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Financial Wellness

7 Rules for Returning Unwanted Gifts

So you got an ugly sweater for Christmas—and it's not the trendy kind. Or a Hanukkah gift card from your aunt for a store you never go to. Or a candle from your co-worker that you can't stand the smell of (the candle, not your co-worker). What do you do?

First, be gracious. You may not like the gift, but someone who cares about you spent their time and money to buy you a gift. Second, don't despair. There are many ways to dispose of, exchange, and/or not waste perfectly good merchandise, even if it's not necessarily perfect for you.

Keep these seven "rules" in mind when returning gifts after the holidays:

  1. Bring your receipt, if you have one. It's your fast-track to getting the most money or credit back from the retailer. Some stores will only let you return the gift for store credit without one. Or, you may be offered the lowest selling price within the last 45 days.

    Even if you have the receipt, some retailers may only offer store credit or exchange. If you get a store credit, check to see if there is an expiration date so you don't miss out. No gift receipt from the gift giver? Don't be shy about asking for the receipt, especially if it's a clothing item or something that comes in different sizes or colors. You can always say it doesn't fit, or just doesn't go with your home décor.
  2. Bring your ID. Return fraud costs retailers billions of dollars each year. As a result, many stores track individual customer returns, and you may be asked to provide identification like a driver's license when you return an item.
  3. Don't dawdle. It's best to return your items as soon as possible. Normally, most stores require returns within 30 days of purchase. And some only extend returns through mid-January.

    Many retailers extend their return policies for the holidays; however, it's better to be safe than sorry so plan to return your items well before the egg nog is down to the last glass. Best to do your returns first week of January at latest.

    Also, keep in mind that one return policy does not fit all—some electronics like televisions, mobile devices, computers, drones, and sound systems have shorter return windows.
  4. Check the store's return policy before you go. Was the item purchased online or in-store? Can you return an online purchase to the store? There may be restrictions on returning sale or clearance merchandise, or returns may not apply to certain brands. The online retailer may not return shipping costs to you either.

    Also, the online return policy may be different than the in-store policy. Best to do some quick research before you get in the return line at the store—did we mention there would be lines? Count on it. Plan your trip ahead of time to avoid peak hours.
  5. Keep the item in its original packaging. If you have any doubt you'll be keeping a gift, don't take the item out of the original packaging or cut tags off clothing. This especially applies to CDs, DVDs, electronics, software, and video games. Or, the store might take it back opened, but charge you a 10-15% restocking fee.
  6. Make sure you have the correct address if returning by mail. If you need to return an item to an online retailer, be sure you're sending it back to the correct address. Some merchants have off-site service centers to handle returns that is different from where the merchandise is sent.

    Also keep in mind that some online retailers have partnered with brick-and-mortar stores to handle online returns. For example, you can bring returns for Amazon to Kohl's department stores, Whole Foods grocery stores, and UPS stores.  
  7. What about gift cards? – If you get a gift card that you can't use, don't let it expire in your wallet. Consider re-gifting it or sell it on reputable websites like CardCash, Raise, Gameflip, or ClipKard. You might not get full value, but you also won't totally be wasting a loved one's money either.

The last resort
Keep in mind that some items may not be returnable, for example, seasonal holiday décor, cell phones sold with service plans, food items, clearance merchandise, etc. Some gifts such as lingerie, bathing suits, and hats may not be returnable due to health regulations. 

If you're stuck, you can always re-gift, donate merchandise or gift cards to charity, or donate to schools for auctions and student incentive awards. You can also donate clothing to a worthy cause like Dress for Success, and help those less fortunate look their best for a job interview.

Also don't overlook resale sites like eBay, Poshmark, and OfferUp. With a few photos and a quick post, you may be able to turn those dud gifts into extra cash. 

Resources: Consumer Reports, Time,, The Balance, Better Business Bureau