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

What’s the best way to break the news that you won’t be buying someone a Christmas gift this year? For your news to be well-received, you need to address both the practical and the emotional sides of gift giving. You’ll find the how-tos below.

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 decorated for the holidays, and Christmas sales are being touted as “Pre-Pre-Black Friday Bonus Days.”

If your budget this year 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 the bow is already on the box!


How do you get others to agree to not exchanging 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 Let Others Know You Won’t Be Buying Them a Gift This Year or You’re Cutting Back on the Number of Gifts You’re Buying Them

Set Others’ Expectations Now:

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.

Mention the Benefits to Everyone:

When you broach the subject, if you talk about how you don’t have money to buy everyone a gift, you open the door for people to think of you as cheap. 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 cheap. And, of course, that’s not what 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 whom you know and love know your heart, they should be much more open to the change in tradition.

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.

Gather Your Supporters First:

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 Aunt Jackie, and with the economy being so uncertain right now, we’re thinking we should just focus on buying gifts for the kids and teens. Then, instead of buying for all of us, we can buy only for the youngest ones. Does that sound like a good new way to celebrate this year?”

Keep Your Word:

I received an email once from a lady 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 this lady was much better off financially than her 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 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.

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.

What to Do When You Unexpectedly Receive a Gift from Someone Who Agreed Not to Give You a Gift:

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.

With Friends and Coworkers:

Agree now that this year, instead of exchanging gifts, you would like to spend time with the person. Plan a special weekend lunch or movie night where everyone pays their own tab. This way, you’ve made memories! They usually are enjoyed much longer than any other gift.

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 a gift(s) to a 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.

With Your Children’s Friends:

Same thing as above: plan a play date or movie day with everyone. (When talking with other parents, here are The Five Manners of Great Christmas Party Conversations.)

Grace Tip:

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 you don’t have to even if you normally send one.

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,

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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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