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 CouponMom.com 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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Beth
Beth
5 years ago

Love this list. Great ideas, Donna!

In our family, many of us give the little guys money for their education savings fund. They’re too young to understand gifts yet, and the government kicks in 20% up on up to $500 per year. So $50 turns into $60, not to mention the growth over 18 years.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
5 years ago
Reply to  Beth

I’m the boring auntie, myself: Have sub-accounts in my online savings for my two great-nephews. Right now I can chip in only a few dollars at a time, but by the time they hit college (five years and 10 years) there should be enough to pay for, oh, a book. 😉 Seriously: I hope to put more in there, but we’ll see. They don’t know about these accounts; I won’t tell them until I see if they need the money. In Alaska you can get free tuition at any state school if you graduate in the top 10% of your… Read more »

Beth
Beth
5 years ago
Reply to  Donna Freedman

I debated doing that myself, but the parents get the contribution from the government so the money goes a little farther that way. If I’m never blessed with kids, I’d like to set up an account to help support my nieces and nephews.

When I was in university, my grandmother would randomly send me a card and $20 to “spend on something fun”. I thoroughly enjoyed an occasional meal out or a treat I would not have otherwise bought. I hope I can pay it forward some day.

Tina in NJ
Tina in NJ
5 years ago

One of the best Christmas gifts I/we ever got was a family (all 18 of us!) trip to Alaska. This counted as two years’ worth of presents. If your family rents a house at the beach or the lake, invite the family member along. Maybe sis can’t make it because she can’t miss work, but the cousins will have a blast. A note of caution, my 21-yr-old does not care to trail along to various museums with the rest of the family, but he might be interested in spending time at the shore.

Anna
Anna
5 years ago

Great ideas! One more: I was walking by the CAA (Canadian equivalent of AAA, the roadside assistance program) the other day and it had a sign saying “give the gift of CAA!” which at first struck me as incredibly silly, but then I realized, as someone who occasionally drives in remote locations but am not going to spring for a membership, I would actually be pretty happy to get a CAA membership for Christmas…

Pat
Pat
5 years ago
Reply to  Anna

Years ago my husband gave his mother one of those shrink-wrapped soap gifts. Fast forward a few years to when we were helping her move and guess what we found in her basement? Still shrink-wrapped but a little dusty was the soap gift. For the past six years we have given her a AAA membership. She drives back and forth to Florida and even if she doesn’t use it for travel it provides discounts on tickets, hotels, etc. I think it is a wonderful gift.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
5 years ago
Reply to  Anna

That *is* a good one. Thanks for listing it.

lmoot
lmoot
5 years ago

I love the list! Although I’m going to be nitpicky and say only a few of the items I would consider to be “gifts that keep on giving”. I love the concept of getting someone something that will allow them to save money for the long-run or allow them to earn money. The things I like from your list that fit this category are buying memberships from a bulk store. Or letting them come with you. I have actually made this some what profitable because I get 3% cash back on purchases and gas, and we are allowed to bring… Read more »

Mrs. Frugalwoods
Mrs. Frugalwoods
5 years ago

This is a wonderful idea. These are gifts that could truly make a difference for people as opposed to unneeded clutter that none of us wants. I’m a proponent of any gifts that enable greater frugality–both for people who are struggling but also for practical folks who aren’t consumers and prefer to save and invest. As you mentioned, bikes (and bike accessories and consumables) are an excellent example as are kitchen utensils that help you cook at home more and glass tupperware to store all that food you’re cooking at home :). Thank you for this refreshing approach to gift… Read more »

Dennis Frailey
Dennis Frailey
5 years ago

Several years ago I was in the hospital for about two weeks and my biggest complaint other than medical was the uncomfortable bed. Actually it was pretty good as hospital mattresses go, but when you spend all day on it, you can tell that underneath you have a hospital bed, not a box spring or other soft bottom mattress. Getting home to my good quality bed and mattress felt like a tremendous relief. I have a brother in law who is suffering from some significant medical issues. He spends a lot of time in bed and is expected to continue… Read more »

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
5 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Frailey

Now that is a truly thoughtful gift. So glad you were able to do something that really helps. Kudos to you and yours.

Dennis Frailey
Dennis Frailey
5 years ago

As a postscript to my previous reply, I’ve often noticed when visiting friends and relatives that they get by with appliances or furniture that most others would have trashed years before. I recall an aunt who had an iron that was at least 40 years old and always causing trouble. Elsewhere I’ve seen toasters, alarm clocks, chairs, and many other things that are in really bad shape, but people simply don’t think about replacing because they are too worried about other matters, such as how to pay the electric bill. In such cases, I make it a point to give… Read more »

Carla
Carla
5 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Frailey

That’s a good call, Dennis. Though using “vintage” appliances can seem charming and frugal, they can be dangerous – especially a 40 year old iron that that doesn’t have an auto shut off feature.

Those little things can make life easier and saver.

Carla
Carla
5 years ago
Reply to  Carla

“Safer”, not saver.

