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Christmas Gift Exchange Ideas | Unique & Cheaper Alternatives

Looking for Christmas gift exchange ideas on a budget? Here are 12 cheaper alternatives that are really unique and fun for the whole family!

Psst! Looking for more gift ideas? Be sure to check out all of our Holiday Gift Guides for this year!

Cheap Christmas Gift Exchange Ideas

Recently, a reader wrote in and asked this question:

“Our extended family usually does a gift exchange for the kids each year where we all draw names of which kids we will buy for. The spending amount is usually $20-25 per child. This year, one of the families is struggling financially and asked that we do not exchange gifts at all. Others would like to give something to the kids, but don’t want anyone to feel bad. My question is, are there any other fun, cheap Christmas gift exchange ideas for kids? -a reader”

I posted this question on Facebook and got so many great responses. Here are 12 of my favorite cheaper Christmas gift exchange ideas:

1. Stocking Fill Up

Every child can bring a stocking to fill and each family puts a little something into each stocking. That way everyone goes home with the same thing and nobody needs to know who gave what. Just drop in whatever fits your budget, whether it’s a candy cane, a book, or a fro-yo gift card. -Jenny

2. Saran Wrap Ball

Have one of the families that wants to do gifts do a Saran Wrap Ball super big for the kids. That way everyone gets something and no one is left out. It’s so much fun to watch the kids do it. Give them a set of oven mitts to hold the ball and unwrap it with them on. You’ll love it! -Autumn

We have done the Saran Wrap Ball and it is so much fun!! Just have the families who can afford to pitch in help pay for the small gifts. We went to the Dollar Tree and Five Below and there were items for every age group!! So much fun… and then the kids don’t have to feel bad or the parents! -Tonia

gifts in a pile

3. Experience Gifts

Maybe instead of gifts everyone who can afford to chip in can do so to pay for the kids to all go bowling, ice skating, or some kind of outing? This way, they can make memories together. You could even make little gift certificates to the outing/event for all of the kids.  -Kristin

4. Our Favorites Game

We do something called “our favorites”. We pick a theme (this year is Favorite Cracker) and if you want to participate you can but you don’t have to. You bring your favorite cracker, wrapped, and then we all sit in a circle and read a story that has a lot of ‘lefts’ and ‘rights’ and you pass the gifts accordingly.

At the end of the story, the gift you have in your hand is yours. We take turns opening the package and guess who the gift originally belonged to.

We keep the theme very simple so it’s affordable but it’s something to do together. One year was a favorite candy bar, favorite salty snack, favorite magazine. Some families bring one gift to share as a family, some families bring a gift for each person in the family and the kids LOVE passing the gifts back and forth during the story. -Jenny

Christmas Gift Exchange Ideas on a budget

5. $5 Gift Exchange

With our extended family we used to have the kids draw names and exchange $5 gifts. Last year, we didn’t draw names for the older ones (10+) and instead they played a passing game with their $5 gifts and they loved it! I mean, some of them literally ended up with nail clippers and gum but they had so much fun choosing interesting cheap gifts and playing the game that it didn’t matter how small the gifts were. -Kimberly

6. Homemade Gifts

One year, our gifts all had to be homemade. It was so great! We had chili mix, homemade vanilla, a “fort kit”, baked goods, handmade blankets, and more! -Emily

7. Ice Cream Social & Toy Swap

How about an evening of “toy sharing” and dessert buffet or sundae bar? Have the kids pick one or more of their own toys to bring and share with their cousins for the evening or day. Kids always love to even just play with a toy that’s new to them.

Each family can also bring either a treat to share or an ingredient for an ice cream sundae bar. Those who can spend more can buy the ice cream or more elaborate toppings and those who have limited budgets can bring something inexpensive like a bag of mini marshmallows (usually under $2 or $1 on sale) or chocolate chips. Set it all up and let kids and adults indulge.

