Millennial Money: How to just say no to gift exchanges

Your college roommate. Your current roommate. Your book club. Your brunch crew. Your office secret Santa. Your cousins. Your siblings. Your parents. Your partner. Their parents.

As your social circle expands, so does your holiday shopping list. But what happens when you can't really afford to buy gifts for everyone?

One option: Cut back on gift exchanges.

Opt out of the office secret Santa. Don't give your child's day care provider a present. Tell your roommate/cousins/friends that you can't exchange gifts this year.

This move may seem harsh, but if the alternative is going into debt, it could be the best move.

Last year, 65 percent of millennial shoppers put gifts on their credit card. This year, roughly a third of them are still paying off that debt, according to an annual survey of holiday shoppers from NerdWallet .


Now is a good time to make a budget, if you don't already have one. Factor in your normal expenses — rent or mortgage, groceries, bills, LaCroix and commuting costs — plus things like holiday travel and that ugly sweater bar crawl. Now you know what you have to spend on gifts this year.


Your budget may allow for some gifts, but there's a good chance you'll need to make some cuts.


This is a tricky one to navigate. One school of thought is to make the office exchange a priority.

"If there's a work setting where everybody's participating, you must participate," says Jennifer Porter, a manners teacher and gift shop owner. "It shows goodwill. These are your colleagues. Pony up for that and feel good about it."

But office size and dynamics come into play. If your office is large enough, you may be able to opt out without anyone noticing. Just don't sign up. End of discussion.

It's harder to bow out in a smaller office or team, especially if the whole group gets together for the gift giving. If it's simply not in your budget, talk to the person organizing your office exchange.

"Let them know, so you don't have to make a campaign about it," says Elaine Swann, an etiquette expert and founder of The Swann School of Protocol. You can spare them any extra details, Swann says, and spare yourself the need to tell all of your office mates.

Another option: Consider regifting that candle you got last year — you know, the one in your closet. (Fun fact: 82 percent of millennials regift holiday presents, according to the survey from NerdWallet.)


Your immediate family is likely on your must-gift list, but extended family may not make the cut. The same is true for your closest friends versus your larger friend group — book club, brunch club, bros club and so forth. It's OK to ask to scale back things to fit your budget.

You don't need to put up a front with your nearest and dearest. Remember, these are the people who know you best.

"You can be a little more frank and transparent," Swann says. "If there's anyone who's going to understand, it will be those you have a close relationship with. They will understand and almost expect it."


In this instance, less is more. There's no need to tell the teacher they won't get a present from junior this year. A heartfelt note from you and your child will be cherished as much as another gift card or coffee mug, if not more.


If you decide to end or opt out of a gift exchange, be honest and considerate. You want to halt the presents, not the relationship.

Don't make up excuses or put off the conversation until a week before Christmas, Swann says.

"Be brutally honest, without being brutal," she says. "Frankly say, 'Thank you for thinking of me and wanting to include me, but I will not be able to participate.' Resist the urge to over explain."

You'll likely find people understand. In fact, they may even be relieved. Because, let's face it, most of us are strapped for cash over the holidays. But if they're not OK with it, give them some space.

"Don't try to fix it in that instance. Allow that person to go through the process of being disappointed," Swann says. "Your role is not to get them over to your side. Your role is just to inform them of your intentions."


This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet. Kelsey Sheehy is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: Twitter: @KelseyLSheehy.


NerdWallet: 2018 Holiday Shopping Report