants, but something tells me she’ll probably find fault with that as well. Maybe make a donation in her name. At least then you know *somebody* will appreciate your effort.
There is also the possibility that she enjoys experiences rather than things, as Admin pointed out. In any case, carefully consider how much you are willing to invest in a gift for someone who has a habit of rejecting your gifts.


Shawn December 5, 2013 at 9:36 am

Two words: Gift certificate


just4kicks December 5, 2013 at 9:42 am

I have two suggestions: one, everyone buys groceries get her a gift card to the market she goes to.
And, all malls have “mall wide” gift cards redeemable at any store in the mall. So you have given a gift, and Picky-pickerson gets to choose her own gift.


Anonymous December 5, 2013 at 9:50 am

For the canvas print of the dear, departed pet, I’d have let MIL pick her favourite picture, but I still think she was rude. I agree with Jeanne–I think it’d be best to switch to giving MIL (and FIL, since they’d probably want to go together) more “open-ended” gifts, like restaurant gift cards, or movie passes for a theatre close to their house, or anything else that allows you to give them a gift, and the good thoughts and intentions that go along with it, while still allowing them to choose what they want to do with that gift.

I think the crux of MIL’s rudeness was that she came out and said that she didn’t like the canvas print, that she’d REQUESTED, before stashing it in the closet. Simply not liking or using a gift isn’t, in itself, rude. For example, one Christmas, my mother bought me a pair of ghastly mauve-and-grey paisley fleece pajamas (well, the pants were paisley, and the top was plain mauve, but still). Anyway, I don’t like the colour mauve; I’m indifferent about grey, and I don’t even wear pajamas–I sleep in yoga pants and a T-shirt, so I can roll out of bed and start working out (it’s a trick I learned from Sparkpeople.Com, which my mom also belongs to). Anyway, I never told my mom I didn’t like the pajamas; I just thanked her, and hung them up in my closet……but still, over time, whenever she got angry or upset with me, for ANYTHING at all, she’d bring up how “rude, ungrateful, and selfish” I was, for not wearing the pajamas. I did wear the slippers she got me along with them, but I was “rude, ungrateful, and selfish” nonetheless. Surprisingly, though, she listened to what I (wasn’t) saying, and from that point on, got me gifts that were actually related to my likes and interests, as I’ve done for her since I was old enough. My point is, “polite” doesn’t always mean pretending to like things you don’t, or else you end up in that age-old trap where you have to prepare for all visits from the giver by taking all the unwanted gifts out of storage and distributing them around your house so it looks as if they’ve always been there. Then, the giver mistakenly thinks you like them, and gets you more of those kinds of gifts, and it just keeps snowballing out of control. Sometimes it’s best to just “rip off the Band-Aid,” and tell the giver that, much as you appreciate the thought, you don’t like (or can’t use) X for Y reason.


Jewel December 5, 2013 at 9:52 am

My Dad (now deceased) was a very ungrateful gift receiver. He would have something disparaging to say about everything I gave him. Once, after I noticed that his bath towels were pretty threadbare, I gave him new, fluffy towels. Upon opening the package, he said, “Why would I need something like this?” Fast as a shot, I replied, “Fine. I’ll take them back. Give ’em here”. Amusingly, he quickly moved the box out of my reach and chuckled in an embarrassed way. My handling of the situation didn’t stop his behavior permanently, but it did tamp it down significantly.

I suggest a two-pronged approach for the OP: give MIL only items that can be consumed (like food), flowers (like table centerpieces), or “experiences” (restaurant gift cards, tickets to a concert/play, gift card for a manicure, etc.). At the same time (prong #2) plan to immediately suggest ditching gift exchanges should MIL say anything negative about the gifts. For example, if she complains that the floral centerpiece just drops flower petals all over the table or states that she doesn’t care for that restaurant, OP should immediately pipe up and say, “We feel badly that you don’t like any gifts we give you. We thought flowers/restaurant were a safe choice. We don’t want to put you in a position of having to receive gifts you don’t like. For the future, let’s stop doing gift exchanges and just mark the occasion with cards to one another.” Then, of course, follow through.


