Blog post

How to get or opt out of Christmas Gift Exchanges (without looking like a Scrooge!)

A few years ago, my husband was laid off from his job and we told our family that we wanted to opt out of gift exchanges. And we did. Given our financial circumstances it was gladly accepted.

And it was great! Less stress and LESS MONEY spent, but we still enjoyed time with our family and all still exchanged small little gifts, even though no one “had” to.

But now, a few years removed, with my husband once again employed, the gift exchanges have resumed.

So now, how do we tell our family we want out again without a good excuse? Here’s how to get started:GREAT advice on how to opt out of gift exchanges at work, with friends or family! Reduce STRESS this Christmas- getting out of extra gift exchanges! #Opt #Out #Christmas #Gift #Exchange #Ideas #Family #Friends #Office #Co-Workers

1) Work out the WHY. Possible reasons to opt out include:

a) Financial: Job loss, cut hours or lay-offs are all options. For us, we are working on paying off debt, and would like to funnel as much of our resources towards that as possible. You may not want to divulge this to your family, but the following options will likely resonate with you as well.

b) Combating Consumerism: Tired of trying to buy and give happiness? Most people can relate to this at some level. Have your family gift exchanges turned into this: I tell you what to buy me and you tell me what to buy you, wrap, exchange, unwrap…I could have just bought the thing I wanted, in the color I actually wanted and skipped a bunch of steps in between.

c) Remembering the REAL reason for the season: Gifts are an important part of most Christmas traditions regardless of your specific denomination, and that is OK! Gifts aren’t bad, but the stress they cause and the need for MORE can become problematic. Whether you’re trying to teach your kids or want to be reminded yourselves, finding ways to focus on the true reason for the season can be rewarding.

d) Helping a family in need: Maybe you have friends or family who are adopting, have suffered a serious illness or have lost a job themselves. Donating money that would have otherwise been reserved for gifts can be a noble alternative.



“Thanks for inviting me to exchange gifts, however, my husband and I decided that we’re only exchanging gifts with immediate family this year.”

“I’ve always enjoyed exchanging gifts with you all, the {insert past gift here} you gave me last year has been great, I use it all of the time, but I was thinking, how about this year we all just go out to lunch together instead of exchanging gifts. Afterall, time with you is the best gift of all!”

“We were wondering if we could start a new tradition this year? Instead of doing a traditional gift exchange, could we do {insert alternative here), we think it would be alot of fun!”


2) Decide ahead of time what Gift Exchange exceptions you will make:

While I personally wouldn’t have a problem cutting out every single gift exchange, it is important to remember that gift giving is important to many people. It would not be fair to ask my mom to not by our children gifts. She is a nana, and it is her right :) It is ok, though, to help guide gift givers. We ask that they give our girls activities to do and for our little guy, we ask for practical things that we need for him. They won’t always adhere 100%, but again, that’s ok!

We’ve also decided, that while we want to opt out of sibling gift exchanges, we still want to buy gifts for our parents. For us, it is a way of honoring them and thanking them for all that they have done for us. It’s ok to make exceptions to the rules :)


3) Offer Gift Exchange alternatives:

Before presenting this to your friends, family and co-workers, it is wise to have a few viable alternatives. They could include:

a) Spending time together: Go to a movie, play games, watch old home movies and flip through photo albums, build gingerbread houses together, bake something that reminds you of childhood.

b) Gifts just for kids: For me, watching my kids open gifts on Christmas is enough of a present for me, most families don’t mind skipping adult gifts as long as they can still experience it through children’s eyes.

You can also ask that friends and family gift your kids with an “experience” (like a trip to the movies or zoo)…this is best if they wrap a small token (theater box of candy or small stuffed animal) with a note or certificate stating what the experience will be.

c) Homemade Christmas: With Pinterest, there is no excuse not to find the perfect DIY gift for anyone!

d) Start a new tradition: decorate ornaments together, dress up and take pictures, scrapbook, make a meal to deliver to another family or person who is alone on the Holiday.

