The problem with thank you cards

Thank you card

How important is this sentiment when it's printed on paper and sent via Royal Mail?

The gifts are unwrapped, the leftovers are in the fridge covered in foil, and Christmas songs have lost their lustre. That means only one thing in our house: the race to complete thank you cards is on.

On my husband’s side of the family, we draw names and everyone buys one “big” present for someone else. This is good, since there are 5 siblings along with their partners and children. That also in theory reduces the number of thank you cards to be written. In practice, granny can’t resist giving the grandchildren something, Auntie R. and the kids always like to exchange a little something. And on my side of the family it’s a gift-giving free for all, which means cards galore.

Writing thank you cards is a good practice for children, helping focus their little minds on the giver as much as the gift. While my family aren’t big thank you card-writers, occasions like anniversaries, weddings, new babies and the like merit them. In my husband’s family, it’s considered a basic tenet of good breeding and not to be overlooked at any time. There’s so much emphasis on them, I always feel the clock ticking. The card mustn’t arrive too late – almost as bad as not arriving at all.

But then a part of me thinks, if the card is just a pro forma gesture, is it really sharing a heartfelt thank you at all? If you haven’t had time to wear, use or appreciate the gift before sitting down with pen and card, are you simply ticking a self-serving box that merely reflects on the writer’s demonstrating good manners?

Then again, what’s wrong with demonstrating good manners, the way we do everyday when we say ‘please’ and ‘how are you’?

All this back-and-forth inner dialogue has meant thank you notes in our house tend to either be written and sent before the wrapping paper hits the floor, or they languish without stamp or address for weeks on end.

My copy of The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette (yes, I do have one) has advice for parents. Start children writing notes from age 6, with the parent drafting a simple message the child can copy.

Weirdly, it gives this example: “Dear Aunt Nancy, Thank you for the magic set. It’s the best present ever. Love, Oliver”, which seems to me an over-the-top description of a magic set from dear old Aunt Nancy who probably doesn’t know that Oliver has totally grown out of that whole magic thing and now loves XBox games.

Amy Vanderbilt also says this when you don’t receive a thank-you letter:

If after a month or so you have not received a thank-you letter for a present, write the person to whom you sent the present and ask if it was received. After all, if it was lost in the mail, or the store neglected to send it, you need to know…

There’s no reason to be the least apologetic about writing to ask if a present you sent someone was received. If it was received but the recipient happened to misaddress his thank-you letter to you, at least you’ll have found out the two important factors: the present arrived and the recipient had the good manners to acknowledge it. On the other hand, if the present was received and the recipient couldn’t be bothered to let you know — the thought, time, and money you expended apparently meaning little — you’d be smart to drop that person from your gift-giving list.


There’s no such thing as a busy or disorganised recipient in Amy’s world. There goes my Amazon gift certificate from her next year.


Organiser box for thank-you cards

Boxes by Paperchase, labels by Jen

I’ve finally come to terms — somewhat — with the thank you card way of life. I bought boxes to organise my jumble of cards (for birthdays, anniversaries, thank-yous, and nonspecific events). I put them into categories, labelled them with classic Dymo tape, accumulated a stash stamps for UK and international cards and then stretched way around to pat myself on the back.


Dymo machine

I would describe how much I love my Dymo, but words fail me

That means this year the children have picked out thank-you cards, written all of them (by the 28th!) and they are now stamped and ready to go by the front door. On my husband’s side we have ones for sisters, aunts, cousins, grandparents, in-laws and more. What isn’t there are cards from me to my immediate family.

A few years back I decided to really go for it and papered my family with thank you cards for every gift I received, including a gorgeous green wool duffel coat I’d admired from my sister. A few days later I got a call from her.

“What are you doing? You sent me a thank you card? We are sisters!” she said in an outraged tone. “Save that for the cousins. If you start sending them to me, I have to send them to you and it all gets out of control. We are family and we don’t need thank you cards to remind us of that.”