Allie December 5, 2013 at 9:56 am

I am sorely tempted to say don’t buy her anything and tell her it’s because of her rude behavior. However, I know I would be too soft-hearted to do that if I were buying for everyone else. I would opt for either cash or a gift certificate to a store where you know she shops. At least she can’t dump that on you to return for her. And then put it out of your mind. Some people just like being unhappy and ungrateful and there’s really nothing you can do about it.


DrGeekHyena December 5, 2013 at 9:59 am

I agree with haji. Give to charity in her name, something inoffensive (ie, not a religious or political charity), and send her a nice card along with the donation information. Heifer Project International is a good one to support, or your local animal shelter (I’ve found that few people object to stuff like that).


Margaret December 5, 2013 at 10:20 am

My first thought was to start giving FIL and MIL a single gift to them both as a couple, but make it something that FIL will appreciate and don’t worry about MIL because she wouldn’t like anything anyway. My second thought is to start giving her awful gifts.

Oh, I have it — just keep doing the pet portraits until you manage to find a picture that she likes. And that’s it, just the one portrait. Spend the extra on FIL. She will have to pretend to like one eventually or they will fill her house!


amyk December 5, 2013 at 10:21 am

My mother was always the most impossible person to get a gift for. If she wanted or needed anything she just went out and bought it. She would get mad if any of us spent money on her because we needed it more than she did. So we switched tactics completely. My husband and I would look around the house and see what needed to be done. In the days of telephone modems, the room she set the computer up in had only one telephone line. So we brought the wires from the other line into that room so she could be on the computer and the phone at the same time. Another year we set up shelving in the laundry room to make it easier for her. Another year we cleaned out the basement. We DID things instead of buying things.


Shalamar December 5, 2013 at 10:27 am

I hate buying my MIL gifts. Even when we buy her something she asked for, she’s still not happy. Last year she asked for a new suitcase, and we found a beautiful one that was part of a really great sale, so we grabbed it. Her way of thanking us was to say recently “Yeah, that suitcase is nice, but it gets so heavy when I completely fill it.” Um, you’re welcome?


clairedelune December 5, 2013 at 10:29 am

Yes, agreed with Admin–when you give gifts (and it sounds like you plan to still give gifts to FIL, in which case *not* giving them to MIL isn’t really an option, probably) make them things like food or outings (“we’d like to take you to X concert on the 15th”). This is probably also a control thing with her–she may prefer to be the one who gives more, because she then feels like she has more power in the relationship. The only thing you can do is just refuse to engage with her silly gift battle.

Meanwhile–when you say that you returned home to find all the gifts on your kitchen table, does this mean that MIL let herself into your home when you weren’t there?? This would annoy me more than any gift-related stuff!


Politrix December 5, 2013 at 10:42 am

@haji #7
LOL I like your idea of giving to charity in someone else’s name, but you might have opened a can of worms with that suggestion; there was a very long, heated debate on this site a few months ago on whether doing that is really an appropriate gift idea or not.
I think, especially around the holidays, most of us look back with nostalgia on our own gift-giving and -receiving experiences of our own childhood, and try to idealistically re-create that experience for ourselves and for others — not knowing whether or not the recipient (or potential giver) shares the same memories as we do.
I actually got a blunt wake-up call this Thanksgiving when my sister-in-law told me, point blank, that she didn’t want me to give her or her sister gifts this year — or in the future, for that matter. “Just for the kids” — my niece and nephew — “but please — not the adults. It’s not that we don’t appreciate it, it’s just that we don’t really do that in our family, and it’s awkward for us.” I looked at my DH, who nodded in agreement. She went on — “Please, if I don’t tell you, then she’ll tell you — no gifts. For the children, ok, but not for us. Seriously!”
I grudgingly agreed, then asked if there was another way I could show my appreciation and love for them (my in-laws are really quite generous and helpful), and she simply said, “We just don’t do that kind of thing in our family.”
It’s a hard concept for me to wrap my head around, but some people really don’t enjoy accepting gifts. Maybe the MIL is one of them. Maybe she’d just appreciate spending time with you guys, and creating fond memories instead. Or maybe she’s just not that into gift-giving. At any rate, try not to take her rejection of your gifts personally — as a notorious gift-giver myself, I know it’s hard not to, but believe me, there really are people on the polar opposite end of the “gimme-pig” spectrum, who really, really feel uncomfortable with the whole concept of “presents.”


