Here’s What to Do About That White Elephant Gift Exchange for the Holidays

My gosh. We all have so much stuff. Here’s the #1 thing with a white elephant gift exchange: Give something you would like to receive. Strive to be the one who brings the gift everyone wants to steal and take home. Gift something unique. You will be the hit of the party.

Don’t be the person who brings the bad gift.

White elephant gift exchange ideas

Everyone is busy and stressed out under normal circumstances. Over the holidays, it ramps up.  Everyone is exhausted from running around shopping, baking, Elf-ing, tree trimming, sending gifts to faraway family, and more.

Maybe you are also buying gifts for a Secret Santa exchange or sending out holiday cards. Likely, you are doing all of this while also working, volunteering, and maintaining your home and caring for your family.

And now, the invitation comes to get together with friends for the holidays. Maybe you have an annual thing going. Maybe it’s with your neighbors, your mom friends, or your volunteer group. And guess what? They are doing a grab bag gift exchange to add some fun to the party. This is often called a white elephant gift exchange.

But what to bring to a white elephant party?

Here’s the thing: There are some people who seem to put more thought into it than others. Or maybe they just “get” it without needing to overthink.

white elephant party gift ideas
Bring the good gift to the white elephant party

White elephant gift exchange

Even if you leave with something weird, pathetic and/or lackluster, it’s meant to all be in good fun. However, we are exhausted, running like maniacs, our anxiety at all-time high levels this season. Wouldn’t it be nice to leave with a decent gift?

We do so much for others. Just once, I’d like to have a gift I didn’t have to pick out for myself.

So while it seems obvious that everyone would bring a good gift to the white elephant gift exchange, this is not always the case.

Some people may just be looking to save the $15 or whatever amount and give something they already have at home. Some bring whatever castoff they received at their last holiday grab bag, which very well may have been the week before.

The funny thing is, though, that EVERYONE wants to RECEIVE a good gift. Have you seen people “stealing” the “better” gifts at these parties?!

So please, don’t bring unopened, unused crap items from your house. Try. Put in a tiny bit of effort if you can.

The exception to this if is if the host explains what is expected from the white elephant gift. The host may spell out it has to be something new from home vs buying something new.

What kind of gift exchange is it?

Sometimes a white elephant gift exchange is just that: It’s random, weird, and cast-offs nobody wants. It’s the coal in the stocking of life.

You are supposed to bring the gag gifts, the political toilet paper, or a unicorn marker holder. Maybe it’s this odd half bustier and half Christmas tree weird stand at HomeGoods.

Fine, if you are supposed to go and find the weirdest thing, go for it. But be sure you know this in advance. There’s nothing more pathetic than showing up with some kooky thing while everyone else has really stepped up their gift-giving game.

Many times, when people use the term, “white elephant gift exchange,” you are meant to go and buy a decent gift that you would really want between X amount and X amount. It’s not meant to be a “let’s-purge-unwanted-junk-from-our-house” gift.

White elephant is the now-term for Grab Bag. It means different things to different people.

White elephant gifts 2020

Here are some fun ideas for this year’s gift-giving. I want all of these. They are all on Amazon.

  • Silicone Utensil Rest with Drip Pad for Multiple Utensils by Zulay: I love this to contain drips. It’s dishwasher safe. Price varies depending on color: $8 – $14. You can include a spatula or tongs.

  • Lockabox One Lockable Box for Food, Medicines and Home Safety: This is a box to lock up food or whatever you want. It’s clear so you can see through it. But most anyone would find a use for it. Think of buying Halloween candy and then eating it. Instead, lock it up so you won’t be able to. You can give this with a bag of potato chips, chocolate, wine, etc. inside. The price varies between $24 – $40 on Amazon, depending on the day. This is sort of random so you’ll need to know the people at the white elephant exchange party!

  • Yaluxe Wallet for Women: This wallet has RFID blocking. It holds multiple cards and zippers. I love that it comes in many fun colors. It’s $19 – $23 on Amazon.

  • 500 – 1,000 piece puzzle: An example is a National Parks puzzle, 1,000 piece. It would be fun for the family or to do alone. Another puzzle that would be great for a book club grab bag is a puzzle with books. There’s a fun one for book lovers called: I’d Rather Be Reading.

White elephant gift ideas for holiday gift exchanges

Most of these white elephant gift exchanges are between $10 – $25. Ten, so you don’t spend a whole lot and leave disappointed if you get something you don’t like. Twenty – $25, so you can gift something nice.

It’s a decent range. And if all else fails, and you run out of time, you can do a gift card to Panera Bread, Starbucks, or Target.

If this is for a mom’s group of friends, the key is this is supposed to be something the moms/women would like. For once, it’s not about their kids.

Giving some type of consumable

For the receiver, consumables mean no clutter later on. They can eat, drink or use it, and be done.

