Has Holiday Gift Giving at the Office Gotten Out of Control

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Holiday gift giving

It’s that time of year again – Christmastime. While Mrs. Frugal Rules may say I’m a bit of a grinch because I can’t stand Christmas music, I really do enjoy the season, well on some level at least. I just choose to enjoy certain parts of it – like looking at holiday lights, giving gifts to others and spending time with family and friends.

Of all the many holiday activities we traditionally take part in though there is one that I would cross off of my list – holiday gift giving at the office. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not against showing gratitude and appreciation to co-workers and even bosses. While I may not be a part of corporate America anymore since I am a proud small business owner, I do remember what it was like to have the holidays roll around each year while working in an office. During my more than 15 years in office settings, I saw  out of control gift giving around the holidays. Towards the end of my last job, I began to feel like the last paycheck of the year was going solely to paying off the expenses I incurred during the annual holiday gift giving.

When an Office Matron Controls the Holiday Gift Giving


My experience might be a bit jaded by the fact that I worked for years with a woman whose life ambition seemed to be controlling who got what for every birthday and holiday in the office. She’d start the year out with a calendar filled with everyone’s birthdays, administrative assistants’ day, bosses day, and of course, Christmas.

In advance of each special day, she’d circulate a sign up list and an envelope to collect everyone’s contributions toward each event. If you didn’t participate (which I made the mistake of doing once) EVERYONE knew about it and she did her best to make sure you felt not only ostracized but cheap.

If I wanted to give a gift separately to an individual with whom I had a relationship instead of contributing toward the group gift, it just became awkward. Looking back, I think she was trying to be helpful but ended up sucking all the joy out of gift giving for me. I always felt like I was overspending.

From that experience, I came up with a few simple ways to save on office gift giving.

Ways I Save Money on Office Gift Giving


Mrs. Frugal Rules didn’t like this when I started the habit but it only took about a year or two for her to fall in love with it as much as I have. We look at what we want to spend overall on holiday gifts and then divide that amount by 12. We pull out the result each month and set it aside in an envelope. Within our holiday budget is a line item for office gift giving (or in our case,  thank you gifts for clients 🙂  ). It’s an absolutely freeing feeling when the holidays are over to know that they are already paid for and we don’t have to worry where the money is going to come from to pay off our purchases. We go one step further and put our purchases on our credit card to earn the points to boot.

Coordinate a low limit white elephant gift exchange


When the co-worker who dominated gift giving eventually moved on to another department, I helped institute a few changes of my own. I started by suggesting that instead of drawing names out of a hat to buy expensive gifts for each other, we have a low-limit white elephant gift exchange.

To be completely transparent, my motives may have been slightly selfish as the exchange gave me an opportunity to saddle one of my co-workers with Mrs. Frugal Rules’ old pink bowling ball (which she’d not ever gotten the holes drilled for). Everyone agreed that we’d either bring something from around the house or buy something for less than $10 – and you can’t go wrong with anything from the As Seen On TV Store. The result was a fun and memorable party that ended up becoming a treasured office tradition.

Start a tradition of a pay-for-yourself birthday lunch


Another tradition we began in my old workplace was letting the birthday person pick where he or she wanted to eat lunch. Then, whoever was available would go along and pay for their own meal as well as split evenly between the number of people there, the birthday person’s lunch. No gifts. No hurt feelings. Just a nice meal out together and not a lot of pressure on our wallets.

Don’t give in to peer pressure


Speaking of pressure, one thing I’ve learned in my many years in office culture is that there’s often a lot of pressure to give in to one person who may be dictating certain activities – like holiday gift giving at the office. Standing your ground can be scary and difficult. It can result in being left out of cliques. In the end though, I just had to ask myself what mattered more – whether or not my co-workers wanted to eat lunch with me or my own financial goals. I decided the latter was more important.

Remember to be nice


If you do decide to opt out of holiday gift giving at the office for one reason or another, say something to any co-workers of yours with whom you have a personal relationship. Let them know why you’re opting out in whatever level of detail you feel comfortable sharing. Essentially, you can wish the people you care about a Happy Holiday without spending all sorts of money.

Do what feels right for you 


At the end of the workday, you just need to do what you feel comfortable with. You and you alone need to be able to live with your financial decisions. When it comes to holiday gift giving in the office and everything else in life, make decisions that don’t compromise your goals or values.


What’s the craziest holiday office tradition you’ve been subjected to? How do you show your co-workers the love during the holidays?