babaran December 5, 2013 at 10:48 am

I never, ever, ever worry about these kinds of people. If I know they are like that, sometimes I simply make sure I am not around when they open their presents to hear their comments! (I will ship the pkgs, or drop them off a week or so before xmas, etc.)


babaran December 5, 2013 at 10:49 am

And as an added note…..trying to talk this out with a person like this is impossible! I have a mom who is like that, and whenever I try to sit down with her and “go over” the latest problem she’s having, and also try to back it up with examples, she always says “I never said that!” or “I never felt like that!”. Impossible, so I don’t even try. Put a smile on your face, and concentrate on the people that it’s truly fun to buy for.


Elizabeth December 5, 2013 at 10:53 am

I stumbled here: “When I got home from work sitting on my kitchen table was the other items that we had bought all still in their gift bags.”

MIL entered your home and left the gifts? Really?

Yes, some family members have keys to our house but these keys are used when a request is made (please feed cat while we are away, put out trash while we are away). These keys are not used when the holder decides access is wanted. Oh my – I would quickly put a stop to this casual thinking.

As for the gift giving, you are in a difficult position. I would politely explain that we chose gifts we can certainly afford and that the receipient shouldn’t be concerning herself with our budgeting. And then I would let it go – she returned them – no need to run out and try to replace them. Next year, do the same – make choices you think appropriate – if she returns them to you I wouldn’t feel obligated to repace them.


LisaB December 5, 2013 at 11:03 am

I have a couple of PIA gift recipients in my family. My sister is extremely picky and will tell you straight away if she doesn’t like the gift. I remember one year when she wanted an expensive designer sweater. My mother gave her a very similar, and still very nice, no-name sweater. My sister immediately threw the sweater into the pile of boxes and discarded wrapping paper because it wasn’t the exact sweater that she had asked for.

I also have an aunt who spends far beyond her own budget on gifts, but gets very upset if anyone gets her something that she thinks is too pricey. The classic example was the year she asked for a watch. She told my mother about one she had seen that she liked. When my mother went to buy it, she saw another watch that looked similar but was a little more expensive and of better quality. She gave my aunt the more expensive watch, and my aunt was furious that my mother had spent the money on it! She demanded that my mother return the watch and get the cheaper one.

With both my sister and my aunt, I’ve learned to give them exactly what’s on their wish list—and always keep a receipt, just in case. I’ve also learned to accept that they will act like that and not drive myself crazy trying to please people who are determined to be unhappy.

As an aside: I’m the exact opposite of my sister and aunt. I can fake enthusiasm for even the worst gift. Last year, I had my entire family convinced that I LOVED the tacky feather earrings that my aunt gave me—so much so that my sister gave me the pair that our aunt had given her. I returned both pairs on the sly and got something that was more my style.


Jane December 5, 2013 at 11:04 am

Wow! This sounds like my father-in-law. He isn’t rude about gifts in any way, shape or form. He’s very polite actually. However, we a gift from two years ago sitting in the same exact spot he had opened it, still in the box with bits of wrapping paper hanging off. It had been there for nearly two years!

Anyways, I agree with the others who recommended a”gesture gift” instead.


Lola December 5, 2013 at 11:06 am

Just give her cash.


acr December 5, 2013 at 11:22 am

I think that sometimes people think they are demonstrating that they are “simple, down to earth” people and “not materialistic” when they disdain gifts. “I don’t need this fancy thingamabob because I’m not a fancy person.” Sometimes with these kinds of people you can get a gift that is very very practical. Like tires or something. So the gift is actually freeing up some of their cash so they can spend it on exactly what they would like, or even just tuck the money away.

I also think that some people, particularly older people, just have so much STUFF that they don’t want any more stuff cluttering up their home.

Sometimes you can combine practicality with luxury – you could get them some very nice coffee, for example. Or nice sheets and towels. In my experience, a lot of people don’t buy themselves nice sheets and towels. Perhaps some nice, handmade soap. (Sidenote: I make soap, so if you are buying for people with sensitive skin, or older people with fragile skin, get something with no fragrance.) If they are even slightly tech savvy, perhaps Netflix? I also really like the idea of a flower arrangement. My father, who is NOT techy at all, loves loves loves his Kindle.