  • Handcrafted bar soaps with flavors such as coffee and peppermint are a hit.
  • Nail polish sets — look at Target for sets for under $20 from E.L.F. and OPI.
  • Wine or peppermint schnapps with some candy canes is typically safe. (Be aware of your crowd if some of them don’t imbibe.)
  • Sets in a gift basket usually go over well, but stay away from cheap lotions, etc. Bath & Body Works products always seem to go over well, though it’s not that original.
  • You could buy a 6-pack of gourmet soda in glass bottles and decorate them like reindeer. (Look on Pinterest. It’s so easy with pipe cleaners, a ribbon, etc.) Depending on the grab bag limit, you could also attach a gift card to Target.
  • You can also do this with a decent bottle of wine.
white elephant gift exchange
White elephant gift exchanges are fun… get something everyone will like. (This is not it!)

Gift card or money

I’ve been to several of these holiday gift exchanges over the years. While I really love them, gift cards don’t seem to be as popular and steal-worthy as other gifts.

Personal story: I once made a very cute money tree. I gave the full amount ($25) plus the materials to make the tree. The lady who opened it was thrilled and also ecstatic and surprised no one stole it from her.

In my opinion, she had the “sure thing” gift. She could buy her own gift with the money. The tree was festive and Pinterest-worthy.

Yet, everyone opted to either pick a wrapped gift from the pile or to steal another gift. At this particular party, there were 12 of us. I was in the top third of picking first. I picked a wrapped gift and tried not to act disappointed when I saw it was a $25 gift card to some foot massage place. (Sorry, but gross. No thank you.)

I acted pleasant. There were a lot of oohs and ahhs about it. I couldn’t believe it! Even more surprising, someone stole it from me — much to my utter joy. Then, I stole a $25 Nordstrom gift card and was excited to be able to pick out something I wanted.

Another popular white elephant gift at that party was a really soft blanket.

Home décor or decorations

Some people opt to give a Christmas decoration or some ornaments. This is fine if this is the theme of the white elephant gift exchange.

Yankee Candles always seem to be popular.

Sometimes these can be risky, but some times you get a hit. They tend to be overdone so proceed with caution. Most people tend to have too many decorations and not enough space.

White elephant gift exchange ideas

Wander around Target. They have inexpensive and very fun things. You will need a bit of time for this though. You will find interesting potential gifts all throughout the store.

Other ideas include:

  1. Fair trade candy bar with gift certificate to Target, TJ Maxx, Ross, Trader Joe’s, etc.
  2. Portable phone charger
  3. Either a necklace or bracelet(s): Do not get a matching set of earrings and necklace; this is outdated.
  4. Adult coloring book and nice colored pencils (not Crayola or kid brand ones)
  5. Nail polish: Get a decent name-brand set or two bottles of great colors.
  6. Current book:  Go to Target or Barnes and Noble and get some trendy, best-selling book, and add on holiday candy. Include a gift receipt.
  7. Suduku book: Attach a gift card from a brick and mortar book store in your area.
  8. Essential oils, lotion sets, soaps:  These are popular at every gift exchange I’ve ever been to. (I personally despise them.)
  9. Something interesting from Cost Plus:  Get a container of their fortune cookies and include a $10 bill with a cute note attached saying “Wishing you good fortune in the new year.”
  10. Bed, Bath and Beyond has interesting things. Remember your 20% off coupon.
  11. Journal or nice notebook with an add-on:  Is there really a more perfect gift than a place for your friend to incessantly write lists of her to-dos?
  12. Movie gift certificate or two movie passes: Bonus if you include a certificate for popcorn.
  13. Super-soft, cozy blanket: This was the gift that everyone was stealing at one holiday gift exchange party.
  14. Scarf: You can really never have too many, especially in the winter. Attach a gift receipt.
  15. Interesting set: Again, wander one of the above stores and you will find something grand. Around the holidays, Target and other stores all have cute stuff out.
  16. Cactus: In a minimalist vase, these are on trend. Be careful wrapping it.
  17. Cute jewelry stand: Look at Ross, TJ Maxx, Marshall’s, Target, etc. Include gift receipt.
  18. Wine: When all else fails, there’s wine.

More white elephant ideas

  1. Amazon gift card:  What’s not to love?
  2. Barnes & Noble gift card:  Everyone loves roaming Barnes & Noble. She can buy a planner, wall calendar, a book, a crossword book… anything! If you all live in the same area and have a local bookstore, even better.
  3. Target gift card: I keep coming back to this but really, everyone loves Target… even if you don’t like shopping.
  4. Money: 
  • Make a money tree. (I’m not crafty, and even I was able to do this.)
  • Fold the money in a shape. Once, for a kid’s birthday party, I wrapped 20 one dollar bills with pipe cleaners and made a type of sphere shape.
  • Fold money in some type of origami way. Back in the mid-1990’s, I was at a holiday grab bag/gift exchange, and a big hit was someone wrapped a $20 bill into a ring (this was even before Youtube) and put it in a little ring box.

Holiday grab bags are all in good fun

The idea again is that you aren’t spending a lot, so it’s something to do to build camaraderie and kill time at a gathering. And it’s really fun. How many times do we sit around and have such fun on a school night!?

Recently, I was invited to another holiday gift exchange. I was debating about what this crowd would like. What would I like?