Or decide on an alternative gift exchange:

 e) Favorite things exchange: Set a price limit and each participant brings one of their favorite things. Ideas include coffee, cosmetics, sweet treats, scarves, socks and anything else you couldn’t imagine living without!

f) Exchange services: Each participant makes a certificate for a service they can offer. Ideas include: babysitting, mechanical work, sewing, computer services, home organization, cooking, baking, haircuts, handyman jobs or painting…everyone has something they are good at!

g) Book Exchange: Everyone brings a favorite book to exchange (you decide if you get them back, continue to rotate them, or just keep the new one you received)

h) Cookie Exchange: This can be a great alternative to traditional office exchanges.

i) Meal exchange: Another great exchange to do at work. Everyone is short on time during the holidays. Each person makes two of the same meal for the exchange (to cut down on prep time) and then you get to bring two different meals home. Make sure to clarify food allergies ahead of time.

j) Re-gift exchange: The rule for this is that you can’t buy anything, but rather find something at home to re-gift…great way to get rid of nice things that you just don’t use.

k) White Elephant or $1 limit: everyone is familiar with this one!

l) Game Exchange: Each family brings their favorite game, exchange and then play!

m) Gift card exchange: Set a limit and bring a gift card to one of your favorite places. You can also set a theme, like restaurants if you have an especially diverse group.



4) Remember, that despite how your friends and family respond…

…you do have the right to make this decision; it isn’t wrong or selfish and you aren’t a scrooge!

You’ll probably need to expect some push back from at least a few people, but that’s ok, they can have to their opinion, too. Some people show love through gifts (like my sister Diana), so going cold turkey might really disappoint them and detract from their experience. Suggesting one of the alternatives above, might be a better option.

And at the end of the day, remember, we’ll never make everyone happy, but it is important to do what is best for our family.

Have you opted out of gift exchanges before? How did it go? Did you do something else instead? Please share below!

>>If you have another minute, you don’t want to miss our most popular post right now: What Teachers REALLY want for Christmas (written by a teacher!)




GREAT advice on how to opt out of gift exchanges at work, with friends or family! Reduce STRESS this Christmas- getting out of extra gift exchanges! #Opt #Out #Christmas #Gift #Exchange #Ideas #Family #Friends #Office #Co-Workers

Comments (40)

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  • K

    Dec 22, 2017 at 10:05 pm

    Just please don’t tell your family 2 days before Christmas that you don’t want to exchange next year. “Here’s your gift for this year… oh boy…” womp womp…. this family member really knows how to create drama 2 days prior to Christmas! I would agree with him, but no discussion just a rude text before my husband and I travel to my step sons home:(…. just some tact and timing would be appreciated!

  • Anna

    Dec 18, 2017 at 2:54 am

    I’ve noticed that in my family it has become increasingly more common for people to say that they aren’t going to buy gifts for anyone but the kids. In fact, I believe my parents, all of my aunts and uncles, as well as my similar aged cousins are doing this now. This is completely understandable as we do have a large extended family that is growing all the time. However, I always get gifts for just the adults rather than the kids. I figure the kids get tons of gifts from Santa and the family, but it can mean a lot to the adults to get a single thoughtful gift. Just a thought if you’ve also noticed this trend in your family. Adults like getting gifts too. ;)

  • Deanna

    Oct 23, 2017 at 8:59 pm

    oh my goodness. I tried telling this to my dad and he completely flipped out and quit talking to me this past July. told me that my adult children and I are being unfair and ungrateful. Apparently he has other issues he’s been harboring for years that I didn’t even know about until now and needless to say we won’t be spending time with him, my step mother, my uncle or my sister and her family this year. we’ve become quite the family gossip topic. I’m just so shocked at the response and the negativity that came with this. Who’d of thought that stating you would rather donate to a charity and the gift would be to spend time with family, that you would all of a sudden be “unfair and ungrateful” … WOW!!! Makes you wonder sometimes about who your family is and what the heck happened… egad! needless to say, we are still holding a non gift exchange, will be playing games and bring gifts only for the littles since we really feel they are the magic of Christmas. Cant choose your family I guess. A lot of eye opening happening currently. But still sad and hurtful.

