Nov 27

Help! Holiday Gift Exchanges Are Making Me Broke!

The holidays are coming up, and my four friends and I have done a gift exchange for the past ten years. The gifts are always $50 or more for each person, which adds up. What’s the best way to politely suggest we skip gifts at our get-together this year?

—Don’t Want to be a Grinch


Dear Don’t Want to be a Grinch,

I totally understand — and I think your concern proves that you’re not a Grinch. You value the tradition you and your friends have created, but it sounds like the financial component is dragging down your enjoyment. It can be so easy to get caught up in the “holidays are filled with materialistic excess” line, and that can be true to an extent … but it’s equally valid that gifting is one tangible way people show their love toward others. Giving presents is a fundamental way of developing and maintaining social relationships, and it’s been part of the fabric of society since civilization began. So it’s not going away, and in some ways, can add real value in relationships.


Think of other options

But once gift-giving starts creating stress and debt, then it’s not working! You don’t need to give up on exchanging presents completely.  There are some middle ground options. For example, you might decide on a price cap (if you do, check out this list of gifts that cost less than flowers), or to take the money you all would have spent on gifts and chip in on an experience. Another option is to decide to do all non-monetary gifts, like writing a poem for everyone in the group, or making baked goods and sharing them. Last year, my friends and I gifted each member of our group one item on their to-do list, completed. For example, I was on the hunt for a new dentist, but I never had time to do research. My friend ended up taking that task, which gave me the gift of time.


Create a new tradition

You also may decide that the conversations, memories, and laughter from the night are enough. To differentiate the holiday gathering from any other night, set up some traditions. Maybe everyone talks about their favorite memory in the past year or shares goals for the year ahead.


Make the first move

Whatever you decide to do, speaking up now instead of letting another year slide by is important. You don’t want to feel like this party sets you up on a financially slippery slope for the holidays. Remember, your friends don’t care about your presents, they care about your presence (cheesy but true!). Being honest with how you’re feeling will allow you to continue to enjoy the tradition.


Elizabeth Dunn, Ph.D. is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia who researches how time, money, and technology shape human happiness. She is also the scientific advisor for Happy Money, a financial company that combines psychology and money to help people live happier lives. Have a question for Liz? Write her at and check back every Tuesday for her next column.


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