Alicia December 5, 2013 at 11:25 am

Buy her something like an ugly Christmas sweater or a garden gnome or something else that will get funny. Then give it to her. When she gives it back to you save it and give it to her next Christmas. Repeat every year. This could get funny with time.


Justine December 5, 2013 at 11:27 am

I agree that a trip to a restaurant, concert, or play would be the gift she couldn’t return. Or a gift card. Other than that, a bouquet of flowers or just give up.


Lindsay December 5, 2013 at 11:31 am

I would cut her a check. Then write in the memo “Buy yourself something nice”. If she asked, I would just say that I felt oh so terrible for never getting something you liked, and this way, you can just get what you need. Passive aggressive? Yes. Gets your point across.


Daisy December 5, 2013 at 11:35 am

Since MIL isn’t going to like anything you give her (she isn’t; she has too much invested in making people feel inadequate), head for the moral high ground. Go to Plan Canada and buy a goat in her name for a struggling family in Africa. Make a donation to the Salvation Army or the Goodfellows. Send a shoebox through Samaritan’s Purse. Contact Forgotten Harvest, or any of the excellent charities at GreaterGood.com. Buy a basket full of canned goods to give to your local food bank. Donate hats and mittens to the local homeless shelter. Give kibble and cheap towels to the nearest animal shelter. Any place you make a donation will be grateful. Your MIL won’t, but she isn’t going to be anyway. She may even reach an epiphany when she listens to herself complaining that a small child is having a hot meal on Christmas Day.


Andi December 5, 2013 at 11:37 am

My mil has since passed away, but she was a terror. She used to say that she had 13 grandchildren and couldn’t possibly shop for them all, so they got nothing for Christmas, except for the chosen few that she liked, which weren’t my children, of course. But she fully expected us to give her something for Christmas, her birthday, and holiest of holiest, MOTHER’S DAY. She never liked anything and made us feel terrible for even thinking she would like it. I remember one year all her kids and spouses went together to raise money to have her kitchen remodeled. She raised such a stink, how dare we? We thought she would be happy since all she ever did was complain about her appliances, countertops, flooring, etc. We could never win with her..


Jaxsue December 5, 2013 at 11:55 am

I was lucky; my parents are easy to buy for. I have a friend, however, whose parents are so picky that he’s given up. Gift certificates to restaurants aren’t wanted because if his mom likes the restaurant, his dad hates it. For his dad’s birthday last year he gave him an item from WWII, something with real value, plus his dad is a WWII vet who talks about the “big one” all the time. He opened the gift, looked at it, and put it down without so much as a “thank you.” Sometimes you can’t win!


sweetonsno December 5, 2013 at 12:05 pm

I agree that it’s best to get a gesture gift. I’m a fan of comestibles. My great aunt used to send my family grapefruits from Harry and David. They were amazing. (The pears we got one year were also superb.) There are many benefits to tasty treats. They’re easy to use, easy to share, and difficult to return. I’d go with a treat-of-the-month club.


ally December 5, 2013 at 12:10 pm

I’ve seen this kind of story on Monster in Laws where no matter what you do, this person will not be pleased. Members on that site would call this a get out of jail free card. Don’t buy anymore gifts. For her to return a gift at all, but especially In that manner, is completely rude. It doesn’t matter if your don’t want it, the polite thing to do is cheerfully accept, and maybe nicely ask to exchange a scent or something.

If the OP gets hurt by MIL’s actions but still wants to provide gifts, it should be the husband’s job from now on. His mother, his problem. She doesn’t sound toxic, more stubborn and thoughtless, but perhaps it’s time to end the obligatory gift exchange. Why not celebrate with a dinner out together? Or something else that removes the pressure of buying, gifting, receiving, and thanking, since it seems MIL can’t do a couple of those well at all.


Saucy Minx December 5, 2013 at 12:12 pm

I was thunderstruck that the LW got home from work & found the gifts on her kitchen table. Get the house keys back, forthwith!

Then either purchase things such as flowers or GCs to the restaurants your FIL favors, or, better still, leave it to your husband to deal w/ this rude woman.

