How Can I Tame My Family’s Crazy Gift-giving Expectations?

Want to know how much the average American spends on Christmas gift-giving in a single year?

It’s $929.

Keep in mind that this does not include airfare to visit family, food and drink for large gatherings, donations to charity, holiday decorations, or other common yuletide purchases. That’s just the gift-giving.

Given that a majority of Americans don’t have enough savings to cover a $500 emergency, it’s hardly surprising that a majority of Americans also go into debt to buy Christmas gifts.

This indicates there is a startling cognitive dissonance around Christmas. Our cultural scripts constantly remind us that gifts are unnecessary, that the true spirit of the season is love. Yet so many of us martyr ourselves financially to be able to give each other yet more stuff.

It’s hard to push back against the weight of tradition, but the results are well worth the effort. We Bitches, using different systems, have managed to make the last several winter holidays a stress-free, debt-free season. Here are our secrets.

(Throughout this article I’ll use the word “family” as a catch-all for blood relations, in-laws, friend groups, coworkers, and any other tight-knit group in which gift-giving is expected.)

Traditional gift-giving: An inefficient and high-stakes tradition

The holiday song that embodies this experience

Carol of the Bells. Harrowing, frantic, too much. This song was appropriated from oppressed Ukrainian pagans and it shows! Classic yet stressful. Catchy in a bad way. Overall: a do-not-want sort of situation. Something-dale. I don’t know— Brookfeather, Raintree. It’s hot, it’s very hot there. I’ve never been. Get a warrant!

In traditional intra-family gift-giving, there is really only one way to succeed. You must get the right gift for the right person, giving both parties that good ol’ warm gift glow. Yet there are so many ways to fail.

The financial component is highly important. Even if it’s sustainable now, your list of nieces, nephews, cousins, and in-laws will grow throughout your lifetime. Even if your family has a one gift per person default, it’s untenable if your shopping list has two dozen names on it.

Make no mistake: giving someone a great gift feels amazing. But you’ll also notice that the list of cons is so much longer than the list of pros. Stress, anxiety, obligation, and hurt feelings live in the uncertainties of traditional gift giving.

This is peak inefficiency!

Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be this way. Other giving models exist that cut down on the negatives without sacrificing the positives. So let’s explore some tried-and-true alternatives.

Traditional gift-giving with agreed-upon spending limits: A step in the right direction

The holiday song that embodies this experience

Have a Holly Jolly Christmas. Still classic, but not like, too classic. Mod classic. Brimming with yesteryear’s expectations, yet softer, with lower stakes. Basic but impossible to hate.

Keeping the traditional giving model, but agreeing beforehand to a maximum dollar amount, is non-revolutionary. Only the most dramatic of parents will be ruffled by the suggestion.

You’re still on your own to find a gift that will please the giver, and to practice your “wow, what a great second crock-pot!” face. But at least it removes the potential to over (or under) spend. It’s easier to budget ahead of time, and there’s less misalignment stress overall.

This is how Mr. Kitty and I exchange Christmas gifts with each other. Our limit in years past has been $30. It’s just enough money to get something we knew the other person needed. His gift to me last year was a new pair of gardening gloves. I got so much use out of them that by the end of the summer, they were more hole than glove. And every time I put them on, I remembered that he wanted to protect me.

Secret Santa: The secret is SAVINGS!

The holiday song that embodies this experience

A Christmas Waltz. Intimate, easy, low expectations. Gently mischievous, like a roguish wink. Often overlooked. A nice surprise every time you hear it.

I turned this section over to Piggy, for reasons that will become obvious!


Allow me to introduce you to The Great Italian American Secret Santa.

When you come from a family such as mine (large, loud, wine-swilling, olive-munching, filled with funny accents and the token elderly communist), exchanging presents at holidays becomes a massive impracticality. It would just be ridiculous if all the adults bought gifts for each other. We’d reach critical mass before the pickled calamari was served.

So on the Italian side of my family, the children all get gifts, but once you grow up your name is entered into a family-wide Secret Santa. You only buy one gift for one adult at the holidays. It works beautifully.

