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The Worst Gift I Ever Got: Personal Finance Experts Share Their Stories

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Do you find yourself agonizing when trying to pick out the perfect holiday gifts for family members, friends or coworkers? Maybe it’s time to accept the truth. Most of us won’t remember next year what we gave or got this year. Case in point: I surveyed personal finance pros, asking them about the best and worst gifts they’ve ever given or received. I figured it would be a no-brainer — that they would have clever ideas of bargain purchases snagged at amazing prices or of holiday spending gone awry.

But as so often happens, the best and worst gifts had nothing to do with the amount of money involved.

Worst Gifts

Carrie Rocha, founder of PocketYourDollars.com, shared this story: “On our second Christmas as a married couple, my husband opened the cologne I got him, then said, ‘Wait a second while I get your gift.’ He ran upstairs to our office. A few minutes later he came down with a check written out of our joint checking account.” She laughs about this “worst gift” now, adding, “I never cashed it. I shredded it, but now I wish I would have had it framed or something since the whole thing is a riot.”

One of the worst gifts personal finance pro Liz Weston ever gave was a toy drum to her sister-in-law’s toddler. “We thought it was funny to give something that was so noisy and obnoxious. Then we became parents ourselves and realized gifts like that really aren’t so amusing.” And she shared one more that still makes her laugh: a gift card she received from a friend. Weston says she’s “on record for loudly and publicly disdaining gift cards. I know some people love them, but I’ve written reams of columns about how they’re not real gifts.” While she says that most of her friends know this and tease her about it, that friend apparently didn’t read those columns. Weston accepted it graciously, adding, “I focused on the intent, rather than the object, and let her know I appreciated her thoughtfulness.”

Although it wasn’t a gift he received, Andrew Schrage who shares money saving tips on MoneyCrashers.com clearly remembers an item on the “worst gift” list: My dad always liked to make my sister and me intrigued about our holiday gifts well before we were allowed to open them. Often, he would tell one of us the first letter of the gift we were receiving so we could guess what it actually was. One year, the first letter for my sister’s gift was “s.” Throughout the month of December, she was convinced she was getting a Super Nintendo, which was a hot item at the time. Unfortunately, the gift turned out to be socks! My sister was pretty young at the time, so it was quite difficult for her to mask her disappointment.

The website SheSpeaks.com and Lippe Taylor recently surveyed over 3,000 women with questions like, “What was the worst gift your parents or in-laws have ever given you?” A few of the responses:

  • The Same Sweater…Three Years in a Row: We appreciate your style, but giving the same sweater three years in a row is a bit much.
  • Monogrammed Towel…With My Name Spelled Incorrectly: Monogrammed items bring a personalized touch to any home, but when you give one with the recipient’s moniker, women would appreciate if you spelled their name correctly.
  • A Bathroom Scale: Losing weight often tops the list of one’s New Year’s resolutions, but receiving a bathroom scale from your parents or in-laws is anything but nice.
  • Used Make-Up: Although some stores may let you return used cosmetics, giving them as a holiday gift does not fill us with holiday cheer, as some women reported receiving used makeup from their loved ones under the tree.
  • A Re-Gifted Coffee Mug from a Casino, With a Buffet Coupon Still Inside: This may very well top the list as there are not many ways to say thanks for this gift. Someone should have at least enjoyed the buffet if they had a coupon.

Best Gifts

A soup tureen from her mother-in-law is on Weston’s list of best gifts she’s received. She explains: “She didn’t run out and buy it — it had been in her family for awhile. To me, the gift signified that I was part of the family now. It also showed me how great it can be to pass stuff along to the younger generation while you’re still around to enjoy the pleasure they get from the gift.”

In the priceless category, personal finance writer and publicist Mary Reed was in her 30s when she wrote her father a letter for Christmas, in which she thanked him for what he had done for her, and the many positive ways he affected her life. “He kept it in the top drawer of his desk for more than 30 years,” she says, “so I know it meant a lot to him” Mary’s father died not long ago. “I found the letter after he died and read it at his funeral. It was as relevant then as it was when I first wrote it.”

One of the best gifts Schrage ever received was his first car. “It was a used car worth only about $500, but it was priceless to me. What made it so wonderful was that I had my license for awhile, but was forced to drive my parents’ car. I had no idea when I would be able to afford a car of my own, so instantly being provided with my own means of transportation was awesome.”

Again, most of the gifts in the “wonderful” category don’t involve large sums of money. My friend Lynn Kassover who grew up in Pompton Lakes, NJ shared this memory:

My absolute favorite holiday gift was a Hanukkah present when I was about 7 or 8. My mom and dad told us that my sister Dana and I would get that night’s gift at bedtime. I remember going upstairs, getting ready for bed, getting into bed and being so excited about “the present.” My mom told us it was in the room so we got out of bed, looked everywhere only to eventually give up and get back into bed disappointed. My mom then told us our gifts were in the bed and right in front of us. Again-a search of the bed turned up nothing.

As our parents tucked us in we were told to look at our sheets. They were Snoopy and Woodstock linens! I was so excited-Woodstock was my favorite character ever. Silly story, but that’s it. I love remembering it. It brings me right back.

As for me? I don’t remember too many gifts. Instead, I remember trips to my cousins’ house and the plays we used to write and stage at the holidays. They lived in Illinois and we lived in Michigan, so visiting them was a special event that included an amazing assortment of holiday cookies baked by my Aunt Jenita. Later, I remember several all-night road trips from Washington, DC to Michigan with my friend Susan to get home for the holidays — including one where a blizzard forced us to a stop in the middle of the road and trek to a motel for the night.

And, of course, some of my favorite holiday memories involve Christmas with my daughter, sprinkling glitter-laden oatmeal on the front lawn on Christmas eve night so the reindeer wouldn’t miss our house, and the annual baking party I host for her and her friends.

Just writing this is reminding me that when I get stressed out at the holidays I need to remember to focus less on shopping and more on making memories. One of these days, I’ll get it right!

How about you? We’d love to hear about your best and worst holiday gifts! Feel free to share them in the comments below.

Image: MissMessie, via Flickr

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