Thursday, March 21, 2013

How to borrow and return things

In my life, I've had to deal with people who were abysmally clueless when it came to borrowing and returning items. I've lent out books that were gone for years and finally returned with broken spines and notes written in the margins, lent out CDs for ages and had them returned so scratched up they would no longer play, and lent out movies that simply disappeared for good. (Captain Midnight has had it even worse -- he once lent out his hard-to-find copy of Urshurak, illustrated by the brothers Hildebrandt, and when it finally came back all the color illustrations were gone, surgically removed with a razor blade.)

Have you ever taken care of a small child? If you have, you know it's crucial to toddler-proof your home so that your cherished possessions aren't smashed, swallowed or turned into teething rings by a rampaging two-year-old. Well, it doesn't matter what your chronological age is; when you don't borrow or return things properly, your family and friends will think of you as an overgrown toddler. Forget toddler-proofing -- they'll bolt the door when they see you coming. So if you ever want to borrow anything again, learn the right way to borrow items, the right way to give them back, and what you must do when something goes wrong.


Get permission first. The industry term for borrowing something without expressly getting permission is "stealing." Yes, even if you return it when you're done. If the person who owns the item says you can't use it, you can't use it, no matter how much you might need it. Go find someone else to bum off.

Don't treat it like it's your own -- treat it better. You can carve your own DVDs into snowflakes and use your own glassware for target practice if you really want, because they're your things and you can choose to destroy them. But if someone else has entrusted these items to your care, it's your duty to treat them like gold. If it's a book, protect it from dust and spills, don't dog-ear the pages, and be gentle to the spine. You want it to go back in at least as good a condition as you received it (about which, see more below).

Keep close track of things you've borrowed. I have trouble with this, especially when it comes to books, which is why I bring it up. If you also have trouble remembering what is and isn't yours, you could keep notes in a regular place with a running tally of items you've borrowed, the approximate date you borrowed them and the date they need to go back. It also helps to have a specific spot where you keep borrowed things, to remind yourself that they're just visiting and need to go home.

Never, never sub-lend. You'd think this would be obvious, but I'm saying it anyway so no one can claim ignorance later -- if you've borrowed it from someone else, you cannot lend it out to a third party. Common sense dictates that the more an item passes from hand to hand, the greater the chance some kind of disaster will occur. Besides, it's not yours to lend out, doofus.


Return items promptly. Don't be a dirtbag and hoard borrowed items for months and months, forcing the lender to contact you repeatedly and ask when you're going to get around to giving her stuff back. And don't tell me you can't admit to the lender that her item got broken or lost. Go directly to "Making Restitution" below (do not pass "Go," do not collect $200).

Return items in as good as or better than their original condition. What does this mean? If you borrow a car, give it a wash and top off the gas tank. If you borrow tools, shine them up. If you borrow furniture, make sure it's clean and in good condition when it goes back. You get the idea. Send it back nice and well-kept, even if it wasn't in that great a condition when you borrowed it. You want to fill lenders with relief and happiness when they get their stuff back from you.

If you borrow food, return it. I don't know how often people go over to a neighbor's house to "borrow" a few eggs or a cup of flour any more, but if you do, you should "return" a few eggs or a cup of flour the next time you stock up at the store. At the very least, if it's appropriate, you could share with your neighbor some of the goodies you made from the borrowed ingredients.

Thank the lender. Borrowing is a privilege, not a right. I don't care what your communist college professor says; individuals can and do own things and have every right to control their use. If someone trusts you enough to let you borrow something she cares about, the least you can do is thank her for that trust. If for some reason you can't thank your lender in person, a written thank-you note is appropriate.

(By the way, a word to the wise about returning a very commonly borrowed item: whether you call them shopping carts, shopping trolleys, wagons or buggies, there are only two proper places to return them when you're finished grocery shopping. Those two places are 1) inside the store or 2) in a cart corral in the parking lot. You do not get to take them home (remember that bit about stealing?), leave them in the middle of the parking lot, wedge them between two parked cars, shove them onto the sidewalk, or abandon them next to a handicapped parking zone so wheelchair-bound shoppers are trapped in their vans. And if I see you doing any of this stuff I will THUMP you, so don't even.)

Making restitution

Sometimes borrowed things get lost, damaged or broken. It happens to all of us at one time or another. What happens after that, however, determines whether or not people will ever trust you to borrow their things again, so read carefully.

Admit what happened and apologize. Don't try to sweep everything under the rug. It won't work. Instead, have the testicular fortitude to admit what happened while the item was on your watch. Let the lender know how sorry you are this happened. Then, before the owner even has to ask, move immediately to the next step:

Fix it. I've met people who have crashed others' cars, broken others' furniture, stained others' clothing and killed others' pets, and who seem to believe that all they owe anyone for these misdeeds is a heartfelt apology. SORRY, I CAN'T HEAR YOU OVER THE SOUND OF YOUR WRONGNESS. If the words "I'm sorry" could fix a broken windshield, find a missing pair of shoes or make the dog un-eat your cherished leatherbound copy of the Pop-Up Kama Sutra, they would be sufficient. Since they aren't, your next responsibility is to make restitution. That means you pay to fix the damage done to the item you borrowed while it was in your care, even if you weren't directly responsible for causing the damage.

Aww, is that going to set you back some? Poor pookie. Didn't stop to think it would probably set back the owner of the item that got broken or lost, though, did you? Why should he have to pay for your indiscretion? Right; he shouldn't. Doesn't matter if you think he makes enough money to eat the costs; you're at fault. And if the item was particularly expensive, and you're going to be paying it off for quite some time, just maybe it might occur to you that this was a costly mistake and you're not going to repeat it. Congratulations; you is learnin' stuff!

Now, are you going to borrow and return things the right way, or are you gonna be the dirtbag who never gives stuff back, or gives it up so scratched and dented that it has to be replaced anyway? (Hint: if you've read this and I catch you being a dirtbag, I will likely do some scratching and denting of my own. Grrrrr.)


  1. Haha, I know you added that paragraph about shopping carts just for me! Thanks so much, I wish all shopping cart thieves would read this... and then start acting like proper adults and return the borrowed cart.

    This is such a great article! Your wit cracks me up. I especially loved the second to last paragraph.

    1. Thanks, Rachel! It was fun to write.

  2. Good borrower: Returning one of my Sandman graphic novels: "I'm really sorry. A couple of pages got torn. I will replace it."

    Bad borrower: Made off with my signed and personalised copy of Ender's Game and I never saw her or it again.

    That bad borrower is the direct reason why I am now very, very careful about who I lend my books to.

    1. That's understandable. I'm wincing in shared distress over your loss of a signed copy of a book... and would probably be tempted to come after the stealer with a large mallet...

  3. I remember reading a great idea about taking the lender's picture WITH the item he/she is borrowing, so there is photo evidence of what is being borrowed by whom and the condition it is in at the time.

    Unfortunately I didn't think of that when I lent my sister in law my expensive baby bottle warmer (with all the pieces and instructions, in pristine condition like I keep everything in) and it came back FILTHY, disgusting, and missing not only the instructions, but also an important piece. She claims I never gave her all the pieces, which is complete b.s. because I am OCD over keeping my stuff organized. *sigh*
    So anyway... I should send her this.

  4. Taking advantage of someone's kindness is abhorrent behavior. I just don't lend out something unless I don't care if I get it back. I have arrived at this position because of endless let downs in the past. I may seem stingy or whatever but it is best for my sanity in the end.