On my side of the family we started a new tradition 5 years ago to cut the financial stress that came with the holidays!  Now, I can’t ever imagine doing it any other way.

I have three adult siblings. My parents were still buying gifts for all four of us like they did when we were children, like multiple gifts! And, when I married they started doing the same for my husband. We all bought gifts for our parents and each other. We spent about $50 on each person. Our gift costs, just for my side of the family, were over $250. And, we were spending the same on my husband’s side of the family. My parents cost were easily 4 or 5 times that.

In the depths of the recession, my mom (in her late 50′s) was laid off. My sister, unable to find a permanent teaching position after college, was starting back in school to be a Medical Assistant. I was a stay-at-home-mom with my oldest. That year the holidays could have felt more like a financial strain than a joyous occasion, but we didn’t let that happen.

How we eliminated financial stress around the holidays with a family-style Secret Santa gift exchange | tealandlime.com

How Secret Santa Evened the Financial Playing Field

I can’t remember how the topic came up, but a proposal was made to draw names that year and you could only buy a gift for that one person.  It was basically a Secret Santa gift exchange, but inside the family.  Secret Santa exchanges are popular in office or community settings where people don’t know each other personally enough to buy a gift for everyone.  We adapted the Secret Santa idea to help remove the financial burden from gift giving at the holidays.

I think the original limit was $100. Everyone agreed, and honestly felt relieved. That year we each gave one gift and received one gift. We agreed to do it again the next year, but lowered the limit to $75 per person.  For the last few years we have kept a $50 limit.

Taking on New Family Members Does Not Add Any Burden

Over 3 years ago, my older brother married. We brought my sister-in-law into the gift exchange. Our tradition makes it easy for the family to grow…it is just one more name in the hat.  Adding a new family member does not add any more financial burden.

On a side note, we did not officially add her to the exchange until they married.  For the two years before that when they were dating, we pooled our money to buy her a gift.

Children are the Exception to the Rules

One other rule we implemented was for the children. When we started my oldest was the only grandchild. We decided everyone could buy him gifts without limit, or expectation. Now, there are three grandchildren. After buying a gift for the exchange, we are free to spoil the children however we like.

Crowd Sourcing for Gift Ideas

One of my favorite things with this style gift exchange, is asking the rest of the crowd for gift ideas for your recipient.  Like when I have my mom, I can ask my sister if she has any ideas for her.  Since she is shopping for someone else, she is more than happy to share any ideas she has for my mom.  In the past, she would have already bought the gift for her and been fresh out of ideas.

The Rules We Abide By

Since we are geographically separated, we do the drawing by proxy. My mom does the drawing every year, usually over the summer. She always does it when I am there…I guess I am the witness or something.

Just to recap, here are the simple rules we follow:

  • Names are drawn out of a hat
  • If the person draws their spouse, they must redraw (spouses can exchange gifts separately)
  • You can only buy a gift for the person you drew
  • The gift limit is $50
  • Kids are not included in the drawing
  • Everyone can buy gifts for the kids, no limits

At first, I felt relieved that we wouldn’t need to spend as much at the holidays. Then, for a while I was a little sad at the thought of not picking something out personally for everyone in my family. On the flip side, finding one great present for one person is less stressful than 6 great presents for each family member. We did decide to do stocking stuffers. We each spend $5-10 on a stocking stuffer for everyone’s stockings.

I don’t think we will ever go back. The gift exchange works so well. Everyone gets the joy of giving and receiving, without feeling financial stress. The focus is more on the kids. We love it!

I am curious, do you have any gifting rules in your family?

37 Responses to Family-Style Secret Santa Gift Exchange

  1. Kara says:

    We do the same thing with almost identical rules. Mom does the drawing sometime in October usually. All adults in the family are included (when a kid turns 18 or graduates from high school, they become adults for the purpose of the gifts) and we have a $50 limit. Younger kids everyone gets something for, but we don’t have a lot of young kids in the family anymore, so it’s not terribly expensive. And yes, everyone usually does a stocking stuffer or a Christmas ornament for everyone else – but it’s not required. It’s usually one of those “oh that’s so THEM” discoveries that you can’t resist buying.

    • Jackie says:

      Kara, That is exactly why we allow the stocking stuffers. Sometimes you just can’t resist the perfect little something.