    1. Dawn

      Oct 24, 2017 at 6:08 pm

      Wow Deanna, I’m really sorry to hear the response. I think you nailed it on the head that there is more going on there than forgoing gifts, but that would still be really hurtful. Best wishes for peaceful resolution and an enjoyable Christmas even if it does include alternate plans.

  • Depressed Christian

    Dec 24, 2016 at 2:00 am

    My family decided to do the five dollar gift exchange random drawing this year but unknown to anyone, I am planning on not participating. I think that gift giving should be personal (for example, my mom bought popcorn which I cannot eat because of braces) and I think that is going to be lost. I am expecting to be shamed by some family members and am not sure what I should say when they find out that I have no gift to bring. However, I am bad at gift buying anyway and feel bad when my gifts are unappreciated. Christmas is about family anyway, not extra stress and obligations.

  • Andrea

    Dec 20, 2016 at 6:31 pm

    I know this is an old post but still. We have a friend who chooses not to perpetuate the commercialism that is overtaking Christmas and informs everyone that he will not be buying presents for anyone except the kids and asks that no one buys him anything. He says his gift to us is the time, energy and money that we save by not having to engage in gift exchanging with him. We’ve always respected his stance and done as request but now we have a two and half year old and one on the way. This is the last year we are giving everyone gifts (everyone includes friends and extended family). We are going to take his lead and request the same. I know not everyone will respect it but I am past the point of feeling obligated to spend time, money and energy like this, I simply can’t do it anymore. Our kids are also going to be limited to the philosophy of something they want, something need, something to wear and something to read.

    1. Dawn

      Dec 22, 2016 at 1:55 am

      I’m so glad you shared this! I think at times we all need permission to cut back and to know that we aren’t alone in wanting to do so! Thank you!

  • Meg

    Dec 11, 2015 at 2:04 pm

    The stress associated with all the Christmas shopping, gift wrapping, etc. was something I managed with joy every year because gift giving was one of many ways I showed my love for my children. I made sure that they received just about everything they wanted. This stopped, however, when I discovered that some of my adult children didn’t care enough about me to give me the one thing I really wanted at Christmas: someone to escort me to the traditional religious service that always kicked off the Christmas celebration when they were growing up.

    My two sons stopped going to any religious service on Christmas, or at least didn’t tell me about going to one if they did go. The only adult child who still attends services lives in another state. Now, I no longer exchange gifts with the adult children who don’t attend religious services on Christmas and I don’t give Christmas gifts to their spouses. It just hurts me too much to run around trying to find the gifts on their wish/want list, spending hundreds of dollars, buying and wrapping what they want, and then sitting alone at the traditional religious Christmas service, while others are there with family members. For the first time, I realized how overindulging my children with all the gifts at Christmas for so many years was the worst thing I could have done as a parent.

    Last Christmas, I worked up the courage to tell the adult son who lives nearby that the only Christmas celebrating I would do that year was to go to the traditional religious service. I’d stop by their house one day after Christmas to give the grandchildren their gifts, but felt too sad and heart broken to run around and do all the shopping and gift wrapping for adults who only celebrate the secular version of Christmas. He understood, and we had a great visit after Christmas. He and his wife were under no pressure to try to fit me into their plans on Christmas, and the grandchildren were able to look forward to gifts from grandma after their excitement about receiving all the other gifts wore off. When I stopped the holiday gift-orgy with this son, I cut the part of the umbilical cord that he had tried to cut when he said “no” to giving me what I wanted most for Christmas. We both respect each other’s right to think, feel and believe differently. This might be the best Christmas gift that we could give each other.

    1. Dawn

      Dec 11, 2015 at 5:51 pm

      There really is o much energy, emotion and feelings wrapped up in gift giving aren’t there? I’m so glad that you were able to be open and honest with your son, I believe it will inspire others to do the same thing! THANK YOU so much for sharing!

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  • Minh

    Oct 21, 2015 at 11:13 am

    We tried to opt out of gift exchanges with some of our immediate family and start focusing on just the kids as you had suggested above and got MAJOR push back. We were so made to feel so guilty that we had to fold and give in. Back to the tradition of giving gift cards only to get back gift cards – seriously ridiculous but it makes them happy and we get out of the guilt of not participating in a family “tradition”.

