The generic-but-not group gift dilemma

By Mir
September 25, 2013

About a month ago, pretty reader Jean sent me the following question, and I was all, “Yes, I would love to tackle that! Stay tuned!” And then I saw something shiny and wandered off. My apologies for taking so long, Jean. Forgive me? Here we go:

Last year was my first year at a new job. In past jobs, we always did a Kris Kringle type of thing so you only had to purchase one gift for one co-worker. Well last Christmas, everyone was giving gifts to everybody! This was not in my budget so I wound up getting cards and a small bag of Lindt chocolates for everyone. It was fine but not super creative.

This year, I have budgeted about $10 per person (not including cards because I bought those at the end of the year sale last year). Any ideas of what I could get coworkers? Most are female and are aged between 30 and 50 (I have one male co-worker in his 40’s). I could go a bit higher per person if need be.

My knee-jerk response to this is abject horror. Times are tough and budgets are tight; I don’t know how many people there are in Jean’s office, but this seems excessive. Yikes. What if you couldn’t afford to participate? (I could go on and on, here. I’ll stop now.)

But with a budget of $10/person, I think you can probably go a few different ways.

First let me say that I think chocolate is always an appropriate gift, and creative or not, no need to feel at all bad about that. Most everyone likes chocolate, and if you don’t, well, I bet you know someone who will happily eat it for you. Which leads to my first suggestion! (Segue, Mir, segue.)

Edibles. When there’s so many gifts flying around, and particularly when you may not know all of the recipients terribly well, things you can eat are a safe way to go. If they don’t like what they get (or have an allergy or intolerance; whatever), it can be passed on to someone else.

Option 1: Make something yourself. Not everyone likes to bake/cook, so skip this if you don’t, but if you do, Pinterest and Google are your friends for finding unusual treats you can whip up at home, wrap up all pretty, and pop into cute containers you find at the Dollar Store or otherwise on sale somewhere. Boom, done.

Option 2: Go the “unusual gourmet” route. I know a lot of my readers dislike Fab for the whole have-to-have-an-account-to-shop thing, but there are certain items they do really well, and gourmet edibles is one of those areas—I’ve stumbled across brands I never would’ve encountered, otherwise, there. This is where I’ve found all manner of weird jams and sauces and flavored oils and whatnot. If you have a local Farmer’s Market or hail from an area known for a certain item (and can get folks back home to get some for you), that would work, too.

Option 3: Build a little foodie kit. Here’s a 6-pack of organic pancake mix at Amazon that works out to be just about $2.50/bag if you buy via Subscribe & Save and have Mom Prime. One of those, some fancy jam, a mini bottle of maple syrup…? A sampler of coffees/teas/cocoas and a travel mug…? Some popcorn and a variety of flavored toppings…? The possibilities are fairly endless.

Non-edible consumables. This would include anything that can be used up rather than being something that lives on forever.

Option 1: Pamper! This is the sort of thing where I stalk the sales at The Body Shop or Bath & Body Works to grab up deals on the goodies we all love but never seem to buy ourselves. (Granted, this becomes a bit more complicated for the guy in your group, but they do sell men’s products as well.) Just bear in mind, here, to go with neutral scents if you can; not everyone loves smelling like flowers or berries. One of my favorite gifts ever (and I think it was one of those sweet “just thinking of you” kinds of things, too) was some body butter and a pair of aloe socks. Just a tiny bit of pampering, but so sweet.

Option 2: Be practical. Who can’t use a little First Aid kit (either prepackaged or assembled by you) with Advil, bandages, etc., or a homemade “sick day” kit (with meds, tea and honey, kleenex, vapo-rub, etc.)? This is for the holidays, so you’ll be at the height of cold/flu season. You could have a lot of fun with this one.

Other themed packages. I want to stress once again that I think there’s absolutely nothing wrong with buying a bunch of little bags of chocolate and calling it a day. But if you’re looking for creativity, a little bit of time and willingness to assemble can yield something fun for not very much money.

Option 1: Dress up your desk. Again, it’s not glamorous, and the items aren’t expensive, but you could certainly assemble little bundles of the stuff everyone needs but in “fancier” forms—cute paperclips, assorted pens, post-it notes in fun colors/shapes, magnets/push-pins, etc.

Option 2: Purse/car emergency kit. This can be practical as well as funny. One year I grabbed these mylar blankets for family stocking stuffers, and they really are useful things to have in the car in case of an accident, or whatever. If you live somewhere that gets cold, these hand warmers might be good, too. This is also a good place for a tiny sewing kit, hand sanitizer, etc. But you could also include the Worst Case Scenario Survival Guide: Holidays for coworkers about to head off to see the relatives.

Readers… do you have other ideas to share? What am I missing? (And good luck, Jean. Please let me know what you end up doing!)