Photo courtesy of: FutUndBeidl

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John is the founder of Frugal Rules, a dad, husband and veteran of the financial services industry whose writing has been featured in Forbes, CNBC, Yahoo Finance and more.

Passionate about helping people learn from his mistakes, John shares financial tools and tips to help you enjoy the freedom that comes from living frugally. One of his favorite tools is Personal Capital , which he used to plan for retirement and keep track of his finances in less than 15 minutes each month.

Another one of John's passions is helping people save $80 per month by axing their expensive cable subscriptions and replacing them with more affordable ones, like Hulu with Live TV.


  • Interesting, out office doesn’t even have a Christmas party let alone do the gift giving thing. I do miss the festivities, but with all the budget cuts lately I am just thankful to have a job.

    • John says:

      Sorry to hear about the budget cuts Glen, though glad they’re not directly impacted your job. Yep, it’s still allowed here in the States. Even if the employer doesn’t like them I’ve found most employees will try and institute something.

  • Maybe I’m a Grinch, but I think gift giving at the office should be banned unless it is white elephant. It never fails, I always end up getting surprised by someone getting me a gift and then need to run out and get them something last minute too. I started a new job last year and was unpleasantly surprised to find out that the five of us who work closest together are apparently expected to all get each other gifts! At my last job they did a white elephant gift exchange and it was much better AND much cheaper!

    • John says:

      I would tend to agree Dee, unless you’ve become friends. Even then though, you could always exchange outside of the office. That said, I think a white elephant exchange is by and far better…not to mention cheaper! πŸ™‚

  • Love this, John. I am lucky that I never dealt with much of that in the workforce, and Rick hasn’t either, but I have heard lots of stories like yours and I think it’s terrible that people make such a big deal out of stuff like that. I prefer something more like you instituted; the low limit white elephant gift. MUCH more fun. πŸ™‚

    • John says:

      Thanks Laurie! Yea, it can get pretty crazy in some offices. I just don’t have the patience for it and why put that expectation on you in the workplace? A white elephant exchange is much better in my opinion and much more fun.

  • While it’s not a bad cause, I do feel like I have been pressured into donating money to various charitable campaigns that were run by people at my office. I honestly think if I didn’t participate that my manager and probably a few others would have taken notice (and possibly offense!). I don’t mind exchanging gifts for the Holidays but I absolutely feel peer pressure to reciprocate gifts.

    • John says:

      That’s a great point DC! I always hated dealing with that as well. If it’s something I would support anyway, then fine but not with the pressure and expectation to give. At the end of the day, charity or giving gifts shouldn’t happen out of pressure or expectation.

  • At my old job, they always tried to get us to go in on gifts for people. Greg would always tell people to ask me because I knew he would say no. When you work with a lot of people, you can’t buy everyone a birthday and Christmas gift. I enjoyed saying no to all of those people.

    • John says:

      Totally agreed Holly. The job I was referencing I had over 50 people in my department that I worked with on a regular basis. There’s no way on earth I could or would buy gifts for all those people.

  • Kathy says:

    My office had a flower fund to send flowers to the funeral when an employee or family member died. I remember we were basically told how much to give based on our salary. I never liked that practice and individually sent flowers to someone I was close to. I stopped the group contribution when they sent around an envelope for contributions to an employee’s brother’s wife who didn’t even work there!

    I like the idea of going to lunch. Everyone gets a chance to choose that way and if you don’t like the chosen location, just say you have a project that needs completing. No hard feelings that way, especially if you give them a card or chip in a couple of bucks toward their lunch even if you don’t go.

    • John says:

      Wow, giving to an employee’s brother’s wife…yea I’d stop giving too. πŸ™‚

      Yea, the lunch deal was a good idea and usually went over well. At the very least, it gives you the opportunity to get out of the office.

  • It can definitely get to the point where it gets too expensive. We did this thing at our office where, on their birthday, people would bring in baking. That way, nbobody’s birthday is forgotten. It worked really well.

  • And I’ve found yet another similarity between us – aversion to the endless stream of Christmas music on the radio. πŸ™‚ I agree office gifting gets out of hand sometimes, especially during the holidays. My work quit doing birthday celebrations for every employee. Instead we have one birthday celebration day where we all get together for a party.

    • John says:

      Lol, yes, I do HATE the endless stream of Christmas music. I’ve actually got a rant post on that very topic on the way in a few weeks. πŸ™‚ Seriously though, one celebration for everyone is the way to go in my book.

  • I’m grateful my office doesn’t collect money to do gifts for everyone’s birthday. With over 50 people in the office, I’d never have extra spending money.

