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The Etiquette of Returning Engagement Gifts

Is it acceptable to return a present you didn't ask for?

Contributing Writer
Couple Opening Wedding Gifts
Photography by: Fancy/Veer/Corbis/Getty

Unexpected engagement gifts can be some of the sweetest and most sentimental you'll receive—like that hammered silver frame your best friend gave you to display your engagement selfie, a handmade vase your childhood neighbor sent that's exactly your style, or a set of pint glasses from the college bar where you and your partner met, gifted by your future best man. But since most couples haven't yet registered when they start receiving engagement gifts, they may also end up with duplicates of items they already have, knick-knacks they'll never use, or pieces that are just not their your taste—and that are all extremely difficult to return. Without a return receipt or a registry, is there a way to swap that mustard-colored bowl—which definitely doesn't match your minimalist dream kitchen—for something you can actually use?

 

"When you receive an engagement gift, it's much like birthday or hostess gifts," says etiquette expert Diane Gottsman, author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life and founder of The Protocol School of Texas. "You wouldn't return it and ask for something different—most often, you just say thank you." Since engagement gifts are completely optional—even at an engagement party, says Gottsman—they don't have the same return etiquette as a wedding or bridal shower gift. "This is not about accruing items," says Gottsman. "It's more about being a gracious receiver."

 

In a few scenarios, you could ask to exchange the gift: If it's a twin of one you already have—especially a kitchen appliance or larger item that's too hard to store—you can use that as an opening line to request a swap, like trading a mixer for a set of pans or a vase for a set of candlesticks. And if a well-meaning friend or family member sent a gift for you to use at the wedding, like champagne glasses or a cake knife, you can gently mention that it doesn't quite go with your theme. "You can just say, I appreciate the offer but I have a particular idea already in mind," says Gottsman. "Just be honest, but be diplomatic."

 

Related: Engagement Party Gift Etiquette: Is It Ever Okay to Return Presents from Friends and Family?

 

But in most cases, unless you're very close to the gift-giver, you're better off writing a cordial thank-you note and keeping the gift instead of risking hurt feelings by trying to return it. "The bottom line is you have to look at the relationship you hold with that person," says Gottsman. "If it's a family member and you're close and you feel comfortable with your relationship, you can certainly be a little more honest, but you have to look at the relationship first and foremost to determine how it is going to affect it."

 

Remember, keeping an item doesn't mean you have to look at it every day. Gottsman says it's perfectly fine to put the gifts in storage and bring them out when the giver visits, or to display them in a room you don't use as often—like your guest bath or your spare bedroom. "If it's something you can't return and you really don't want, you have to think, will they come over and ask about it? Will they be offended if I get rid of it? And if answer is yes, then you just tuck it away in a corner someplace."

 

Even keeping a gift out of sight doesn't have to be a permanent solution. "None of us keep things forever so at some point in time, it can just disappear," says Gottsman. The exception: Family heirlooms, which you should be able to present whenever the giver asks to see them. That the ugly mustard-colored bowl may have a fascinating history behind it—and hearing it could be a truly priceless gift.