  • dave

    Dec 19, 2013 at 8:54 am

    The practice of giving gifts to one’s teachers could be stopped by the school as part of the policy guidelines. Teachers are not friends/family and it puts an onus on the child and parent to figure out what to get that would be suitable. I never had a desire to give gifts to my teachers through grade school. Who started this practice? I think this is one area where gift giving could be cut out and initiated in writing by the school to parents before the holidays.

    1. Anna

      Dec 18, 2017 at 3:05 am

      Kids do not have to give their teacher a Christmas gift. My mom teaches and she usually only gets two or three gifts from students at Christmas, sometimes more and sometimes less. It’s not expected. It’s just an optional thing if your child does want to include their teacher, and believe me, simple handmade cards are a fine gift. You don’t have to buy something expensive. Teachers may not be friends/family to parents, but they are very important people in your kid’s life.

  • dave

    Dec 12, 2013 at 7:45 am

    For people who wish to opt out on Christmas, opt out, but don’t rain on everyone else’s parade. Also, some of the religious arguments presented above are subjective. Some Christians do not believe in celebrating any birthday’s but Christ’s. Also, the Magi were not giving inexpensive gifts to Christ when he was born; nor would Christ have been deemed needy comparatively for those times. I bet Sonja grew up with some kind of gift from her loved ones at Christmas time, albeit not necessarily a flood. If we want to bitch about everything we can. Setting up a tree is time-consuming, preparing a meal for Christmas is equally time consuming and costly. Who wants to do all the dishes? Oh yes and the Christmas lights are expensive to run and we are wasting electricity. Sounds like some people here are getting old. Looking forward to Christmas here. Take a bite out of life!

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  • Sonja Beach

    Dec 9, 2013 at 8:39 pm

    My husband and I stopped giving ALL gifts a few years ago. We don’t have children and it’s by choice. I don’t think children come into this world expecting a flood of gifts on Dec. 25; they are taught to expect them, so I think if you don’t teach kids to expect gifts just because it’s Christmas, they won’t, especially if you make it clear to them that other families can do as they wish, but YOUR family is doing something else. Birthdays are different; when a friend or close relative has a birthday, I like to give a gift. But Christmas is Jesus’ birthday (is celebrated by Christians as such), so I confine my giving to people who are needy because the Bible says that if whatever you do for them, you do for Him. It’s the closest I can come to giving Jesus a birthday gift. I have not lost any friends nor have I been disowned by any family because of it. We are not in debt. He and I exchange a small gift on New Year’s Eve (now THERE’S a different tradition) and it’s about nothing except wanting to give a gift to each other. I do not feel pressured to give gifts to children at Christmas, not even those in family. If someone gives a gift to me, I accept it graciously, but I don’t feel pressured to reciprocate. If a gift does not come from that person again next Christmas, that’s okay; if receiving something was their motivation and they don’t want to give if they don’t receive, they didn’t give with the right spirit in the first place. Give YOURSELF a gift this year: the gift of a non-commercial Christmas. I am willing to bet that many people you know really want to do the same and are just waiting for someone else to step out and give them ‘permission’ by setting the example. Give them a beautiful card and write a heartfelt message inside of it instead; that’s something most people don’t take time to do anymore in this age of electronic everything. That will be something they keep and cherish.

  • Dave

    Dec 7, 2013 at 5:14 pm

    Why not set a limit with your gift giving which everyone agrees to and announce it well in advance? If someone wishes to go over, that is their prerogative. Also, some interesting approaches are not to wait until November to start shopping. I started in July when there was a terrific sale ( 1/2 price ) on some very nice items I knew my family would like (all adults). Starting in advance can give you time to do a craft. Another approach I have not seen mentioned here is to visit the Thrift Shops: Good will, Salvation Army, Value Village (in Canada). I certainly see the antique dealers in there regularly. I buy clothing there for a lady in a home. Some very nice items can be found if you know sizes. She cannot get out and gets so much use out the things. I can’t afford 160 for a few new lady’s tops but I can find similar ones at a fraction of that cost at thrift. I don’t mind laundering them. Nice broaches can be found there too, along with crystal dishware. This year I found a bag of some homemade “quilted” Christmas ornaments at Goodwill; Very nice and beyond my abilities to create. I will give a few to each family member for their trees. I agree that overspending at Christmas is not the right thing to do, but saying Christmas is for kids is not true, and also the wrong message. Similarly, cutting back can go too far especially where family is concerned. Are you isolating a sibling who has almost no one at Christmas or an older person? Don’t assume everyone is looking for a pot of gold. As for work environments, I think the Kris Kringle idea is a good one, one person exchanges with another only or it is simply a meal/dinner.