Which leads to another lesson of thank you cards: Sometimes it’s really the thought that counts.

I’m a journalist and blogger. Previously I was The Times’s online lifestyle editor and Alpha Mummy blogger. Now I’m co-founder of BritMums and BritMums Live! – our annual blogging conference that draws hundreds. Follow me on Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter and Google Profile+



  1. December 28, 2012 / 3:11 pm

    I have always been quite keen on my kids sending thank you cards, I think it’s polite to acknowledge that someone took the trouble to think of you and give you a gift (though I wouldn’t bother with a card if we’ve seen someone & thanked them face to face).

    But now that both kids have their own email addresses I get them to email instead, makes it all a lot easier. Once we also made a thank you video and sent it directly to Granny’s iPhone which was very well-received.

    • December 29, 2012 / 9:17 am

      Joanne, a thank you video is a great idea! I also think the face to face element is important. If you’ve said thank you, given them a hug and told them how much you like it, is a card really necessary?

  2. December 28, 2012 / 3:15 pm

    Oh we just don’t have time to do Thank You cards after the event… That’s a lie I just always forget… So we add in a ‘Thank You in advance’ to their present or card… Lazy but that way I don’t feel guilty about not saying thank you.

    I am doing the same with my wedding in July. We have made Thank You scrolls to pick up on the way out 🙂 sometimes knowing you are crap at remembering and doing something about it before it happens, is the most organised you’ll ever get!

    • December 29, 2012 / 9:19 am

      Congratulations on your upcoming wedding! I found doing thank you cards after my wedding very complicated because you’re just getting organised after the big event, still settling into the new home, etc. Although I did have someone write to ask if we’d received a gift and it actually hadn’t come!

  3. December 28, 2012 / 3:26 pm

    I think NOT acknowledging a present is bad manners. However, we don’t do our “thank yous” until New Years Day. Also have sent videos and got the kids to call.

    • December 29, 2012 / 9:19 am

      Are thank you videos the new trend? MUST get the kids to do those for relatives in the U.S.

  4. December 28, 2012 / 4:13 pm

    I am very old-school (apparently!) in thinking that my children SHOULD write thank you cards. However, we make an exception if the person was actually there on opening the present. My kids probably hate me for it but I feel strongly that it’s teaching them the dying art of good manners….we have yet to do them though! It does annoy me when we send out presents and don’t get so much as a text to acknowledge their arrival! Although probably won’t go as far as Amy!

    • December 29, 2012 / 9:20 am

      Suzanne, our kids used to hate it but now they just get on with it and sit down to do it all in one go. My 14-year-old now likes the challenge of saying something special about each gift.

  5. December 28, 2012 / 4:28 pm

    This struck a chord with me – my family never bothered with thank you notes, but I married into a family of old-school card-senders and have since converted. We just finished the marathon round of thank-you cards for our son’s birthday presents, and I noticed that for the first time he was going beyond the bare minimum “Thank you for the Lego set” to add personalized post-scripts (although he is still a little unclear on the concept and puts the “p.s.” at the top of the page). My favorite was one for a friend of his who gave him art supplies, which he used to draw a panda on the thank you card, accompanied by “p.s. I drew a panda.”

    • December 29, 2012 / 9:27 am

      Kevin, love the postscript and the self narraration – so sweet! My daughter is still figuring out the “extra stuff” to add. She got a nail varnish kit and has been using it since Christmas, but put on her note: “I can’t wait to draw designs on my nails!” I asked her why she didn’t say she’d been doing it and she said it would take too long to explain.

      There is something nice about the ritual of thank you notes. I confess one of the things I like the best is being able to accumulate beautiful stationary and interesting postcards to send.

  6. December 28, 2012 / 5:13 pm

    LOVE your sister’s reaction!!! Having said that, I think it is good practice for kids to acknowledge and thanks. Part of the process learning to be polite….

    My problem is that we need to make the **** cards first. Argh. So much for being a crafty so and so.


