Alternative ideas for Holiday gift exchanges with friends and family

Every year a bunch of friends or family members get together and take part in gift exchanges. Typically, there is a cap of $20-$50 or sometimes more put on how much each person should spend. Inevitably, you get some useless crap you don’t want or need that ends up in the closet, re-gifted to some unsuspecting friend (who will dislike your gift the same as you) or worse, it will end up in the trash. That’s why it’s time to stop doing that, and do something that’s much more fun and will save you a ton of loot! Below, I’m going to list several ways you can still hold a gift exchange, without spending much money at all, and have a better time!

White elephant gift exchange

A popular holiday party game primarily in North America, with many variations in name and game play. Generally, white elephant parties need a minimum of six participants, although the larger the group, the more entertaining and protracted game play will be. White elephant parties can result in vicious rivalries between players trying to get sought after gifts. The goal of a white elephant party is usually entertainment rather than gain. In the southeastern United States, this game is sometimes called a Yankee Swap.

How do you play it?

Gifts are typically inexpensive, humorous items, or used items from home; the term white elephant refers to a gift whose maintenance cost exceeds its usefulness. While the first use of this term remains an item of contention among historians[1], a popular theory suggests that Ezra Cornell brought the term into popular lexicon through his numerous and frequent social gatherings, dating back to as early as 1828.[2][3]

The most popular version of the White Elephant or Yankee Swap Rules say any number of people may participate. However, the minimum number of participants should be at least four or else the game is not much fun. Each participant is asked to bring along a gift worth no more than a pre-agreed amount.

Participants draw numbers from a hat to determine their swap order from one up to the total number of participants.

Each person gets a crack at choosing a gift. The person who picks the first gift opens it and shows it to the rest of the company. Then the number two participant picks a gift and chooses to either unwrap it or exchange it for an unwrapped gift. If the gift is exchanged, the person who had their gift taken from them gets to unwrap the chosen gift and the turn passes.

When all the gifts have been opened, the game is over. Afterward, some trading should be expected and is perfectly acceptable so that, as much as possible, everyone goes home with a gift they are happy with.


A common twist to the game is that after all gifts have been unwrapped to then allow the number one swapper to choose a gift from any of the unwrapped gifts.

Since items can be stolen, the item in your possession is not yours until the game is over. However, this is often amended with a rule declaring a gift “dead” or “safe” after it has been stolen a certain number of times (usually three). This helps the process go more smoothly (avoiding, for example, the hypothetical scenario of the same gift being stolen by every successive participant) and limits the disadvantage of being among the first to choose gifts.

A variation of the game that involves more stealing of gifts (and potentially more confusion) goes like this: The first participant unwraps a gift from the pile and then shows it to everyone. The next player can either “steal” an already opened gift or be adventurous and go for a wrapped gift from the pile. If the participant chooses to steal an unwrapped gift, the person whose gift is stolen now repeats his turn and either steals another person’s gift (he cannot immediately steal back the gift that was just stolen from him) or unwraps a new gift. This cycle of stealing can sometimes continue for a long time, until a new gift is chosen, at which point the turn is passed to the next participant.

For another version of The Yankee Swap, instead of numbers from a hat two decks of cards are used. Each deck is shuffled individually and one of them is dealt to the players. One person flips the top card of the remaining deck, whoever has the matching card then takes a gift. The next card is flipped and that person takes a gift or takes someone else’s unwrapped gift. This continues until everyone has had a chance.

Another variant extends the game further: after the last person’s turn, the first person has the option of keeping their current gift (in which case the game ends), or swap with anyone else. If they choose to swap, the next person now has the option of either keeping the gift, or swapping. In this variant, the game only ends when either someone keeps the gift, or a gift has exceeded its trading limit.

One variation states that the gifts must not be purchased, but rather are items that one finds lying around the house or the garage, things that are valuable but for which you have found no use.

This game may also be played online using comment streams, linked images, videos, and banter into the web-based online party. This version can be played using email or other social sites like Facebook. The online variant can be tied to online gift shopping.

Goodwill gift exchange

This gem of a game is just another made up game, but it’s freaking hilarious. Mentioned by a guy on my hockey team, when I asked him where he got his see through hockey jersey, he mentioned it was a gift he received from a friend as part of his annual holiday Goodwill gift exchange.

How do you play it?

You make up your own rules on how much to spend, my friend Scotty and his friends’ rules are spend no more than $1 and get the best gift possible for the person you’re supposed to buy for. They draw names out of a hat after they’ve determined who all will be part of the fun and games. Then, they go out and find the most hilarious and entertaining item or items they can buy for their recipient for $1.


You can change the store you’re supposed to buy from to a $1 store or similar, keep it cheap though, it makes for a far more entertaining time to see what you can buy for $1. You could also use this same concept to do a secret santa game, simply keeping the cap on the purchase at $1.

By playing games like this, everyone can afford to bring a dish to the party and everyone will save much more money and have a better time. Not to mention, you’ll feel good knowing your not wasting money!

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