Gift giving and receiving with a compulsive hoarder is complicated.

My Mother loves gifts.  I don’t blame her; who doesn’t love gifts?  I’ll tell you who.


Actually, let me clarify that.  I appreciate a well-thought out gift.  My husband Will is especially good at picking out something perfectly suited to me, and I love everything he’s given me.  He doesn’t go overboard with quantity and that’s just fine with me.

When I was a kid, any holiday involved a mountain of gifts.  When you’re little you think this is fabulous!  Windfall!!!!  Then I got older and (just a touch) wiser.  I realized though the gifts were plentiful, they were either:

  • poor quality
  • unsuited to me
  • had strings attached

Poor Quality

It was quantity over quality.  I started to fall into this trap too until one Christmas I exchanged gifts with my college boyfriend.  I wandered department stores and dollar stores, and picked out all sorts of whimsical things that made me think of him.  I gave him about a dozen little presents, and he gave me a gold promise ring.  It finally dawned on me that while the pile of presents seemed impressive, it wasn’t about the stuff and more about the emotions.  I might have spent as much as he did but while I received a symbol of our relationship, he got a pile of cheap trinkets.

Unsuited to Me

Mom & I haven’t been as tight as we used to be, so we don’t know each other as well as we should.  Her mental illness has changed her, and I’ve matured since her hoarding took over.  I know when she walks through her favourite thrift store she buys things because they make her think of me, but they’re bizarre.  Like, the country-style apple quilt wall hanging she found.  It was originally from Cracker Barrel and she told me:

“I know something like this would be worth at least $60 brand new.  I just couldn’t pass it up when I saw it for $12!”

The quilt was perfectly nice, in mint condition, and would probably look great hanging in someone’s home.  Just not mine.  I don’t have a country theme in my home decor, and I’d never expressed the desire for a quilted wall hanging.  So this was money spent on a gift for the wrong person.

Strings Attached

SO many “treasures” have been shared with me over the years.  On the surface, Mom is very generous.  But if Mom considered these items especially interesting, she’d declare the caveat “Don’t ever get rid of this.  If you don’t want it anymore give it to me.”  That tells me she really picked this out for herself, and only felt comfortable giving it away if she thought she’d get it back some day.

The Butterfly in a Jar my Mom really bought for herself but gave to me.

The Butterfly in a Jar my Mom really bought for herself but gave to me.

My birthday was recently…we won’t worry about which one it was. 😉
Mom asked me a few weeks ago what I would like for my birthday.  I told her nothing but her happy birthday wishes.  I know she’s on a tight budget, shipping is expensive, and I really don’t need anything.  Lynn & I had already discussed stopping gifts between each other and I mentioned all that to Mom.

I could tell she was hurt.  She thinks we don’t want to uphold any traditions.  That’s not true…it’s just the traditions I’m interested in don’t involve consumerism.  And I get the sense she’s upset if she doesn’t give a gift to me, I won’t give a gift to her on her birthday.

She’s right about that.  I don’t want to buy gifts for her any more.  Anything I’ve given her in the last several years hasn’t been used.  It ends up in the back of her van or in some pile at her house, never to be seen again.  I’m tired of wasting money and effort when it’s not appreciated.  And if I did want to buy her something, what would it be?  She has triplicate of everything because she’s lost the originals.  We’ve thought of buying her services, but she won’t let anyone into her house for housekeeping, repairs, etc.  We mentioned the idea of donating to charity in her name once and she was offended.

So, I’d rather not bother with the whole gift exchange thing.  I know it sounds cold, but I just can’t do it any more.  I don’t want her to buy me trinkets I’ll have to donate away or throw out, and I don’t want her to spend the few dollars she has left on a gift for me when she keeps her thermostat set to 60 in the winter to avoid a high heating bill.

What I really wish for

What I’d like from her is a memory we can share.  Perhaps go to lunch, or see a movie.  Sit down and do a craft together.  Take a drive and look at the scenery.  Too bad she lives 3 hours away.