  • Piku

    Dec 3, 2013 at 4:33 pm

    I hear what you’re saying, but… It means that someone who wants to give is on the back foot. I want to gift. I’ve saved to do it, and now, I’m not allowed because someone I’m the family doesn’t want to. I’m not saying I expect anything in return, but it sort of implies, if just one person in the family doesn’t want to, no one can. Which I feel is quite passive aggressive. I’d totally understand anyone who can’t manage to spend, but if I want to, I should be able to!

  • Anna

    Dec 2, 2013 at 6:50 pm

    @Lloyd I guess this makes me a totally selfish person because I can’t afford to purchase gifts for friends in other states?? I just find it unnecessary when I can barely give my own family anything. Now I DO feel like an asshole after reading what you posted……………

  • Anna

    Dec 2, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    For the 3rd year in a row, I have BEGGED one of my best friends to NOT send us (me, my two grown children, and my granddaughter) a gift box (we live several states apart). She told me on the phone the other day that it’s too bad, she has already started putting one together for us. Sigh……………I DO appreciate the thought but she does not seem to understand the STRESS that it puts on me to now put together something for her family. I love them all and I know they love us. Why are gifts necessary??? A Christmas card and/or a phone call is more than enough. I don’t have the time or the money to get a box together (I am a single woman trying to make ends meet as it is and, some weeks, there is barely enough left for gas and a few groceries). I know this sounds contrary to the “spirit” of Christmas but how do I get her to STOP doing this every year when she REFUSES to LISTEN????? I would feel like a total asshole if I don’t send them something knowing that I am going to receive something. And trying to shop for them (and give them something they will like or use on an absolute SHOESTRING) is nearly impossible. Sigh………………….stressful……………

    1. Amanda

      Dec 12, 2013 at 6:03 am

      Don’t go thinking you’re selfish because of one person’s comment on a website.

      I would stick to your feelings about gift giving and just give your out-of-state friends a call/Christmas card, nothing more. If she expects a gift in return simply because she sent one, then her motives for gift giving are misplaced, especially if you’ve asked her 3 years in a row not to send you a gift. Gifts should be a one-way expression of thoughtfulness and generosity with no expectations of reciprocal action.

  • kathryn

    Nov 29, 2013 at 3:37 am

    what to do in this situation? As parents and grandparents, we have the financial means to give generously but we know some of our adult kids are really struggling this year. We don’t want/need/expect gifts but we do want to give them (especially to the grandchildren). Thoughts?

  • lloyd

    Nov 21, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    I buy presents that are in need. I would never buy something just to buy something. For example, food is always used. There’s being cheap, like spending only a little; then there’s being rude and ungrateful for the time and effort others spent on you. Telling someone not to buy presents for you is also saying that you are buying nothing for them. It is a cultural tradition and reciprocity is universal. Barring unforeseen circumstances, it is selfish.

  • Victoria Welton (@VicWelton)

    Nov 5, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    There are some fantastic ideas here – thank you :) I am the eldest of 7 and we are all having kids now so money gets very tight. We all agree to spend the most on the children and get a token gift for each other. Thank you so much for linking up to PoCoLo x

    1. Dawn

      Nov 5, 2013 at 6:42 pm

      Wow, 7, that would add up! :)

  • Ricki @ The Questionable Homesteader

    Nov 3, 2013 at 7:16 pm

    Just wanted to let you know that I will be featuring you on The Sunday Favourites today. Please feel free to stop by and grab a button.

    1. Dawn

      Nov 4, 2013 at 1:04 pm

      Hey that’s great! THANK YOU :) I will stop by!

