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10 Pieces of Gift-Giving Etiquette You Need This Holiday Season

Updated: Dec. 09, 2022

Who should you give to? How much should you spend? Your questions, answered.

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Don’t try to price-match

The first thing you should do when planning your gift list is create a budget of how much you’re willing to spend—and stick to it, even if you receive a more expensive gift from someone else. “Avoid matching spending, because that’s when gift-giving is driven more by pressure than by thoughtfulness,” says Sharon Schweitzer, an international etiquette expert and founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide. After all, loved ones dropping a lot of money on extravagant gifts could probably afford luxury items on their own and aren’t looking for you to return the favor. Find a thoughtful gift instead, like a frame with an old favorite photo, or an advanced copy of the other person’s favorite book.

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Don’t give just because you did in the past

When you’re figuring out whom to give to, keep in mind your list might not have all the same people as last year’s. “You have to review it annually because you have relationships with different people, so you have to look at how those relationships have grown and evolved,” says Schweitzer. “People come in and out of our lives.” Even if you’ve exchanged gifts in the past, don’t feel obligated to give presents to friends who you haven’t kept in touch with much this year. Send a holiday card instead to show you’re thinking of them.

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Be honest if you don’t have a gift

If someone surprises you with a present you weren’t expecting, be honest that you don’t have one to give in return. “The best way to handle that is to be genuine and authentic,” says Schweitzer. “Say you’re touched and delighted and slightly embarrassed you don’t have anything for them.” Don’t try to think up a gift on the spot by grabbing something out of your closet, because the other person will likely know exactly what you’re doing, she says.

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Never ask for a wish list

With the exception of family members or best friends, never ask people what they want for a present. “That makes people very uncomfortable, and they feel obligated to get you something in return,” says Schweitzer. Gift requests leave little creativity to the giver, so come up with your own ideas for a more thoughtful present.

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Include a gift receipt

Tucking a gift receipt in the package lets receivers subtly exchange the present if it’s the wrong size or not quite their taste. “You don’t know if they’ll go trotting over and ask for a gift receipt and you’ll feel awkward,” says Schweitzer. “Why make it difficult?” Just because they exchange it doesn’t mean they don’t like it—your gift might have been a duplicate or a color that doesn’t flatter them.

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Add a personal touch to a gift card

Gift certificates have a reputation for being unthoughtful, but they can be great choices when you know the receiver’s favorite stores and restaurants. A personal touch can transform it from seeming like you didn’t know what else to get, and showing you had that person’s tastes in mind. “It’s a really good idea to write a note with a gift card,” says Schweitzer. Explain that you’d love to go for a shopping spree together and treat the other person to lunch, or mention how you thought the receiver would love to splurge on new clothes for a new job.

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Cover your tracks if you’re regifting

Neutral gifts you’ve received like candles, picture frames, or bottles of wine might find a better home with someone else—just be careful about how you go about regifting. “If you’re going to regift, there are some things you have to do to remove all traces of original giving,” says Schweitzer. Common sense etiquette rules say to give the present to someone the original giver doesn’t know to make sure no one finds out. Also, decide right away if you’re going to regift or not. If you hold on to it until next year to give away, you could risk accidentally giving it to the original giver.

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Never arrive empty-handed

No matter how many holiday parties you’re going to, a host gift is always a polite offering. “You must bring a hostess gift when you go to someone’s home for a party, and people seem to have forgotten this,” says Schweitzer. Thank the host for having you by giving a holiday ornament, unscented candles, chocolates, or baked goods. Consider one of these 26 handmade gifts for everyone on your list.

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Check your company’s gift policies

Some companies have rules against giving gifts to your boss, so check your office’s policy to avoid an awkward situation if your manager can’t accept. “You may want to pool gifts or give a gift card to charity instead,” says Schweitzer.

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Consider buying a “couple” gift

“If you have a family member or friend and they’re in a serious relationship, your gift-giving can segue from individual gifts to couple gifts,” says Schweitzer. If you do decide to give one gift for the couple, check out their wedding registry for inspiration, or send a gift card to the restaurant where they met. Need some ideas? Check out these 100 Christmas gift ideas for people who are impossible to shop for.