Ideas for a Fun, Frugal Holiday Gift Exchange

By Mike Peterson
In December 21, 2012

Holiday gift-giving is a whole lot of fun: There’s nothing quite like the warm fuzzies you get from giving someone the perfect gift.  It’s one of the things that makes the holidays such a nice time.  Giving is fun.  Receiving a nice gift is fun, too.


But Playing Santa can also be stressful and expensive — especially if you’ve got a long list of people to buy for.  If you’re like most people, your list of holiday shopping probably extends beyond your immediate family.  Maybe you buy for your co-workers.  Or maybe you always exchange gifts with friends from college.  Or your neighbors.  And don’t forget about your entire extended family (plus your spouse’s extended family!).


All of this spending is extra-stressful if you’re trying to stay on a tight budget or stay out of high-interest credit card debt.


Are you looking for a fun way to save on holiday gifts?  Thinking about starting a new, frugal holiday gift tradition?  You don’t have to be a Grinch and opt out of the giving entirely – there are lots of fun ways to put a thrifty new spin on the traditional holiday gift exchange.


Here are a few of my favorites:


  • The “white elephant” gift exchange.  More of a game than a gift exchange, this is a great way to keep things fun and frugal with a big group.  Instead of buying for, say, everyone at the office or all 33 cousins on your mom’s side of the family, you buy or bring one gift – the silliest, cheesiest gift you can find. Think oddball as-seen-on-TV gadgets, silly lawn ornaments – you name it.  Everyone brings one funny gift to exchange.  In some variations of this game, you can opt to “steal” someone else’s awful gift.


  • A re-gifting party.  A re-gifting party takes all of the guilt out of finding a new home for unopened gifts that were never quite “you.”  A re-gifting party can work just like a white elephant party – everyone brings something to re-gift, and participants can trade or “steal” from each other.


  • Draw names.  This is a great way to ease the financial stress of buying for a very large family.  It’s simple:  Write everyone’s name on a slip of paper, put the names into a bag, and draw.  You only buy for the person whose name you drew.  This way, everyone gives – and receives – a nice gift, and nobody is expected to buy for the whole extended family.


  • Secret Santa.  Sort of like drawing names, but with a twist – in a Secret Santa gift exchange, you don’t know who drew your name until the day you exchange gifts.  In some variations of Secret Santa, you give a small gift every day for a few days, and you give a slightly larger gift on the final day when your Secret Santa identities are revealed.


  • Set a spending limit.  A fixed dollar amount can help curb the cost of buying for everyone in the family.  Choose an amount that everyone is comfortable with – say, $10 or $15 – and stick to it.  For a real challenge, set a super-low limit – like $5 – and see how creative everyone can get.


  • Kids-only gift exchange.  One way to save is to focus on the kids in the family.  Skip the presents for the grown-ups entirely and buy for the younger folks instead.


  • Choose a theme. Themed gift exchanges are a fun way to keep costs down.  To participate, ask everyone to buy a certain item – such as an ornament, wine, a book, socks, a DVD – you name it.  Draw names or do a white elephant-style swap to determine who gets which gift.


Gift shopping doesn’t have to blow your budget – there are lots of ways to get into the holiday spirit without spending a small fortune.  So, what do you think of my list?  How does your family exchange gifts?  Do you have any unique gift-exchanging traditions or games?  I’d love to hear how you celebrate.

Mike is the author of “Reality Millionaire: Proven Tips to Retire Rich” and he has been published in a variety of local and national publications including Entrepreneur Magazine, Deseret Morning News, LDS Living Magazine, and Physicians Money Digest. He holds a B.S. in business administration from the University of Phoenix.

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