This guest post from Shelley Turner is part of the “reader stories” feature at Get Rich Slowly. Some stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success — or failure. These stories feature folks from all levels of financial maturity and with all sorts of incomes.

They’re coming! Like it or not, the holidays — and all the stress of buying the Perfect Gift — are just around the corner. I actually like brainstorming gift ideas, and have been told I’m pretty good at it. Today I’ll share my secrets with you.

The best gifts are appropriate for the recipient, yet don’t cost a small fortune. You want your gift to say “I know what you like”, not “I didn’t have a clue of what to get you for a gift for but here it is anyway”. I once received a leopard-hair belt. Anybody who knows me, or has seen how I dress, understands that there’s never been (nor ever will be) a time that I’d wear a leopard-hair belt. A gift like that screams “I just bought you something because I had to”.

Gift-giving ground rules
Before you buy, take a few minutes to think about what your recipient has in her house or on her desk, what she spends her time doing, what she likes to talk about, where she likes to eat, and even what she keeps in her refrigerator. Even if you don’t know her that well, this exercise will help you get some ideas of what the recipient likes.

I’m not a collector, so I prefer practical and useful gifts. However, if your gift recipient is a collector, that’s a perfect opportunity. Even if his collection is filled with expensive items, you can often find a small token within that collection that you could give him. The trick to buying a great gift for somebody, no matter what the occasion, is to buy what your recipient would enjoy — not what you’d enjoy.

Often, a consumable gift that provides momentary pleasure and then disappears is best, especially around the holidays when people usually get many gifts. Consumables can be given, enjoyed, and remembered without becoming Stuff.

My husband’s 90-year-old grandmother is a perfect example. What can you give a 90-year-old woman who already has everything she wants and needs? Not much. However, I know she really enjoys a good cup of coffee. And I found some European butter cookies and a some jars of preserves made in her native Denmark. I give her this same gift every year. She tells me she waits eagerly for our gift because not only does she enjoy consuming it during the winter, but because it’s a small reminder of her home country.

Inexpensive gift ideas
No matter which gift you choose, if it’s something your recipient uses over and over, you can give a great gift without spending too much. Here are some of my favorite inexpensive gift ideas. These have all been well-received and cost less than $20. You can tailor the gift idea to fit your budget. Some of these can be used as hostess gifts for holiday parties you may be attending.

  • Personalized note cards
  • A book by her favorite author
  • Monogrammed wine stoppers
  • Travel journal
  • Engraved metal bookmark
  • Monogrammed soap bars
  • Bread basket with quick bread or muffin mix inside
  • Dog or cat breed-specific items — calendars, notepads, keychains, etc. of their pet
  • Cookbook (specific subjects like fondue, vegetarian, appetizers, etc or you could get a book representing their hometown like the Chesapeake Bay, etc.)
  • Personalized insulated tote-style lunch bag (put his favorite snack inside)
  • Sports team items — pick her favorite team mug, hat, t-shirt, scarf, etc. (fill a mug with her favorite hard candy)
  • Gourmet chocolate bars tied with ribbon or raffia
  • Favorite bubble bath & bath pillow
  • Wallet with gift cards or cash inside
  • Amaryllis or Paperwhite bulb package
  • Old-fashioned jar filled with favorite candy or snack
  • Hand-made soap with an interesting soap dish
  • Handmade crocheted or knitted scarf or hat
  • BBQ sauces, hot sauces, grilling rubs, etc (some have funny labels)
  • Ice cream dish with favorite topping
  • Decorative candy bowl with favorite candy
  • Ornament representing current hobby
  • Charm to add to an existing charm bracelet
  • T-shirt from favorite restaurant
  • Crabtree & Evelyn hand therapy (super-rich hand cream)
  • Nice colored pencils and/or sketch notebook for artists
  • Small decorative bowl and package of dip mix
  • Hand towels with initials embroidered (especially if newly married)

Here are a few more ideas with a bit of explanation:

  • Magazine subscription (hundreds of subjects to choose from — and you can give crossword puzzle and comic book subscriptions too). Buy the current issue and put a note on it that you got him a one-year subscription.
  • Lolita glasses are painted wine, beer, or margarita glass that have themes painted on them based on hobbies. There’s a recipe painted on the bottom of each glass too.
  • Year of Napkins! This requires advance planning, but makes a unique gift for a very reasonable price. For each holiday throughout the year (plus Happy Birthday), pick up one pack of luncheon-sized napkins. When you’ve collected all the holidays, package them in order of the holidays in small CD crates, baskets, etc. Usually you can find the napkins in the clearance section right after the holiday. Decide how many of these you want to put together in advance so you can buy as many as you need during each holiday.

Remember that you can also go in with others to purchase bigger gifts, such as theater tickets, cooking classes, and other “experiences”. If you’re very organized, you can shop all year and pick up interesting gifts along the way. My sister-in-law has a birthday in January, but I often find stuff she’ll love in the summer, so I buy it and keep it until her birthday.

Check the clearance racks all year to get even better deals. Unless you really enjoy going shopping the week before Christmas, you may find that buying gifts ahead of time will not only save you money, but also make the holiday season a little more relaxing, as well.

Reminder: Another way to save money on gifts is to make them yourself. Here’s a list of 34 great homemade Christmas gifts almost anyone can put together. And over at The Simple Dollar, Trent has been documenting his own quest for family-produced Christmas presents.

A note on packaging
When packaging your gifts, you’re not stuck using a gift bag or plain wrapping paper unless you want to. Tulle (that material used to tie up rice/birdseed to throw at weddings) is great for wrapping unusually-shaped items, such as the bowls & dip mixes, candy bowls & jars, ice cream dishes, bottles of hot sauces, soap, etc. It’s really inexpensive to purchase by the yard, comes in many colors, and your recipient can see what you gave her without unwrapping it. Tulle is especially good for hostess gifts so they don’t have to open them upon receipt.

Some other tips:

  • Magazines roll up perfectly in those tall wine bottle bags.
  • Chinese-food boxes and small tin buckets are inexpensive and fun to use.
  • Bread baskets work nicely to hold all kinds of items and they can reuse the basket later.

When packaging your gifts, use your imagination!

1980 Gates Christmas - Tiff and Kris

Gift giving can be fun — if you allow yourself to be creative and take a few minutes to think about your recipient. The bottom line: If he’ll enjoy it, it’s a great gift for him!

Happy gift-giving!

Reminder: This is a story from one of your fellow readers. Please be nice. After more than a decade of blogging, I have a thick skin, but it can be scary to put your story out in public for the first time. Remember that this guest author isn’t a professional writer, and is just learning about money like you are. Henceforth, unduly nasty comments on readers stories will be removed or edited.

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