Though the holidays are meant to be a time for goodwill and expressing appreciation for others, there is always an inevitably awkward moment when you receive a gift but have nothing to give in return. It's true that there are rules of etiquette that come with gift giving, but everyone's interpretation of these unwritten rules is different. This can cause gift giving to get a bit sticky on occasion. However, understanding the unwritten rules can help to ease some of the holiday gift-giving tensions that seem to come along with the season.

You Give What You Get
When someone gives you a gift, generally you give one in return. However, there are exceptions to this rule. Many people give gifts without expecting anything in return. In some cases, the gift giver is only looking for appreciation in return for the gift, especially in cases where the gift may come in the form of a thoughtful gesture, like a box of homemade cookies or a hand-knit scarf. However, if you're a stickler for this rule, you can always keep a small assortment of generic ready-to-go gifts on hand for these situations. Items could include holiday ornaments, chocolates or other sweets, and scented candles.

Aiming for Equality
Some feel compelled to aim for gifts that are of equal value to those given to others, or to those expected in return. This can be a slippery slope since value is something that's not always easy to assess. If you managed to get something on sale, it might appear like a much more generous gift than it actually is. When giving gifts, you should aim to spend what you feel comfortable with.

Depending upon your relationship with the recipient, you may feel inclined to tell him or her that you got a good deal on their gift (perhaps you got a gift card at a discount) to ease any tensions that may arise from giving a gift that appears shockingly generous - especially if the recipient appears uncomfortable with receiving the gift. Similarly, assessing the value of a gift you're received against what you gave can lead to hard feelings.

Try your hardest to stay away from these kinds of assumptions. Remember that gifts are meant to be personal and not tied to dollar values. Finding that 'perfect something' is far more important than what you spent on it. Truthfully, if the recipient loves the gift, he or she is unlikely to fixate on the price tag.

Cultural Sensitivity
Keep in mind that not all cultures celebrate the holiday season in the same way. You may wish to do a bit of homework before sending holiday gifts to overseas work colleagues. Keep in mind that the traditions surrounding gift giving and receiving often vary depending upon the culture. Though it may be the cultural norm in North America to publicly unwrap a gift when it's received, in many cultures this would be considered poor form where waiting for a private moment would be the appropriate etiquette.

History Repeats Itself
Have you ever given a gift once and felt that the tradition had to continue indefinitely? You may wish to consider this before beginning a new gift-giving tradition. Some traditions, once begun, are hard to end.

Gifts for All
Another common gift giving conundrum is the feeling that you must give gifts to everyone within a particular group or segment of your life if you give a gift to one person within that group. You give a gift to one coworker you walk with at lunch, and then you feel like you have to give gifts to the whole office. Bear in mind that when it comes to gift giving, you only need to give gifts to those who you feel inclined to, but not to the point where you're visibly excluding someone within the group. For example, though you may not be friends with everyone in your office, if you give a gift to almost everyone except for a couple, it may lead to hard feelings. However, if you wish to give to only a couple of close colleagues, perhaps aim to give the gift in a more personal setting, like outside the office at lunch or quietly in a private meeting.

Ample Appreciation
If you receive a gift, even if you don't give one in return, always show your appreciation - regardless of whether you like the gift or not. Remember that the gift is an expression of this person's affections for you, and you should receive the gift graciously. If you are presented with the gift in person, smile and thank the gift giver. If you receive a gift by mail, call the gift giver as soon as you can to alert them that the gift has arrived. You should also send hand-written thank-you notes whenever possible.

Honor Your Host
When you're invited to someone's home during the holidays, it is good etiquette to bring a token of appreciation in exchange for the invite. These gifts should not be extravagant or overly personalized. Often a bottle of wine, box of chocolates, flowers or another holiday-themed gift will suffice.

Workplace Gifting
Giving gifts in the workplace can be awkward for many reasons, not just those noted above. When giving corporate gifts, be aware that sending out gifts with large corporate logos on them can appear tacky. Additionally, depending upon your workplace, you may be able to access some tax benefits from gift giving. This can include gifts that come in the form of charitable donations, and additionally many countries allow some tax write-offs from corporate gifts depending upon your industry and the nature of your work.

The Bottom Line
What we give as gifts and how we receive them says a lot about us as individuals. It's inevitable that there'll be the odd mix-up throughout the holiday season, but there is no need to stress. Bear in mind that many people simply give gifts to show appreciation or express affection for the recipient. Sometimes all that they're looking for is a simple thank-you in return. Additionally, being honest when you're planning your gift purchases for the season isn't something to be ashamed of. If times are tough and Santa's pockets aren't as deep this year, don't be afraid to tell your friends and family that you won't be giving as extravagant of gifts this year. Those closest to you are bound to understand, and might even feel relieved that there won't be such heavy expectations placed upon them to find the perfect gift in return.

Want to learn how to invest?

Get a free 10 week email series that will teach you how to start investing.

Delivered twice a week, straight to your inbox.