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Who Is On Your Christmas Shopping List?

This is a guest post by Libby, who writes for Modern Tightwad.

Each year, I start out with a plan, a budget for the holiday season. On my shopping list you’ll find the usual suspects – my kids, my husband, my parents – and then things start to get a little hazy. One by one, I start to evaluate everyone in my life, wondering if I should buy Christmas gifts for them, and whether they’ll be buying something for me.

Just because someone has been nice doesn’t mean there’s room for them on your list. Buy for everyone, and your Christmas budget will haunt you well into the New Year. Limit your list to only your nearest and dearest, and you could be labeled a Scrooge. So what’s a well-meaning shopper to do?

Christmas Gifts for Friends

My friends and I have a policy: friends don’t let friends buy Christmas gifts for each other. The reason is simple. If I buy a gift for Friend A, he will likely feel compelled to buy a gift for me, even if his Christmas budget doesn’t have the room for it. If he listens to his financial instincts and doesn’t buy a reciprocal gift, he may feel guilty about accepting my well-intentioned present. And since guilt leads to bitterness, and bitterness leads to resentment, nothing good would come from the one-sided exchange.

Instead, most of my friends and I made an agreement long ago – in some cases, an unsaid but still very-well understood agreement – that we wouldn’t exchange gifts. Sometimes, there have been exceptions, but in those rare occasions, the other party and I have hashed out the details well in advance of the actual gift-giving.

Christmas Gifts for Colleagues

Christmas shopping for your coworkers is probably one of the most difficult types of shopping around. Sure, you work with these people 40, 50, even 60 hours a week, and you know which kind of K-cup they prefer, but how well do you know them off the job? If the answer is, “Not very well,” then you don’t really need to add them to your shopping list.

Check with your human resources department to see if there’s a written policy about gift giving at work. Some companies actually have a policy against it, for a variety of reasons. Others leave it up to department heads, so check with your manager if you’re unsure. I work from home, so this is a moot point for me, but my husband – who is a sheriff’s deputy – works for a department that puts the kibosh on holiday gift exchanges.

In general, I think it’s absolutely fine to skip Christmas gifts for your colleagues, with these two notable exceptions:

1. If you’re a manager, giving a small gift – even a $10 gift card – can be a symbol of your thanks for a year of hard work; if you’re going to give this type of gift to one of your workers, however, you need to do it for everybody. It’s Christmas, after all, not their annual review.

2. If your office participates in a “White Elephant” or “Dirty Santa”-type gift exchange, you should probably participate. These gift exchanges typically have limits – maybe $20 or less – so they won’t do too much damage to your Christmas budget; plus, if you decline, your coworkers may call you a cheapskate behind your back.

Christmas Gifts for Extended Family

Buying presents for family members you don’t see on a routine basis is one of the most complicated conundrums of the holiday season. One of my friends still buys gifts for all her nieces and nephews – all seven of them – even though they’re all adults now; she’s simply doing it out of habit. I still buy presents for my “baby” cousins… who are now almost all in college.

My rule is this: not all family members – and our relationships with them – are equal. You may have a cousin with whom you are really close, and another cousin whom you only see at family reunions. You shouldn’t feel obligated to buy Christmas gifts for someone with whom you don’t have a personal relationship; this advice holds true for everyone you’d consider shopping for.

Drawing names can help solve this problem. Suggest putting the names of all your relatives into a hat, and have everyone draw out a name. This age-old solution can keep your Christmas budget in check, by letting you buy something for one person instead of the entire family.

What’s your policy on Christmas shopping? Who’s on your list – and who isn’t? Why?



  1. It’s funny that you mentioned that because my close friends and I also don’t exchange Christmas gifts. It’s an unspoken understanding among us and we’re good with it. As for colleagues, I usually give a generic gift like chocolates or candy for the ones I closely work with. There’s always gifts for family. Well, I try, if I can get all my shopping done on time. ;)

  2. We only give gifts to family, but believe me there are enough of them! Immediate family isn’t the issue, but like you said there are family members who we have almost no relationship with yet need to buy for. My husband’s extended family does Christmas Eve all together so it’s a huge orgy of gift unwrapping. While it might go unnoticed that we give a gift to X but not Y (or there is a price differential), X and Y are both in the same room so I wouldn’t want to risk it. We just set a low spending cap for all those gifts ($10) and do our best. It’s not my place to suggest name drawing or another solution – I’ll just wait and see if they come up with it on their own.

  3. We are scaling back some, but not just as financial common sense, but also to re-focus on enjoying the holidays. We would buy too much for the kids, go too far in the extended family (as an obligation, not a gift), and get something for coaches, teachers, etc.

    I just want to anticipate December in a positive way, and not have the financial regrets. With two boys in college (and one more to go), I want to give the best gift I can – a good education. It’s the one gift that no one can take away from them, or go out of style.

  4. Great topic. My wife’s family is fairly large, so we do a Secret Santa for the adults, but still give gifts to the kids. The problem is, when are no longer kids? 18? Out of college? Married?!? We still give gifts to “kids” in their early 20’s, but my sister thinks 18 is a good cut-off (and I agree).

    For me, I would rather come across something special that I know would be a perfect gift for someone, and put it aside for a Christmas gift, than run our for a $50 gift card the week before Christmas. It’s not an obligation so much as it is an expression of your appreciation/etc of the recipient.

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