    I almost made the mistake of opting out of this year’s secret Santa (or to be politically correct it’s being called Secret Snow-Person….). We’re also doing a charity drive and I wanted to donate the extra $15 I’d spend on Secret Santa to the charity option. Well, turns out I would’ve been one of only two people not participating, so in the interest of saving my reputation I signed up. Sometimes, it just makes sense to play along.

    • John says:

      That’s how it was for me in a past job, it would’ve been out of control.

      Wow, I didn’t know that Santa had to be made PC… Anyway, I agree, there are some times where it does make sense to go with the crowd.

  • We have a holiday grab bag/secret santa where we buy one gift. I hope shopping for gifts but one is okay for me. My office does collect money for gifts but only for the secretaries. We don’t do birthday gifts…only a birthday card. That’s fair…gifts would be too expensive. I do notice charity drives and co-workers trying to sell their kids girl scout cookies or cookies to raise money for their school It starts getting expensive!

    • John says:

      That sounds like a good alternative Andrew. That should help keep it under control, though I do agree about the charity drives and such – it can get expensive.

  • I feel pretty fortunate to have never worked in an environment like this. Our small office with 4 people really didn’t do any gift giving. Having someone else dictate what I had to give would annoy the crap out of me.

    • John says:

      Consider yourself lucky Matt. It can start to feel like a small communist state having someone dictate what you buy and how much it should cost. No one should have to work in an environment like that.

  • Luckily, I don’t have to deal with the holiday gift giving at work. It is not something that people here do. We do sometimes give cards, but that is it.

  • I keep reading about people dealing with these holiday office pressures! I’m glad in all my years working full time that I never experienced anything quite like that. Yeah we passed around envelopes when someone’s mom or dad passed away, but nothing was ever expected and certainly no one was made to feel bad about it. That would be really tough, so I love your tips. In the end you do have to do what’s right for you, and hopefully people do have a generous heart and give where it’s appropriate and/or needed.

    • John says:

      Consider yourself lucky Tonya as it can get quite crazy. The stuff like doing something for a co-worker that lost a spouse/parent is one thing and was generally happy to give, but the gift thing can get nutty. You’re right though, you should give where appropriate and as possible.

  • I don’t think adults need Christmas or birthday gifts unless it’s from someone really close to you. That being said, I know my assistant at the government will get me a gift, so I got her something. It feels so wrong to be buying a gift because you feel like you have to, not because you want to. It would be nice if there was something like an organ donor card where you could check if you don’t want to give or receive gifts from people outside your immediate family!

    • John says:

      I love the organ donor idea Kim! πŸ™‚ I agree though, we really shouldn’t need gifts from others outside those who you’re really close to. It’s hard enough telling Nicole what I want, much less expecting someone else to buy me something which I probably wouldn’t need anyway.

  • Michelle says:

    I hate the idea that I need to buy holiday gifts for my coworkers! I luckily work in a small office with older men, so there are not many occurrences in which we have to buy gifts for one another (like the many showers my husband had to attend and purchase for with his younger workplace). We do not do anything for the holidays except cards and occasionally treats. No need to get gifts!

    • John says:

      Yea, I’d imagine you’d not do much in the terms of gift exchanging in that environment. πŸ™‚ Cards and an occasional treat are more than enough if you ask me.

  • I don’t necessarily agree with holiday gift giving in offices. The truth is, there are so many people struggling, it’s not fair to expect anyone to purchase anything. The office format makes people feel like if they don’t buy gifts they’re a horrible person. To me, that’s not fair. Thanks for the great read!

  • I work with literally all dudes in an industrial type setting. So no gift giving.

    Isn’t it great that you now only have one other person in your office to buy gifts for – your wife! πŸ™‚

  • I’m not a big fan of gift giving to co-workers either. If there is a secret santa then I will participate or if there is a coworker who has gone out of there way to help me then I might get them a little something, but other than that I try to avoid it. If someone gives me an unexpected gift I would thank them but I wouldn’t run off to buy them one in return. When I was younger I felt more pressure about giving gifts in return but now I don’t feel that way.

  • There can be a lot of pressure to spend money in the workplace on gifts. I think I would have gone crazy if I had an office matron forcing people to spend on gifts or be ostracized. When I worked in Corporate, I was able to treat the team to birthday and holiday lunches on the Corporate card and now that I’m the employer, I still pay for birthday and holiday lunches. My team is small and they have more than earned the lunch.