Beth
Beth
5 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Frailey

I love this idea 🙂

A friend of mine got me a tea kettle as graduate present. It was fantastic because I’m a big tea drinker and I thought of her every time I used it. My brother bought me teaspoons and a frying pan one year for Christmas. It made a big difference to someone who was just starting out.

Zambian Lady
Zambian Lady
5 years ago

This is a good post. One can take time to talk about personal finance to a teen and buy him a few shares to start him off.

nicoleandmaggie
nicoleandmaggie
5 years ago

We posted on something similar recently– little upgrades to necessary things. Like tweezers that actually work. http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2014/11/05/little-things-that-just-work/ They’re expensive for what they are, but they’re really not that expensive (like a $5 pencil sharpener, which is expensive for a pencil sharpener, but still only $5, and it’s nearly priceless for the way it actually does its job and doesn’t break).

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
5 years ago

Just had a coffeehouse visit with a friend who’s 80 years old. Her parents split up when she and her sister were young and her mom, a registered nurse, lived in nurses’ quarters — the girls lived in Catholic boarding school. One year they were allowed to stay with their mom. The other nurses, who’d gone home to visit their families, left them a basket with eight small gifts apiece and the instruction to open one every hour. “They were just small things we needed, like talcum powder,” my friend says. “But that was the best Christmas I ever had.”… Read more »

Carol
Carol
5 years ago
Reply to  Donna Freedman

This reminds me of raising my two daughters and not having much and each Christmas Eve day when they got into their tweens and teenage years, we would go to Walmart for a couple hours and I told them, “you can have anything in the store that you have been wanting”. They already knew money was tight & that they would NOT be getting a TV or computer in their room, so they chose wisely. They picked out some much wanted make-up, maybe a decoration for their room that they had been eyeing. Sometimes a clothing item. Maybe a cheapo… Read more »

Laura
Laura
5 years ago

I recently wrote a blog (http://whereinramblingslay.blogspot.com/2014/11/why-im-not-excited-about-christmas.html) about how much I hate Christmas for the fact that I’m sick of seeing people blow their budgets giving (and receiving) crap that they don’t want and will probably just re-gift or throw away. This year I know I’m getting a fridge and washing machine for my new house and I am absolutely over the moon. It was going to cost me 50% of my savings to get all the appliances and furniture I needed so this is a huge step up. I’m going to share this list with my friends. I think the… Read more »

Pearl
Pearl
5 years ago

I love that there is a range of ideas here. Renters insurance is a nice gift for a young person just starting out who might not know they should have it. For a person suffering a temporary setback, like a job loss, a $25 gift card can make a big difference in their holiday dinner. And for a relative I wouldn’t want to give cash to (because it would just become beer $), paying for a kid’s activities means that child will get to participate when they otherwise wouldn’t. Donna I really enjoyed reading this post and it’s got me… Read more »

Ash
Ash
5 years ago

Some brilliant ideas Donna. I am getting my son a years membership for an Automobile Association(ie AAA) and I will buy some grocery gift cards for some friends/colleagues with lower incomes. Last year a friend game me a nicely decorated box with a selection of commonly used grocery items, a few of my particular favourite food items and one or two little luxuries. It was one of the nicest gifts I have ever received.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
5 years ago
Reply to  Ash

My sister sends me homemade jam. I could buy jam, or make my own, but receiving it from her makes me very, very happy.

Pearl
Pearl
5 years ago

I once receive an apartment starter kit and loved it! The best part was that the giver had included toilet paper and I hadn’t yet bought any so that was a lifesaver haha. Other ideas (many I’ve received): AAA. A winter coat. A scarf and gloves, much appreciated when I didnt have a car. A hand-me-down set of silverware and dishes for a first place (who cares if it didn’t all match?) Car brakes, battery, tires, oil change, or inspection. Parking pass. Required textbooks. Buy a couple extra gifts for their kids and label “from Santa” to help with Christmas.… Read more »

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
5 years ago
Reply to  Pearl

When I managed an apartment building in Seattle, I put a roll of toilet paper in every vacant apartment. That’s because when people are moving in at least one of their friends will likely need to use the bathroom — and who remembers in which box the TP was packed?

Pearl
Pearl
5 years ago

My mom still talks about how a relative invited them over for a dinner of macaroni and government cheese once a week 30 years ago when they were just starting out as a married couple and scraping by. She says it helped so much just to have one less dinner a week to worry about. I swear I’ll stop commenting at some point, but I am so stuck on this post. It really hits home for me to remember that some things that don’t have to cost a lot at all, can really make a huge difference in helping someone… Read more »

Lola
Lola
5 years ago
Reply to  Pearl

That is such a touching story and a good reminder that you don’t have to have a lot yourself to make a difference in someone’s life.

Grace @ Investment Total
Grace @ Investment Total
5 years ago

Recently I have written an article about Christmas gift ideas for that at http://www.investmenttotal.com/2014/11/7-best-christmas-gifts-for-your-father.html

Your post is perfect and almost complete. One thing i can say is the suggestions are practical and idealistic. Thank you for this useful post.

