Avoid awkwardness with etiquette guidelines from the experts.
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When buying gifts for your circle of friends has become more of a chore than a treat, it's time to cut back. "Gift giving usually starts very organically," says Jodi RR Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting, but it often balloons as friends get married and have children, and then dwindles as you and your inner circle settle in different towns or states. Eventually, "it has been years since you saw them and the gift exchange by mail that was fabulous in your mid-twenties is starting to feel stale," she says. And while it's not rude to trim your list, it's important to let your friends know in advance. "To give nothing at all, with no background conversation, is a sure way to minimize the relationship," says Smith. Here's how to broach the topic.

Presents on a green table
Credit: HRAUN / Getty Images

Don't hesitate.

You don't need to share any specific reason to stop giving gifts: Maybe your budget doesn't allow it, maybe you're trying to shorten your to-do list, maybe you're adopting a "buy less" mindset in general, or maybe you just don't want to. With or without a reason, you should tell your friends as soon as you've made your decision. "Preemptive etiquette is important so that no one is caught off guard or is embarrassed—honestly, this conversation should be had in July!" says Smith. "If you have not already, now is the time to chat and figure out what works best for everyone for this year. After mid-December, you are really getting too close to the giving to make a major change."

Use these words.

If you're having trouble figuring out how to open this conversation without feeling awkward, the experts can help: Pattie Ehsaei of Duchess of Decorum recommends saying something like, "Since we've exchanged gifts in the past, I want to let you know that I'm choosing not to participate in gift exchanges this year due to (insert reason, if you feel inclined do so). Thank you for your understanding and I hope we can spend quality time together this holiday season."

Offer an alternative.

Depending on the reason behind your change in gifting habits, you might feel more comfortable offering an alternative plan—like one that's easier on your budget or that creates a shared experience to replace a material item, says Smith. She suggests phrasing like, "I know we have all gotten into the habit of buying a gift for each person, but thought we might try something different this year. What do you think about drawing names out of a hat? Or a white elephant exchange? Or maybe we buy tickets for a Broadway show in March? I am open to ideas. What do you think?" or, "I thought it would be fun to change things up. Instead of gifts this year, let's plan to go for afternoon tea together in January."

Stick to your plan.

Even if you've told your friends you won't be handing out gifts, you may still receive presents from them; that doesn't mean you need to squeeze in a last-minute trip to the store so you don't show up empty-handed. "You should not feel obligated to buy a gift just because you have received one," says Ehsai. "In this instance, accept the gift graciously and say, 'Thank you! I'm so surprised by your gift. As you know, I chose not to exchange gifts this year, so I don't have one for you in return, but I so appreciate your generosity in getting me one anyway." (And one more etiquette must, says Smith: Don't forget the thank-you note.)

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