You've been friends forever, but your lives have diverged and now the Christmas gift exchange feels awkward. How to get out of a long-standing exchange.

When you’re in your early and mid-twenties, you probably earning around the same amount of money as your friends, except for maybe that one pal who became a high-powered attorney straight out of college (and that person likely has more student loans to pay off than you do, so he or she is still in your ballpark for at least a few years). In 2015, the average salary for 20-24 year olds was just over $25k per year.

In your 20s, when the holidays roll around, exchanging gifts with friends is no biggie. You, and all your friends, know that the present should be on the cheap side—$20 max, maybe less.

But as you and your friends get older, you’ll start drifting into different income brackets. You, or one of your friends, may experience a job loss, or have trouble finding a job or accrue a large amount of debt in graduate school.

Conversely, you, or one of your friends, may rise to the top of his or her field. Salaries vary wildly for those between the ages of 25 and 34. It all depends on the industry you work in, your education, and where you live.

For example, NerdWallet found that a health care worker in Los Angeles earns over $90k per year, while someone of the same age in Texas who works in business operations earns just over $49k per year.

Case in point: I’m still best friends with a woman I met when I was 20. For a while, we earned the same amount of money.

But around the age of 30, she found herself at the top of the corporate ladder. She now earns more per year than my house is worth. I’m not jealous at all—I’ve had a great career too, but in journalism and education, both of which make me feel rich on a spiritual level, if not a financial one.

Another reason for the disparity between my bank account and my BFFs? I have a child who still wears diapers and goes to daycare. Some estimate that a toddler costs a parent over $10,000 per year. My friend has chosen to remain child-free.

How do differences in income affect holiday gift giving between friends?

Nothing has changed in my relationship with my BFF because of our salary differences. We still have the same interests when it comes to music, movies, and Friday night fun. We still know everything about each other’s lives, from our salaries to details of our dustups with our romantic partners to why we just don’t like this season of The Affair. When we go out to eat, we pick restaurants I can afford without really addressing the choice head-on.

The only weird time is Christmas. And the only person it’s weird for is me, not her, for a few reasons:

  • I feel crappy if I give her a book, and I get $60 worth of jewelry in return. If I told my best friend this, she’d laugh. She’d never scoff at a gift I gave her, even if it cost $15. But that doesn’t mean I won’t feel kind of…lame about the gift I gave her.
  • Like most Americans, I have credit card debt (my friend, on the other hand, doesn’t). Experts argue over how much debt the average American carries, but one thing they do agree on is that it’s not good. Any $20 I spend on a gift would be much better spent paying off my credit card balance. And when you add up all the $20 gifts you’re buying all your family (plus your babysitter, your work secret Santa, and so on), you’re suddenly talking about $200. Cutting out anyone on that $20 gift list is a must.
  • The older I get, the more I dislike buying anyone any holiday gifts. I love the holidays. Seriously, I decorated my Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving. But I hate the commercialism of the season. I can show the people I love how I feel about them all year long (maybe a little more around December) without giving each of them a gift from Target.

But how exactly do you stop exchanging holiday gifts with a friend once you’ve started?

When I told my husband I was writing about this topic, he didn’t get it. He thought I should just tell my friend, “I can’t afford it. Let’s not buy each other gifts this year.”

What a guy thing to say. In my experience, guys don’t ever buy their guy friends Christmas gifts, so there’s never a pattern they have to worry about.

Telling a girlfriend you want to opt-out of a long-standing gift exchange is awkward.

Etiquette expert Jorie Scholnik-Zaron, Associate Professor of Student Development Instruction at Santa Fe College, gave me an idea. “If it’s a group of girlfriends, organize a potluck so everyone can spend time together, which is the main point of the holidays,” she says. “Don’t mention finances at all. You can say, ‘Hey, we should do something else instead of getting each other gifts this year. Let’s go to dinner or have a potluck instead of a gift exchange so we can spend time together.’”

If a friend scoffs at that idea, then that person is no friend at all and there’s no reason to spend any money on him or her.

I tried this strategy on my best friend, and it worked perfectly. This Saturday, we’re going to our favorite restaurant with my daughter.

The best part? By not buying each other gifts, we can afford better wine!


  • Younger adults usually make the same amount of money starting out, but incomes change over time.
  • Gift giving during the holidays can change forms. Consider spending more time together rather than money on one another.

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About the author

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Patty Lamberti is a freelance writer and Professional-in-Residence at Loyola University Chicago, where she teaches journalism and oversees the graduate program in digital media storytelling. If she doesn't know something about money, you can trust she'll track down the right people to find out. You can learn more about her at And if you have any story ideas, or questions about money etiquette that you'd like her or an expert to answer, email her at [email protected]