Carol
Carol
5 years ago

I give things that I have found make life easier. I have given what I call, “the grabber” to friends and family even though they are not elderly (it’s that long extension reaching aid – good for getting things behind couches, under furniture). I have given cooking lessons to friends and family – giving them cooking hacks and super simple tricks that they can use everyday (I am amazed that people have difficulty making pie crust, a grilled cheese sandwich, super simple dishes to pass, or easier clean-up solutions so they are willing to cook in the first place, which… Read more »

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
5 years ago
Reply to  Carol

Ha! I eat pudding and yogurt with a baby spoon, the one with which I fed my daughter. It does make me savor the treat, but it also indulges my inner baby.

Michelle
Michelle
5 years ago

My mom is elderly. She is in a NH now, but when she was still living at home, for Christmas I would buy an entire month’s worth of food, toiletries, and laundry stuff for her. I coupon heavily, so this was doable for me. She loved it because it freed up money in her budget to do things she wanted to do at Christmas, like have gifts for the grandkids, her brothers and sisters, etc. She was very independent, and by doing this it freed up money for her. I also would make freezer-to-crockpot meals for her that were individual… Read more »

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
5 years ago
Reply to  Michelle

The freeing-up of money is exactly right. Dollars you don’t have to spend at the supermarket or on utilities can be used for other necessities — or gifts for the grandkids, if that’s what makes someone happy.

Michelle
Michelle
5 years ago
Reply to  Donna Freedman

I am a social worker now, and that is one of the premises of what we do. 🙂 Sometimes the relief from worry, even for a little bit, can be a gift in itself. Not worrying about buying groceries or whether the water is going to get shut off or whether you can afford Junior’s cleats for football this year. It’s important to know the person(s) you’re gifting well enough to know what affects them, what they worry about paying or providing, and if there is a way to ease that burden for a little bit. Again, great article. I… Read more »

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
5 years ago
Reply to  Michelle

I interviewed a four-person family living on less than $30k a year. One coping strategy was when Grandma asked what the older girl wanted for Christmas, the parents replied “dance lessons.”
Or maybe it’s a family museum membership, or high-school sports fees. If it were me, I’d say “she doesn’t know it yet, but she wants an education fund” and ask that the amount of money that would have been spent been put there.

Nancy
Nancy
5 years ago
Reply to  Michelle

“I interviewed a four-person family living on less than $30k a year.”

Do you have a link to this article?

Rail
Rail
5 years ago
Reply to  Michelle

My Grandparents did something like that for me when I was 24, probably the lowest income year of my life($13,000 taxable+/-) and I will never forget it. Grandpa gave me $600 to pay off my truck loan and it felt like a million bucks. Just getting that loan off my back and getting a little more breathing room in my life. 600 bucks was real money for me 20 years ago and that gift helped me through a real tough time. Grandma & Grandpa knew I wasn’t spending money like a idiot (I didn’t have any!) and I had two… Read more »

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
5 years ago
Reply to  Rail

This is why I “sold” two cars to family members for a buck each. Having to find reliable transportation is pretty daunting. These vehicles were approximately eight years old, but ran quite well.
A friend of mine just paid off his son’s $7k in student loans by “hiring” him to help with a construction/reorganization job that he’d been putting off. Win-win all around: The job got done and the loans are gone.

SS
SS
5 years ago

Yes! I totally agree. I suggested a stressed-out overwhelemed friend bring me her medical bills she said were piling up and she couldnt even keep up with so I could organize them for her. Turned out she had great insurance and it was really dozens of $15-$30 type bills that basically added up to ~$500..so I just paid them all and handed them back to her saying they were done…a few months later she proudly showed me her statement for her paid off credit card and said she was only a few car payments from debt freedom where she planned… Read more »

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
5 years ago
Reply to  SS

Even just offering to help someone organize his or her medical bills would be a huge gift — especially if it turned out the person were being incorrectly billed.
Kudos to you.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
5 years ago

@Nancy #39: I’m afraid all the MSN Money articles are no longer available because MSN changed platforms. Sorry.

melanie
melanie
5 years ago

One year (when I was a poor grad student) my mom wrapped boxes of cereal, granola and canned goods. It was a fantastic gift! I was thrilled to get food that I didn’t have to pay for!

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
5 years ago
Reply to  melanie

Agreed! This is also why those on tight budgets really appreciate being sent home with holiday leftovers.

Babs
Babs
5 years ago

My son is in the process of buying a house so this year his gifts have all been home related. I am also putting together a basket of all the little things that you don’t know you need until you reach for them and they are not there eg salt, can opener, tissues, TP etc

carly
carly
5 years ago

Lots of great ideas here!

Fruit of the month clubs or an order of one of those organic veggie boxes could be great too! I would love a present like that .. saves on groceries, keeps the fam healthy, and saves money off the grocery budget!

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