Christmas gifts that keep on giving

Anyone who has lived on the margin has likely felt the anxiety that comes with having just about enough to get by. That's why I'd like to suggest a holiday present that can make a short- or long-term difference in someone's life — the gift of breathing room.

Got a barely-afloat friend or family member or one who is inching toward the red side of the ledger? Even a small amount of leeway could be extremely helpful (maybe even life-changing) to unemployed or underemployed friends and relatives, single parents, retirees or recent college grads.

The freeing-up of even $20 from someone's budget could become seed money for an emergency fund, an extra payment toward consumer debt, the sneakers her kid needs for gym class.

I included workarounds for those who are themselves on budgets. But the higher-end suggestions could be good collective presents if need be. Suppose you and your parents chipped in on a breathing-room gift for a sib who graduated with deep student debt and a starter salary?

Gimme shelter

1. Lend the initial deposit for someone's apartment.

2. Pay a week's worth of rent (or more.)

3. Offer to let the giftee stay with you for a couple of months as they save money for a place of their own.

Budget-friendly workarounds: Help a newbie find the best housing deal or offer your help (and your truck/van) for the move. Fill a bag with cleaning supplies and foods from your pantry and call it an “apartment starter kit.”

Lights, water and the rest

4. Lend the amount of any utility deposit(s).

5. Upgrading your still-decent cellphone? Give it to someone on your list.

6. Offer $25 toward the electric bill.

7. Does the recipient use a pay-as-you-go? Buy some minutes.

Budget-friendly workarounds: Put the person on your family cellphone plan. Help weatherize a drafty home. Offer to install a clothesline.

Going places

8. Pay for a bridge/road toll sticker for a month.

9. Put a gasoline gift card under the tree. (Your money will go a little further at a discounted gift card website.)

10. Live in a bike-friendly region? Lend/give that old fat-tire you're not using.

11. Gift a monthly transit pass.

12. About to buy a new vehicle? Weigh the few hundred dollars' worth of trade-in you might get vs. the difference you can make in someone's life. Not having a car payment is huge.

Budget-friendly workarounds: Offer to let the recipient ride with you without asking for gas money. If you are good at bike maintenance, tune up someone's wheels. Shade-tree mechanics could teach minor fixes like oil changes.

The shopping list

13. Give a supermarket or drugstore gift card (again, from the secondary market).

14. If you do batch cooking, propose a swap where the person helps once a month and goes home with meals.

15. Do you garden? Suggest an apprenticeship and pay in veggies/fruits. You don't have to work as hard and the other person learns a useful life skill.

16. Gift a membership to a warehouse store.

17. Teach him or her how to coupon. The website matches cents-off deals (including electronic ones) to specials at drugstores, supermarkets and dollar stores.

18. Invite the giftee to dinner once a week.

Budget-friendly workarounds: If you belong to a warehouse club, bring the person along. Couponers can offer some free products; gardeners can give extra produce.

Family matters

19. Offer to spring for piano lessons, sports/scouting fees or whatever parents can't currently afford.

20. Pay for a week (or more) of child care. (This makes a good everybody-chip-in present.)

21. Gift a family pass to the YMCA, a local museum or some other fun place.

22. For families without wheels, offer a twice-a-month trip to the library.

23. Got skills? Offer to help with basic homeowner issues.

Budget-friendly workaround: Pass along your kid's outgrown clothing/toys. If you work at home/don't work outside the home, offer to take a child on the next in-service day or school holiday.

Staying covered

24. Spring for a week/month of health insurance.

25. Pay one month's auto insurance premium.

26. Pay for renters insurance for a few months, or a year. (It's actually pretty cheap.)

Budget-friendly workarounds: Offer to help inventory belongings for insurance purposes. Encourage him to look for better car insurance deals.

Thinking ahead

27. Help the person learn about retirement – Roth IRAs, Roth 401ks and other options.

28. Make a token contribution to start the retirement ball rolling. If you are flush (and a mensch!), offer to match whatever gets put in (another good chip-in gift).

29. Start a college fund. Be the boring grownup who thinks about future needs. (Often kids have too many toys anyway.)

30. Give a savings bond, which, while not as sexy as Legos, are safe, convenient and offer tax advantages.

Budget-friendly workarounds: Lend personal finance books and share your favorite personal finance websites.

This holiday season you could wrap up a DVD or a funny T-shirt, or some tchotchke that will amuse briefly and quickly be forgotten … or you could choose to make a real difference in someone's life in the short or long term.

Readers: Got any other ideas for gifts that truly keep on giving?

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