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How to Nail "Secret Santa" Without Going Broke

A sharing economy approach to creative gift-giving.
How to get out of that Secret Santa rut at Christmas
Photo via Shutterstock

The holidays are upon us, which means a “Secret Santa” gift exchange where everyone in the office keeps trying to get their hands on the same $10 Amazon gift card. Followed by frenzied gift shopping for people you mutually agreed not to buy prezzies for. Rather than doing the same old, same old, why not shake things up this year by taking your cues from the sharing economy? This sharing-is-caring approach can be used for more than just office gifts and, if you do it right, it can save you money without sacrificing the impact of your presents.


The average Canadian is planning to spend $675 this year over the holidays and that includes everything from travel, to food and gifts. And that’s just what people are budgeting. Last year, a third of us spent more than we planned. This comes at a time when household debt is at record highs and 34 percent of millennials find their debt load “overwhelming.”

The sharing economy approach can be your cheap(er) solution for the holidays. According to Statistics Canada, 9.5 percent of adults in this country have participated in the sharing economy, which is defined as an activity facilitated by digital platforms where people rent their skills or make their resources available for money. Globally, ride-sharing (like Lyft and Uber) and accommodation-sharing (like Airbnb) generated an estimated $1.31 billion between 2015 and 2016. But it’s difficult to get a good handle on the sharing economy because it includes things like bartering, which doesn’t fall neatly into a category like ride-sharing or short-term accommodation rentals.

1544551849888-Esther-Garrick Marta Nowinska

The prezzie whisperers

For their thoughts on how you can be a red carpet-level gifter, with personal kickbacks, all without breaking the bank, we enlisted a couple of experts.

According to Marta Nowinska, who is the president and founder of the Swapsity bartering community, many people find holiday gifting a source of anxiety, but it doesn’t have to be. “Forty-seven percent of Canadians live paycheque-to-paycheque, and for half of us money is a source of severe stress.”


Esther Garnick is the Founder of the boutique agency EGPR and creator of the TIFF gifting mecca Essentials Lounge. “Anything which isn't wasteful is a great place to start. I think that the days of novelty gifts that don't do anything but clutter drawers and landfills are done.” She says the proliferation of a sharing economy has opened a lot of doors to creative gifting in a way that is easy on the wallet.

The gift of unsexy/super sexy nights on the couch

Little brings greater joy than binge-watching, and having also a way to invite someone to your place for sex then Netflix (or Netflix and chill). You are already paying $8.99 for your single stream subscription, why not turn up the volume and upgrade to the deluxe package for $13.99 and share your password with three people?! Sixty bucks, three awesome gifts that last for an entire year! It’s perfect for that special introvert in your life or a pal on Tinder or Bumble.

The gift of time, culture, and smugness

Going to a museum usually makes people feel like they have spent their day more constructively than everyone else who didn’t go to the museum. Also it’s pretty interesting! Most museums have membership packages at really good annual rates and they often include special exhibits, events, and guest privileges.

If you are interested in this unlimited access in your own life, it’s very easy to invest in a pass for yourself, and then extend its benefits to the people you care about.


The Art Gallery Of Ontario offers an individual pass for $110 dollars but for $35 dollars more you can get a “Member and Guest” pass allowing you to bring a new person every time that you visit. Alternatively, you can get a “Dual” for the same cost and give someone their very own card.

The Montreal Museum Of Fine Arts offers the “VIP Duo” for $110 allowing for one guest per visit or the trio for $135 which lets you invite two guests per visit. You should note that admission is free for people aged 30 and under, so save this one for people who are 31 and up (or who don’t have access to decent fake ID).

The Art Gallery Of Alberta has an “Ultra Single” membership with guest privileges for $200 or a “Duo” for $300 which gives you a second membership for the extra $100. As a bonus, you get reciprocal admission to more than a dozen galleries and museums across Canada. Memberships are a great way to share your sanctimonious swagger with others, and your guests may even treat you to a “thank you” lunch.

The gift of youth preservation

You and your pals aren’t getting any younger. And if you think you are old now, just think of what your future self will think fifteen years from now! Why not encapsulate your unencumbered freshness with a professional photography session? According to Nowinska “you can leverage your own strengths to swap with a photographer for a photo session to capture memories.” Using the barter system for something like this removes the usually high price tag. You can harness your group’s talents to make the barter more valuable.


If the photographer says bartering is a no-go, you can, in true sharing economy style, split the bill. You can print photos to keep forever and also use the digital shots to up your gang’s Insta game. Sharing on social media is part of what makes this present so memorable.

The gift of smelling good

You have probably been meaning to learn to make your own soap in preparation for the zombie apocalypse anyways, so you might as well do it now. Take a workshop, make that soap, and then pass it along. Soap-making workshops usually cost around $50 and then you leave with a trillion dollars worth of actual artisanal soaps and real homesteading know-how. The soaps make good gifts for co-workers and other people low on the gifting totem pole, and since the soap is handmade, people will feel like it’s thoughtful. Win-win.

The gift of relaxation

People are stressed, and they are tired, so why not capitalize on their gloom? Garnick says, “I happen to be a firm believer that everyone is short on sleep. If I really don't know what to give people, I try to think of how to get people into bed.” Sure, it sounds a bit creepy (if you phrase it that way) but relaxation may be the best gift you can give.

Nowinska suggests building a bartering network to help fund these experiences. “Work out a mutually beneficial barter relationship with a personal trainer, a chef, or an RMT to offer someone a gift of well-being.” Using your skills to build these relationships will also benefit you when you require these services, and let’s face it, you will.


The Gift Of Kindness

Everyone… OK almost everyone wants to give back and do some good in the world but sometimes even the best of intentions fall by the wayside. Often it’s a matter of not knowing where to direct all that good energy. If someone on your gifting list is serious about a cause, you can just adopt theirs! Is it a crazy cat lady (or man)? Get in touch with the Humane Society and do all of the admin work involved in becoming a volunteer and then give them the good news in a nice card.

If you truly don’t have the time, charities are always accepting donations and will send out a card to whomever you donate on behalf of. If you request a receipt, you can use some or all of that to reduce the amount you owe (if any) at tax time. Nothing captures the spirit of the sharing economy quite like… a tax break on a charitable gift.

The gift of stuff

People still need stuff like bottles of wine, whoopee cushions, and those weird reversible-sequin couch cushions. You need to declutter, just look around and notice all of your crap! You don’t need that air plant in a plastic dinosaur, you’re going to kill it! What about that Quiznos gift card you’ve been saving for a rainy day? Your celiac disease isn’t going anywhere! Touch everything and ask “does this bring me joy?” When it inevitably does not, trade on a site like Swapsity or Bunz. Marie Kondo-ing your place equals serenity for you, and rosé for your pals.

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