The lost art of writing thank you notes

In an increasingly digital era, it’s fun to get real mail, isn’t? Not bills, junk mail, or magazines you never even subscribed to (why couldn’t it have been a good magazine?), but real, honest-to-goodness, heartfelt mail.

My favorite kind of mail to receive? Thank-you notes.

A family legacy

I blame my mom. She raised me with the assumption that they’re non-negotiable. As a kid, of course, I hated it. But, like many things we loathe in childhood, I now see value in it as normal, as just something you do. (Thanks, Mom.)

This is one of those things that tends to run in families; when I casually polled Facebook friends, it seems like most people who regularly write them grew up in a family that made it a priority.

But not always. I like how my friend Julia says it: “I didn’t grow up doing it. I learned as an adult and I try my hardest to send them for as many things as possible. I like people to know how much I appreciate their kindness/gift/time.”

colored pencils

Sending a thank you card is a simple way to bless someone who’s done something thoughtful for you, and it’s something I want to teach my kids to do, too.

What does etiquette say?

I’m not sure etiquette really matters much anymore, but according to Emily Post, “It’s never wrong to send a thank-you note.”

Grace Bonney sums up the modern etiquette on thank-you cards like this: “Just say thank you. The person receiving the thanks will just be happy to hear it, the mode and message are rarely as important as the simple act of acknowledging someone’s kindness.”

What to write

I once read in a Dear Abby column that the main reason people don’t send thank-you notes isn’t lack of time or motivation. It’s not knowing what to say.

Here’s what I tell my daughter, now that she’s starting to write her own. After the greeting, I have her say thanks for the gift, then say something about it (how does she like it? how has she used it? what’s her favorite part about it?), then finally, something about the person (I love you!, Hope to see you soon!, etc.). Then, she signs it.

That’s it. It might sound elementary, but even an adult can start with this basic format.

My personal goal

I may love thank-you notes, but I’m also a habitual procrastinator. My birthday was a month and half ago and I’ve had thank-you notes on my to-do list every week since then.

I leave them on there because it’s genuinely something I want to do, despite the fact that daily life tends to creep up and push it out of sight, out of mind.

But timeliness is important in showing the person you care. I’ve made it an official goal to write thank you notes within a week of receiving a gift or enjoying an event with someone.

An easy DIY photo thank-you card (perfect for kids)

There’s some gorgeous stationary out there—do a simple search on Etsy and you’ll be served eye candy galore.

But stationary can be pricey, and while you can easily pick up a box of cheap cards, here’s an inexpensive way to create something original.

photo thank you cards

Take a photo of your your child, add a simple thank-you text on the photo, and order prints for a few cents per piece.

Scribble a note of thanks on the back with a permanent felt-tipped marker (won’t imprint through like ball-point or smear), and pop in an envelope. Done!

A few ideas:

  • Use a photo of your family or your child on their birthday, or wearing/playing with/holding a gift they received
  • Use PicMonkey.com for a free, easy way to put text on photos. Or better yet,
  • Make the whole thing right from your smartphone: snap the photo, edit it with a photo app, upload it to a photo-printing app (your local drugstore might even have this option!) then have it mailed to you.

For fun: check out these eleven amazing thank-you notes from famous people. Audrey Hepburn’s is my favorite on the list.

P.S. – What to do with old cards and letters.

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29 Comments

  1. Naomi

    I’m a HUGE thank you note fan … actually, I’m a mailbox kind of communication girl PERIOD! My kiddos write semi-often but I wish they would do it more only because they would enjoy it SO much if they experienced the back and forth beauty of a penpal relationship!

    I write thank you notes “just because” …. after gifting and more often, I send notes to just pick up someone’s day. Definitely worth the $0.50 (give or take).

  2. Jenny Dinnen

    Great post!! Thank You notes are a must in my book. If someone makes the effort to give me a gift, have me over for dinner or go out of their way for me – they definitely should be thanked. I also LOVE getting handwritten notes in the mail. These days there is no better surprise. To this day I remember getting handwritten notes from my grandmother and I still get notes from my very special Aunt.

