How to set up Secret Santa for adult families: reduce stress, save time

Intentional gift giving to save stress, time and money

Growing up we were super lucky to receive gifts from all of our relatives. There were so many cool toys, dolls, books and games. As we entered our teens the presents turned into gift cards which was perfect for learning how to manage money and plan what we were going to purchase. As we entered adulthood the presents started to get a bit, erm, crap. And we in turn gave the same. Boxes of biscuits, odd storage containers, and what can only be called “stuff” that rarely suited our personal or home style. And it’s no wonder. When you only see the extended family a few times (or perhaps just once) a year, it can be incredibly tricky for everyone involved to give a gift that someone will not only appreciate, but use.

Cue Secret Santa. 

For those who have no idea what Secret Santa is, it’s a system whereby everyone who is giving a gift pops their names in a hat (or in an Excel spreadsheet) and you each draw a name (you can’t draw your own). You then buy a gift for that one person and you also receive a gift from someone else in the group. Usually your names are kept a secret, but in our family we do pop our names on the gifts. Everyone gives a present and everyone receives a present. No one is left out.

Having Secret Santa means you are only buying one gift which is a WHOLE lot less stress when it comes to shopping and you can usually set a slightly higher budget as you are just buying for one person. It’s intentional gift-giving, with less waste, rather than spreading yourself and your budget wafer-thin to try and appease everyone!

8 Reasons to do Secret Santa

  • Changes the focus from Xmas being about gift-giving to spending time with each other
  • Better budgeting for everyone in the family
  • Less waste (literally in terms of wrapping paper!)
  • Everyone gets a gift they actually want or love!
  • People can opt in if they would like to participate or not (perfect if some years you rotate with different sides of the family)
  • No one is left out who opts into Secret Santa
  • All gifts are of similar value with a budget so it all feels fair
  • Less chance of the gifts being donated within a few weeks after Xmas Day


Note: Time spent together on Christmas Day is much more important than any gift. 

If you are keen to do Secret Santa in your family, here are some tips our families have learned from setting up Secret Santa in the last few years.

Agree that you will do Secret Santa WELL BEFORE Xmas Day

Christmas for most is all about traditions and memories made from them as the years tick by. For some, it’s just about the food. However, changing the gift-giving process can easily ruffle a few feathers as when you’re already on a good wicket, why change? People also hate change in general, so keep that in mind. 

If you are over receiving lots of crummy little gifts or useless trinkets and think that Secret Santa would work well for your family, start the conversation as early as possible. Or alternatively soon after Christmas when the memories of the unwanted gifts are fresh!

Avoid bringing up the topic 2 weeks before Christmas as most people will be way too busy to even think about doing something different at such short notice! 

Also, keep in mind that some people buy Christmas presents months in advance (think June or July). If this has occurred your family may be okay to hold onto the gifts or reorganise the plans that had for those gifts that year, but they may also straight say no as it’s too hard to change. If that occurs, just go with planting the idea of Secret Santa rather than actually doing it this calendar year. Re-address in it in January or a few light-hearted chats when you see them over the holidays to win them over.


Get buy-in from the Key Decision Maker

If you’re heading up a campaign to make a major change in the Christmas Day proceedings you need to get the key decision-maker in the family on board. Once you have their agreement it will make your life much easier to spread the word. If they are from an older generation this is perfect as they are often 100% on board with less waste as that is how they grew up. Chat to them about why you think it would be fabulous for your family. Millennials are usually often keen to get on board with Secret Santa as they are saving their pennies for their forever home. Once agreed, spread the word to the rest of the family, clearly explaining the process and get buy-in from them as well. Take them through all the points you did with the key decision-maker in the family. 

If 95% of the family say no to it, then it’s game over. You need your family to agree to it. My advice would be to move slowly as it can feel like a big change to some members of the family. It may be that you start by planting the idea of Secret Santa this year and maybe it’s next year when you actually give it a test run. 

Once you start with Secret Santa you want to be clear that it’s a new tradition and not something you just do “some years”. However, after the first Christmas of doing Secret Santa most family members will LOVE that there is less stress when it comes to gift-giving.


Appoint your “Santa” (a.k.a the Organiser)

This is the person who will organise the Secret Santa every year. It’s not an overly hard job, but sometimes involves some people wrangling to confirm who is going to participate and then send out notifications of who has who. 

