White Elephant Gift Guide: To Do, and Not To Do

So, your office “holiday” party is coming up, and the admin just sent out the message letting everyone know that there is no more secret Santa. Instead the office will be doing a white elephant gift exchange at the holiday party this year. Furthermore, you can’t spend more than $20 on your gift.

At this point, assuming you’re reading this post, you have absolutely no idea what you should get. Gifting for an unknown individual is hard. You have no point of reference from where to start, and you have a limit on spending. I’m going to show you how to maximize your money, and get the perfect white elephant gift that all your co-workers and friends will be fighting over. If you’d rather, you can check out the top white elephant gifts under $20 article here.

What’s a White Elephant?

Also known as the Ablino elephant…kidding! A white elephant gift exchange is the “pot luck” of gift giving. Typically, it is held at corporate events or among large groups of friends. Often times, there will be a budget set that participants cannot exceed. In order to participate, you must have provided a gift. Here’s a rundown of how it works.

Everyone purchases a gift, wraps it up, and places all of the gifts on a table. Then numbers are distributed (or drawn from a hat) to each person involved. Starting with the lowest number, that person opens up a gift. After the first gift is opened you proceed in number order. Person number 2 is presented the option of stealing the gift person number one opened, or opening a brand new unknown gift on the table. If they steal the gift, then the person it was stolen from gets to grab another gift and open it, or choose to steal from someone else. Eventually someone will be opening a new gift. This brutal process continues until all of the gifts are opened.

You may be thinking, well person number 1 gets a raw deal. Wrong! They now have the option to trade whatever gift they currently have for any gift that’s been opened. Sometimes, there is a limit set on the number of times an item can be stolen. After X number of steals, that gift is locked in on the person who stole it last, and can no longer be stolen. Believe me, this process can be a bit lengthy, especially if there are a lot of high quality gifts!

Shopping For A White Elephant Gift

The Common Gifts

Now that you have an understanding of the process, I’ll explain some of the common gifts you are likely to see. If you’re a veteran white elephant-er then you may recognize these from years past. Here’s a breakdown of the three most common white elephant gifts:

  1. Alcohol & Alcohol Paraphenalia
  2. Gift Cards
  3. Lottery Scratch Off Tickets

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against any of these things. Well, maybe the gift card. Giving a gift card is like saying, “I didn’t feel like doing this, but it was mandatory, so here you go.” Alcohol, namely wine, is also very popular because most adults partake in weekend festivities, so it’s a safe bet. Because of this, you’ll likely get a wine stopper or similar trinket with your bottle of booze. Finally, my favorite is the Lotto tickets. At least I have the chance to win big with these! It’s like unwrapping a gift twice. Once to get the tickets, and then scratching them off to see if you won some money.

Where…Or When?

So you want to set yourself apart, where do you begin shopping? It’s not necessarily a question of where but when do you begin shopping! I mentioned earlier that there’s usually a limit on how much you can spend on a white elephant gift. Often times it will be set by someone with senior rank, and passed down to the admin to distribute. So how do you maximize your $20, or even $10, budget without getting some novelty trinket? It is the same reason I’m publishing this post when Christmas is 5 months away! Shop for deals, if you haven’t missed Black Friday, or Cyber Monday to help extend your dollars. Also, I recommend you sign up with thegiftasaurus, and I’ll send you coupons and promo codes in the days leading up to your event!

What To Give As A White Elephant Gift

Alright, here’s the juice you’ve been looking for. Now that I’ve explained how to stretch that budget a little further, lets get into what to buy.

Target The Group

Purchasing a gift that’s desirable by all, means it has to applicable to all. Here’s where going broad pays off, hence the common alcohol gifts. If you’re shopping for an office white elephant gift, think about the most common denominator. Have you figured it out yet? It’s the OFFICE! try targeting things that can be put on display at the office. You could try something like this relaxation fountain on Amazon. Check the price tag, is it in your budget?

Are you part of the IT team, and they do their own holiday party? You could try something a little more tech centric, and get a usb mini fridge from amazon, where your co-worker could store their lunch. This one may fall slightly out of the budget constraints, but if you’re shopping in September or if you have a promo code, who’s gonna know? Really want to make sure they enjoy, stock with a 6 pack of craft beer just in case!

Don’t Judge A Book…

This tip is more for the giggles, but sometimes you can get away with a more popular gift just by making the wrapping interesting. No I’m not talking about choosing fancy paper. Try putting a gift card in a small box, then putting that box in a slightly larger box, and on and on to desired look. Sure it’ll be a pain to open, but at least the office will get a kick out of watching the person open 6 boxes only to get a gift card!

You could go the other route and get a really nice gift that you got on sale, and wrap it in the junkiest way possible. This worked for someone at my office last year. After virtually all of the gifts had been opened, someone finally grabbed this beat up box that looked like it had been used on one too many UPS trips. Inside was a very nice bottle of alcohol which I’m pretty sure was outside the allotted budget. No one noticed, they were so surprised by the presentation.

The Piggy Back White Elephant Gift

If you know the norms of your white elephant gift exchange, then you can purchase gifts accordingly. While everyone else is busy giving out bottles of red wine, you can gift something like this aerator. Since it’s applicable to anyone who drinks wine, is re-usable, and combo’s off nicely for people you know are going to drink wine anyways. Believe me it is way more desirable than the cheap cork that they’ll probably get included with the bottle of wine.

Go For the LOL!

Getting stuck on useful ideas? Try going for something off the wall and funny for your white elephant gift. I’d have a firm grasp of the audience, their humor, and the location of the party. Pushing the boundaries at the office holiday party is a quick way to get an email from the HR department. Still, sometimes a gift that’s a little risque is just what the drab party needs.

Obviously, among friends, this is much less of a concern and you can use discretion. Although, you still need to keep your audience in mind. Just because your friends may find your gift hilarious, their partners may be a little more judgemental. But hey, at least HR is out of the picture.

Final Thoughts

So if you skipped the article, here’s a quick 30 second breakdown of what to do. First, go back and read the article. If you’re skipping step one, then buy gifts when they are on sale. It’ll help stretch the budget. Find a common thread among all your co-workers, and gift using that as your baseline. Generally speaking, re-usable gifts are better than a one and done. Don’t be afraid to give a unique presentation that sets your gift apart from the others. Finally, feel free to piggy back on common white elephant gifts. Good luck, and happy hunting!

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