Dreading a holiday gift exchange? Now's the time to do something about it.

Rather than a gift exchange that you can't afford or just aren't interested in, offer an alternative that meets the goals of the season.

Andy Nelson / The Christian Science Monitor / File
Amara Onyekwere reaches for one of the many gifts she purchased at Montgomery Mall in Bethesda, Md., in this file photo from Nov. 23, 2001. Consider alternatives to buying presents this year, and get buy-in from everyone else now.

Each Christmas, a lot of people find themselves in gift exchanges that they don’t really want to participate in. They end up buying gifts for people that they don’t have a close relationship with. They’re obligated to spend more money than they’d like on certain gifts. Sometimes, they’re guilted into it by the expectations of others at their Christmas parties.

No more. This is the year we declare our financial independence from unwanted gift exchanges.

Step #1: Decide if you really want out
When faced with a big pile of bills and debt, it can be easy to tell ourselves that we’re going to cut down on gift-giving next year. We think about all of the gifts we bought, think of the ones that seemed like the biggest stretches to our budget and our personal lives, and begin to feel something negative about that gift. Discomfort. Resentment. Annoyance. Disgust.

Yet, quite often, we also like the gift exchange process with people we care about, even if it’s with people we don’t see all that often.

It can be a real emotional conundrum, and it’s one that deserves some careful thought. Do you really want out of the whole picture? It’s quite possible – and quite justifiable – that you do, but any gift you gave in previous years deserves some reflection this year.

I’m in two different gift exchanges that have given me pause in the last year. In each case, it’s a gift exchange with extended family members that I don’t see too much during the year. We’ve made the decision to get out of one of them, but after some deep reflection, we decided to remain in the other one, though we are going to suggest some changes to them.

Step #2: Come up with the alternative you would prefer
Most likely, you’re going to come up with some mixed feelings about some of these gift exchanges. I’d encourage you to consider alternative options that do not devalue the real value of the holiday season – spending time with people you care about. Here are several such options.

A “secret Santa” exchange Instead of everyone giving a gift to everyone, simply draw names in some fashion and have each person give a single gift to another person.

A “handmade” or “thoughtful” gift exchange Instead of buying stuff, have a gift exchange where items of more personal value are given. There are lots of options here – and the more creative your family is, the better. You can agree to give each other handmade items. You can agree to give each other “coupons” for personal favors later on (like a night of babysitting for a harried parent or two hours of cleaning for an elderly person). You can give each other “thank you” cards, handwritten, that express thanks for what that person has meant to you in life and in the last year.

A potluck dinner Instead of having a gift exchange, just have a big potluck dinner during the holiday season. Don’t make it about stuff – make it about family. I think this is perhaps the best default option for a lot of families and other groups.

A volunteer afternoon Instead of getting together to give each other stuff, perhaps you could all spend a few hours doing something like working in a soup kitchen or building a Habitat for Humanity house. It gets you together and creates something worthwhile for the community. This is a great suggestion to replace an office Christmas party.

Step #3: Communicate, communicate, communicate
Once you know which exchanges you want to get out of or alter, it’s time to communicate.

Some people will arrange this by email. Others will use Facebook. Still others will do it over the phone. It has a lot to do with the people you’re dealing with.

Here are two different email templates that you can use and alter to your heart’s content.

Hey Sally,

I’m looking forward to seeing you all at Christmas dinner this year!

With the economy, though, I was thinking of suggesting that we don’t do a gift exchange this year like we’ve done in the past. Instead, what do you think about just doing a “secret Santa” exchange with the adults and a second one with all of the kids? That way, we all have a gift to open, but it won’t leave any of us in financial trouble.

Let me know what you think!


That one would work well with siblings and close cousins. For an office exchange, you might want to try something like this:

Hello all,

Instead of the usual office gift exchange this year, let’s put aside a Saturday afternoon in December and have all of us spend a few hours doing some volunteer work? It’d help us get in touch with the people that truly need help in life, plus it would give some excellent public relations to our firm.

What do you all think of this idea?


Who should I send such an email to? If there’s a person or two who are obviously organizing the Christmas exchanges based on past experience, contact them first and see what they think. Make sure you include an easy-to-choose alternative in your email.

If there is no central person (particularly if the exchange just involves a small group), contact everyone in the group. Do it individually – some people may feel very nervous about saying that they want out to the whole group. Give them an avenue to tell you how they feel about it one-on-one.

Shouldn’t I call people instead? It entirely depends on your relationship with the people involved. For some relationships, email would work best. For others, Facebook. For still others, a phone call would be the best route.

What if no one agrees with me? You’ll have to make your own decision when it comes to that point. You can simply ask to drop out of the exchange, or you can just shrug your shoulders and go along with the flow of it. If you’re really uncomfortable, though, just ask to leave the exchange.

Step #4: Stick to your guns
Once the decision has been made to alter the gift exchange, you might feel some regret, particularly when the Christmas season comes around. Don’t. This one’s worth sticking to your guns on, especially if you’re still actually spending time with your family during the holiday season.

Instead, focus on why you did this in the first place. Recall the emotions and thoughts that led you to the decision to leave the exchange. Keep them in mind.

Most importantly, enjoy the camaraderie. In the end, the value of seeing family during the holidays isn’t found in the gifts. It’s found in the people and the time spent together.

Good luck!

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