Save Money on Gifts With a White Elephant Exchange

Christmas is the day of giving and being with the family. White Elephant Exchange is another way of giving and sharing the love to family and friends.
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The holidays are a time of giving, being with family, and having fun. A favorite holiday tradition in my family is to buy cheap items from the clearance aisles or dollar stores. We would then wrap them up and pass them around while my grandfather reads ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. As a child, I thought it was a great way to get extra gifts. As an adult, I recognize this now as a variation of a white elephant exchange. Here's how you can organize a white elephant gift exchange and save money on gifts.

What Is a White Elephant Exchange?

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I feel like I should start off by reassuring you that no, a White Elephant Exchange has absolutely nothing to do with real animals. I promise no one is going to show up with a two-ton wild elephant and a packet of peanuts.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines a white elephant as “an object no longer of value to its owner but of value to others.” Traditionally, an undesirable or unwanted gift which could not be turned down (like that awful sweater your grandmother knitted you) was called a white elephant. These gifts are tacky, useless, silly, unusual, or some other variation of an unwanted gift. These may also be gifts that are duplicates or are no longer useful. I mean, how many picture frames or coffee mugs could you possibly need? In the modern tradition of a white elephant gift exchange, the goal is to have fun while ridding yourself of unwanted possessions. Aside from the cost of wrapping (and there are plenty of ideas for wrapping gifts on the cheap), that makes your present absolutely free!

The Rules

Before you come to the party, make sure you know the rules and follow them.
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When it comes to your white elephant gift exchange, the rules can be as simple or complex as you and your guests agree upon. There are also variations of the game, like the one my family has come to treasure. We'll go over these here.

Rule Ideas

Although you can adjust the rules to suit your needs, the general rules, according to All Things Frugal (@AllThingsFrugal), include

  1. Take a total headcount once all your guests have arrived. The number of guests should match the number of gifts.
  2. Write numbers on slips of paper, up to the total number of guests in attendance.
  3. Have your guests select a number from a hat, bowl, etc.
  4. Whoever draws the first number picks and opens a gift first.
  5. Once the first person has claimed a gift, subsequent guests can choose to open a gift or steal one from another person.
  6. If a gift is stolen, the person who was stolen from can choose to steal or open another gift, until all gifts are opened.
  7. When everyone has been given a chance to open or steal a gift, the first person gets to go one last time. During this turn, they may choose to steal another gift or keep the one they have.


As I mentioned, my family has our own variation of a white elephant exchange. There are many variations of the above-mentioned rules, as The Game Gal (@TheGameGal) explains in this post. These variations include:

  1. You cannot steal back a gift right away.
  2. No hiding a gift once you've opened it.
  3. You can choose to “freeze” a gift once it's been stolen so many times. For example, if a box of candy has been stolen three times, the third person who ends up with it gets to keep it.

In my family's aforementioned variation, my grandfather reads ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. The gifts remain wrapped, and each time my grandfather reads the word “the,” we pass the gifts to the left. When he reads the word “and,” the gifts are passed to the right. He can switch it up, pause the passing gifts, or speed the game up as he chooses. None of the gifts are allowed to be unwrapped until the story is over. I've ended up with some rather unusual gifts this way over the years.

Gift Ideas

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Finding a gift for your white elephant exchange is quite easy. For some ideas to get you started, let's break this down into DIY gifts and cheap gifts you can buy from the store.

DIY Gift Ideas

Do-it-yourself has become a very popular trend these days, and since so many DIY projects can be done using items you already have around the house, it's a cost-effective option. Babble (@WeAreBabble) offers a host of ideas for DIY white elephant exchange gifts, including:

  1. A white elephant folded towel, which is exactly what it sounds like.
  2. A crocheted white elephant
  3. DIY beard and mustache
  4. Grinch pills and reindeer droppings (as suggested by @ThreeGirlies)
  5. A Whole Lot of Nothing, made with an empty plastic bag and a lot of laughs.

Cheap Store Gifts

Not everyone is up for crafting or DIY gifts, so there's usually a set limit on how much to spend on a gift for these exchanges. Our family's limit is usually $5, though some suggest as much as $20. Offbeat Home (@offbeathome) has put together a list of low-cost ideas here, such as:

  1. Portable wine glasses
  2. Microwaveable s'mores maker
  3. Kinetic sand
  4. Hot dog toaster
  5. Reusable to-go coffee cups

Whatever you choose to bring to your gift exchange, I hope you find yourself having as much fun as my family does with ours. There's nothing like a white elephant exchange to bring laughter to a gathering. Are you planning a gift exchange? What will you bring? Let us know in the comments and don't forget to share.

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