Thoughtful Ideas for Family Gift Exchanges - to help Everyone Simplify and Save

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by Ed

You CAN save money while still giving meaningful gifts.

No, really, you can.

No matter what holiday tradition you celebrate, you are likely feeling some sort of pressure right about now. The retail overload from email marketing alone is enough to make you wonder if you’re actually buying enough. And go to a mall? Enter without a battle plan and the wheels will fall off in a hurry. (We shared some shopping mall survival tips here.)

We’ve tried to make our holidays less crazy and more meaningful in a few different ways over the years. What follows are some ideas that have worked well for us: to save money on gifts, while still keeping them meaningful for our loved ones.

First off, what hasn’t worked.

I dare you to even try putting restrictions on Grandparents re: buying for kids. I’m sure there are some families who have found a way to keep the mountain of grandparent-given toys under control, but we’ve haven’t met any.

Most times, it’s just easier to let grandparents (and other such inclined family members) go nuts, as they likely are going to anyways. Like us, you’ll probably have more leverage by focusing on the grown-up gift giving.

Just Buy for Kids.

This is what we did last year.  And we're doing it again for 2017. (Well, except for those stubborn folks mentioned above!)  Many family members find it so much fun to get gifts for the kids in their family - we've chosen to not rob them of this pleasure.  But we've had success encouraging family to limit the adult gift giving to sharing family time together vs. material goods.

Family Name Draw.

Popular with large families, this format saves everyone money and reduces stress. It’s the idea of each person buying a single, well-thought-out gift for just one other person. It means that you can spend less time buying random junk for absolutely everyone and more time focusing on getting a single, perfect gift for one person.

For families all in one geographic area, it can be simple: get together early and have a name draw. If you are spread out geographically, it’s a little more complicated, but not impossible. We’ve had another person do the name draw and then everyone contacts them to find out who they get. For a couple of years, Robin’s mom was the person family members called from my side.  It worked great, plus Robin’s mom got a few more phone calls and folks to chat with. 

Websites like Name Drawing.com can help you generate lists, or try Elfster, which allows you to do the whole thing in cyberspace - from generating wish lists to asking your secret gift receiver anonymous questions.

Edible Gift Exchange.

An edible gift can be affordable and still very personal – plus it’s easy for even the choosiest person to enjoy.  And it's not a physical item you need to find room for in your home afterward - which is often an issue when people are trying to give to absolutely everyone.

You can also keep the cost low by requiring it to be homemade, or putting a dollar limit on the gift. The best part is, everyone knows you put time and effort into creating your gastronomic gift and you know they will enjoy it – no gift receipt required!

  • Make a favourite recipe and gift it along with a handwritten recipe card including your secret ingredients.
  • Put a gift basket together of your favourite things and share your passions.
  • Make our Best Ever Brownies in a Jar! 
  • Make a coffee lovers delight with fresh beans, Irish Cream and Frangelico.

The ideas are limitless and this can be adapted for both Secret Santa Exchanges and gifts for everyone.

We've got a Pinterest board dedicated to simple, affordable gift ideas - many of them food - check it out here!


This idea could be an “add-on” to small gifts, but it can also stand alone. Keep it simple with a suggested donation gift of a certain dollar amount.

Finding the perfect charity to give to in a loved one's name really speaks to your understanding of who they are as a person – it also is in keeping with a generous holiday spirit of giving to others.  Oxfam Unwrapped has some great symbolic gifts that give resources to someone in need and honour the personality of your family member.

Some charities even provide tokens of the giving. Our kids really treasure the toy giraffe and rhino they received from WWF a few years ago as they are both really cute and symbols of animals “adopted” in the wild.

And, let’s be honest, the charitable receipt is another welcome gift at tax time.

If it’s too late to change your family’s gift-giving format this year, keep one of these ideas in your back pocket and share it at this year’s gathering for the future. Maybe you’ve got other family members who will be thankful you did.  Staying out of debt at Christmas is a truly thoughtful gift.

We've got more Simple Family Holiday Activities - including  easy and fun family advent countdown activities and more!  Check them out here.

Have you given gift-giving some creative structure?  Has something worked for you to limit the size of the grandparent gift mountain?

More of Our Christmas Ideas:

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