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4 tips for white elephant parties

With so many variables, some participants are bound to be disappointed with their gift. Here's how to reduce that risk.

By MSN Money Partner Dec 14, 2011 11:36AM

This post comes from Mikey Rox at partner blog Wise Bread.


Chances are you've been invited to one of two types of soirees this holiday season -- an ugly sweater party or a white elephant party. The former is self-explanatory. Everybody wears the ugliest holiday sweater they can find -- usually obtained from a thrift store or their mom's closet. The latter, however, is a regional name for a more generic gift exchange.


The rules of the white elephant party are simple. Everybody who attends is required to bring a wrapped gift worth no more than a specified amount, generally between $10 and $20. At the height of the party, the guests will convene to unwrap presents in an order, most likely decided by numbers drawn from a hat. Each person will then choose a gift in order.


The first person picks a gift, opens it, and shows it to the rest of the party. In turn, the rest of the participants, in order, choose to either unwrap a new gift or to "steal" a previously unwrapped gift. If a gift is "stolen," the person who had their gift taken is allowed to unwrap a wrapped gift, and the turn passes. When all the gifts have been opened, the game is over.


You can already tell how awkward this can get, right? There are so many variables: the personality of the gift buyer, the potentially offensive or disappointing gift, and the hurt feelings of those who get a crappy gift. Not to mention that if you're chosen to go first, you can bet you're going to end up with the worst gift there is. On the flip side, whoever chooses last basically has pick of the litter because no one can steal his or her gift. Post continues below.

If you're invited to a white elephant gift-exchange party this year, try to avoid awkward moments with these four tips:


Stay on budget. If the host of the party sets a limit for how much you should spend on the required gift, stick to the limit. That doesn't mean the gift must be worth the limit -- for instance, if the limit is $20, a $15 gift is perfectly fine -- but it should not exceed it. Going over budget can make the other guests feel cheap. Even if you're re-gifting, which a lot of people do for these parties, be conscious of the original retail price of the gift. Just because you didn't shell out money for it doesn't mean it has no value.


Buy usable items. I once went to a white elephant party where a participant in the gift exchange brought a gift card to a grocery store that was very local for her. Unfortunately, none of the stores are near where I live, so I couldn't use the gift card. I gave it back to her so it wouldn't go to waste, but it was a little annoying.


When buying your gift, make sure it's all-purpose and preferably consumable. Personally, I don't want gifts that take up space in my home. Besides, you don't know what people already have. (Someone brought a coffee mug to that party, as if no one had one of those already.) While the party wouldn't be fun if everyone brought a gift card, try to think outside the box for your gifts while keeping in mind that not everyone will be from the same area you are. Keep this in mind when shopping -- go generic, but clever.


Just say no to alcohol. This isn't meant to say that you can't drink at the party, but the gift you bring for the exchange should not be alcohol for two reasons. The first is that everyone will know what the gift is. Have you ever tried to wrap a bottle of wine or six-pack of beer? After wrapping it, it still looks like a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer.


Secondly, not everyone at the party will be a drinker. There may be a recovering alcoholic among the participants. Can you think of anything worse than giving a bottle of booze to someone struggling with alcohol addiction? It's not a good look.


Above all, have fun. The gifts brought to a white elephant party aren't meant to be serious, so there's no need to pout if you get a gag gift. Some participants will bring thoughtless duds while others will bring gifts you really want. Whether you get the gift you have your eye on or not, keep your smile on. This party is all in fun, and acting ungrateful or childish will only ruin it for everyone else.


Ever been to a white elephant party? Have a funny story to tell about an awkward moment? Let me know in the comments below.


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