The top 10 rules for gift-giving this holiday season


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You’ve got your holiday shopping list made and you’re checking it twice.

But are you getting the right gifts for the right people? And what should you do if you are strapped for cash?

Following some simple gift-giving rules can help you easily navigate the holiday season. They can also help set the tone for your relationships for the upcoming year, said etiquette expert Elaine Swann.

“It’s important to follow some of these guidelines to help you lay a strong foundation that will aid you in strengthening and enhancing your relationship moving forward,” she said.

Your shopping list may include family, close friends and co-workers.

“Holiday gifts are given to those we want to show our appreciation to,” said Myka Meier, founder and director of Beaumont Etiquette.

“The item chosen for each gift should be something you think the other person would appreciate, and the value of it should be determined by your own personal budget and what you can afford.”

So, before you get stressed out, here are 10 easy gift-giving rules to follow this holiday season.

1. Make your list

First, write down whom you want to buy for and note your overall budget.

Then, determine how much to spend on each person. To do that, you can use what Swann calls the “onion method.”

In other words, think of your immediate family as the core of the onion and co-workers and acquaintances as the outer layer. As you peel back each layer and get closer to the core, the more money you spend. For example, you may spend $20 on the outer layer and $100 or more on the core.

2. Get something they want

Getting people gifts they actually want may sound obvious. However, one of the biggest mistakes people make is not really thinking about what the recipient would really enjoy, Swann pointed out.

“Too often, we select gifts based upon what we think the person should have, rather than really putting thought into it — their likes and their hobbies,” she said.

To gain some insight, check out their social media pages.

“Go on a reconnaissance mission and look at what people are talking about, look at what they are sharing,” said Swann.

3. Cash is king

The most popular gift people want is money.

In a survey of 1,000 Americans by last month, 61% said they would prefer cash or a gift card. However, 60% of the respondents said they preferred giving traditional gifts over cash.

If you think cash isn’t an appropriate gift, think again, said Swann.

It ties into rule No. 2 — giving people what they want.

“Millennials have caused this shift in the way we gift,” she said. “It’s important for us to look at this trend and follow the trend.”

The item chosen for each gift should be something you think the other person would appreciate, and the value of it should be determined by your own personal budget and what you can afford.

Myka Meier

etiquette expert

4. Team gift for your boss

Office politics can be tough to navigate. Throw in the holidays, and you could wind up even more stressed.

“No one should feel forced to buy a gift for anyone,” said Meier, whose firm does corporate training around the country.

That said, it’s customary for someone to purchase a gift for an assistant. It’s also common to get a gift for your boss.

Yet it is important to follow any company guidelines when it comes to gift-giving, such as a limit on the amount, said Swann.

She also said etiquette dictates that you should not get your team leader, supervisor or boss a gift because if you do, it may seem like you are “kissing up to the boss.”

She recommends coordinating a gift from your group.

“You are able to, of course, show leadership by spearheading the effort and, two, you are pulling the entire team together,” Swann said.

5. Think about your co-workers

If you are getting a co-worker a gift, make sure that you give it to them in private.

“You never want anyone in the office to feel left out, which is why Secret Santa parties are great, because everyone is included,” Meier said.

A Secret Santa gift or other type of gift-exchange party item should run you about $20 or $25, she noted. However, the team may set budget guidelines, so be sure to check first.

What you give is also important.

You should avoid giving clothing items that require a size because you could offend someone, said Meier.

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Swann also advises avoiding presents that are personal in nature, such as lotions or perfumes. Instead, think of something like thermoses, coffee mugs or gadgets that are business-related.

If you want to cover everyone with one gift, consider homemade baked goods or an edible basket — just make sure everyone is aware of the ingredients in the event someone has a food allergy, Meier pointed out.

6. Don’t price-match gifts

If someone got you a gift that is clearly more expensive than the one you got them, don’t sweat it.

It truly is the thought that counts, Swann said.

“Give your gift graciously,” she added. “This is why it is important for us to give meaningful gifts and gifts that are well thought out.”

7. Be gracious if you didn’t reciprocate

The best thing to do if you receive a present but don’t have one to reciprocate is to just be gracious and say thank you.

“You don’t want to point out that you didn’t get the other person something,” Meier said. “You have the opportunity to send a handwritten thank-you note or mail a holiday gift to the person.”

8. Don’t overextend yourself financially

Young couple enjoy shopping Christmas gifts.

vgajic | E+ | Getty Images

With the holidays comes the pressure to spend, spend, spend.

In fact, 51% of Americans feel pressure to spend more than they are comfortable with on gifts during the holidays, according to the 2019 Bankrate Holiday Gifting Survey, which polled 2,628 adults in October.

If you have a tight budget, make an A, B, and C list of potential recipients. Focus on your A list first, then your B list. You may not get to your C list, and that’s OK, said Swann.

You also may not get to anyone on your list.

“If you cannot give, do not give,” Swann said. “Simply buy a box of cards and wish people well and set yourself up for a better 2020.”

9. Avoid giving money to teachers

Giving money to teachers is generally prohibited. It can also seen seen as a bribe and can make the recipient feel awkward.

Instead, you can get them a gift. Swann suggests thinking about them as a person rather than just a teacher when deciding what to give. That means thinking about something they may like for themselves, rather than in the classroom.

Group gifts are also a great idea, as is something handmade by a student.

10. Say thank you

Above all, remember to send a thank-you note or email to show your appreciation for the thought put into your gift or invitation.

“A handwritten thank-you note adds extra emphasis because it’s tangible and more rare these days to receive,” Meier said.

However, you can mirror the formality of what you are thankful for by the way you thank someone.

“For instance, an email thank you may be perfectly appropriate to thank someone who brought in chocolates for the team, while a handwritten thank-you note would be suggested for a formal dinner party invitation or a very personalized holiday gift,” she said.

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