She called me last night to sing me Happy Birthday.  And so we chatted and hearing her voice was gift enough for me.

How do you handle gifts with a Compulsive hoarder?

I’m curious as to how other children or relatives of hoarders handle gifts.  Do you still exchange?  Do you keep those things “loaned” to you…those gifts given but wanted back?  If you’ve found a solution to gift giving and receiving when a compulsive hoarder is involved, I’d love to hear about it!


  1. Heidi
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    This blew me away because it is exactly how I feel! My mothers problem has gotten worse it seems since I had a son who will be 2 in January. She already lives beyond her means spending money on item she doesn’t need or buying them for her grandchild. We set monetary limits on gift giving but she still does it. I am thinking we need to set up more rules such as does the person need it, will use it, and like it. We will see how that goes but I’m sure she’ll find a way to get around it. Its frustrating shopping for her because it will just be put into a pile or storage. Extremely frustrating!

  2. Heather
    Posted November 30, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much for writing this. A lot of it sounds like my relationship with my mother; my mother is also a hoarder with illnesses and limited income. For the last several years, I’ve bought my mother a membership to AAA. This year she sounds unsure as to whether she wants it. I’m not sure whether she’s not finding the service useful, or whether she’s heard me talk about some recent changes in my life and is worried about my finances. In any case this is leaving me puzzled as to what I should buy for her this year.

    I don’t want to get a gift card for a store for her as that would encourage shopping. I don’t live in the same community as her, but am thinking about looking into spas in her area and getting her a certificate to some place she can choose beauty or spa services. She likes to get her hair and nails done, but doesn’t have the cash to these days. Especially with my mother, I am all about the practical gifts and I think giving my mom a gift that makes her feel more confident definitely has utility.

    I am also used to the lots of little gifts, with so many of them being useless trinkets. Stockings are fun, but maybe I should put a box of nice chocolates in my moms stocking and call the shopping over.

    • Rae
      Posted December 3, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink

      I hear you. I think a membership to AAA or CAA is actually a great gift. If your Mom is alone, then having that kind of insurance for her travelling around on her own is a great idea. Even for those times they lock their keys in the car…that happened to Mom last year. It had snowed, so she started her car, put her dog in, and closed the doors to start sweeping snow and scraping ice. Once she was done, she realized the doors were locked, with the motor running and her dog inside! She was stranded in a store parking lot, and of course, was in between cell phones. She’s lucky a very kind stranger came along, called for help, and actually stayed with her until a tow truck arrived to jimmy open her door. And without my Dad around to do little repairs on the car, it doesn’t run as well as it should.

      I’d like to be able to pay some bills for my Mom, just to give her some breathing room. But the trouble is how to I get access to the accounts without offending her.

      I know Mom is out at the shops a lot right now, stressing over finding the right things to get me, my husband, our daughters, etc. I told her I would rather she spend the money to repair her car so she can actually COME for Christmas, instead of sending gifts.

  3. Heather
    Posted November 30, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Trying this a second time. (My first reply got eaten by wordpress?) Hopefully this won’t end in a double post.

    I stay away from buying physical things or gift cards that encourage shopping for my mom. I actually found this site when looking for holiday gift ideas for her. This year I’m considering getting her a gift certificate for spa services. In the past I’ve bought her membership to AAA. So, it seems like I avoid helping her accumulate more stuff by purchasing services for her.

    Her funds are very limited + about a year ago she was complaining she couldn’t afford to buy department store moisturizers (which she’s always loved, yet been very picky about). I took a gamble and bought her a gift set of moisturizers. It went over well. I might buy her another set this year.

    • Rae
      Posted December 3, 2013 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      The moisturizers is a good idea, too. My mom has a skin condition and there was a Clinique cream she wanted to try, but a little jar of it was about $60. Who wants to spend that on themselves? That’s why it’s a good gift…when you can give something to someone they wouldn’t splurge on but would love. And, it’s a consumable, so at some point, it runs out. Hopefully.

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