This is the first post from new GRS staff writer Donna Freedman. Donna writes the Living With Less personal finance column for MSN Money, and writes about frugality, intentional living and lifeitsownself at Surviving And Thriving.

Grandma probably doesn’t want another scented candle, but she could very well use a ride to the store. Your underemployed nephew would likely prefer a little help filling the pantry instead of a jokey T-shirt. And the sister who’s staying home with her kids may not be able to afford any extras just now. Instead of dropping $40 on a sweater, why not put that money toward a membership to the local museum?

You’ve still got a few weeks to think about Christmas gifts. Make this the year when you pick presents that actually help.

Note: Don’t forget that elsewhere on GRS, you can find a huge list of homemade Christmas gifts.

Giving gifts that help
I’ve put together a list of items that save the recipient money or fill a specific need. Prices range from as little as $5 to upwards of $50 or more — and some of the suggestions will cost you little except time.

  • Warehouse club membership. If you’ve got $40 or $50 to spend, why not make it possible to buy in bulk all year long? Note that this gift isn’t suitable for folks who don’t buy much at a time or who have limited storage space — unless you offer to split some big buys with them. Frugal hack: If you’ve got a membership already then make up a gift certificate that says, “I will take you shopping once a month for 12 months.”
  • Greeting cards. Some of us dinosaurs still like to send snail-mail birthday, get-well or “thinking of you” cards. You can get decent ones two for a buck at some dollar stores. I got an even better deal on Hallmark assortments at Walgreens: 10 cards to a box, two boxes for $5, or a quarter apiece. Ideally, you’ll spring for at least a 10-pack of stamps along with this gift. Frugal hack: Shop thrift stores and rummage or yard sales — a lot of really nice card sets end up deeply discounted in both places.
  • Annual pass. A season’s membership to a local zoo, museum or theater company may cost less than you think. Playing with the ball 3You’re not only giving someone a year’s worth of entertainment, you’re investing in community organizations. Frugal hacks: Social commerce sites like Groupon or Buy With Me sometimes offer annual passes; sign up for a few of these services right away and see what pops up in the next few weeks. Be sure to buy the social commerce vouchers through a cash-back site for a 6% rebate.
  • Pet supplies. People who have recently lost their jobs or who are living on fixed incomes could be hard-pressed to provide for Fluffy or Fido. Find out what kind of kibble the animal eats and drop off a jumbo sack of the stuff, or one of those huge buckets of kitty litter. Possible frugal hacks: Watch for loss leaders at places like Petco and PetSmart, and pay with a discounted gift card.
  • Yard work. Aging or chronically ill relatives might not be up to mowing, weeding, shoveling snow or cleaning out the gutters. Give a homemade gift certificate good for a certain number of hours of work each season.
  • Supermarket or drugstore gift card. Your giftee can shop the best sales or treat himself to an item that’s normally out of his price range. Since some supermarkets sell gasoline, that card might come in real handy during a particularly tight week — you can’t get paid if you can’t get to work, right? Frugal hacks: Some drugstores give free gift cards if you fill or transfer a prescription. Some rewards programs and rewards credit cards offer them. Discounted gift cards for merchants like Shell, Exxon, Walgreens, Jewel-Osco, Safeway and Albertsons are often available for about 3% off; see above link for how to buy them.
  • The Entertainment Book. It’s got discounts for food, movies, cultural attractions, sporting goods and all kinds of services. Frugal hack: Buy it through a cash-back site and you’ll get a rebate of up to 35% plus free shipping.
  • Transit pass. For those of us who don’t own cars, the prospect of a month’s worth of public transit sounds mighty fine. Or how about paying for a year’s membership in a car-sharing service? Frugal hack: If you’ve got a car, make your gift “I will take you to do one errand a week (with advance notice) for the next year.”
  • Community-supported agriculture. If money is no object, buy that special someone a CSA share. He’ll eat fresh produce from late spring until early fall, and you’ll be helping a local farmer stay in business. Go to this U.S. Department of Agriculture site and scroll down to “Find a CSA farm.”
  • Fresh vegetables make a great gift.

  • Prepaid calling card. Not everyone has unlimited minutes on his cell phone, or a cell phone at all for that matter. The card lets the recipient talk with relatives and friends without worrying about the phone bill. Frugal hack: If you’ve got unlimited minutes on your cell, arrange to let your relative or friend use it once or twice a month.
  • Socks and underwear. Yes, you are turning into your mother. But these are the kinds of things we all need to replace. So if you know the person well enough to know his or her needs (and size!), then watch the clearance tables or use a price-comparison website to find the best deals. If this is a family with young kids, buy a size or two up.
  • Green ’em up. Make your gift a bunch of compact fluorescents, faucet aerators and low-flower showerheads to reduce the giftee’s utility bills. Offer installation if necessary. If you’ve got money to burn consider installing a water-saving toilet, too. Frugal hacks: Pay with a discounted gift card from Lowe’s or Home Depot, or buy through a cash-back site, specifying “local pickup” (i.e., order online but go get it yourself) if free delivery isn’t offered.
  • Car care. Buy a case of motor oil and filters and offer to do the changing if they’re unable and you’re handy. Or spring for a set of replacement wiper blades, some new floor mats and a gallon or two of windshield washer fluid. Frugal hack: Watch auto-supply store ads for sales and rebates.
  • Medicine cabinet. Buy that special someone any or all of the following: a year’s worth of vitamins and supplements; cold or allergy medicines, nighttime cough syrup, lip balm, throat lozenges and those tissues with the lotion in them; analgesics, antibacterial ointment, bandages and the like. Frugal hack: Many of these items can be obtained cheaply or free after rebate.

All right, dear readers, it’s your turn: What suggestions do you have for gifts that help?

Tiger photo by Tambako.

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