    • John says:

      It definitely can be Shannon and she did drive me crazy. πŸ™‚ That’s nice you do that for your team, especially with it being a small one. I’d imagine it helps out in terms of building camaraderie.

  • Mackenzie says:

    LOL on the Office Matron! πŸ˜€ Where I worked previously, we had one too! Glad I don’t have to do this since I am home with my daughter, but boy do I remember having to!

  • AverageJoe says:

    My work is awesome about this. I decide what I want to gift myself and then order it on Amazon. I then act COMPLETELY SURPRISED by what’s inside the package. Working at home alone has its perks.

    I always knew you were a Scrooge. Christmas music rocks.

    • John says:

      Lol, I love that perk too. πŸ™‚ I know…I am a scrooge, my wife is still trying to change me on this. But, after nearly 13 years, I think she needs to give up. πŸ˜‰

  • The good news for me is that I work for a large corporation, and there is no holiday party, or really any opportunity or precedent for holiday gift giving. I work with these people…’s really not a gift giving situation. πŸ™‚

  • E.M. says:

    Right before I left my last job, they were collecting $40 per person for a gift for the bosses. Unfortunately there were three of them (and they all have expensive tastes), but I still thought that was a tad ridiculous. Last year it was $20 so I didn’t argue, but I would have felt really awkward declining to give after there was one person who didn’t want to last year. He was lambasted by everyone for months. The one person who came up with this is best friends with the bosses, and it always rubbed me the wrong way. I would have much preferred a Secret Santa/White Elephant exchange.

  • We typically do a white elephant gift exchange at the office, where people draw someone else’s name out of a hat. There is a gift value limit of $10, participation is voluntary and gift givers remain anonymous. I usually end up with a six pack of cheap beer that I have to pawn off on someone else, since I don’t drink. I think the best gift I ever got was a $10 gift card for Taco Bell.

  • “Has Holiday Gift Giving at the Office Gotten Out of Control?” – No, it hasn’t. Helps that the only people in my office are me and the family basset hound, Bo. I have enough gifts to buy and it would be a total pain in the arse to have to buy for people in the office. If I were given office gifts I would obviously reciprocate in some way and it could/would get really expensive. For now, I’ll stick to buying Bo a milk bone for Christmas.

  • I was subjected to contributing nearly $80 to help pay for a holiday party for the staff at a place I previously worked. The thing is, while I was a manager, I didn’t have direct reports. It was ridiculous, but not something a person could complain about in the workplace. Just have to deal with it sometimes, and consider such things as cost of doing business. At least, that’s how I try to positively approach it πŸ™‚

  • Micro says:

    I’ve only been in one place that did a gift exchange and it was a white elephant exchange. It was funny to see people’s faces when they opened up the gag gifts that some people got.

  • Catherine says:

    I’m fortunate to work in a small office. We don’t do much but are expected to contribute to gifts for the dentists. The dentists who make 6 figures a year! Two years ago I decided this was nuts, they didn’t need anything our tiny office pot could buy so suggested we instead donate to charity in their names which we did and continue to do three years later. We have done everything from buying gifts for kids to buying dinner for a needy family to ”adopting” a senior and buying gifts for them instead (no family/friends). I much prefer this to giving to people who realllly don’t need anything.

    • John says:

      That’s awesome Catherine! That’s really what many should be doing as opposed to being forced to buying a gift for someone who doesn’t need it.

  • We have a secret Santa and limit gifts to $20 You buy for one person and you’re done. I don;t have a large organization so that saves us money.

  • Wonderful tips, John. I do think office gift-giving can get out of control – it’s kind of inherently that way, because of the amount of people! It can be hard to steer some people to a new tradition,but I love the ideas that you suggested. A birthday meal where everyone pays for themselves and splits the birthday guy/gal’s check equally is great.

    • John says:

      Thanks Laura! I agree, it can be difficult to move people to something else especially when they’ve been doing it for so long. I think that is especially the case when they have someone telling them they have to do it.

  • The birthday lunch idea is a very good one. Depending on how big your office is, it can feel like you are contributing to some gift or another practically every week. At my husband’s office, an email was sent for everyone to chip in to a gift for the owners. $15 a piece! It was mentioned that it was “optional”. However, after not hearing a response from him, he was sent two more emails that said “We haven’t gotten your contribution yet.” That has annoyed me to no end.

    • John says:

      I agree Kay. It can get just a bit out of control if you’re in a big office. I’ve seen that very same circumstance happen before and it is very frustrating, so I can appreciate that annoyance. πŸ™‚ Thanks for stopping by Kay!

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