Put the word out and see if someone volunteers – or by default, it may be you. Opt for someone who is organised and will take the time and care to do a good job (and not make glaring mistakes so someone ends up with nothing on Xmas Day!). If need be it can be two people so you can double-check all the people who have opted in and check that everyone knows who they are gifting to. However, avoid getting too many people involved. It’s not needed and there are plenty of other jobs to be done when organising Christmas Day!


Ask if people would like to be involved

Ah, this is such a good one! With more and more of us not needing stuff in our home or are on tight budgets saving for a home deposit (me!) it’s always a nice gesture to ask if people would like to be involved in Secret Santa. For people who don’t participate, they can still feel the joy of everyone opening their gifts – especially the kids. Respect that everyone has a budget. 

If you feel awkward about someone not giving or receiving a gift, that’s on you, not them. Focus on enjoying their company on the day as that’s the most important thing. Opting not to give a gift does not mean that they don’t like you. They probably just don’t need extra stuff or simply don’t have the money this year. For some people, gift-giving is their language of love so it can be tricky to understand why some people may opt out, but it certainly isn’t for everyone.


Ensure the Organiser knows who is giving to who (and keeps a record of it!)

The Organiser needs to know who is giving to who. Don’t keep it all secret in the back end. If Uncle Sam says his plane got delayed and can’t make it, you can quickly check who he is gifting to and organise a replacement gift so 2 year old Tommy has something to open on the day with everyone. 

When you know who is giving to who, you can easily manage any last minute changes. Not knowing can quickly snowball into a logistical nightmare. 

Also if someone forgets to get a gift you can hold them accountable and put the word on them!


Ditch random name generators. Be thoughtful about matching people

This is the best tip of them all. The Organiser needs to be strategic about who is giving to who. Ditch the secret part when matching up names and think about it. 

It’s all well and good if everyone knows everyone, but avoid matching two people together who barely know each other or matching couples together. It will make the gift-giving process a stressful one for people who don’t know each other and boring for people who are giving to their partners. 

Asking your 89 year old Grandfather to buy a gift for his grandaughter’s brand new 17 year old boyfriend can be a stretch.

Perhaps instead of Grandfather, choose one of the younger cousins who will have more of an idea of what 17 years old are into. 

You can use an online random generator as a start, but always double check the matching before you send the notifications out. Feel free to switch names around so it all flows better for everyone. 

You want people to be excited about who they are buying for.  

Make it fun and interesting, but not eye-rolling annoying!

Give everyone their Secret Santa names several weeks in advance

Aim to plan and agree who is participating in Secret Santa a few weeks out from Christmas. This will give people time to ask around the family who wants what and also check out pricing and options online and in-store. In the world of online shopping if someone wants an item that needs to be shipped from overseas, adavanced planning also means it will arrive in time for Christmas Day.

Giving people the details a few days before the 25th  ain’t fair on anyone and will set the process up for failure. Be a bit more organised and get the ball rolling at the start of December (at the latest).

Set a budget bracket

This is key. It’s a tad disappointing when your brother gets a gift valued at $150 and you get something worth $7. Set a budget range and be firm about it. No sneaking in extras for favourites (unless it’s the Grandparents who may not 100% understand the process – they tend to get away with it!). For ours, we set a limit of around $100, but I know some families agree on wildly different amounts. Setting a budget means we know how much we will spend coming into December and also means we know what we will be getting (yay!).

If you are finding that the whole family is having a tight budget that year, you can drop the gift-giving price budget right down. Or you can agree on something completely different like instead of gifts you will all go out for dinner or a picnic together. Or even come up with a completely different idea and just agree to buy each other a funny book. Think outside the box!

A common loophole: grandchildren

If you have a new baby or an only grandchild in the family they will often get spoilt with a few extra gifts. Especially in the first few years of doing Secret Santa. Once there are a few kids in the family this tends to change and everyone gets one gift, but just know that all the Aunties may buy the new baby or toddler gifts outside what you have agreed. Go with it on the day. If someone gets upset, just let them know in a light-hearted manner kids are a loophole (just don’t buy extra gifts for them yourself!)! If it is an issue, be sure to gently flag it well before Xmas Day next year. It’s never worth a discussion on Christmas Day. Particularly if it’s your first Secret Santa and some family members are testing the limits. 

Generally speaking, most people in the family won’t care if Grandma gives the kids a few extra obscenely brightly coloured toys.

And there you have it! Spend less, generate less waste, give intentionally. Shift the focus from counting your presents to spending time with your family.