    2. Dawn

      Nov 4, 2013 at 1:06 pm

      What a great idea to wrap the gifts for them as their gift, love it!

      And, I’m glad you mentioned, it is ok for our families to still exchange gifts even if we opt out. If they all still want to do it, that is just fine :)

  • Ricki @ The Questionable Homesteader

    Nov 2, 2013 at 8:15 pm

    I really love these suggestions!
    I not give any gifts last year as I really couldn’t afford to do it and instead wrapped all the gifts for my family. They absolutely loved it as they really enjoy buying and giving gifts, but are not so big on the wrapping part. They still talk about how great it was and asked that I do the same thing this year.

    One suggestion that I like to participate in is making a donation to a local charity (as they need the money) in a family members name (they get the tax receipt) works great. Personally I prefer this method for the adult members of my family as we all have everything we want, or will just go buy it if we need it, so this works for me (although the rest of my family, as I mentioned prefers to buy gifts…).

  • Meredith Wouters (@thepalettemuse)

    Nov 1, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    This is so helpful! I love getting (and getting) personal gifts (meaning something that involves thought and understanding of the recipient) but I have a hard time with gift exchanges, for that very reason. But I never want to say no! This gives me some ideas of options and how to identify my motives for wanting to opt out. Thank you!

    1. Dawn

      Nov 2, 2013 at 3:13 pm

      I’ve been pleasantly surprised by when I say “I’m sorry, my husband and I decided that we are only exchanging gifts with immediate family this year” how relieved others are. Often they have commented “Oh good, we need to cut back, too!”…It can be HARD if you feel social pressure at work or with close friends, but others probably do feel the same way!

  • Nicole

    Nov 1, 2013 at 2:26 pm

    Last year my larger family together decided that we’d only get gifts for the kids. So we are getting my niece 1 thing, that’s it! We’ll buy our son a few things, but other than cards we are done. It was getting ridiculous, and we went into debt last year buying silly gift cards for everyone – it wasn’t even that great of a gift and it hurt us financially. So we’re changing things up!

    Nicole @ WKH

  • Emily @ DavenportDIY

    Oct 31, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    This is a well timed post- we were just discussing this the other day in my house! My sister-in-law is totally against doing this, but my brother-in-law is all for it. We were neutral about it until we had our own child last year, and now think it’d be a great idea- something along the lines of getting gifts for the kids, but drawing names between adults. Christmas just seems to get more and more expensive every year, and I don’t love the idea of getting someone something just because I feel like I need to get them something- then there’s just no thought behind the gift. Ugh.

    1. Dawn

      Oct 31, 2013 at 11:08 pm

      It is definitely different once kids are involved. I think it is hard, too, because some people I really enjoy buying gifts for, but then there are the ones where you have no idea what to get, how much to spend and that is when it gets stressful and all of the fun wears off!

  • Tumbleweed Contessa

    Oct 29, 2013 at 11:47 pm

    Good thoughts here. This is a very fair and practical approach. I think gifts for kids is an ok approach. It would be easier for everyone to get what they want.

  • Lisa

    Oct 29, 2013 at 11:56 am

    After spending time in Kenya, I really can’t stand the idea of buying something just to buy something. Thanks for these great suggestions!

    1. Dawn

      Oct 31, 2013 at 11:12 pm

      It is interesting how our experiences can really change our perspective on gift giving…for us it was when we had NO money, or so we thought, people in Kenya would laugh at our idea of “no money” :(

  • Coombe Mill (Fiona) (@coombemill)

    Oct 28, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    We have suggested this but never carried it through. The kids would not likeit but I would relish the time with them without all the stress of buying presents!

    1. Dawn

      Oct 28, 2013 at 12:21 pm

      It is a little more difficult with kids, gifts are a HUGE part of Christmas for them, I was pleasantly surprised, though, how willing most of the adults were to forgo the gifts…I think most people do feel like it has gotten out of control. And, honestly, the Christmas that we didn’t exchange gifts ROCKED! It seemed that most people still gave a little something, like a homemade ornament, or hot chocolate mix, and it was amazing how the little gifts that weren’t asked for had more meaning than things we had received in the past :)

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