NEW YORK — Buying fewer gifts certainly would help curb your holiday spending, but summarily dropping your mother-in-law isn't generally an option. So try another approach that can actually be more fun for everyone: the gift exchange. Here are tips on how to orchestrate a round-robin among friends or relatives who typically buy armloads of presents that both givers and recipients soon forget. Mae Anderson, Associated Press
Start with consensus. Gift exchanges may once have been seen as stingy or contrived. But as many people look to cut back more will be open to finding a way to help one another spend less at the holidays. An exchange, where you give presents to just one person in your group instead of all of them, is a time saver too. To suggest a gift exchange if you're worried about someone being upset, e-mail everyone you'd like to involve so anyone who'd like to decline can easily duck out.
Set a price range — or no price at all. The simplest way to spend less on gifts is to set a dollar limit. You could even make the exchange a friendly competition: Who will give the most creative gift certificate, the most unusual handcraft, the nicest dinner for two under $25, the best home-burned compilation CD?
If free appeals, think about having everyone substitute outings or chores for gifts. This is more likely to work in a family than an office, but the best gift might be an offer to shovel snow or accompany the recipient to a museum or spend a day organizing old photos together.
Choose a theme. Another way to keep prices down and make your exchange more communal is to center it on a topic or theme. Everyone could give a favorite book with a note about why it's special (even a used copy?), a Christmas tree ornament (maybe homemade?) or a kitchen implement with a simple recipe that requires it.
Be specific. Members of a family or office often throw their names into a hat and choose randomly, but that's unlikely to curb the proliferation of unwanted bath soap medleys, tea samplers and dish towels. To ensure the people in your exchange get gifts they appreciate, have them mention a few of their preferences — favorite authors or colors or their shoe size — when they throw in their names.
Coordinate online. Don't worry if your group's not all going to be in the same place until the holidays — or not even then. Tools at secretsanta.com, Evite.com, elfster.com and other Web sites will help. Peter Imburg started Elfster in 2004 after coordinating an online exchange for his family. Members of registered groups can use the site to receive e-mail, post wish lists, shop and ask questions anonymously, all ensuring they'll exchange much better gifts.
"You can get ideas and figure out exactly what people want without having to set foot in the mall or any stores," Imburg said.
Throw in a wild card. As the recession cuts into companies' generosity or flattens holiday parties completely, getting your cheer on can take extra creativity. But that can also make for extra fun if your group has a good sense of humor.
Consider organizing a Yankee Swap, in which participants contribute any gift they like (wrapped but unlabeled) and then everyone pulls a number at random to determine the order in which they pick gifts from the pile. The fun starts with the unwrapping. If no one wants what you opened, simple enough: You get to keep it. But everyone who comes after you has the option of choosing your gift or any other that's already open instead of taking one from the pile. Which in turn gives you the opportunity to pick from the pile again (or steal from yet another recipient).
A few simple rules will keep things fun: Set a low spending limit, say $15; don't tell any other participant what you contribute; silly is good, just keep it tasteful; gifts can be stolen only three times; the person who chooses the first gift gets one more chance after everyone else has gone. Google "Yankee Swap" for details.