If you’re anything like me, the holidays present a budgeting issue. How much are you going to spend? Who are you going to spend it on? Do you have to choose between a live eight-foot Christmas tree with vintage Victorian-era ornaments and eating for the month?

When it comes to your friends, there’s a simple solution to spending a few hundred bucks on candles and liquor for your besties. Rather than buying a bunch of small gifts, ask everyone to purchase one gift.

Now, some people who prefer the one nice gift purchase are going to push for drawing names or a Secret Santa exchange. While there’s nothing wrong with a Secret Santa, for those who like their holidays with a side of competitive edge, it’s all about the Dirty Santa party.

With Dirty Santa, there are no guarantees, and therein lies the thrill. You also get a party and a present all in one, and it creates an occasion to see your friends during this special time of year before everyone is pulled near and far by family obligations.

Here’s how to play dirty Santa. If you’re not familiar with this kind of gift exchange, the premise is simple. Each person buys a gift, wraps it and brings it to the party. Then, each party attendee draws a number. Starting with #1, a guest draws a gift. Guest #2 can then unwrap a new gift or “steal” the gift from Guest #1, and so on and so forth until every guest has a present. Clearly, most people are going to prize the later numbers because there are more open gifts to choose from.

Seem easy? It can be. But, like the great debate between “stuffing” and “dressing,” everyone has their own traditions, and regional differences do apply. To keep the holiday cheer in your party, be sure to lay out some ground rules. Here is our guide to dirty Santa rules: 

1. Set a price limit.

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On “The Office” it’s funny when one person gets a cat poster and another gets an iPod. In reality, this kind of gift disparity is no laughing matter — particularly if you purchased the gift card to a nice restaurant but end up taking home a word-a-day calendar. Set a suggested spending threshold and let all of your guests know it. This way everyone ends up with comparable gifts, and no one goes down fighting over “the good present.”

2. Put an end to gag gifts.

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I’ve been known to overindulge in gag gifts. (Because ugly underwear and Clay Aiken t-shirts are funny, dammit!) However, the real goal of a Dirty Santa party is for everyone to end up with something he or she will actually enjoy. Rule out gag gifts and ensure everyone has a non-bitter experience. 

3. Limit the number of steals.

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Limiting the number of steals is optional, but even if you don’t decide to abide by this one, you need to make it clear. At our annual party, a gift can only be stolen twice. When it touches a third set of hands, it’s “frozen” so to speak. And let me assure you that you need to make this part very clear. We originally said, “three steals,” but that would mean a gift wasn’t locked in until it hit the fourth set of hands, so we had to revise. Nothing ruins the holidays like yelling and resentment. (That’s what family is for, after all!) Whatever you want to do is fine, just make sure everyone else is on the same page.  

4. And the first shall be last.

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Remember what I said about regional differences? Some people play the game so that after all is said and done, Guest #1 gets to go again and choose from all of the gifts. Personally, I come from a family where no one lets anyone win, so this seems like a blatant play to make Guest #1 feel less terrible about drawing the worst number, and I’ll have none of it. But, other people are a lot nicer than me and see this as a fun twist on the game. To each their own. Just remember that what you decide must be clear to everyone playing. (That’s kind of our theme in case you didn’t notice.)

5. Have so much fun that everyone wants to do it again next year.
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Make Dirty Santa an annual event, and you’ll have a new tradition with your friends as well as something to look forward to every year. After all, the holidays are all about tradition.

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