NEW YORK — Families, friends and companies looking to stretch scarce budgets without stomping all over holiday cheer are turning to Secret Santa, charitable donations and similar group gift exchanges in these sour economic times.
Web sites that take the sting out of organizing group giving report big increases in usage heading into Christmas and Hanukkah, with members of book groups, class parents buying the sole gift for teachers and other group givers joining the effort to hold down holiday spending.
Elfster.com, which offers three online steps for inviting participants, drawing names and exchanging gifts, expects traffic to double this year over last year to more than 1 million visitors. FrumUs.com and Secretsanta.com said their users were also exploding ahead of Thanksgiving, when many people begin planning group gift exchanges.
"People are really concerned about the economy and want to cut back on their spending," said Peter Imburg, creator of Elfster. Group gift exchanges managed online and off, including Yankee Swaps and White Elephants, will preserve fun and keep spirits high this year while making it easier to reduce spending, he said.
At Secretsanta.com, founder and CEO Franco Yuvienco said the site has experienced a 25 percent increase in users so far this year over 2007. While spending limits imposed on groups by their online managers typically increase by about 10 percent, this year's limits remain the same as last year, he said.
Even those who have done gift exchanges in the past are scaling back further.
Rosemarie Fabien suggested to her retired parents, aunt and sister that they change their annual Secret Santa ritual in two ways: First, everyone would spend $25 instead of $50. Second, everyone would donate that money to a charity rather than buying gifts that were likely to get returned anyway,
"I had no problem saying, 'Look guys, we're broke,"' said the Wynnewood, Pa., communications consultant who turned to freelancing after losing her job with an architectural firm in February. "Saving money has to happen."
The five young children in the family remain off limits for less giving, Fabien said, a common sentiment among parents and grandparents planning to trim back the holidays.
Some businesses are also turning to group gift exchanges while trimming bonuses and reining in fancy holiday parties, knowing that going completely Scrooge would likely do more damage to employees' morale than the savings is worth in hard times.
Christopher Downing, who counts Shutterfly and Lego among clients of the small San Francisco public relations firm he co-founded, said it will be Secret Santa meets the "Amazing Race" come December, with a downsized restaurant for the company holiday lunch and tidier bonuses.
On Dec. 19, Downing and eight colleagues and staff will gather around the Christmas tree in San Francisco's Union Square and pull names. Each person will receive an envelope with $40 or $50. They'll be given an hour to find the perfect gift for their recipient, with an exchange over lunch.
Savings? About $2,500, he said, plus the pleasure of letting employees running amok with a little mad money provided by their bosses.
"We thought the team would definitely benefit from some levity given the somber tone of the news cycle this year," Downing said.
Debbie Farnoush said her family's dry goods business is looking to save about $15,000 this year by drawing names for a Secret Santa exchange instead of holiday dinners and other parties for its 60 mostly factory workers in the Los Angeles area. Each worker received $50 from the company to spend on their gift recipient.
"We want to keep our employees happy and satisfied," Farnoush said. "We don't want them to think the company is going out of business and that they will be losing their jobs soon just because they're hearing this stuff on the news."