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Secret Santa: How to Give Like No One Else

Looking for a budget-friendly way to do Christmas with your family or friends this year? Then playing Secret Santa (where you’re only responsible for buying one gift for just one person) might be the answer to your prayers!

Still, when it comes to Secret Santa giving, people sometimes get overwhelmed with it all. How do you give a meaningful gift and stay on track with the price limit? How do you know if they’ll even like your gift? And wait . . . is Secret Santa the same as White Elephant? Let’s cover everything you need to know so you can succeed at giving an amazing Secret Santa gift this Christmas.

How Do You Play Secret Santa?

It’s not complicated, we promise. Secret Santa is a chance to “play Santa” and give a gift to one specific person in your group. You each draw names either by putting everyone’s name in a hat or using an online generator. And faster than you can say, “Ho, ho, ho”—you’ve just become someone’s own personal Santa.


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Playing Secret Santa is also a great way to get that typical gift-giving experience without carrying the heavy price tag of buying a gift for every single person! Usually, there’s a price limit set so no one can gift an iPod while someone else is giving a homemade oven mitt. (If that just made you think of The Office, points for you.)

During the gift exchange, everyone in the group takes turns opening up the gift they received from their Secret Santa. Part of the fun of Secret Santa is just that—it’s a secret! The person receiving the gift doesn’t know who it’s from. After opening the gift, they can shout out some guesses of who they think it might be.

What Are the Rules of Secret Santa?

Let’s be honest, this isn’t exactly a hard game to play. But it’s still good to know a few of the ground rules before you dive in.

  • Make sure everyone knows how to play Secret Santa. And be sure they know it’s different than White Elephant (more on that later).
  • Make sure every person draws a name.
  • Set a gift budget.
  • Stick to the gift budget! Seriously. Don’t be the person who brings the $50 item to the $10 party.
  • Show up to the party. If you don’t, someone won’t get their gift!
  • Be grateful when receiving your gift. Yeah, even if it’s another Batman shirt and you have at least 20 in your closet at home. Everyone around your office knows you’re a die-hard fan, so what were they supposed to do? Don’t be ungrateful. Just say, “Thank you! You’ve never seen me and Batman in the same place at the same time, now have you?” And let the Secret Santa-ing continue!

Who Do You Play Secret Santa With?

Anyone! Well, people you like and want to give gifts to—that usually helps. This gift-giving game is most popular with coworkers, friends and even families during the Christmas season. It’s an easy way to take the pressure out of gift giving and amp up the fun factor!

What’s the Difference Between Secret Santa, White Elephant and Yankee Swap?

With Secret Santa, you actually get to go out and shop for the person whose name you picked. Since you know who’s going to get your gift, you can go buy something with them in mind. It’s a much more personal gift-giving experience for both of you!

White Elephant and Yankee Swap, on the other hand, are different. Everyone brings in a gift, but you have no idea who will be leaving with your gift. Why? Because this is the one time when no one will fault you for stealing. That’s right—the twist here is that you can either steal a gift that someone else has already unwrapped or you can unwrap another gift altogether.

Did you steal something you absolutely love? Don’t get too attached. Someone might have their eye on it and steal it from you during their turn!

The Do’s and Don’ts of Secret Santa

Don’t be cheap.

Definitely be frugal and make the most of your money. But don’t be cheap here. If you’ve committed to bringing a gift, don’t be the only one who shows up without a gift. That’s just tacky. And while we’re at it, don’t give a used gift either. It’s fine to repurpose a gift if you haven’t used it at all, but nobody wants your scratched-up DVD of The Sound of Music or your coffee table book that you actually spilled coffee on. 

Most of the time, Secret Santa has a low price cap of about $10–15 per gift. Just be sure to plan for that in your Christmas budget, and you’ll be golden. If you’re flat broke, you can always bake cookies or give a coupon for a night of babysitting. 

Don’t act disappointed.

Oh no, I got the bag of cookies while Johnny over there got the iTunes gift card! We all have those moments when we find ourselves thinking like a disappointed 6-year-old. Don’t let your inner child come out to play at the party though. That’s a sure way to squash everyone’s Christmas spirit, Scrooge.

Don’t stress over finding the perfect gift.

Follow the rules and buy something appropriate, but make sure you have fun with it. Remember, this is a Christmas party after all! Have a good time searching for the perfect gift, but don’t stress so much that you forget what all of this hoopla is really about—spending time with your friends, family and coworkers.

Do know who you’re giving to.

You drew Joe’s name. Joe loves specialty coffee and grilling. And you bought him a lighthouse knickknack. Really? Why not a $10 gift card to his favorite coffee shop or a book of out-of-this-world grilling recipes? Take some time to find out what they might like instead of taking a shot in the dark and hoping you hit the mark!

Do get creative.

Come on, you can do better than a box of store-bought cookies, can’t you? Find something useful and practical that they can use all year long. You’d be surprised by the awesome Christmas gifts you can DIY or find in the discount section of almost any store for pretty cheap.

Do give a meaningful gift.

Just because you’re doing Secret Santa doesn’t mean you can’t give a meaningful gift! Remember, Secret Santa means you’re giving a real gift, not some gag gift of a reindeer leaving behind chocolate candy “surprises.”

And meaningful doesn’t automatically mean expensive either. You can find plenty of life-changing gifts for $10 right now in our online store. Imagine the fun of surprising the lucky recipient of your Secret Santa gift with the brand-new audiobook gift card of The Total Money Makeover! Who knew Secret Santa could help inspire so much life-change?

Ramsey Solutions

About the author

Ramsey Solutions

Ramsey Solutions has been committed to helping people regain control of their money, build wealth, grow their leadership skills, and enhance their lives through personal development since 1992. Millions of people have used our financial advice through 22 books (including 12 national bestsellers) published by Ramsey Press, as well as two syndicated radio shows and 10 podcasts, which have over 17 million weekly listeners. Learn More.

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