    • December 29, 2012 / 9:28 am

      Wow, that’s going whole hog. The responsibility for the experienced crafter is heavy…

  7. December 28, 2012 / 6:17 pm

    My family have always written thank you cards and I know my grandmother and mother complain loudly if they don’t get one.

    I have our cards but still need to do them.

    I was late sending them after the girls birthday in July and got a very shirty email from my uncle – he must be one of Amy’s fans, anyway 2 days later I made sure his card dropped through his letter box!

    • December 29, 2012 / 9:29 am

      Mari, it’s funny how in some families it’s no big deal but for others not sending one is the equivalent of saying, We didn’t give a damn about your gift!

  8. December 28, 2012 / 7:37 pm

    Well we always say thank you. It used to be by cards, but now we are more relaxed about the method. A phone call will often suffice – which leads to a chat, which, in turn, is rather pleasant for the kids and whomever they are phoning because they wouldn’t chat otherwise. I’m afraid I’ve done rather a lot of texting this year,but there will be some cards. Definitely.

    • December 29, 2012 / 9:32 am

      I’d be interested what the etiquette experts say about alternative methods of thanking, especially considering how things have changed with the way people communicate. In some ways, you could say that a card is easy but taking the time to make a call, shoot a thank you video or have the children type out an email (and thus opening a channel of ongoing modern communication) indicates a higher degree of commitment.

  9. Jenny paulin
    January 1, 2013 / 6:05 pm

    You are very organised to have got all the thank you cards written out already! I always wrote thank you cards pretty much up until I have birth to burton and then so ce I because a mummy I haven’t been so good at it!! Although having said that, I have ordered some photo thank you cards which should arrive later this week, so I am doing better this year!
    I always say thank you for things and I tell the boys to do the same even so ole things like having a door opened for them. As my mum always told me,
    Good manners cost nothing

    Thank you for letting me link to this and happy new year x x

  10. January 2, 2013 / 7:20 am

    Your sister is my kind of gal. Happy New Year, Jen!

  11. January 7, 2013 / 1:01 am

    I’m so glad I found this post about the realities of sending thank you cards – it’s perfect timing for me as I find myself having to send out about a dozen (to relatives on my other half’s side) for belated gifts the children received.

    Normally I wouldn’t do it. Almost always we get to say thank you in person, so there seems no need for written formality. But this year we were too tired to attend a family get-together (long story) only to find the children were spoiled rotten when aunts and uncle brought gifts after the New Year =/

    I must admit though that the thought of buying some nice new stationery is nice. As is writing by hand again, after getting so used to typing messages or simply talking on the phone.

    Hopefully this won’t become an obligatory chore each Christmas and birthday – the idea of video thanks is an excellent alternative!

  12. January 7, 2013 / 4:33 pm

    We write thank you letters but I let the children “free-style”. This can make the letters slightly random but at least it’s very much their own work and therefore comes across as more genuine I think.

    My youngest is only just learning to write so hers are very short. Often they are just pictures with a name on. But I believe it’s important to show just some thought and effort has gone in to acknowledging the gift (but we don’t do letters for those people we have seen if we thank them personally).

    My eldest is now 9 so I did find myself wondering this year if I should teach him more formal letter writing, re how to set it out etc. But then it would become more of a battle I think. Maybe next year I’ll give him and example and see what he does…

  13. January 7, 2013 / 5:21 pm

    It’s a minefield! My kids made and wrote their own cards, but only a few. Nothing to friends, and nothing for the Secret Santa that was opened in front of the family. But key relatives expect something. That said, my Mother in Law actually wrote to us to suggest it might be acceptable to email these days, and my nephews never once sent a thank you card when they were young. My mother, on the other hand, telephones the day after an event to ask if the gift arrives, if she hasn’t had a thank you phone call!
    Answer: it pays to know the expectations of every individual, and live up to them!!

  14. Richard
    November 17, 2014 / 11:16 am

    Loving middle class angst.. it breeds and spreads.. peer group pressure for adults

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