  1. I love your ideas Mir!

    I have to say, I always go to gift cards in this situation. And, although they are definitely impersonal, when receiving gifts from coworkers, it’s hard to say something I’d prefer more.

    The other thing I’ve gone to recently in this situation is donations. Perhaps bake a small thing, and then give a donation in each coworker’s name. This could all be to the same organization (e.g., you work at a dialysis center, so you send to the kidney foundation). Or, if you know coworkers well enough, each gift could go to a specific organization that the person would appreciate (e.g., animal shelter, children’s charity, health organization).

    • I agree with the donation idea. Make a nice batch of something delicious to share with everyone around the holidays, either individually or as a group in the break room, then attach slips that say where you have made a donation in honor of “the office.” Who can possibly find fault with a gift of a donation? Scrooge, that’s who.

  2. As I get older, I am beginning to think “stuff” that is gifted like this usually turns out to be junk cluttering my space. I don’t need any more lotions or pens or pen holders.

    I vote for pre-packaged edible items! The holidays are when people like to snack at their desks more than usual. Don’t stress and know that your gift won’t end up in the pile for your coworker’s next yard sale!

  3. I agree with the office supplies..that would be great! I would also think about maybe $10 gift cards to the local coffee shop.

  4. This is nuts that you are going to spend so much but here is my suggestion

    I once had a manager that gave us all really nice tiny pens. like this one

    That was 12 years ago and I still carry it in the makeup kit in my bag. I love it.

  5. Gift cards to local lunch spots (Subway, Wendy’s, Panera, etc) – “Lunch is on me”

  6. We do gifts for everyone in our office. We have seven of us and people give according to their current economic state/personal preferences. It’s pretty mixed with managers who make a ton of money, assistants who do not and I’m between the two. We have a new head honcho this year and I am curious to see how things will play out. This whole gift thing was started by the guy who just left and his wife made our gifts every year. And I mean, SUPER talent/creativity that equaled something new, unique and personalized for each person. Man, I’m going to miss that! If you are handy that way (i am not), she made over the years:
    a quilted Christmas wall hanging,
    a box full of of simple fabric bags for use in wrapping gifts with tags she made from leftover cards (cut up nicely, hole punched with a star thingy and a pretty string attached),
    an apron with assorted kitchen type things such as pot holder, napkins, kitchen towels with extra trim sewed on.
    a small quilt for traveling that came in it’s own bag (also homemade) that can be used as a pillow with the quilt in. This one is probably my favorite and still use it frequently.

    I usually do a fudge/cookie/pumpkin roll type of thing in a pretty box or bag from the previous year’s after season shopping. I highly recommend the pumpkin rolls. They are a bit of work but you can do it in batches early in the season and freeze. Rice bags are another good choice, even I can sew those. Russian tea or cocoa mixes with a pretty mug, just google a recipe.

  7. I try to get one small thing for everyone, prefer it when I can find something “new” and cool. One year was Sugru, more than $10 but can split up packs. Last year got everyone a Free Key, a product everyone with keys should love and under $10. A few years ago got a case of wine, soaked labels off and replaced with fun homemade on the computer labels. Starting to look for this year. If all else fails, I am going to make an adult version of kiddie Surprize Balls.

  8. And another idea is subscriptions from someplace like

  9. They’re hard to find on sale before the new year, but one thing my previous boss each Christmas did was buy everyone a page-a-day calendar. They were all different (some funny ones, some trivia ones, a puzzle one) and he made it clear that he wouldn’t be offended if we wanted to swap with each other. I always liked it because it was something for my desk that wasn’t too kitschy and didn’t take up much room, and I would have bought one for myself anyway.

  10. Since it’ll be the holidays and people are giving gifts (and let’s be honest, most we never use but still feel like we have to give) and stick with the food or give miscellaneous useful gifts.

    I personally like one I saw that was a gift-wrapping/extras gifts. Stuff to help you give gifts to others: A pack of batteries, scotch tape, tissue paper, ribbons and bows, etc.

    If you’re like me you usually remember the gifts but are making that mad last minute scramble for more tissue paper you swear you had or tape or something.

    Good luck! 🙂

  11. I love these ideas! My office exchanges gifts, too. I am usually the curmudgeon who bows out, but these are some of my favorite ideas:

    homemade candy (my coworker makes the most AMAZING millionaires, and she ONLY does them at Christmastime for these gifts, so they feel really special);

    an office emergency kit (very similar to the kits Mir described above, but with minor “emergency” type items: safety pins, chapstick, that finger tack stuff so you don’t have to lick your thumb to separate papers, a few stamps, a couple birthday cards, Tylenol, band-aids;

    gift cards to a nearby coffee shop or bookstore (we happen to have a Barnes and Noble next door with a coffee shop in it, so these are very popular); and

    homemade dishcloths…before you roll your eyes, understand that lots of folks don’t know how to crochet or knit, but homemade dishcloths work better than pretty much anything you could buy. You don’t have to make them yourself; you should be able to buy them for much less than $10.

