Oops! You didn't know you were swapping gifts ... until the other person showed up to the party with a present in hand.
No problem. You planned ahead and have a well-stocked selection of standbys, little presents that say "I care" when you need a gift in a hurry.
"Though I don't believe that reciprocal gift giving is always necessary, there will be times when you want to acknowledge someone at the holidays. The best standby gifts are useful and tasteful -- and just personal enough," says Deanne Marie, author of "Gift Giving for Busy People."
As there is with all presents, there's an art to selecting standby gifts. Remember that it's the thought that counts -- "thought" being the key word.
"If you give a gift that's inappropriate, it draws attention to the fact that not only did you not care but also you tried to get by with it," says Teri Gault, co-author of "Shop Smart, Save More." "A good friend can be hurt if you give her chocolate and you should know she's deathly allergic to chocolate."
"The challenge is to find gifts that are classic and timeless," Gault says.
Standby gifts should be thoughtful and appeal to a wide range of recipients while retaining an air of the personal; think general, not generic.
The latest nonfiction title on the current state of the American economy may not resonate with everyone on your list, for example, but a hardcover coffee table pictorial on life in the United States is sure to intrigue both die-hard bibliophiles and casual readers.
"Stick to classic and basic but special," Gault says. "A cashmere scarf fits the bill. Even if you have one, you always need a spare while one is at the cleaners."
It's classic because it's a scarf, and everyone can use an extra scarf in the winter. It's basic if you choose a neutral color, such as beige or black. It's special because it's cashmere. Plus, if you find it off-season, you likely will pay clearance prices.
"Instead of running out at the last minute and looking for something at full price, you can buy intentionally when things are on sale," Gault says. "Because I plan ahead and keep my eye open for bargains, I can usually spend less than $20 on gifts that would otherwise cost $60 or more."
Aim to have about five standby gifts in reserve. Any leftovers can serve as backup birthday presents in the coming year. Look for items that everyone can use, and steer clear of home furnishings, clothing, scented items and wine and spirits.
"Anything for d?cor is risky," Gault says. "Perfume scents are just about the worst thing you can buy, as that is a very personal preference. Clothing must fit, and the style can also be quite personal."
Your standby arsenal might include a clever kitchen gadget, a handsome desk clock, a classic refillable lighter for the fireplace or grill, a fancy high-powered key chain flashlight or a holiday music compilation.
"Wrap the gifts beautifully so they're ready to go, but be sure to put a sticky note on the bottom to identify what's inside," Marie says. "Keep them in a gift drawer or under the tree -- and keep one in the car or your tote just in case. When the opportunity presents itself -- either you receive an unexpected gift that you'd like to reciprocate or you're moved to give someone an unexpected gift -- don't stress over your selection. Standby gifts are not meant to be the most amazing and meaningful gifts ever. They're tokens of appreciation and gratitude."
The standbys may not hit it out of the ballpark, but with the right delivery, they will show you care.
"What you don't want to do upon receiving an unexpected gift is get flustered and say, 'I didn't get you anything,'" Marie explains. "Accept your gift graciously and, if you wish to reciprocate, simply say, 'Let me get your gift,' and then retrieve a standby."
Keep in mind that reciprocating each and every gift is not required. It's certainly a wonderful gesture, but it's not mandatory.
"If you didn't know you were exchanging gifts with this person or you want to reciprocate but you don't have the money or the time to buy a personalized gift, then make your thank-you note a heartfelt expression of your gratitude for that person -- not just the gift," Marie says. "Sometimes a great thank you is all the gift we need."