When You Don’t Have a Gift to Exchange

Girl's hands hold a gift box with minimalist style wrapping design. The concept of celebration events and wrapping gifts. Flat lay, top view.
Edalin / Getty Images

Have you ever experienced receiving a gift but you don't have something for the other person? If so, you're not alone.

It is an awkward situation that almost everyone has experienced at least once. You might laugh about it later; however, that doesn’t mean it should be ignored when it does occur.

Whether you didn’t expect a holiday gift from someone or you simply forgot to get something for a friend or family member, there are some ways you can avoid embarrassment on both sides. Remember that regardless of how you handle this situation, maintain a positive attitude.

Here are some things you can do next time that happens:

Have Several Envelopes with Gift Cards

During the holiday season, there’s bound to be someone you forgot about who drops off a gift. Don’t be caught off guard and empty-handed. Purchase a handful of gift cards from places that anyone can enjoy. Most people enjoy movies and restaurants. 

If you wind up with some at the end of the season, you can save them for other occasions or use them yourself. There are some places that everyone enjoys, so pick up gift cards to places that have the broadest audience or fan base possible. 

Here are some types of gift cards that anyone will love:

  • Restaurant that features romantic dining for couples
  • Fast food restaurants for people who have families and are constantly on the go
  • Ice cream or frozen yogurt shop
  • Movie theater tickets for those who don’t like to miss the latest flicks
  • Department store where the person can choose something she loves, either for herself or her home
  • Malls that offer gift cards for a variety of stores

Have Poinsettias, Herbs, or Other Potted Plants on Hand

Many people enjoy having plants, so choose some that are either decorative or edible. Poinsettias are easy to find, and they are ideal for holiday decorations.

Most people who cook at home would appreciate herbs. You can pick up a couple in individual pots of herbs, or you can have a multi-pot herb garden with a variety. 

Succulents and other potted plants are popular with all age groups. Put a decorative ribbon around the plant and have them in a place in your home where they add an element of style to your décor. When guests stop by with a gift, jot the person’s name on a card and either tie it onto one of the stems or nestle it into the plant.

Wrap a Couple of Gender Specific and Couples Items

Purchase some items that are gender specific but are one size fits all. Try to choose things that are generic enough that almost anyone would like them.

When someone brings you a gift, you can pull one out and quickly put a small to-and-from tag on it. If you pull it out of your regifting box, make sure you’re not giving it to the person who gave it to you first.

Here are some things you can wrap and have on hand for women:

  • Scarves and gloves
  • Makeup bags
  • Small jewelry holders
  • Bracelets
  • Scented candles
  • Scented soaps
  • Bubble bath
  • Portable device chargers

Here are some items most men will enjoy:

  • Neckties
  • Accessory caddies
  • Wallets
  • Money clips
  • Flashlights and batteries
  • Portable chargers

Items for couples:

  • Wineglass charms
  • Cheese, cutting board, and knife or cheese cutter
  • Coffee mugs and specialty coffees
  • Kitchen towels or other items related to cooking
  • Tea sampler with tea cups or mugs
  • Bottle of wine, corkscrew, and wine cozy
  • Seasonal throws

Don’t Forget About the Children

Even if you choose not to have something for the adults who surprise you with gifts, the children are different. It’s always nice to have something special for the small-fry set.

It typically doesn’t take much to excite a child as long as it’s wrapped in pretty paper and has their name on it. Having a small box filled with fun items for kids will come in handy throughout the year.

Here are some things children might like:

  • Boxes of craft items
  • Games
  • Decks of cards
  • Puzzles
  • Stationery
  • Modeling clay or dough
  • Stuffed animals

Be Prepared with Items for Families

When you and your family receive a gift from another family, it’s always nice to reciprocate. Here are some fun items you can have on hand for those times:

  • Large tins of popcorn that are in most department stores during the holidays
  • Homemade cookies in decorative tins
  • Board games
  • Gift baskets with cocoa, popcorn, candy, and other items families might enjoy
  • Holiday ornament or other type of decoration

End the Cycle Before It Begins

Most of the time when friends or coworkers have a gift exchange, it’s announced ahead of time. However, there may be someone in the office who chooses to give you something outside of the organized event.

When this happens, you may want to end it before it gets out of hand by saying something like, “Thank you so much, but really, you shouldn’t have. I didn’t expect something personal, so I didn’t get anything for you.”

This might hurt a friend’s feelings temporarily, but someone who wants to maintain the relationship will eventually get over it. However, you need to brace yourself for a period of time when you might get not-so-nice comments or the silent treatment.

Most people at work will take the hint that it’s better to follow office protocol for gift giving. If they don’t, there’s nothing you can do but repeat the above. 

Have a Stack of Greeting Cards

If you don’t have funds in your budget for extra gifts, consider purchasing holiday cards and having them signed and ready to give out. When someone gives you a gift, excuse yourself momentarily to jot his or her name on the card.

The person might figure out what happened, but if you do this with a cheerful demeanor (and a hug), you should be just fine. Make a note on your calendar to pick up a small gift for that person next time a holiday rolls around.

Give an IOU

If you receive a special gift that deserves something equally special in return, apologize and say your gift to them is coming soon. You don’t have to lie and say it’s on order. Simply say you’ll deliver it in the next couple of days. Then change the subject to get out of the awkwardness.

Announce in Advance That You Aren’t Giving Gifts

If you know in advance that you won't be giving gifts, one option is to state that you aren’t exchanging gifts with anyone outside your family, and you’d appreciate it if others would honor your decision by not giving you a gift. 

There are no guarantees that people won’t hand you something. But since you’ve already made your intentions clear, you’re off the hook.

One problem with this is that you might start feeling guilty, and you’re likely to eventually cave and buy gifts anyway. If you do this, refrain from acting like it's bothersome.