    My personal goal is not only Thank You notes this year, but being better at sending personal Happy Birthday and Anniversary cards. My mother-in-law in my inspiration for this. Makes me feel so special that she remembers all our special days.

    • Nicole

      Oh, that’s something I’m working on, too. We have a family member who totally wins at this. Almost without fail we receive cards from Aunt Jann (my husband’s aunt) days before every birthday. I want to be that on top of things for special days, too. It really does bless the receiver!

  3. steph

    In my world, you don’t use/spend/eat/play with it until the thank-you note has been written. I am also a big fan of postcards, as well as mailed or hand delivered invitations. Old skool 🙂

  4. Kim B

    I write thank you notes religiously and have taught my son as well. Like you, I was raised to do it. When I was raising my son (he’s 21 now), our family “rule” was he could not play with or spend (cash,gift cards, etc)the gift until the card was written. It took 10 mins. When he was very young (preschool) I wrote the note and had him “sign” his name -usually a scribble, but he signed it, or draw a picture. By the time he was about 6, he wrote his own.

    It worked! Use the excitement of a new toy or whatever to get the job done. He is living on his own now, and still writes handwrtten notes. Not emails or posting on FB.

    As for acts of kindness, I wrote the note the first morning I didn’t have to work. Before I left the house that day, the note was written and mailed that day.

  5. Bethany Turner

    I try to write a thank you card for every gift I receive. It is something I was encouraged to do as a child, and I have never stopped.

    I also try to send birthday cards in the mail any chance I get. It is nice to get the birthday message on Facebook, but it is even more special to receive a card in the mail.

    I know I love receiving mail, so I try to do the same for others.

  6. Hilarie

    I was raised that thank-you notes were mandatory. In fact, my parents wouldn’t let us spend the money (if we were given money) until the thank-you was written!

    So, of course, I consider thank-you’s mandatory for my kids, as well. Even if it’s to their school friends. Even if they said “thank you” in person at the time. It’s just how I was raised, and it just feels right.

    That being said, I’m also a procrastinator, and 4-6 weeks often go by before thank-you’s are written in our house. I’m trying to get better with it though!

    • Susan

      I was going to say the same thing – as a kid we could play with a gift or cash a check AFTER we had written a thank-you note. This works well for me even as an adult – it’s real motivation to be timely with thank-you’s!

    • Nicole

      better late than never– that’s what I tell myself anyway. 😉

  7. AC

    I love sending and receiving personal notes and cards. This last year we tried something a little different when our youngest turned 4. To try to teach him about thanking people, we recorded mini videos on my iPhone and sent them to the families. They were very well received! When he can write his own cards, we’ll do that but for now, he’s learning about being thankful and communicating that in the way he can.

    • Nicole

      I love the video idea!! So sweet.

  8. Jessica

    As a family we try to cultivate grateful hearts by writing a gratitude journal together and sending thank you notes. So much mail today is just boring old bills. What joy to receive something friendly and fun. Handwritten notes are becoming a lost art in this technological age, I really enjoy doing thank you notes and letters with my little one.

    • Nicole

      Yes, I totally agree!

  9. Sarah M

    I *always* write thank-you notes. I have made my kids, since very young, make thank-yous, too. First in the form of pictures they’ve colored specifically for the person, and now that they are early writers, they write a sentence I have written on the whiteboard “Thank you for the _____” and I fill in the space with whatever they want to say, “brown teddy”, etc. My son, who is near 7, is so used to doing this he gets right to work and he loves writing the information on the envelope, too. My daughter, 5, is catching up and knows they are a part of gift-receiving. I love getting snail mail, too, and we send out postcards to family with short updates, and letters every once in awhile. I just got a 4 page letter from my 95 year old grandmother in the mail a few weeks ago…so…the tradition is alive and well at our place!
    Sarah M

  10. Corrie Anne

    My parents definitely taught me to send thank yous. Luckily, I love to write so I tend to fill up the whole card. I recently wrote thank yous for the coaches at my CrossFit gym for all the extra hours they put in this spring. The funny part was that they all ended up sending me thank you for your thank you messages because I think they were just so surprised. A few of my piano students have given me thank yous/gift cards at random times, and it really brightens my day! So that was my way of passing it on.

