The holiday season is about family, togetherness, and enjoying the company of those you love. Haha, just kidding: It’s really about beating Uncle Eddie at the annual gift exchange party for the fifth year in a row.
For the uninitiated, a White Elephant gift exchange (known by a few other names like Yankee Swap and Cutthroat Christmas) is a party game where players open random inexpensive presents and others can “steal” them. It’s become popular at large family gatherings, where buying an individual gift for each person present is expensive and impractical.
We’ve separated our recommendation into three groups. The first is for people who want a genuinely good gift, something that others will want to “steal” and go home with. The second is the same, but with picks in mind specifically for kids (because the gifts are often separated by category into adults and children). The third is for the classical “White Elephant” gift, something that’s amusing and desirable but doesn’t have any practical application. And every gift on the list costs less than $30.
The Best Gift Exchange Ideas for Adults
These are gifts for grown-ups (rated G, just to be clear) that they’ll actually want to use, and hopefully fight to go home with. If the point of a gift exchange is to “win” it, in the sense of bringing the best gift under the spending limit, these will put you in the running.
Tile Mate Tracker
Tile makes some fantastically useful tracker gadgets, and as the most popular option in this niche, your recipient is at least somewhat likely to already use the system. An extra Tile Mate won’t ever be unwanted. If you’re feeling generous, the Tile Pro is a little more expensive but has a mind-blowing 400-foot range.
RAVPower USB Battery Charger
This is another modern tech necessity that no one with a phone will turn down. We like this Heloideo model for its multiple built-in cables and wall charger. If you need a cheaper one, this RAVPower model has 10,000mAh of juice and can both give and receive power with the new USB-C standard.
Anker Bolder Rechargeable Pen Light
Did you know Anker makes some pretty kick-butt flashlights? This one has that crazy-bright LED action (with a low setting), and unlike most penlights, it can be recharged via MicroUSB. Even the batteries themselves can be swapped out with NiMH AAAs.
Roku, Chromecast, or Fire TV
Almost everybody has streaming gadgets now, but the one person at your party who doesn’t (or who needs one for an older or secondary TV) will leap on this. You’ve got a lot of choices for low-budget streamers: Google’s Chromecast works great with phones, and Amazon’s Fire TV Stick is good if you do Amazon Prime. But the current king of cheap streaming gadgets is Roku’s entry-level Express.
Coffee or Tea
Most grown-ups will enjoy either coffee or tea, so pick one to give away at your party. Fancy sampler packs are a hit in either vice, like this collection of 12 one-pot coffee ground flavors (don’t go for beans, in case the recipient doesn’t have a grinder) or this pack of 48 teabags in 8 different flavors.
iFixIt 64-Bit Driver Set
We freakin’ love this small screwdriver set from iFixIt, masters of crowdsourced electronics repair. Everything from the all-metal, magnetized screwdriver to the high-quality steel drivers (which include lots of rare and hard-to-find bits) to the easy-to-use organized case just screams quality. Anyone would be happy to add this set to their toolbox, whether they take apart gadgets or not.
Card Games or Board Games
Old-fashioned card and table games are hot right now. . . and a lot of them aren’t so old-fashioned. You can check out our roundup of inexpensive and interesting games for a deep dive, but for the purposes of this list, we’ll recommend Exploding Kittens, Cards Against Humanity, and Kingdomino.
Phones are getting bigger and hands, by and large, are not. PopSockets are an inexpensive way to help, adding some much-needed grip to the back in a way that folds down for easy storage. We also like the Speck GrabTab or Monet ring/wallet/stand for slightly different takes on this idea. Someone at your party will need one, or just want an updated color.
Amazon Echo Dot
If you haven’t jumped on the home assistant bandwagon yet, Amazon’s updated Echo Dot is a great way to give it a try for a song. (Get it?) Someone at your holiday party will want to use it just out of interest, or to add it to their growing smarthome gadget collection.
Look, I’m not going to tell you that gift cards are a good gift. They’re a last resort for someone whom you’re just stumped on in terms of actually giving a thoughtful present. But in the semi-randomized chaos of a gift exchange, gift cards for popular retailers and restaurants are a safe bet, and always in high demand. As a bonus, a lot of them can be emailed, making them perfect for a last-minute printout on the way to the party.
The Best Gift Exchange Ideas for Kids
If your party has a specific label or section of gifts just for kids, this is what you’re looking for. We’ve tailored our selection for kids aged 6-12 (because any younger and they probably won’t appreciate the random and stealing elements of gift exchanges).
LEGO Gel Pens
LEGOs are a safe gift for almost any kid these days—in fact, we’ve got a roundup full of inexpensive LEGO sets that would be perfect here. But if you want something unique, these gel pens are all the rage, and they’ll work with LEGO’s surprisingly wide selection of stationery school supplies. You can throw in a pencil box for a perfect accompaniment.
Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty
I honestly don’t know why kids love this sort of slime toy, but they do. (‘Twas ever true—when I was a kid they called it Nickelodeon Gak.) Crazy Aaron’s version comes in a nice tin can, with a wide variety of colors—this metallic purple-green option seems popular. It’s non-toxic and doesn’t dry out, so it’ll work again and again until it’s lost in the couch cushions to eventually become a nasty surprise.
Dog Man Book Trilogy
These books from the writer of the Captain Underpants series are inexplicably popular with kids, full of humorous digs at superhero tropes in easy-to-read chapter books. This boxed set includes the first three books in hardcover form, with an included box for easy wrapping.
Lite Brite Set
Weirdly, Lite Brite is coming back around as a creative tool, despite being over fifty years old. I think it’s the way Minecraft and similar games have brought pixel art back into the mainstream. Anyway, this little lightbox comes with transparent pegs and a series of cross stitch-style patterns that’ll scratch a kid’s creative itch until they’re ready to go freestyle.
Tech Deck Finger Skateboards
Here’s another one that was popular when I was a kid that has made an inexplicable comeback. These tiny finger skateboards are portable, collectible, come with tiny tools and wheels for customization, and won’t split your head open when you wipe out. The most your kid will have to deal with is a bruised knuckle. Just make sure you’re going for the genuine article Tech Deck—there are lots of low-quality knockoffs out there.
NERF Fortnite Rl Rocket Blaster
Okay, what’s not to love here? It’s a NERF bazooka. And on top of that, it’s Fortnite-branded, guaranteed to catch the eye of a pretty sizable portion of kids at any party. Just make sure it stays in the box until your guests are out of firing range of anything on your mantle. The package comes with two foam rockets for ammunition.
D-FantiX Speed Cube
The Rubik’s cube is a classic toy, but the original is kind of crap, with low-quality plastics and stickers for the rotating panels. This alternative design uses better plastics, no stickers, and high-speed turning joints so kids can rock along with YouTube guides and improve their speeds.
Marvel Avengers Gamma Grip Hulk Fists
Show me an adult who says they won’t open the package of these Hulk Fists and try a little freelance smashing before the party, and I will show you a liar.
4WD Electronic Building Toy Car
There are a lot of cheap tows claiming STEM bona fides these days, but this building kit gives kids a few mechanical and electrical principles. And when they’re done, they’ve got a little card that can climb up a steep incline on just a AA battery. The manual is much better than you usually get at this level, too.
Once again, we know gift cards have a bit of a stigma as gifts, but they’re perfect for exchanges. Kids love them even more than adults, because they can buy stuff online, either digitally or physically, without asking Mom or Dad to enter payment info. Apple, Google Play Store, and Fortnite V-Bucks are especially in demand.
The Best White Elephant Gifts
The classical White Elephant gift is something you wouldn’t actually want, the sort of stuff that clogs up closets and drawers. But pick carefully, and your “gag gift” will be one of the hottest items in your exchange.
Bob Ross Color-Changing Mug
Admittedly, this color-changing mug is going to be pretty popular this year, as classic PBS painting instructor Bob Ross is all the rage. But I guarantee it’ll be in high demand at your party, either from genuine fans or people who just want the meme factor for their morning coffee.
Goofy socks are, I am reliably informed, A Thing. You can go for a general collection of weird-looking foot coverings, or go for specific themes to suit your crowd (or that one fan you want to please at the party). Trust me, whatever pop culture you want to represent in cotton tube form, you can find it.
These little not-bobble-heads (which also come in genuine bobble head form) are oddly off-putting, collectible, and available for every possible pop culture character you can imagine. Really. Yes, really.
If you’re not familiar with these Otamatone things, they’re basically a mix between a kazoo and a saxophone, with a creepy little face on the bottom that “sings” when you squeeze it. Also available in Kirby form, naturally.
It’s a stapler that looks like a dragon. The perfect underwhelming accompaniment to that Game of Thrones finale this year, huh?
Basketball Hoop Mug
Some hot cocoa is the perfect accompaniment to a cold night. So why not turn your cozy and comfortable cup into a giant mess with added marshmallow contact sports? If basketball isn’t your game, it’s also available in soccer, baseball, hockey, and football flavors.
Panda Piggy Bank
This is a variation on the Useless Box, which flips off a switch when you throw it. But this one is better, because 1) it’s a piggy bank and 2) also a panda.
Desktop Punching Bag
For when you need to let off steam, and the MMA gym is on the other side of a long commute. It’s inflatable, so you’re unlikely to actually destroy anything. Warning: Might be dangerous for your laptop.
Desktop Zen Garden
Once you’re done working out your aggression, get back to your center by raking patterns into your own tiny zen garden. Sure, it’s only nine inches square. . . but at least it’s a lot easier to keep clean than a full-sized one at home.
An Actual White Elephant (Taco Holder)
Hey, you can’t argue with the classics. Unless your argument is that everything is better with tacos. Then you win the argument. An optional “Elephant’s Taco Tale” picture book is available for a few dollars more.