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Good Ideas for Your $20 Gift Exchange

Inexpensive gift exchanges are very common in workplaces and among other groups of people who may not know each other well, like a committee or among neighbors. Sometimes, guests pick a name in advance and are meant to bring a $10 or $20 gift for that person.

In other cases, the gift exchange isn’t actually for a person in particular, but for a general pool where maybe it is traded (opened or unopened) among the partygoers.

In either situation, the result is often a glut of gifts & items that will, in January, be relegated to the back of the closet or the Goodwill pile.

The challenges are many:

  • It is difficult to be thoughtful when you don’t know the recipient of the gift (or don't know them very well)
  • It can feel like $10 or $20 doesn’t get you very far
  • Presents that stores target to shoppers for this purpose are so bad!

I have a pet peeve about the pre-planned gifts that line the aisles of drugstores and Targe-type stores… So. Much. Junk. Some of the worst offenders, imo, are: random lotion sets; bad chocolates; mug sets…

I think that, addressing #2 above, many of these gifts are attempting to go for something more physically substantial. Maybe it feels better to come with an entire basket of a gift rather than something small? The “value” of these prepared gifts (and I use the term value very loosely) seems to be in the quantity, at the expense of quality — like, there’s nothing great about this thing… so let’s just add more of it and make it into a big gift!

I know we can do better!

With a bit of planning and a bit of thinking, we can have the best gifts out there, without adding to the landfill or going over the budget. 


Rethinking Old “Classics”:


Mug & co.

Pre-wrapped sets seem appealing, but... I think that often for the recipient, they can communicate the opposite of thoughtfulness. From the business side, retailers often source the most inexpensive versions of mugs and whatever samples go with of hot chocolate, tea, etc. It's designed as an easy-to-buy, profit-maximizer, not as a thoughtful gift for an acquaintance.

Instead of grabbing a set in the grocery checkout, go to Starbucks or a local coffee shop and choose a mug based on the personality of the recipient (or, just one that looks fun &/or practical). If you want to add something treaty, choose based on the person’s actual likes — no Pumpkin spice latte mix for someone who doesn’t drink coffee! And, can we be honest? Not many adults drink hot chocolate…



As someone with dry skin, these perfumed, low-grade creams & soaps are usually worse than nothing. Maybe it would be better to splurge on a really great cold-weather hand cream, or something from a specialty brand like Burt’s Bees.



I’ve seen a lot of $20s spend on candles! Candles are so specific to someone’s décor & use… they become a quick clutter culprit. But, if you are keen on candles, consider wood wicks (the crackling is cozy & festive) and more subtle scents.



A bit of chocolate trumps a lot of bad chocolate… ask any chocolate-lover! Also, remember that specialty packaging usually comes at a premium. A festive look or fun container may make the gift & be totally worth it! Or, maybe it would just be better to have more of the good stuff. You decide!


Gift card

Gift cards may be a little dull, but they can also be pretty great. Consider something fun & splurge-y, perhaps (e.g. a specialty tea store if the recipient drinks staff-room earl grey daily). Consumables are definitely the best way to go for gift cards, unless it is a goods store that is known for items at that price range.

[ My best ever gift exchange was a personalized Starbucks gift card (which they no longer do) for the president of the company. I knew that he drove his Mini Cooper through the drive-thru every day on his way to work, so I ordered a gift card online ($15 of $, $5 for the personalization) with a man who looked like him, holding keys in one hand and a coffee in another. I don’t know if he was too embarrassed to use it! But, he loved it! Practical + thoughtful = perfect]


New Ideas:


Great Socks

I received Happy Socks in a conference gift bag a few years ago. They were such great quality that I ordered a few pairs this year, though it was definitely a reach for me to spend money on socks! Their outlet has $7-9/pairs and shipping is free. One or two fun pairs for a gift exchange is a great bang-for-buck!  [but save the underwear or pyjamas from the workplace! Awkward…]



Buy one excellent book, or a set of three novels (in good shape) from a thrift store. Anyone who identifies as “a reader” is usually keen for fresh recommendations; having one to start right away is even better! A mug + a tried & true (used, good condition) book is another option.



A plant is a fresh idea for an exchange, or a teacher gift, too. You could go festive with a baby spruce or other holiday-type mini tree, or go safe with a succulent or cactus that will survive a non-green thumb!



Too obscure or outdoorsy? Maybe... But, I've found that this gift is well-received by kids, adults, and indoorsmen(women) alike!



Does someone you know dig in to the NYT Crossword every day? Sudoku enthusiast? Games Mag kicks it up a notch or 10 with a varied series of pencil puzzles from easy to super-challenging.

Any specialty magazine in the $10 or $15 range, for that matter, is a great splurge — a rare indulgence that anyone spends on themselves.


There are so many great ideas out there! (And, well, some duds too...) Share your BEST ideas and cringe at the worst below in the comments.

Karen Rechenbach

Really thoughtful ideas! Thank you for taking the time to share them. I’m off to shop!

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