  2. Ashley Reisbig says:

    We did Secret Santa for a few years, but last year we started a Handmade Christmas tradition. Instead of purchasing something for our Secret Santa, we made something. The gifts were incredible. They were perfectly tailored to each person’s interests much more than previous store-bought gifts had been. For example, I was gifted a beautiful starburst mirror, and I made my cousin a moustache painting and hollowed out cookbook (he’s a chef who always leaves his cash stashed in his sock drawer).

    We all love our new tradition!

  3. MB says:

    A couple years ago we decided to not do presents at all and only buy for the kids. It has made the Christmas season so much more enjoyable because no one is going into debt and I don’t even have to go to the mall! The only person who never followed that rule was my dad, so my sisters and I pool our money for a nice gift for him. I guess he just likes giving gifts :)

  4. Anne says:

    UGH! We need to transition to this in my family. I’m the oldest child (32), and my parents still buy us multiple gifts. It’s settled down considerably in the last 5 years, but still. I feel it’s a bit difficult, since there are three adult kids and only one grandchild, so we’re in a transition period to focusing on the next generation. Maybe we’ll institute this next year.

  5. Jesie G. says:

    we started using this about 3 or 4 years ago in my husband’s side of the family! I like it a lot! We started doing couples and then we split it by person. we use an online site to randomly pick who we have as a secret santa and it also enables us to have a wish list. another good thing about it is that we can do it online. it is sooo much better than buying for each adult. and just like you, the kids are separate.

  6. Julie says:

    Here’s the site we use for our family-only Secret Santa gift exchange: http://www.elfster.com/. It allows you to add “draw restrictions” so in your case, you could add one that wouldn’t let the program assign spouses to each other.

  7. Kersten says:

    We have drawn names for a long time among adults, really since our first nephew was born 9 years ago. 3 years ago when our niece made 9 nieces/nephews, we switched from giving each child a gift to doing an event together. We’re now solidly in double digits and I’m glad we only celebrate birthdays with gifts, because it is a lot! Events we have done so far: circus, children’s theater, and bowling. Honestly, it is a huge relief to not be shopping for 12 kids and I think everybody appreciates the time together more. Does anybody else stuggle with big extended families? What are your solutions?

    • Jackie says:

      Kersten, Love, Love , love the event idea. Because spending time with your family is the most precious gift. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Diana says:

    We just had our seventh child and my husband is from a large family(he’s the oldest of 7 with 5 married and 9 other grandkids adding to my 7) so there are a lot of people!! We also draw names for all the sibling/spouses- 1 per person or per couple, depending on their preference. Grandparents(his parents) aren’t in the draw and we still give each one a present. The kids do a separate draw and give within the cousin set. We do the same in my family, though I grew up with only 3. (Of course we give our own kids presents separately and my husband and I to each other. Thread are just the extended fam guidelines). Glad there are others out there who do the same!

  9. Gwen says:

    Last year we all did home-made gifts if you were out of high school. It was so fun! But serious sickness, and a tragic early loss of one’s sibling has made this a different year. So I guess it’s whatever!! As Mom, I buy everyone pjs. Guys get a gag gift. This year are these really good socks, moisture wicking, etc. but in BRIGHT blue!!! The girls each get something that hangs on their wall somewhere plus all have bags filled to the brim. I want to do one thing but my girls say the big bag is their favorite. To even it up, my hubby takes all the guys to dinner and a movie one night sometime around the holiday. But I miss when it was my folks and siblings and cousins for days…games, Disneyland, but life changes. It’s one thing I refuse: money gifts and gift cards!!!! Plus I love giving. I shop nice stores starting in summer to get bargains….but I just love being together. My elderly Mom we will drive north to see her and have our oyster stew and spend the night and have a nice Scandinavian noon meal too. I’ve got an idea for her already!!

    • Jackie says:

      Gwen, You are so on top of it. I never got into the habit of starting my shopping early. Even with this gift exchange, I still need to get a few presents this week!

  10. Jennifer says:

    On my husband’s side of the family, the adult siblings and spouses draw names, then the (mostly young adult)grandkids draw names, so we’re only buying 4 total for our family of 4. With 6 sibs plus spouses, and 8 grandkids plus spouses/fiancé’s/etc., that’s a big savings! Only 1 great grandchild w/ one on the way, and they get unlimited gifts just like yours. On my side of the family, we buy one or two modest gifts for everyone, but that’s only 11 total, so it’s not too bad. We really get into buying only things that the giftee wants or needs. Handmade is loved but not mandatory. Lots of books and music and knitted socks last year, can’t wait for this year!