  11. Tanya

    Great idea! Its sad that most people don’t even think to send thanks you cards anymore. I try to be good about it.

  12. Laura

    Thanks for this great idea. My mom is a big card maker and has been trying to get me to try different ideas with her. I think I haven’t been seeing it as something necessary but recently I received a personal thank you card that changed my whole outlook. The bought cards just seem so ordinary now. I definitely plan to start making my cards from now on and my goal is to buy no pre made cards this year! *crosses fingers*

  13. Kelley

    As someone who is striving to reduce environmental waste from our family, thank you cards and letters made the cut even though there is a bit of ‘energy’ that goes into the making and delivering of cards. But the positive ‘energy’ that results from personal correspondence makes it worthwhile everytime.

    • AC

      I’m so happy to read this, Kelley, because I feel the same. We are also trying to be stewards of the environment but I just can’t cut out the relational aspect of sending and receiving hand written notes. They are such a beautiful and tangible part of our history.

  14. Julie

    Oh, yes, I write thank you notes. My mom taught me to be thankful and to find words to express that thanks. And I’m so thankful for her and her lessons. I love to receive a handwritten note that captures the soul of the friend who sent it. They are treasures in this age of e-speed, another token of the slower pace we are all craving. And I love this idea of using a picture as a thank you note. Thank you. 🙂

  15. Sharon

    I’m not great about writing thank you notes for gifts (honestly, I don’t receive many gifts at this point in life), but I do like to write thank you notes (and encouraging notes) when someone does something for me, or I’m touched by something someone said (like a speaker at an event), etc. My daughter (4 yrs old) loves to make crafts, so she often makes cards for people when they are sick. I have been known to also send a quick thank you via email. I figure it’s better than nothing. But, I do love receiving snail mail myself.

  16. Jennifer

    Thank you notes are a must for me. I recently had a baby, so there were baby showers and meals brought to our family. So I have been busily writing thank you notes whenever I get a free minute. I think it’s kind of a lost art in our digital society, but as I feel that if someone is kind enough to buy me a gift, bring my family a meal, or come watch my boys while I get a shower and brush my teeth, I want to acknowledge their kindness. I want people to know they’re appreciated. And when you’re an exhausted new mom pressed for time, the Dollar Tree has some cute, inexpensive cards that are perfect to keep around the house. 🙂

  17. Sara

    I did photo thank you cards a few years ago for my daughter’s birthday. I should really PLAN on doing that this year!

  18. Katie Harding

    Call me old fashioned but I LOVE sending and receiving actual paper mail. I think there is nothing better than a hand written thank you note, totally digging the idea of using a photo and making it into a post card. Thanks for sharing these awesome tips and ideas!

  19. Sarita

    A suggestion …get some pre made thank you cards,an address book filled out,some postage stamps and few ink pens. Put all of this in a basket.place next to your favorite chair. While watching tv write your thank you notes. I make handmade cards. I send thank you cards to my neighbors to say thank you for being a great neighbor. I just got some new stamps to make cards to send to my grandsons even though I see them three times a week!

  20. Aubrey

    I’m a BIG fan of thank you notes, too! Teaching our kids thoughtfulness and kindness is really what manners and etiquette are all about… just a way to show how to communicate in consideration and love for other people. And thank you notes are an important part of this! So glad to hear somebody else reinforcing these concepts and giving ideas to make it easy for busy moms and kids to do!

  21. Sharon Holbrook

    This is great! I love the ideas of a handy basket of thank you notes as well as photo thank you cards. We did photo cards to thank those who donated to my son when he shaved his head to raise money for childhood cancer research (St. Baldrick’s Foundation), and before-and-after photos were perfect for that note!

  22. johnenrich

    I was pinning away for such type of blogs, thanks for posting this for us.ID Card Refill Pack

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