You still have to do your research and figure out what your assigned Italian wants. But with only one person to shop for and prearranged spending limits, it’s much easier to clear that bar. Plus, Nonna always wants the same thing: framed pictures of her grandkids. Happy to oblige!

Yankee Swap: Now available south of the Mason-Dixon!

The holiday song that embodies this experience

The Benny Hill theme song, remixed to include sleigh bells and chimes. Everyone joins in. Everyone loves it and feels great. Santa is real. How much schnapps did you put in this hot chocolate?

Yankee. Swaps. NOW.

If you don’t know what a Yankee Swap is, here are the rules: everyone brings one present, then draws a number out of a hat. In numerical order, everyone gets to choose one present. After unwrapping, they may either keep the item, or steal one from someone else. The very first person gets to go again at the end. A $10-$20 cap is normal.

Yankee Swaps are the only alternative that loses one of traditional gift giving’s key pros: the joy of solidifying a particular relationship. However, in exchange, all of the negatives are erased.

You don’t have to stress at all about money, intent, usefulness, or reciprocity. Plus, it’s a tremendously fun way to spend an hour or two. It takes the staid, boring ritual of gift-opening and turns it into a sprawling ninety-minute space opera of love and betrayal.

This is how my friends exchange gifts. We started doing it two years ago when money was tight for everyone, and I don’t think there’s a single person who regrets the change. It’s less expensive, less stressful, and way more fun. The gifts are often pretty spectacular, too. Two years ago I got a cold brew coffee maker I’ve used every single day since then.

Charitable focus

If you want to focus on those less fortunate, there’s a broad spectrum of activities you could undertake. You can spend the entire holiday volunteering together as a family, or you can collect money to make a group donation to a charity of your choosing, or you can give gifts that recognize the recipient’s altruistic values.

Because the winter of 2016 was such an emotionally trying time and nobody sells smelling salts or opium anymore, we consoled ourselves with adding a charitable spin to our Yankee Swap. I brought a watercolor painting of Elizabeth Warren I’d done, plus a donation to Emily’s List in her name. In return I got a calendar of brawny local firefighters holding adoptable shelter puppies and kittens.

Mmm, I can feel your jealousy searing me through the glowing wires of the internet. It gives me strength; it gives me life.

White Elephant Exchange

A White Elephant Exchange is almost the same as a Yankee Swap. The difference is that White Elephant gifts are bad. It’s a hilarious way to get rid of the crap that’s darkened your closet corners for far too long. (The name is allegedly because the gift of a white elephant was a costly curse you couldn’t get rid of.)

I like these less than I like Yankee Swaps, because I’m sure that most people end up throwing all of this junk away in the end. Mindless waste is not my thing. That said, they’re always tremendously funny, and that creepy painting of a baby was probably going to end up in the garbage anyway.

Other non-traditional (but solid) gift-giving options

Kids only

Giving gifts to kids is fun. A five-year-old has no money or agency with which to buy the things they want in life, so they are especially delighted by a huge mountain of gifts.

But sooner or later, we all reach an age where gifts start to seem unnecessary.

A thirty-five-year-old presumably has both the money and agency with which to get many of the things they want in life, and may feel uncomfortable receiving gifts at all. Especially when they’re the see-twice-a-year kind of family. If you raise the option of giving gifts to kids only, everyone will probably be secretly relieved.

No gifts

This move is for bold cats only. And you will have to work super hard to convince certain family members to give it a try. But I’ve heard nothing but good things from those who undertake it.

You can totally build new traditions around watching a movie together, making cookies, eating dinner, drinking fine adult beverages, telling stories, volunteering together—something that reflects your shared values (which are hopefully “eat the rich”).

No holiday recognition whatsoever

You know what? I respect the hell out of this.

Yeah, just like, heat up some Easy Mac and watch Alias Grace like nothing ever happened. What concern is it of yours, how long the night?

If you do this, you’re so metal that I can’t make direct eye contact with you.

How do I talk my family into this?

I think you’ll be surprised by how open your family is to switching things up.