Find great grab bag ideas while roaming at Target

I started roaming. It was difficult to decide from among these great white elephant ideas. Everywhere I turned, there were very cute things:

  • Wristlets
  • Scarves, hats
  • Bags, purses
  • OPI nail polish sets
  • Holiday décor – only get if really fun; many people have too much
  • Cute notebooks, journals, planners and fun office supplies
  • Current, best-selling books
  • Holiday trivia boxed game

Grab bag add-on ideas

Be sure you are spending enough on the gift. Don’t cheap out and show up with a $10 gift and leave with one for $25. In this instance, even if you leave with a terrible gift, you can feel great about bringing a good white elephant exchange gift.

Therefore, if you wanted to spend more so you don’t look cheap, you can add on:

  • $5-10 Target gift card
  • Holiday candy
  • Good brand of nail polish 

And the best part? You can include a gift receipt so the person can return it (and not have to re-gift it) if she doesn’t like it. Providing a gift receipt alone will set you ahead of all the other grab bag participants. You’ve given your recipient a way out.

Attention Shoppers: Go to Target to get your white elephant gift. And remember, there are lots of stores that sell great packaged sets.

Stores to find awesome white elephant ideas and holiday grab bag gifts

If you have more time and enjoy roaming stores, other great places to find white elephant gifts are:

  • Home Goods: I don’t know how they can pack more into this store around Christmastime.
  • Ross Dress for Less: I saw a great portable cell phone charger wristlet-type purse for $20 when I was in line to pay at Ross. Who wouldn’t love that? (Updated to add I bought two of these in the past year as birthday gifts. The receivers loved them! One bought three for Christmas for her list.) We’re all super-dependent on our cell phones.
  • TJ Maxx
  • Marshalls
  • Steinmart: Around the holidays, they have lots of interesting stuff near the registers.
  • Kohl’s: They always have a random section of things but this ramps up near the holidays. They have a section near the men’s suits (at my Kohl’s) that has all price points of what seem to be white elephant gifts. Some are practical and some are more gimmicky. Roam this section for ideas. They usually mark them 50% off.

All of these places have random things. You will likely find something that strikes you. Again, it’s probably something you would also like.

  • You can go to Macy’s, Nordstrom Rack or Dillard’s and probably find a cute necklace or bracelets for $15, easily. There may be fashionable winter hats around this price point as well. Wander these stores, and you will probably find something for less than $20 that would be perfect. Include the gift receipt. Perhaps the recipient will be impressed you bought it from a ‘better’ store and likely keep it.

TIP: No matter where or what you buy, remember to ask for a gift receipt when you buy it. Include the gift receipt with anything you buy, even for food items. Why not? Remember, we all have too much crap stuff.

What not to give for a holiday grab bag exchange

Unless the party host instructs you to do this, do not, under any circumstances, start rummaging around your home, looking for random things to bring to unload on someone else. Sure, you want to save money and time. Don’t we all?

But don’t be the schmuck who re-gifts something lame and takes home something great that someone spent money on. Everyone wants to go home with a good gift.

Really, you will just be embarrassing yourself. Even if everyone is too polite to say it, they will be thinking your gift sucks and that you are weird, cheap, or clueless.

If you can’t bring yourself to spend $15 on a new gift, or maybe you really cannot afford it, which is understandable, it is far better to attend the party and opt out of the gift exchange. You can easy say, “Sorry, I didn’t have time to get anything.” Or, “Darn it! I forgot my gift at home. Oh well!”

If all else fails and you do run out of time, you can stick to giving a gift card or cash just to be a part of it. No one wants holiday socks or anything you already have too much of at home already.

Think of what you would want, and give that.

White elephant gift exchange tips

Even if you are supposed to bring something weird, follow these tips for your next white elephant party:

  • Bring a gift you would actually want to pick.
  • Include a gift receipt if possible. Don’t if it’s alcohol or a consumable (food or drink).
  • If you can’t think of anything or have no time for white elephant shopping, give a gift card or cash. Try to make it look cute in some way.
  • When you start your holiday shopping, be on the lookout for a gift. Usually, you will see something cute that you really want for yourself. That would be the perfect thing to buy for the holiday grab bag party you are sure to be invited to. And if you’re not invited to one? Host your own party, or keep it yourself!

And while no one may remember who brought all the good white elephant gifts, you can bet they’ll remember who brought the bad ones!

Manage your expectations

If you really don’t have time to deal with a white elephant gift exchange, really, just fold up some cash and stick it in a box. Do set your expectations low when attending a white elephant exchange holiday party.

Most people are stressed out because it’s the holidays. While many people will likely try to bring something nice — no one wants to be embarrassed — there will be those women who just can’t be bothered and will bring whatever is convenient for them.

Be gracious if you end up with her gift. I dealt with a particularly uncomfortable white elephant gift exchange gift. It was immensely awkward for everyone because it was so random and weird. All you can do is smile and move on.

Holiday grab bag gifts

This is amusing: There is a kickstarter campaign designed to turn the white elephant gift exchange into an actual game… a fun game. It’s purpose is to upend the white elephant, and to keep guests from wasting money on gifts that end up in the landfills.

So RSVP to the party, buy that great grab bag gift, figure out what you are going to wear, smile, and have a great time!