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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 one person, might be the answer to your prayers!

Secret Santa is loads of fun, but people sometimes get overwhelmed and even a little confused 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?

So, let’s answer those questions and cover everything you need to know about Secret Santa.

How Do You Play Secret Santa?

It’s not complicated, we promise. Secret Santa is a chance for everyone in your group to “play Santa” and give a gift to one specific person. Everyone draws a name, and faster than you can say, “Ho ho ho,” you’ve just become that person’s own personal Santa.

Playing Secret Santa is a great way to still experience the joy of gift giving without carrying the heavy price tag of buying a gift for a whole crowd of people. And there’s usually a price limit, because no one wants to wind up going home with a homemade oven mitt after giving someone else an expensive gadget. (Yeah, we don’t recommend using The Office as your model for how to play Secret Santa.)

Part of the fun of Secret Santa is in the name—it’s a secret! When your group gets together to exchange the gifts, everyone takes turns opening up what they received from their Secret Santa, and the person receiving the gift doesn’t know who it’s from.

Some groups like to reveal the identity of everyone’s Secret Santa once all the gifts have been opened, and others prefer to keep it a secret—it’s up to you.

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 every person draws one name. (And double check that everyone’s name got put in the hat—you don’t want someone to be left out!)
  • Set a gift budget for everyone to follow.
  • Stick to the gift budget! Seriously, don’t be the person who brings a $50 item to the $10 party.
  • Show up to the party. If you don’t, someone won’t get their gift (and you won’t get yours!).
  • Have everyone open their gifts one at a time. As each gift is opened, it might be fun for the people in your group to try guessing their Secret Santa’s identity. (And remember, each group gets to decide whether the identity stays a secret.)
  • Be grateful when receiving your gift, even if it’s another Batman shirt and you have at least 20 in your closet at home. 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?

People you like and want to give gifts to. Seriously, you can play Secret Santa with almost anyone. It’s most popular with coworkers, friend groups and families. 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 buy something with them in mind. It’s a personal gift-giving experience for both of you.


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With White Elephant and Yankee Swap (aka Dirty Santa), on the other hand, everyone brings in a gift (usually a gag), but no one knows who will leave with the gift they bring. Why? Because all the gifts go into a pool, and everyone takes turns picking one at random.

Or if you’d rather embrace your inner Bonnie and Clyde, you can use your turn to steal a gift someone else has already unwrapped. Just don’t get too attached if you do choose to steal a gift, because someone else can steal it right back from you on their next turn.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Secret Santa

Do know who you’re giving to.

You drew Joe’s name. Joe loves specialty coffee and grilling. And you bought him a pair of leggings from lululemon. 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 the person you draw might like instead of taking a shot in the dark and hoping you hit the mark!

Don’t be cheap.

Definitely be frugal and make the most of your money, but don’t be cheap. If you’ve committed to bringing a gift, actually bring it. 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 literally spilled coffee on. 

Besides, Secret Santa usually has a price cap of about $10 to $15 per gift. So 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. 

Do give a meaningful gift.

Just because you’re doing Secret Santa doesn’t mean you can’t give a meaningful gift! Remember—you’re supposed to give real gifts in Secret Santa, not some gag like a whoopee cushion or a Shake Weight.

And meaningful doesn’t automatically mean expensive either. You can find plenty of life-changing gifts for $10 right now in our online store. The options include Dave Ramsey’s latest #1 bestseller, Baby Steps Millionaires, and eight different Questions for Humans decks.

Don’t act disappointed.

Oh no, I got the bag of cookies while Johnny over there got the Amazon 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.

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 gift options you can find in the discount section of almost any store. You can also DIY a Christmas gift for pretty cheap.

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. 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.

Even though Secret Santa is a lot less pricey than the traditional “everybody buys a gift for everybody” approach to Christmas, it can 100% be just as fun and exciting for you and your friends or family.

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Ramsey Solutions

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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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