10 ways to build a gift closet that’s both deep and cheap

The holidays are about six months away. Why wait until the last minute to shop? Answer: You shouldn't. And you won't have to if you have a decently stocked gift closet. Some people I know keep their eyes open starting on Dec. 26 and are finished by mid-summer.

It's more than just the December holidays, though. A small selection of “evergreen” gifts (non-perishable, non-trendy) means you're prepared for any birthday, anniversary or new baby that comes along.

Building your gift closet doesn't have to cost much. I always trot out the example of the puzzle depicting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the perfect gift for a jigsaw-loving relative. Still shrink-wrapped when I found it on half-price day at a thrift shop, it set me back a whopping 35 cents.

If you wait until the last minute, you're likely to spend more. On the afternoon of the baby shower, you might be tempted to stop at the first store you see and grab the item that's closest to the door. Compare that with, say, the 89-cent newborn outfit that I bought at a post-holiday clearance sale.

(It wasn't junk, either, but made by Carter's. And it was cute as hell. I made the girl-noise when I saw it.)

Incidentally, it doesn't really have to be a closet. I keep my stash in a cedar chest that I bought for $15 at a garage sale. Not only are my gifts cheap, they're guaranteed moth-free! Here are some ways to build an evergreen gift stash without breaking the bank.

Clearance tables. Both post-holiday and everyday “last chance” sales can yield amazing finds. In late December the department stores want to get rid of unsold hat-and-scarf sets, gloves, slippers and “executive” gifts (e.g., day minders or business card holders) — and all of these can be held until next year's Christmas or this year's Father's Day. Classic toys (stuffed animals, puzzles, books) can be had for a song if you're patient enough to wait until Target or Walgreens really wants to get rid of them. (I've seen discounts as deep as 90%.) Remember that clearance sales happen in a lot of places: hardware stores, craft shops, drugstores, souvenir stands, supermarkets, office-supply stores.

Tip: If you see a gift set (foodies, spa items) wrapped in a Christmas-y way, break it down and repackage the elements for a January birthday or for Valentine's Day.

Deal sites. Dealnews, Eversave, My Bargain Buddy and other money-saving sites can be dangerous if you're a compulsive buyer. Pick your spots, though, and you might see a lovely package of fancy teas that would be perfect for your sister, or a swell set of socket wrenches that would be perfect for your other sister. You'll spend relatively little to get them, especially if you get site credits for having referred other members.

Social commerce sites. Whether you're buying a gift item or a discounted gift certificate you can use to buy a gift yourself, Groupon et al. can really stretch your buying dollars. Recently I saw a $20 Old Navy gift certificate for only $10, which could translate into shorts, tank tops or other items (especially if you wait for clearance sales). You could also give the certificate itself, if it has a decently distant expiration date — a massage or a spa day would be a great gift for a babysitter, housecleaner or teacher. And a middle-school-aged niece or nephew might love to get $20 worth of buying power at Old Navy.

Thrift shops. It's amazing what you can find in the secondhand store — and as noted above, some of it has never been opened. Extra frugal points if your finds are “tag color of the day” specials or found during half-off sales.

Note: GRS readers discussed at great length whether it's okay to give thrift-store gifts. If this really makes you uncomfortable, don't do it. But here's my advice: Get over yourself. Nobody has to know where you bought the present unless you choose to tell them.

Yard sales. We're heading into the prime garage-sale season. I've found beautiful books, stationery and card sets, candles, book-and-toy combos, journals and other items — all new or seemingly unused — that became birthday or Christmas gifts. None of them cost more than $1.

Tip: Toward the end of the day, go back to the yard sale — they might be ready to haggle.

Rummage sales. The ones held indoors are even better than garage sales, because you're not sweating in 95-degree heat while you shop.

Social media giveaways/contests. Companies will do anything to get noticed — including hand out free clothes, books, sporting equipment, jewelry, TVs, computers or big bundles of cash. (Believe it or not, I once saw a contest whose prize was a year's worth of health insurance.) To find such contests, try using Twitter hash-tag searches (“#giveaway” or “#freebie”) or checking a Facebook app called “Wildfire.” Or do it the easy way: Find yourself a good freebie blogger and watch for the giveaways you really want.

Tip: Free software such as Roboform will fill in contact info automatically, making your entries more efficient. Also: Google “second-chance drawing” — contest junkies, aka “sweepers,” know that the odds are much better than in the initial drawing.

Take online surveys. You have to be choosy, since some companies ask for a lot and give back relatively little. But some people make a decent little side income answering questions. Depending on the site, you can redeem points for physical prizes, gift cards or even cash. I've had a lot of luck with Clear Voice Surveys and Valued Opinions, through which I've obtained dozens of Amazon gift cards in the past few years. (These days I don't keep them, though; I give them away on my website.)

Rewards programs. Got a credit card that gives points? Cash some in for gift cards you can use to shop or that you can give outright. Or join a rewards program like Swagbucks or MyPoints, which let you earn gift cards, prepaid debit cards and other items. I'm particularly fond of Swagbucks, myself; right now I'm squirreling away Amazon gift cards until Black Friday. I've also given Christmas gifts obtained through My Coke Rewards: magazine subscriptions, a NASCAR hat, a set of barbecue tools, T-shirts, movie tickets.

Tip: Ask family or friends to save My Coke Reward points for you. Check the recycle bins at work, or outside your apartment house, too.

Gift swaps. Got a gift you don't want? So do a lot of people. Invite family and friends to bring over items, then trade to your hearts' content. Try not to be sad, though, if someone brings a package of teas or socket-wrench set that look awfully familiar.

More about...Frugality, Giving

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