Find some allies

If it’s financially draining for you, it probably is for other family members as well. If you get your siblings or cousins or friends on board first, you can present a united front to the larger group.

Frame your argument

If your grandparents or parents have cleaved to the same traditions for dozens of years, that’s all the more reason to try something new. Frame the request as, “Can we try this for just one year? And if nobody likes it, we can go back to the old way.” Few people will object to simpler, more affordable holiday celebrations once they’ve experienced them.

Just don’t leave them with the impression that you haven’t enjoyed previous celebrations. That’s rewd!

Develop a script and practice what you’ll say

It can be a little touchy to go tampering with holidays. People like tradition, and mothers like control. #realtalk

Desirae at Half Banked wrote a GREAT guide to exactly this issue. Read it and let her words sink into your heart.

Plead your circumstances

If you’re someone who needs to fly or stay at a hotel to visit your family, ask them to consider that angle. “I can’t afford to fly out this year and buy gifts for everyone—which would you rather I do?” If you ask this question sincerely, only the purest of shits would reply “presents plz.”

If you’re paying for college, or just had a kid, or are planning a wedding, use it as an excuse to bow out. Others may follow your example with relief in subsequent years.

Let it go

If your crazy new ideas just aren’t finding purchase, remember that not every hill is worth dying on. If your grandparents insist on giving you a check for $300, and all you can afford to give them in return is a festive candle, that’ll have to be enough for everyone involved.

Gift reciprocity is in the eye of the beholder. If you make a good faith effort to bring everyone else down to your level, and they refuse to change, let them be the way they want to be. And don’t apologize for your humble card and cookie combo.

And speaking of card and cookie combos!

This article is compliments of our amazing Patreon supporters. A $1 donation on Patreon gives you access to exclusive polls about which articles we’ll write next. And this month we’ve chosen TWO very merry, holly jolly articles based on their votes!

Please look forward to next week’s “The Anti-Consumerist Gift Guide: I Have No Gift to Bring, Pa Rum Pa Pum Pum.” And yes, I did cackle like the harpy I am when I came up with that title. If you’re really broke, really not into mindless consumption, or really both (isn’t that all of you?) you won’t want to miss it.

And if you’d like to vote on future content, please consider joining us on Patreon! We love and value our patrons. Like the horny male antagonist in Baby It’s Cold Outside, we love them so much that we refuse to let them leave our house under any circumstances.

16 thoughts to “How Can I Tame My Family’s Crazy Gift-giving Expectations?”

  1. Your patrons love you, too! This post, along with freaking everything you put out, was amazing. My family is doing the Secret Santa thing for the umpteenth year in a row, except for 1 year when we skipped it, and everyone hated that day. I’ve opted out before when I wasn’t able to get away (family is 1,000+ miles away, erm, rather, I live 1000+ miles away from “home”) and it was going to be awkward to participate if I wasn’t there.
    I’ve done a weird combination of Yankee Swap/White Elephant with co-workers in the past. Some people just refuse to give a sh*tty gift (myself included), so I always tried to bring locally-produced fine beverages (wine made from local tropical fruits, rum made from Florida sugar cane at a distillery 5 miles from my house!). Alcoholic gifts seem to reach the maximum number of “steals” first and get locked in as untouchable. I think that says a lot about my old workplace 😉

    1. Hah! Josh, I live about 1,500 miles away from “home” too and it was the best decision I ever made. Though I do go back biannually for the Great Italian American Secret Santa…

  2. I love this post! I’ve stopped giving gifts for like, a decade now, and I have no regrets. It’s not like I’m a total scrooge, but I just don’t buy into the whole pressure thing. It helps that I have a super-cool family who DGAF about that stuff. So, I count my lucky stars I don’t have a very traditional family lots of times. The charts you created are awesome and on point, and I love the idea of the yankee swap as a nice compromise.

  3. I can’t even remember the last time I did any hardcore Christmas shopping for family. Granted, my family never had money around the holidays anyway, and my parents went into debt for a lot of reasons, but spending on Christmas gifts wasn’t one of them. Now that I’ve immersed myself in the personal finance world, I really can’t justify spending money that I don’t have just because it’s what’s expected. The past few years have consisted of treating Christmas like any other day (thanks to being deployed during the holidays), so it’s been a fairly painless adjustment.

