How to Graciously Let Others Know You Won’t Be Buying Them a Gift This Year

How do you tell people you won’t by buying them Christmas gifts this year? For your news to be well-received, you need to address both the practical and the emotional side of giving presents. You’ll find seven how-tos below for graciously telling them you won’t be giving them a gift this holiday season without being seen as a Scrooge. 

The Etiquette of Letting Others Know You Won't Be Buying as Many Gifts This Year


By: Maralee McKee, Manners Mentor

Christmas Season begins earlier and earlier every few years. A generation ago, it started the day after Thanksgiving. A generation or so before that, our great-grandparents celebrated the 12 Days of Christmas. And go back about 100 years or so, and most people put up their Christmas tree on Christmas Eve for a two-day celebration.

But now, as soon as a pumpkin spice anything is back on the menu at Starbucks, you know that stores are decorating for the holidays, and Christmas sales are being touted as “Pre-Pre-Black Friday Bonus Days.”

If your budget requires you to cut back on holiday spending, or you just want a less gift-focused Christmas, and you plan to buy people fewer gifts or no gifts this year, the best time to tell them is NOW. It’s easier for them to accept the change in your annual gift-giving tradition before an early sale item catches their eye as the perfect gift for you than after they’ve put a bow on their box!


How do you get others to agree to not exchange gifts this year?

What do you say if someone gives you a gift after promising not to?

You know store-bought items count as gifts, but is it OK to give something you’ve made?

No need to fret. There’s a gracious way to spread the word that this Christmas you’ll be showing your love with well wishes instead of trinkets and baubles.

7 Ways to Tell Folks You Won’t Be Buying Them Christmas Gifts This Year or That You’re Cutting Back on the Number of Gifts You’re Buying 

1. Set Their Expectations as Early as Possible

Thanksgiving dinner, when everyone is gathered around the table, might seem like a great time to discuss your gift-purchasing plans, but that’s actually a little late.

Why? Because, as we already mentioned, unlike in past generations, Christmas season now starts long before Thanksgiving Day. Once it begins, people tend to think more emotionally than economically.

Your relatives might already know what they plan to buy you, so they’re less likely to be receptive to your ideas.

Sure, you can draw names on Thanksgiving Day, but decide now with your family what the game plan and spending limit will be. This is best done through phone calls or emails because a text message, or worse yet a group text, doesn’t give you the bandwidth you need to share your reason(s) for changing your tradition of giving with the other person(s) with the littlest room for misunderstanding on their part.

 2. Mention the Benefits for Everyone Involved of Buying Fewer (or No) Christmas Gifts this Year

When you broach the subject, if you talk about how you don’t have money to buy everyone a gift, the focus is on what this is doing for you, but not for them. Plus, if they have less money than you (or they think they do), but they still plan to buy as much this year as last, they may well think of you as Scrooge. And of course that’s not who you are at all.

What’s the solution? Mention how, with the economy being uncertain, you know everyone has been thinking about ways to save money. Let them know that being economical this year is the best gift everyone in the family can give each other.

Or, if your reason doesn’t have anything to do with finances, share with them what’s on your heart that promoted your decision. When people you know and love know your heart, they should be much more open to the change in tradition.

Be sure to let them know this has nothing to do with how you feel about them. It’s just that you would like this holiday season to be focused on the intangible but luxurious gift of relaxing with them and making memories with them instead of on exchanging tangible presents.

Start making your holiday plans with them when you have this conversation.

If they’re not open to the changes, well, at least you know you shared from your heart. There is nothing more you need to do, or that you can do. 

3. Gather Your Supporters First — Other People in the Family Who Will Be Open to Not Exchanging Gifts This Year

Who in your family will be most receptive to the idea, and who will be the least? Contact the most receptive members first. Then, when you discuss it with the less receptive members, mention the others who are already on board!

“Aunt Janet, I was talking to Mom, Grandma, and Jackie, and we’re thinking it would be a nice change to just focus on buying gifts for the kids and teens.” Then go on to share what you discussed with the others and everyone’s reasons for the change.  

