The Case For Holiday Gift Exchanges: Save Money And Maximize Warm-Fuzzy Feelings

The big (and seriously money-saving) idea? Rather than everyone buying gifts for everyone, each person gives and receives a single gift. That way, everyone walks away with one special something—not to mention a plumper piggy bank.
Publish date:
December 17, 2013
holidays, Christmas, broke gift solutions, LearnVest

Sure, it’s the most wonderful time of the year, but it can also be one of the most expensive.

And stressing about selecting the right gift for people like your 12 cousins, co-workers or soon-to-be brother-in-law can sap the seasonal spirit right out of you.

Take a cue from financially-savvy families and friends with a holiday gift swap that streamlines the present purchasing to one.

The big (and seriously money-saving) idea? Rather than everyone buying gifts for everyone, each person gives and receives a single gift. That way, everyone walks away with one special something—not to mention a plumper piggy bank.

The trick to this gifting approach is all in the execution, says etiquette expert Lizzie Post, great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post and coauthor of “Emily Post’s Great Get-Togethers.” “Our family divides the gifting by generation, but it really depends on your family and how you like to operate,” she says.

Houston-based event planner Natalie Dawley of Two Be Wed agrees that having some guidelines will make the event more official—and more likely to be around next year.

Here’s how to do a holiday gift swap right:

1. Divvy Up Names (by Age Group)

Both experts agree it’s wise to organize by age groups—i.e., a separate gift exchange for kids and adults—since it’s likely not as fun for a teenager to shop for an adult (and the responsibility may ultimately fall on the parents). Dawley suggests changing it up by fishing out printed photos of each person instead of drawing names. “It’s another opportunity to set the tone of the gift exchange,” she says.

Keeping your pick a secret until the opening ceremony can also add to the excitement. “If all the pictures are the same size, it’s harder to guess who has who,” Dawley advises. Tip: Have everyone slip their names or photos into sealed blank envelopes of the same size—to be opened discreetly—for complete secrecy.

2. Decide Whether to Buy or D.I.Y.

If your crew is crafty, handmade gifts could be a meaningful and cost-effective way to go. “This is a very thoughtful and sincere gift exchange,” Dawley says. And even if you’re not a sewing-machine savant, she suggests these simple D.I.Y. ideas: Plant herbs in a boxwood; take photographs of your city and frame them—or better yet, frame a child’s artwork in gallery-style frames for the parent or grandparent; bake something and decorate the packaging; mix perfume oils and bottle your fragrance with a handmade label; bottle ingredients for a favorite family recipe like dip or baked goods. Then again, if your family doesn’t tend toward D.I.Y., you’re on to the next step.

3. Set a Spending Limit

“One of the most important and practical elements of gift exchanging is to set a budget,” Dawley says. Whether it’s $10 or $100, store-bought or homemade, this step helps make the gift-buying (or -making) more enjoyable and equitable. “Everyone has different financial situations, so put a cap in place and let everyone know about it,” Post says. “Then respect it, even if you find something that costs a little more.”

When it comes to store purchases, discuss including return receipts with each gift. It not only makes returns easier but also helps ensure everyone stays on budget. If you’re a bargain shopper and your total is less than the set budget, don’t feel bad, especially if you got a great deal on a once pricier item. “You can always enhance a [purchase] with a homemade gift,” Post adds.

4. Simplify Shopping for Everyone

You can absolutely turn to Pinterest or an Amazon wish list or ask their parents and siblings for ideas, Post says. Or have each person attach a little wish list to the back of their photo or fill out a short questionnaire on the night of the draw. “A questionnaire is a fun way to engage the givers and receivers and will help with purchasing quality gifts,” Dawley says.

For example, asking about things like hobbies, bucket-list travel plans or desert island must-haves helps spark creativity in givers. “If someone said they’ve always wanted to go to Paris and that they would take their library to an island, you’d know they might appreciate a book about France,” she says. “It’s about combining the person’s interests and desires into one gift.” By the same token, be prepared to answer these questions yourself.

“Have things in mind if someone asks, ‘What’s on your list?’ ” Post says. “It’s OK to email them a list or link of what you want.” But if your group isn’t big on lists and/or loves the idea of surprises, keep in mind that “you always want to stay away from something too personal like lingerie, or ‘helpful’ things like a Weight Watchers membership.” Instead, look to their hobbies. When in doubt, gift cards “wouldn’t be lame if you know it’s something they will use,” Post says. The cardinal rule: Do not re-gift.

5. Present Your Present With Pizzazz

It is no coincidence that the word “present” is the root of “presentation.” Since each person will unwrap a single gift, make it count. “Be intentional and creative about wrapping the gift,” Dawley says. Whether it’s the sports section for a sports lover or sparkling paper for the glitterati in your life, “doing a nice job of wrapping is considerate,” Post adds. “Giving a gift in a wadded-up grocery bag is not the way you gift.”

Another way to make your selection stand out is to make it anonymous, giving only clues on the tag, and turn it into a game for the recipient. “My family does this every year, and it’s so much fun to figure it out,” Dawley says. “It can be a poem, a riddle, or as simple as a hint.”

6. Make Unwrapping an Event

When it comes time to exchange presents, have one person at a time open his or her gift. “It brings attention to the giver and receiver, and builds the excitement for others,” Dawley says. “It’s something in which everyone can participate.” Remember to take pictures and videos of the process to document the tradition—and get everyone on board again for next year.

7. Show Your Gratitude

Once the gift and its giver have been revealed, there’s only one thing left to do (no matter what you think of your holiday swag): “You must say thank you,” Post says. “That’s the biggest must. If you say thanks in person, you’re in the clear.” But if your giver could not attend in person and had to send a gift, definitely let them know it arrived safely—either with a call or card of thanks. Expressing your appreciation is a goodwill gesture. Plus, it makes next year’s gift exchange a lot more likely to happen.

One note on etiquette: Don’t bring additional presents for other family members. If you are really close with one cousin, do a special “just us” dinner and exchange gifts then so no one else feels slighted.

Reprinted with permission from LearnVest. Want More?

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