How to Regift and Get Away with It

A guide to the perks and pitfalls of giving used gear for the holidays. By Christy Harrison

Often the most treasured gifts—family heirlooms, old books, paintings, vintage clothing, jewelry—have had past lives. And whether you choose antique, vintage, or just, ahem, “previously loved” items, giving used gifts can be a great way to help out the environment (not to mention your bank account). Old stuff doesn’t come wrapped in layers of manufacturers’ packaging, so buying used means you’re helping to minimize holiday waste; and, of course, you’re rescuing someone else’s castoffs from the dump. Best of all for the buyer, picking out gifts in thrift stores or online reduces the trapped-in-the-mall anxiety that the holidays can provoke. But Aunt Doreen probably wouldn’t appreciate that 1980s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt the way your twenty-something friend would. And giving used stuff can be misconstrued as “re-gifting”, the quintessential holiday faux-pas. So when is it appropriate to give retreads, and who should get what?

Above all, experts say, make sure you’re familiar with your recipient’s tastes. “You have to know a person pretty well if you’re going to give vintage,” cautions manners maven Lesley Carlin McElhattan, co-host of the Web site After all, traditional low-intimacy presents, like fruit baskets or gift certificates, aren’t sold in thrift stores. Giving a vintage gift is a step into more personal territory with your recipient, a leap of faith—so be sure you’re ready. A good rule of thumb: don’t give your boss a set of 1950s highball glasses unless you’re willing to down a couple of White Russians with him after work.

Buying used also means that, in general, the person can’t return or exchange the gift, and that’s a big risk. Sadie, a book editor in New York City, says the worst gift she ever received was “an empty metal olive oil canister in the shape of a watering can—I didn't even have a plant.” At least unwanted gifts that are new can usually be redeemed for store credit.

Jake, a teacher in New York City, also knows the horror of the gift-wrapped hand-me-down. “Growing up, a family member gave me used gifts. They were things that didn't even match my taste, so the fact that they were used made them seem even worse. It came off as really random.” Givers of pre-owned gifts can seem even more out-of-touch than the average distant relative, so the perils (as well as the potential rewards) are greater.

Then again, some objects lend themselves better to vintage gift-giving than others. Clothing items and accessories are often risky, not only because they might not fit. “My boyfriend gave me a vintage pony-skin purse last Christmas,” says Emily, an actress in Berkeley, California. “He thought it was really cool because they don’t make them any more and it came from Mexico. I thought, ‘I am holding a dead horse. I am putting my keys into a little dead horse.’ Not the most romantic thing.” Perhaps another rule of thumb, then, should be: don’t give objects made from nontraditional animal pelts unless your recipient is into hunting. “I've only had success with used books, usually poetry, often out of print,” offers Elizabeth, a writer in New York City. The rarity of such literary presents can make them more appealing than brand-new titles. “I generally prefer to give people used books—they're more precious that way,” says Kamon, a lawyer in San Francisco.

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