The kids get to go home with their toy (or maybe even swap for a bit if a cousin is willing) and everyone enjoys an evening of fun and treats. -Ulana

Gift box with purple bow

8. White Elephant Gift Exchange

We do a White Elephant Gift Exchange in our family, so you can do what you already have or snag something from a thrift store, (we have a $5 limit). Then we do the draw numbers to see the order we open, then you can either open yours or steal someone’s already opened one and they can either open/keep or steal. After something has been stolen 3 times it gets to be kept by that person/out of play. It is a riot, you still get to open something, it took all the pressure off of the shopping aspect which made everything more enjoyable for everyone! -Laura

I would do a funny white elephant gift. Pick stuff from around the house. The whole family can get in. Just pick fun and goofy things, that you might have laying around! We did this at work, and there was everything from a t-shirt folder, used candles, ugly decorations, etc. Everyone had a great laugh! And for those that didn’t have stuff, they went to Goodwill and spent like a dollar or two! – Dawn

9. Secondhand Exchange

One year, we did an exchange that had to be used or second hand. We could hand down our own toys, book, or clothes, or purchase from a garage sale or thrift shop. -Emily

10. Gingerbread Building House Night

What about building gingerbread houses together? We make simple ones out of graham crackers ahead of time and have everyone bring some candy to share. It’s one of my kids’ favorite Christmas activities. -Jessica

Tip: If someone is buying the gingerbread house supplies ANYWAY, wrap up the various candy. That way the kid’s ‘gifts’ are actually contributions to the gingerbread house! Everyone feels like they made an important contribution to the house and then when leaving, all the kids split up the house and take some home for a treat later. -Shannon

Frugal Christmas Gift Exchange Ideas

11. Ornament Exchange

My mom and her sisters always did an ornament exchange. There were lots of homemade ornaments and some store bought ornaments when times were better. The cousins all had Christmas ornaments for their first tree as an adult.

One of the favorite ornaments was a box made of old Christmas cards with M&M’s in them. My aunt was so embarrassed that she had almost no money and made them with reused cards. She was a married in aunt and the sisters all had tremendous artistic talents. All of the cousins loved them the best that year and they were refilled for many Christmases to come. -Anne

12. Book Swap

We do a book exchange among all cousins. We encouraged gifting beloved books from their own library or our local used book store. -Sarah

Tip: I love to read and to give books for presents but that can be rather expensive. However, I have found a FABULOUS way to keep the cost of books down to a minimum: I hit the used book store and the thrift stores in my area. It’s like a treasure hunt, you simply NEVER know what kind of good books you might be able to find.

Periodically, I have to purge my book shelves of books I don’t want anymore. If I know someone in my family that might enjoy it, that’s what I give them for their birthday or Christmas. If I don’t know anyone in my family to give it to, I take it to the used book store for a credit. Once I have enough credit, I use that credit for books to use as gifts. It’s such a fun way to spend the day.

Also, many of the libraries in my area also have a “Friend s of the Library” room where they sale the books they are discarding for whatever reason for a nominal fee (usually it’s like 10 cents for magazines, 25 cents for paperbacks and 50 cents for hardbacks). -Constance

What other frugal Christmas gift exchange ideas would you add to this list? I’d love to hear!

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12 Comments

  • Joy in Alabama says:

    Our church did Poor Santa. Everybody had to bring something either from the thrift store or a white elephant gift. We played Dirty Santa but all ages participated so kids would get adult stuff and adults got kid stuff. It was quite hilarious and there was lots of stealing each other’s gifts. I think this is so much more fun than putting pressure on people to spend, spend, spend. Especially people with several children (I have 9!).

  • M says:

    I love these ideas!! Thank you!

  • Em says:

    We definitely have an inequality of gift giving abilities in our family too. We do a Saran Ball and the kids LOVE it. Each family contributes about $25 worth of gifts – I shop sales and can easily get our $25-30 worth of fun stuff for $10. (Think Old Navy fuzzy socks when they are $1, coupons for fun chapsticks and beef jerky, $5 music CDs, fancy pens & markers.) For 3 families with 7 kids total, they get great goodies. We do an adult one as well instead of giving each other gifts with the same budget.

  • Jerelyn says:

    I think the ideas are great! I just don’t understand how the Saran Wrap ball works. Do you wrap small toys in the ball?

  • Sarah says:

    I would add giving to the “needy” to your list. My favorite memories are giving to others instead of to ourselves. It truly is so much more fun to give than to receive.

    I am the last of 13 children and needless to guess, we didn’t have any “extra” money when I was growing up. Most of the time, we did not get Christmas presents. I really never felt deprived because all of my real needs were met, all year long.

    One of my favorite Christmas memories is of us reaching out to help a family my mom somehow found out about, that was poorer than we were. We made “Chex Mix” and put in a big ziplock bag. We then went to K-Mart and bought inexpensive coloring books and crayons and some basics like socks, underwear, hats and gloves. We added in some toiletries from our own stash at home. I remember my mother and I driving to this family’s mobile home. It was a single Mom with a small boy and girl. We were invited inside and gave them their wrapped presents. I still remember the shyness of the children and looks of surprise. It’s one of my nicest memories ever.

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