4. Keep Your Word After You’ve Agreed Not to Give Someone a Christmas Gift

No falling off the gift-giving wagon once you’ve agreed not to give gifts!

I received an email from a woman who just couldn’t understand why her sister-in-law didn’t accept her gift graciously. They had agreed not to exchange Christmas gifts, but the woman who wrote me was much better off financially than her newlywed younger brother and his wife.

The young couple were about to move into their first home. Knowing they needed lots of things for the house, she gave them a $500 gift card. She wrote to me, “Christmas is all about giving. It gave me joy to share with them.”

Do you recognize the problem with her reasoning? The gift the young couple wanted most of all was “no gift.” She let her desire to “give” override the promise she had made. The good feeling she got from giving was her real motivation.

If her motivation had been to make them happy, she wouldn’t have broken her agreement and given them the gift – at least not at that time.

Grace Note: If you find something great for a relative, friend, or coworker, go ahead and buy it. Then wait and give it at a time when a gift in return isn’t expected! Save it for a birthday or anniversary, or make it an I’m-thinking-about-you-today gift that you give in a few months.

By doing this, you save the person the awkwardness of not having a gift to give you in return.

5. What to Do When You Unexpectedly Receive a Christmas Gift from Someone Who Agreed Not to Give You a Present

When someone surprises you with a gift, even though the two of you had agreed not to exchange them, accept it graciously. As you hold the gift, nicely say, “I’m surprised by your present. We had agreed not to exchange gifts, so I don’t have one for you in return.” Then you can open the gift and thank the other person. “This sweater is gorgeous, Pat! Thank you!” (It’s sometimes hard knowing the best thing to say while opening a gift. Here are Five Things to Say When Opening Christmas Gifts, and the Number 1 Don’t.)

Now you’re free to drop the subject.

Make sure not to buy the person a gift in return. Your word is your word; be true to it.

Perhaps next year, or the year after, when you continue to keep your word, the other person will get the hint.

6. How to Let Friends and Coworkers Know You’d Rather Not Exchange Christmas Gifts This Year

Agree now that this year, instead of exchanging gifts, you would like to spend time with the person. Plan a special weekend lunch, movie night, or a trip to a local holiday event where everyone pays their own tab. This way, you’ve made holiday memories! They’ll be enjoyed much longer than anything found in a store. 

If your office usually exchanges Secret Santa gifts or participates in any gift-exchanging games, you could suggest that you change things up this year, and instead, everyone pitch in to give gifts to one needy child or family. Toys for Tots, The Salvation Army, and Angel Tree are three great places to start if you aren’t sure whom to connect with in your area.

7. How to Get Other Parents to Agree Not to Exchange Christmas Gifts Among Your Children’s Friends

Use the same method as number 5 above: plan a holiday-themed play-date of making cookies, building simple gingerbread houses, or crafting a gift for a family member. Or have everyone pay their own way to see a movie or enjoy a local holiday event.  (When talking with other parents, here are The Five Manners of Great Christmas Party Conversations.)

When Giving Gifts, What Counts and What Doesn’t Count as a Christmas Gift?

Remember, if you’ve agreed not to give gifts, then everything counts, including: Christmas ornaments and decorations, potted plants and flowers, small items, handmade crafts, etc.

What can you give? Home-baked treats are a great option. As you give the goodies, you can say: “I was in the kitchen making these and thought of you. Consider it a home-baked Christmas card!” In this case, you can attach a Christmas card to the baked goods or place a card in the mail, but only if you typically send cards.

What’s Next?

Until next time, do what only you can do. Bless the world around you by being you at your authentic best!

Blessings galore,

my signature


The Etiquette of Letting Others Know That You Won't Be Buying As Many Gifts This Year


Maralee McKee

About Maralee McKee

Maralee McKee is the founder of Manners Mentor. With her best-friend style, sense of humor, and knack for updating etiquette to meet our modern sensibilities, she has been referred to as "Sandra Bullock meets Emily Post!" Maralee shows you how to become the best version of yourself. No fluff. No pretense. Just you at your authentic best! The person you were always meant to be! To learn more about Maralee click on the "Meet Maralee" or "New? Start Here" links at the top of this page.

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