The best ways to handle 10 stressful holiday gifting situations, according to an etiquette expert

How to give gifts within your budget

Holiday gift giving (and spending) can be one of the most exasperating shopping experiences. In fact, about 60% of Americans find holiday gift-buying to be the most financially stressful event of the year, far outpacing even tax season, according to a recent survey from Marcus by Goldman Sachs.

But that doesn't have to be the case, especially if you have polite and open conversations with friends and family ahead of time, says Lizzie Post, who is co-president of The Emily Post Institute and a host of the Awesome Etiquette podcast.

We asked Post to weigh in on ways you can reduce your stress and efficiently handle 10 common (yet potentially awkward) gift situations this holiday season. The following answers have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

1. Who should you give gifts to and how much should you spend?

Lizzie Post: I love this question because there is one very easy answer: What's in your budget? First, think about who are the priorities on your list this year. For some folks, their spouse or partner is the one person who they're thinking of and are able to really put money toward this year.

For other folks, they're going to try to do other things for a wider circle of friends and family, whether that's simply writing cards and hand delivering them or actually buying individual gifts. What matters is that you feel comfortable spending the budget that you have and allocating it to the people in your life. It's important for people to remember that gift giving really is really dependent on your personal budget.

2. Should you give your manager a holiday gift?

Post: When it comes to gift giving in the workplace, we tend to not go up the ladder, but instead down the ladder. What that means is that often bosses will give some type of a group gift or even individual gifts to employees. But we don't tend to see employees giving gifts to bosses.

Now, this isn't to say that bosses aren't worthy of receiving gifts, or that a boss and an employee wouldn't have a relationship in which that would feel comfortable. But typically, what you don't want it to look like is that you're buying any kind of favoritism.

If you do have an awesome boss and your entire team just loves this manager so much, you and your coworkers might contribute to a gift for the boss or you guys might choose to do something like a lunch together, or something like that, to celebrate and say thank you.

3. Are you allowed to return gifts you don't like?

Post: Some folks really don't like the idea of the gifts that they've spent time and money and effort picking out for someone being returned or exchanged for anything. Other people feel that if there's something you would like better, they want you to exchange it in order to get something that you would really want and use.

For each pairing of gift giver and gift receiver, it's going to be a little different. In my immediate family, we are really open and able to say to each other, Oh, my gosh, this is such a great sweater. But, you know, hot pink just isn't my color. Do you mind if I return it for a sage green instead? And it's totally fine. There's no hurt feelings. With other gift giving relationships that I have, I would just accept the gift, graciously try to use it if I can. And if it doesn't really fit into my life, then I just move on.

Hero Images | Hero Images | Getty Images

4. If the recipient never uses the gifts you buy them, is it appropriate to ask them about it?

Post: That's a moment where I might choose to ask the other person this year what they really want. Maybe you've simply struck out in the past and a little direction would be appreciated on both your parts. I think opening up the conversation is OK, but simply asking someone what they would like is [another] thing — saying, Hey, you always get rid of my gifts; I guess I'm just a terrible gift giver. So what do you want? That's really not the polite way to approach that conversation.

5. How do you tell people that you don't want to exchange expensive gifts, potentially because you can't afford it?

Post: I think that there's kind of two avenues you can take. You can either just simply be direct and say, Hey guys, this year's been a little bit difficult for me. I'm wondering if we might consider doing something different for our gift exchange. You can bring up the idea of doing non-material item gifts or only homemade gifts. Bear in mind, though, homemade gifts don't always mean less expensive gifts.

The other thing that you can do is simply give gifts that are within your means. It's OK. If you've typically given gifts out and this year is a year where you're only giving cards, it's OK. You don't actually have to explain that to anyone. If you want to, you might say, I know this isn't the type of gift I've typically given in years past, but I really just wanted to focus this year on how grateful I am to have you in my life. I doubt people will pick up the phone and call you and say, Hey, why didn't you send me that gift?

6. Do you need to strictly stick to Secret Santa spending limits?

Post: I really think it's important to stick to the limits that the group has put out for a gift exchange. I think that it's very easy, especially when we do have the means, to find and buy that perfect $35 gift for a $10 gift exchange. But saying, I just couldn't resist isn't an excuse. Those caps are put in place for a reason and it's important to abide by them. So skip that $35 gift and go find a $10 one that'll really work.

Friends opening Christmas gifts in living room
Caiaimage/Robert Daly | Caiaimage | Getty Images

7. How should you handle donations made in your name, particularly if it's to an organization you may not support?

Post: This is a really tough one. First and foremost, I would say don't donate to a charity in someone else's name without checking with them first. Start off the conversation with something along the lines of, I really wanted to donate something in your name this holiday season. I've chosen these three charities and I wanted you to be able to pick which one you'd prefer that I make a donation to. Or even, What charity would you appreciate me donating to?

I would not be trying to do this spitefully. This is not a way to get back at your cousin who is on the other side of the political spectrum from you. It's really, really important that you handle this carefully and with a lot of consideration for the person who's having the donation made in their name. That being said, the donation also should be something that the person who's actually giving the money feels comfortable with, too.

8. It seems like nothing is more controversial than a gift card these days. Are there any hard and fast rules around giving gift cards for the holidays?

Post: You've got to know your audience. Even with gift cards, sometimes you need to know your audience preference within the world of gift cards. Some people won't mind receiving gift cards to stores. Other people only want gift certificates to restaurants.

Pay attention to your family and friends when they're talking about these subjects. If you know that your sister or grandmother just really doesn't like gift cards, don't get that person a gift card. However, if you've got family members who are traveling from afar for the holidays and they don't want to be lugging a lot of stuff back home, talk with them ahead of time about either shipping gifts to their home or giving them gift cards so they can get something they really like without too much hassle.

Hoxton/Justin Pumfrey | Hoxton | Getty Images

9. What do you do if you receive an unexpected gift from a friend or family member and you have no gift to give in return?

Post: If you receive a gift and you haven't intended on giving this person a gift this holiday season, that's OK. Most people get really worried in this moment and make up some kind of excuse for why they don't have a gift in return. But I can guarantee you that the person who gave you this gift is not giving it to you because they are expecting something in return. Instead, focus on the generosity of the gift that's been given to you. The appropriate response: Oh, my gosh. Thank you so much. This is so wonderful. You don't need to say anything more than that.

It's really hard because you feel like maybe there's gonna be this really long, awkward pause, but there usually isn't. And you always have the option of getting them something later on. But don't lie and say, Oh, I left it at home and then go get a gift for some. There's no reason to lie.

10. Is it ever appropriate to just give cash?

Post: At the holidays, giving cash as a gift is a little bit different. We definitely see cash as a gift when it comes to birthdays and weddings. However, around the holidays, it can start to feel a little strange, especially when it's given within an exchange or between friends. I think that there's something a little missing in that element. And I don't I don't quite know why that is. I wish I had a better explanation for it.

Yet when it comes to giving cash, people shouldn't fear doing it. Cash can be a really great gift. There's nothing wrong with parents, aunts, uncles, you know, giving cash gifts to their nieces, nephews, sons, daughters, all of that. There's nothing terribly crass about doing it if it seems like the appropriate relationship for a gift of cash to be given.

There also really fun ways to sort of gift cash. In my family, we're really big fans of scratch off lottery tickets. Everybody gets a lotto ticket at their place setting at the dinner table. It's a lot of fun at the end of the meal when everyone scratches of their ticket and we see who gets a free ticket, who gets $2.

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See also:

Here are the 3 types of gifts to avoid this holiday season
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