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What to Write in a Thank You Card – 4 Tips for Proper Etiquette

It seems as if the world has almost forgotten the art of letter writing. The Pew Research Center found that 75% of cellphone owners text, which means you’re probably more likely to get a birthday note from a friend on your smartphone – not in your mailbox. Although communication has become overwhelmingly digital, there are still times when a personal handwritten note is much more appropriate.

Thank you notes are one of those types of communication that should almost always be handwritten. While an informal “thanks” sent via email or text is fine for the little stuff, you should use pen and paper to express gratitude for gifts, events, and certain acts of kindness. Knowing the right etiquette can help you understand when a recipient should get a card or letter, or if a verbal thanks is enough.

Tips for Thank You Notes

You might find yourself at a loss for words when you attempt to put pen to paper and express your thanks, but thank you notes don’t need to be absolute masterpieces – they should just be heartfelt expressions of personal gratitude. Try using the following tips and pen the perfect “thanks” time and time again.

1. Know When to Send

The first step is to decide whether you actually need to send a formal thank you note, or if an informal verbal thanks will do. Here are some of the instances when a written note is more appropriate:

  • When a Gift Is Given to Accompany a Special Occasion. When you think wedding shower, wedding, baby shower, anniversary party, birthday, graduation, or any other special life event, think thank you notes. Not only are you thanking someone for a gift, you’re offering appreciation that they were part of such a monumental day in your life.
  • When a Gift Is Given in Congratulations. Another rule of thumb is to write one any time a gift was given in congratulations. After all, the giver has recognized an achievement or change in your life, so you should reciprocate that recognition appropriately.
  • When a Gift Is Opened in the Giver’s Absence. If Grandma sends you a graduation gift and isn’t able to see your reaction when you open it, it’s proper to send a thank you note to express what she would have heard if she was in the room with you.
  • When a Gift Is Given in Sympathy. Whether it was a “get well” basket or a bouquet for a funeral, gifts given in sympathy should receive a thank you card when you’re ready and feel up to the task.
  • When Someone Is Extra Kind or Helpful. When people fulfill certain roles in your life – from teachers and mentors, to someone who lent a listening ear or pitched in when you needed help – a thank you note is a great way to show appreciation for that kindness.
  • Before the Three-Month Mark. Typically, etiquette states that the proper expiration date for a thank you note is three months from the date of the gift or service. Of course, extend that time if you’re experiencing a trauma, such as illness or a death in the family. In those cases, you can send a note whenever you feel up to it.

The truth is, you can send a thank you note whenever you feel it’s appropriate. No one is ever offended by a little extra gratitude, especially in a personal note.

2. Make It Special

Any gratitude is positive, but that doesn’t mean you should just scribble a thanks on some notebook paper and stuff it into an envelope. Taking the time to make a recipient’s opening of a thank you card into a little event shows that extra thought went into it. It’s always best to keep some stationery or cards handy so you have the tools necessary to compose a special greeting.

If you’re sending a large amount of thank you notes at once, such as for a wedding or other big event, it’s a good idea to order them personalized from a printer. They’re cheaper when purchased in a larger quantity, and you can add pictures or a monogram. Stock up on stamps and make sure you have addresses on-hand to put the note in the mail ASAP.

Make Letter Special

3. Start With the Proper Greeting

When you’re ready to start the personalized part of the thank you note, remember to keep it just that – personal. Begin by greeting your recipient by name – “Dear Uncle Fred,” for example – as a way to establish your connection right off the bat. If you’re thanking multiple people in the same family, it’s fine to send one card as long as they gave one gift. If different family members gave different gifts, send separate notes. You also need separate notes if friends or family members from different households pooled resources for one larger gift.

The body of your note should begin by expressing your heartfelt thanks. You don’t need to be flowery or over-the-top with your language, but feel free to make the card specific to the recipient and use emotion to convey your thanks. Something like, “Thank you again for being part of my big day. It was so touching to be surrounded by the most important people in my life as I walked down the aisle.” Doing this sets the stage for the thanks, and proves that it isn’t just another task on your post-event to-do list.

4. Be Specific

When you launch into your thanks, be specific about the gift or service you’re thanking your recipient for. Otherwise, a lukewarm and general thanks can come off as disingenuous. For larger events, like a baby shower or wedding, it’s always a good idea to write a quick note on the back of each gift’s card to help you remember what each person gave (and then save the cards).

Make the thank you specific to the item. By telling the recipient how you plan to use the gift (or how excited you are about it) can make all the difference to the person you’re thanking. Instead of saying, “Thanks for the hand mixer,” try, “I’m so excited to finally outfit my kitchen, and this mixer will be perfect for mixing up my mom’s famous cookie recipe!” If someone has given you money, you can detail in your card what you’re saving for or how the cash will affect your tuition, home down payment, or another large purchase.

If you’re sending a thank you note for service rather than an item, you can be specific about how it helped you in your time of need. For example, “Seeing the flowers you sent for Grandpa’s funeral instantly lifted my mood and reminded me of your friendship,” is a great way to convey the emotions an act of kindness generated. After your specific thank you, you can sign off with your love and your signature.

Thank You Card Do’s and Don’ts

There are a few specific do’s and don’ts. Keep the inspiration flowing and the gaffes far away from your stack of thank you notes by abiding by these few general guidelines.


  • Write Your Notes By Hand. Even if you type a thank you on your PC and print it off to send as a letter or card, it can seem less personal than a written note.
  • Send One If You’re Wondering Whether You Should. Your personal experiences might differ from the scenarios listed above. If you feel you should send a thank you, then by all means, send one.
  • Mention a Future Connection in the Note. Before signing off, for example, you could note that you’re looking forward to seeing the recipient at a family reunion or some other event. If nothing is on the calendar, talk about other ways to connect, such as “I’ll call you soon,” or “Can’t wait to catch up again soon.”


  • Lie About How Much You Love a Gift. If you can’t express your thanks for something you don’t really like, express your gratitude for the effort, as in, “I am so touched you were able to make it to our engagement party and I’ll never forget your thoughtfulness.” Lying about loving a less-than-exciting gift can sound flat and insincere.
  • Be Excessively Honest. There’s a fine line between lying about loving a gift and actually telling the truth about how you feel. If you already have the item, can’t really use it, or simply don’t like it, keep that information to yourself. Instead, focus on the thought and gloss over how you plan to use the item.
  • Neglect Sending, Even If It’s Late. Thank you notes definitely fall into the “better late than never” category. Even if it’s been six months or a year after a gift or service, a thank you note is always more appropriate than sending nothing at all.
  • Use Social Media or Email in Place of a Written Note. It’s not the same thing. Your recipient will be touched you took the time to handwrite a note and put it in the mail. A post on a Facebook wall doesn’t have the same personal effect.

Start With Proper Greeting

Final Word

The real takeaway here is that as long as you follow a few guidelines, sending a thank you note is always appreciated by the recipient. You’ve got a lot of loving family members and friends in your life, and thank you notes are just a tiny way to express your gratitude for all they do, from throwing a graduation party, to pitching in when you needed a last-minute babysitter. You might even find that making thank you notes a regular habit helps improve your communication and bond with the most important people in your life.

What are your best tips for creating thank you notes?

Jacqueline Curtis
Jacqueline Curtis writes about edtech, finance, marketing, and small business strategy. With over 14 years of copywriting experience, she's created content and scripting for organizations such as GE, Walgreens, Overstock, and MasterCard. She lives in Utah with her husband, three kids, and an overzealous springer spaniel named Penelope.

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