  12. I wanted to comment not so much on the gift ideas… I see plenty of good ones above… but on the ‘gifting’ to the coworkers itself. I personally am fortunate, I have a husband and kids, a few close friends and a reasonable job that allows me to care for my needs and wants as I see fit.

    There are many that are strapped economically, and certainly many that don’t want another bottle of lotion or coffee mug, but there are many around the holidays who don’t have anyone outside of work giving them a gift or celebrating the season with them. The holidays can be a hard and lonely time, and for some, that might be the only thing they receive. I work in a small office, about 15 people. At least 6 are unmarried adults with little to no family around. I am certain that for the most part, those little gifts we exchange at the holidays mean a whole lot to them, both the giving and the getting. We are supposed to feel good and gracious at receiving a gift. Just a little reminder about being the *recipient*.

    Speaking of office birthdays… same situation… my department has taken it upon ourselves to bring in a treat to share for every single birthday in the office. We don’t let anyone pay us, the three of us handle ourselves. You deserve just a little bit of special on your birthday… we decided this was our thing, not overly fussy or extravagant, just what we do. If a close friend of the coworker wants to do a gift, that is between them. The art department brought the cake.

    • Excellent points, Patricia. Thank you for the reminder.

  13. One thing that is nice about Bath & Body Works is that they’ll always let you exchange easily without a receipt. This is a plus because, as Mir said, you don’t always know what scents people will like. Their stuff is also incredibly re-giftable–my mom gets a bunch of vanilla-scented stuff from her co-worker at Christmas every year, but doesn’t really need all of it. So she returns it for a bunch of other stuff and gives that out to nieces. Handy!

  14. oooohhhh Mir et al….so many fabulous ideas, thank you! The food thing…it speaks to me, as I am a huge fan of all things food 🙂 Um and Bath/Body Works, I forgot about those great deals! I have also noticed that some folks are big tea/coffee/hot chocolate drinkers…thinking a cute mug with some exotic version of the above are also an option.

    So those are the ways I am leaning 🙂 I’ll keep checking back for good deals on some of this stuff….thanks all!

  15. Check out the ideas for teacher’s gifts. Many of those could be used for co-workers and are creative and economical. I like to give a basic spice blend that can be used on any meat or veg and a jar. I buy the blend from a local farm but you could easily make your own. Buy the spices in bulk from a co-op market. I get sugar overload during the holidays so I like to give something savory that can be used on anything and will keep until grilling season.

    Our family does a gift exchange of food. Every Christmas I get jam from my MIL, cookies from one aunt and candies from another. I make marzipan balls dipped in chocolate. I look forward to them all each year and marzipan is far easier to make than it looks.

  16. Excellent ideas. I had the same dilemma with presents for my boss every year–what do you give a guy who makes quadruple your salary and doesn’t eat gifty-type stuff (not even grapefruit)? Many years ago I began donating to a charity in his name each Christmas, and choosing the charity has become one of the highlights of my holiday season. I’ve donated in his name to Kiva, Heifer International, Bicycles for Africa, Nothing But Nets, etc. He always claims to love it, too, and since I’m still employed, I’m trusting that he’s telling the truth.

  17. I’m a teacher, so I might use more post-its, notepads, etc. than the average person. At Vistaprint (and I’m sure other online companies) you can personalize these items with graphics, names, message, etc. Another great gift I always appreciate (NO MORE MUGS PLEASE) is movie tickets.

  18. Last year, I saved up jars from spaghetti sauce, salsa, etc, decorated the lids and filled with fuzzy socks, a nail polish, small lotion, and a few other things. The jars were free and I found the “stuff” on sale or online. These would work great for first aid kits too! I also stock up on bath & body works and have done “movie night kits” that have popcorn, candy, maybe a individual bottle of wine or sparking cider, or hot cocoa mix. You can buy cheap DVDs but I tend to just provide the goodies 🙂

  19. I work from home, in a group of 4-7 women who work from other parts of the country. We all send each other gifts at Christmas each year. One year I made buckeyes (appropriate since I live in OH), and I’ve received lovely scarves. But last year after seeing the idea online I packaged chocolate in pull tab cans with tags that say “pull tab in case of emergency”. Those seemed to be a big hit. Go with the clever packaging and consumable gift.
    Also someone mentioned movie tickets – our work group does those for birthdays.

  20. Last year I got all the office ladies a wristlets key fob from an etsy shop (kmdesigns09). It was personalized in both name and fabric and only $6! What a HIT!! Everyone loved them and I was a hero. Phew!! What am I gonna do this year? LOL!

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