Keep Your Christmas Gift Exchanges Affordable With These Simple Tips

Chelsy Meyer

You know your mom and your spouse should always get a gift from you for the holidays, but what about your boss? Should you give a gift to your mailman or your babysitter? Who should get a gift and who shouldn’t?

When you’re concerned about not giving a gift to someone who deserves one, or giving a gift that may not be reciprocal, the giving holidays may seem more stressful. It’ll help to make these decisions when you understand the rules of gift giving while still staying within a budget. If you’re looking for more affordable options, try some present swap alternatives. Remember that knowing what not to do can be just as important as knowing what you should do.

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Understanding Gift Exchange Rules

The rules of exchanging gifts are subject to interpretation, so it’s not an exact science. However, they are some general guidelines that can answer questions when you have a gift giving question. The basic rules tend to be that you should never show up to an event empty handed, make sure gifts are reciprocal, don’t forget someone, and remember it’s the thought that counts. It’s not only who you should give a gift to, but also what you should get them, and how much to spend.


  • Gift at your holiday events: Remember to bring a gift for all of your holiday events. If you have an office Christmas party, remember to bring a potluck dish. If your Christmas morning is spent with family, be sure to include gifts for all members. If you’re going to a holiday party, bring a bottle of wine for the host. Correlate gifts with your events.
  • Don’t forget someone: People tend to gift in packs. Don’t bring a gift for your aunts and forget your uncle. However, if your aunts will be there Christmas morning and your uncle won’t, you may be able to get away with excluding your him.
  • Gift evenly: If you know you receive a gift from someone every year, gift something back to them. Also, stay within their dollar value and gift in the same price range. Gifting extravagantly seems like a nice thing to do, but it could lead to them feeling bad for their gift to you. Same with gifting within groups – don’t spend more money on one nephew than you do on the others.
  • Give to others if you wish: You do not have to give gifts to your boss, mailman, hairdresser, etc. However, don’t feel like you can’t. If you are giving gifts to people that probably won’t have a reciprocal gift for you, don’t gift anything too extravagant.
  • Thought over dollar value: It may seem overwhelming to imagine having to give a gift to everyone that will be present during Christmas morning, but you don’t have to spend a lot of money. Making treats, buying Christmas cards, or small gifts like candles are all great options. If your gift is thoughtful, it will mean more than one that is expensive.


Gifting Within Your Budget

Each gift exchange situation is different, so the rules can be different for everyone. If you’re overwhelmed with how many gifts you’d like to give this year, make sure you don’t overwhelm your finances in the process. Celebrating Christmas on a budget doesn’t mean your Christmas has to be any less special, it just means going into the gift giving holiday with a plan.

One way to stay within your budget is to plan ahead. Spreading purchases out throughout the year can be a great way to lessen the burden come December. You can also work Black Friday into your shopping plan. It’s hectic, but the savings are there. You can also make gifts, which is a great way to make your presents thoughtful. A photo calendar, holiday wreath, or homemade cookies are all great budget gifts.

Getting a holiday credit card is a great way to shift your holiday spending from your checking account to an alternate account. This will ensure you still have plenty of cash for your everyday living expenses while allowing yourself to splurge during the holidays. Of course, this only makes sense if your credit is in a good place, and you aren’t putting yourself in an impossible place with debt in the process. A holiday credit card can also offer you rewards to help you later, not to mention a boost in your credit as long as you make sure to keep your payments on time. Just be sure to practice safe spending habits with your holiday credit card, especially if you’re shopping online.

Present Swap Alternatives

Sometimes, the best way to eliminate cost issues (as well as issues regarding who you give a gift to) is to consider a present swap alternative. These ideas tend to combine resources to make the gifting portion of the holidays easier on everyone.


  • Secret Santa: Many families opt for a Secret Santa party instead of a traditional gift giving event. This ensures no one is forgotten, and everyone only has to buy one gift and stay within a price cap.
  • Bottle exchange: This is great for holiday parties with friends. Everyone buys a bottle of wine or liquor and passes it around a circle in accordance with whatever “left, right” Christmas story you choose. This also creates a fun game in which everyone gets a gift, but everyone only has to buy one item.
  • White elephant gift exchange: White elephant gift exchanges are also great for families and events to ensure gifts for everyone. Plus, the cost is even more reasonable as white elephant gifts are traditionally a handed down gift, not one that’s purchased.
  • From all of us: Buying a gift as a group can be a helpful way to buy a gift for a family member, friend, or coworker that is more cost effective for everyone.
  • Gifting an experience: Instead of gifting a thing, gift an experience. This might mean agreeing as a family to forgo gifts for each other, and all spend the money on a vacation together.
  • Charitable gifts: Whether you’re doing a charitable gift as an office, with your family, or with a group of friends, deciding to pool money for a charity or to adopt a family instead of doing a gift for one another is another great way to avoid the question of who you give a gift to, and who you don’t. Not only that, you’re using the money you would spend on a gift to help those in need. Just be sure you research your charitable donation first.


Don’ts are as Important as Do’s

It’s hard to make concrete rules about gift giving when there are so many variables, but it’s sort of clear who you should be giving gifts to. Your immediate family (spouse, kids, those in your household), those giving gifts to you, and any holiday event (including plans for Christmas morning). However, it’s important to also know who you shouldn’t give a gift to, and what you shouldn’t do when giving a gift in general.


  • Know your workplace culture before gift giving at work: It’s hard to say “never give a gift to your boss” as a general rule, because some work situations allow it. However, it might be inappropriate in some settings. Take a look at your workplace culture before giving a gift to your boss.
  • Stay away from controversial gifts: Gifts about politics, religion, or other controversial topics usually aren’t appreciated by anyone.
  • Don’t put yourself in debt for gifts: Plan out your gifts and don’t go overboard. You don’t want to spend the next year paying off your debt created by Christmas just to do it all over again in a year. Prioritize thoughtful gifts over expensive ones.
  • Don’t panic: Don’t overthink who you should give a gift to and who you shouldn’t. This time of year is about making others happy. If you get a gift and don’t have one for them, make a note to send them a nice thank you card. If you forget a gift for someone, send them something in the mail later and apologize for the oversight. If you’re really worried, be sure to make a few extra batches of cookies or buy a few extra bottles of wine in case you forget someone. If you can’t afford gifts, organize a gift exchange or make cookies. Don’t panic about gifts, just enjoy this time of year.


Whether the list of people you need to get gifts for is large or small, there are ways to make sure you get gifts to those people. Even if it means more costly gifts for immediate family and homemade fudge and cards for everyone else. It can be stressful to figure out who’s on list of people you need to get gifts for. Generally, people are understanding about the gift giving season and realize that this time of year is about family and togetherness, not receiving a gift.

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