But get the keys back — or change the locks.


DGS December 5, 2013 at 12:43 pm

This is a tricky one…could it be that MIL wasn’t intending to be rude but came across that way? The whole, “you-need-money-more-than-us” thing could be her just being parental, not condescending. My parents do very well for themselves but so do we, and yet when we are out to lunch or dinner, my parents will NEVER let us pick up the tab. They’re pretty blunt about it, actually; when my husband or I grab for the check, they immediately start a tug of war and say, “We’re still the parents, and you’re still the kids (I’m 34, my DH is 37 – hardly, childlike, I’d say), and we’re paying!” So, we always reciprocate with buying them gift certificates to their favorite restaurants, spa gift cards for Mom, store gift cards for Stepdad or fancy food gifts for my Dad and Stepmom. They don’t feel comfortable with their kids picking up the tab for dinner, but they will graciously accept a comparably priced gift that we pick out for them, so we feel like it’s pretty even-steven.

My Stepmother is very challenging to shop for and occasionally, quite rude, as if I purchase something for her (e.g. a pair of crystal candlesticks, a serving platter, etc.), she’ll thank me but then, mention several times how it’s not at all her taste. I stopped buying her items such as this but will buy her a store giftcard, flowers or gourmet food – fruit from Harry and David, various types of smoked salmon and cream cheeses or chocolate babka from Dean and Deluca, baskets of various teas and coffees, etc. She and my Dad are big foodies, so they enjoy that, and I don’t get insulted.


Kristin December 5, 2013 at 12:57 pm

What a piece of work! I wonder if she was like this when her son was growing up? Some people seem to think the gifts they do or do not receive are a measure of the love of the giver. If this woman doesn’t like the OP, then it would chap her hide to acknowledge that she received a gift from the OP that she liked.

I saw give her a diet book and a bottle of absinthe. Mission accomplished.


Kristin December 5, 2013 at 12:57 pm

I SAY, not saw. Sheesh.


Harley Granny December 5, 2013 at 1:10 pm

While I understand the sentiment of the food gifts, I’m not a fan. Unless I personally know that the recipient likes a particular food item, I don’t do it. As for myself I’ve regifted or “shared” the food gifts that I have received over the years.

My MIL likes candles….so I would buy her candles…not the cheap ones either….one year she snidely made a comment that I got her nothing but candles….so the next year I got her something else. You would think the world was coming to an end because I didn’t get her candles….can’t win. Luckily now she is in the family drawing (best idea ever created!) and I only have to buy her presents on her birthday and Mother’s day. Funny after 25 years, no one else is allowed to buy her candles but me because I know which ones she really likes. (bangs head on the wall)

Now my DIL…not the much on communication….I gave up after year two on getting her actual “things”. She gets gift cards from various stores that I notice she shops at. I might stick something small for her in the box that I send for the grands but after this many years of hearing no positive feedback on ANYTHING, I just don’t put that much effort into it anymore.


Dee December 5, 2013 at 1:21 pm

I wouldn’t let FIL off the hook not his. He most certainly could be talking to his wife about her attitude and talking loudly over her when she says rude things to others. He is intimately involved in all this. MIL has made up her mind she will not like anything she gets from you, OP. If stopping the gift giving is not an option then I would suggest giving a couple’s gift to the FIL ONLY, and let him share it with his wife. Even a gift card to the local DIY/hardware store, as this will please FIL. Seriously. To be honest, if my hubby received a gift card like that for us I would be pleased. And then, OP, bean dip when the complaining starts. Otherwise, you will have a Monster-In-Law for a grandma to your kids and they will be scarred over stuff like this, too. Oh, and I would only return gifts, for someone else, if I had made a really bad choice in selecting them in the first place. If I was confident my choice was a good one I would either give the gift back to the recipient and let them handle it or I would let them know I would regift it to someone else if it’s in my possession.


Gracie Lou Freebush December 5, 2013 at 2:29 pm

My extended family has gone to exchanging gift cards. Every year we email each other with a few of our favorite stores and just exchange cards. It’s made everything so much easier and saved on shipping as everyone is far apart. I’m a huge fan of gift cards for hard to buy for people.


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