  4. There was one Christmas where we just got presents for the kids. I have to say that it was one of the best, least stressful Christmases I’ve ever had. The focus wasn’t on crap and we could just have a nice time together as a family.

    Last year we did DIY gifts and I loved that too! Unfortunately I do have family that wants to do the traditional gift-giving crap, so that’s been a struggle. I deal with it by using a cashback rewards credit card throughout the year and use it to pay for Christmas presents. It’s a small way to essentially save “free” cash all year to have a zero budget impact Christmas.

  5. I’ve whittled the Christmas obsession in my spouse’s family down to a dull nub, but my mother-in-law still insists on giving at least gift cards or cash. It’s frustrating to me to exchange money every year, especially when they’re struggling financially and we’re all adults and we don’t need anything and we have too much stuff anyway and… Sigh.

  6. Man, do I want to institute a Secret Santa situation for all the adults.

    Situations get tricky with both sides of our family being somewhat separate still, but I suppose worst case, we’d just do two.

    We tried the “we’re giving to charity in everyone’s name so please don’t give us gifts” thing one year. Major. Fail. Never again.

    This year we’re going north of $1,000 on gifts and that’s while trying to keep things under control, which they are not.

  7. I have been working on my family for years, because I hate getting unwanted gifts and I hate spending time shopping. In the past, I’ve tried to give “experiences” to family members (e.g. theatre tickets, trips to the amusement park), because it feels a little better to me than giving something physical that just adds to life clutter. Thankfully, my family is finally starting to buy in and agree to giving fewer gifts. Last year, my brother, sister-in-law, and I stopped giving each other gifts, and my mom agreed to just give us each a gift card and one small gift. Win! I love it.

  8. I put my family on a spending cap. $25 is my limit for one wishlist item per person. I’m also NOT spending money on gifts. Nope, last year I found myself selling blood plasma to cover Christmas. This year it’s all about the budget and gifts that don’t make me have to touch my bank account.

  9. “If you ask this question sincerely, only the purest of shits would reply “presents plz.”” Hahaha! Loved this quote because it’s so damn true!

    We draw names in my family (since it’s huge) with a $25 spending limit. This seems to work out pretty well for us. And I’ve completely stopped giving gifts to ALL friends that I hang out with which helps. Never ever will I go into debt for Christmas, though. If I can’t afford to buy for everyone on the list, I just make it known.

    Now if I can just get to the point where I don’t have to buy any gifts….

  10. My biological family has the habit of getting gifts that are simultaneously practical and yet completely impractical (like socks. So many socks). It’s ridiculous. Thankfully my Husband’s family has a much more practical outlook: Every year we get each other pretty much the exact same gifts. And that’s always either something thrifted, something we made, or we all pitch in to buy tickets for a festival (last year was the Walnut Valley Festival!). It’s so much easier- and so much cheaper on us.

  11. The Benny Hill theme song! Yes!!! Great read, BITCHES!!!

    We struggle with this topic big time in my extended family. Seems everyone but me and Mrs. Cubert wants to splash cash on gifts galore. We’ve compromised on bro-sis families only giving $20 gifts just to the kids. Here’s to small victories.

  12. Ok but in the toss up between “do you want to see me or get gifts” let’s not lie, there’s a huge faction I’d hope would answer “gifts” because that’d be getting off cheaply in not having to spend time, money, or energy to see them 😀

    Since I hate clutter and stuff I don’t really need, the Yankee Swap/White Elephant gets my back up far worse than caving to the (grumble) Secret Santa option. I think it’s silly as hell that we’re still doing this gift swap which is basically just buying stuff off people’s wish lists, but I’m rolling my eyes quietly and moving along with it so long as it doesn’t get bigger or worse. And it bugs me that they still feel the need to give me a thing in addition to charitable donations when that’s what I ask for. That defeats the whole damn purpose!

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