    • Jackie says:

      Jennifer, Love it! We should probably try to incorporate more handmade gifts into our exchange. Everyone in my family is pretty creative, but we all feel crunched for time. I think I will propose it for next year.

  11. Suzanne says:

    We do the Secret Santa thing in our family too. So much of a stress reliever! The adults figure that the money left over helps provide a nice meal for everyone to enjoy on Christmas Day. In Australia that means prawns, salad, great beers and cool wines. Merry Christmas to you all!

  12. COCOCOZY says:

    I love this! What a fabulous tradition!


  13. Mary says:

    We do the same thing in my fiance’s family–its so great. I love that I’m not getting lots of random stuff, and I only have one person to buy for. I actually joined the exchange last year before we were engaged, but he really wanted me to.

  14. Carrie says:

    We do pretty much this exact thing on my family’s side and I love it! Saves so much money not to mention the STRESS of buying a million gifts. We attempted to draw names on my husband’s side of the family one year but it did not work at all. My husband and I were pretty much the only people who followed the rules – everyone else just bought gifts for everyone as always so that was a total bust.

    • Jackie says:

      Carrie, We have not been able to get my hubby’s side in on the idea either. Maybe it is because we are always the ones traveling with or shipping the gifts over there.

  15. Erin says:

    We follow the same rules as you do for adults but we also pick names for our nieces and nephews too. With 16 of them, it’s way too much for everyone to buy so we each get 2 and that allows us to concentrate on finding a great gift without breaking the bank. In return, those children have to MAKE their uncle/aunt a gift. The ideas they come up with are hysterical. Last year my 10 year old niece had just learned powerpoint in school so she wrote a story about my dog and then created a powerpoint presentation with pictures and videos to go along with the story. Another year, a nephew made us an ornament and cookies. It’s a great example of teaching kids how to be creative and give back.

  16. Jen says:

    Every year, my parents tell us not to get them anything and vow to not buy each other anything – and every year, they end up with multiple gifts for one another and we end up with gifts for them. Maybe drawing names would be a great way to end this battle! The trick is making sure everyone is in and won’t go against the rules…. Thanks for the idea!

  17. Chelsea says:

    My dad is one of 6 children, most with spouses, all with kids and half with grand kids. All in all, there are about 50 of us. So every year we do an exchange for the kids (usually anyone under 18, but the teens get to decide if they want to be part of the kid exchange or the adult one) so since I have one kid, I get one name. for my cousin, who has three kids, she gets three other kids names and so it goes. For the adults, we do a white elephant exchange. You can bring a girl specific gift or a guy specific gift or one that goes either way and they get labeled as such. Each person participating in the game brings a gift (although usually a few people bring an extra just in case someone wasn’t able to bring one) No one knows who they are from. From there we draw numbers and all take turns picking a present or stealing one from someone who’s already picked. It’s a lot of fun and we all usually end up with something we actually like (all the stealing and then people sometimes trade too). We put really small price caps on all the gifts, around $20 so it’s not a financial burden to most. It’s a nice fun game we play when we get together on Christmas Eve.

    • Jackie says:

      Chelsea, Thanks for sharing. My dad’s side of the family used to do a white elephant exchange. I was one of th few kids that go with him every year. I just loved watching all the old people go crazy over swapping and stealing gifts. So much fun!

  18. Jackie Nesi says:

    We do the same thing with both sides of our family. But recently we also started doing a kids secret santa too, because we have sooo many! Our family just keeps on growing so it’s a little more difficult to buy for all the kids when there’s over 15! The only rule is that under 5s is not part of the secret santa and would still get presents from everyone. Our budget is $30 (adults) $20 (kids). It makes Christmas more meaningful and less stressful :-)

  19. This is exactly what we are doing this year! We used drawnames.com. It allows you to put in draw restrictions and even makes it so that you can create an Amazon.com wishlist for your gift giver to use as a reference. You guys should definitely use it next year!

    • Jackie says:

      Kelly, Thanks for the recommendation. I love that there are online sites to help with this and including a wish list is genius!

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