These Free Apps Are Key to Hosting Your Virtual Gift Exchange

No more pulling paper names out of a hat

woman shopping for holidays on her laptop

Fresh Splash / Getty Images

The start of December has always been an exciting time for me for almost as long as I can remember. In elementary school we did Secret Santa so every student in the class would get a gift. In middle school, I would have tree trimming parties, and we’d do a White Elephant gift exchange. Even now, in my late 20s, I still look forward to setting up some sort of gift exchange each season. And while in the last several years those exchanges have been accompanied by copious amounts of wine and cheese, that’s just not in the cards this year. 

The holidays, no matter what, are all about spending time with loved ones, exchanging gifts, and enjoying the cheer that this time of year brings. But 2020 has thrown a wrench into the works for, well, pretty much everything this year. We spent most of this year at home and it seems like we’re going to end this year at home. Which means that, sadly, some holiday traditions are just not going to happen as they usually would.

So, if you're not completely over virtual meetings, and you can manage just one more online event in 2020, it’s got to be a virtual gift exchange. And don’t worry, you can take the drawing of names online with some apps and websites that make giving gifts to your group easy and fun. All of these apps virtually pull someone’s name for you so you can keep that Secret Santa vibe going, even in 2020. 

And they all work generally the same way: Sign up, choose a group name, add participants and rules (such as price point), date of the event, and let the service draw names for each person. Each service provides something slightly different. Here's a look at the products we researched:

Elfster

Elfster (Apple, Android) is a free gift exchange website and app. It doesn’t matter if you use the app or the website, they’re both really straight forward to set up.

What's different about it

Elfster allows each participant to create a wish list. No wondering what to buy that second cousin you see once a year!

Draw Names

If you love the idea of signing up to do Secret Santa virtually (because even in “normal” times you may want to do a gift exchange with friends who may not live near you), then Draw Names is for you. When you go to create your gifting group you have the opportunity to use your group from the previous year.

What's different about it

What makes Draw Names different is it ensures no one "picks" the same name each year, so you aren’t always buying the same person a present.

Santa's Secret Keeper

All of these sites and apps do similar things, but Santa's Secret Keeper (OS, Android) is fun because you get some pretty cute graphics in the app. After adding participants and instructions (such as a price limit), everyone will get an email with their gift assignment. Make sure to confirm with your group that everyone has received a name, no matter which app or site you’re using—you don’t want someone to be left out).

What's different about it

You can create special rules, such as blocking people from giving gifts to their spouses/partners or to recipients they bought for in previous years (via the app).

Santa's Secret Service

This one also allows you to define which buyers and recipients shouldn't be matched. It allows you to reset matches in case you need to add someone to the group.

Tips for Making Sure Everyone Has a Good Experience

No matter which app your website you use, make sure you give everyone ample time to either mail or drop off their presents. This is a helpful detail to add in your invite. The holidays are a super hectic time at the post office to begin with, but lots of online retailers have had delays happening all year, because well, 2020. Keep that in mind when setting things up.

And once the chosen day rolls around it’s time to use the program we’ve all had a love/hate relationship with this year. Zoom. Don't worry, if you don’t like Zoom you can use Gchat, FaceTime, WhatsApp, or Messenger. You have probably already had several online drinks events with your friends, so why not schedule one more. Grab your ugly sweater, put up those twinkle lights or download a very festive background for your call, make some eggnog or mulled wine, and you’re all set to spread some holiday cheer with your friends, even if it’s through the screen.