Christmas Gifts That Make a Difference

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. You’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?

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There are 63 comments to "Christmas Gifts That Make a Difference".

  1. LifeAndMyFinances says 24 November 2010 at 04:50

    Great ideas.

    If we truly care about our family and close friends, we should think a little extra hard about what they might need around this time of year.

    I think the car care idea is excellent. Everyone knows that they should take care of their car, but the extra expense is killer. That’s why you often hear cars with screetchy brakes and whistling engines. A simple offer to do an oil change could mean a lot to a person.

  2. Sandycheeks says 24 November 2010 at 05:20

    When asked, I always tell family to buy experiences for the kids. Annual passes can be pricey but a ticket to the Zoo, Aquarium, bouncy house place etc is reasonably priced, doesn’t take up space and keep us busy in the winter.

    And about the socks…for people who live in cold weather climates consider giving the gift pack of wool socks from l.l. bean ($25-30). I wear wool socks from Nov – March and these are my favorites.

  3. retirebyforty says 24 November 2010 at 05:38

    There are some nice gift ideas here. I know we don’t need anymore junk lying around so services are really good. I’ve always gave stuffs so I’ll have to think more about what I can give this year.

  4. Eli says 24 November 2010 at 06:08

    I once gave my parents an upgrade on their coach tickets for a long flight with frequent flier miles. They’re elderly so the extra time boarding, room, and attention made the flight more comfortable. If you’re tech-savvy, you can offer to help someone set up email accounts, printer, upload digital photos, digitize music, etc. For a forgetful relative, you could give a calendar with the birthdays/anniversaries of everyone he/she wants to remember marked on it (with addresses if he/she likes to send cards, which could go with the greeting card gift above.)

  5. Shelley says 24 November 2010 at 06:30

    I love to give (and receive) a food basket. Sometimes just from the regular grocery store (we don’t buy much meat, so a tinned ham is a real extravagance) or from the Farmer’s market (we have the occasional French Farmer’s Market near us and Bill loves their sausages and preserves). Homemade cake or cookies, a roll of cookie dough, jars of beans and flavourings for making soup, a small box of special chocolates, the list is limitless. I used to ask for things from the US to be sent: saltine crackers, Jiffy mix, Good Seasonings packets, animal crackers, graham crackers, Peeps…

  6. Elizabeth says 24 November 2010 at 06:40

    Great ideas 🙂 One thing I would add is a restaurant gift certificate and/or coupon for a night of babysitting if you know a couple with young kids.

    Fast food restaurant gift certificates, coupons or cards are also welcome gift for teens. (Especially if you’re community or church fills stockings for disadvantaged children).

  7. Nicole says 24 November 2010 at 06:50

    Great post! (As always.) And great comments too.

    I was reading some article where a grown person mentioned how growing up poor he really appreciated underwear and socks as Christmas presents (despite their negative image) precisely because that’s the kind of thing that can get neglected and too-tight underwear is uncomfortable.

    I especially like the idea to give cards/stationary AND stamps. That’s brilliant.

    We’re doing a restaurant gift certificate for one of DH’s grandmas this year. She loves to go out but often can’t afford it.

  8. Brian B says 24 November 2010 at 06:56

    I like the ones about yard work.

    I thought of one not on your list:
    – For kids 12 to 20(ish): Find out their online game of choice should they have one, and offer to pay for a year of it. Companies always will offer discounts for year long subscriptions.

  9. Anne says 24 November 2010 at 07:22

    Great ideas!! I know our family would love a season pass to the local science center (rather than the zoo here which is lame) and a friend buys his wife season tickets to the local theater which she loves.

    Anything that’s not clutter! It’s so hard to know someone else’s taste, style or size – why attempt it and cause them to have to try to return something.

    So many good ideas here – makes me excited about gift-giving again! 🙂

  10. KC says 24 November 2010 at 07:24

    Sometimes the gift of companionship is needed. Growing up we had an elderly neighbor who didn’t have any children and her family lived several hours away. She was always invited to any celebration we had be it holidays, cook-outs, children’s birthday parties, etc. She had enough money and things to meet her needs – she just didn’t have daily companionship. We tried to fill that void.

  11. LAS says 24 November 2010 at 07:27

    In my family we have long had a rule that gifts should be consumable, and have some sort of history or story associated with them. So a batch of home made brownies made from a vintage recipe and tied with ribbon from last year fit the criteria.

    We also hand make gift certificates for personal services, like “Four hours helping to clean out the garage” These gifts are always appreciated, and over time the handmade gift certificates have turned into humorous works of art.

  12. Amy says 24 November 2010 at 07:28

    I think some of these ideas are wonderful ideas for families in need.

    That said, for some people, some of these ideas would be something of a let down.

    I know for me, gifts to someone should be something that they will really enjoy/have fun with, and if they’re especially good, they’ll be something that the person would be hesitant to buy for themselves.

    Perhaps some kids from struggling families would appreciate socks and underwear as a gift (especially if they’re “fun” socks and “fun” underwear with cool patterns), but a lot of kids would hate it.

    It all really comes down to whom your buying for and what they will most like, need, and/or appreciate, so keep that in mind.

  13. MutantSuperModel says 24 November 2010 at 07:31

    I love the CSA one. That’s brilliant. I’ve actually been considering giving myself something like that so if it was gifted, I’d be thrilled.

    I was also going to suggest a food basket especially if you’re good at grocery couponing. Present it in a pretty reusable grocery bag for a 2-in-1 gift.

    Also, a Personal Care basket is always nice and frugally can be put together masterfully with rewards and coupons from drugstores. Shampoos, conditioners, soaps, lotions, makeup, heck even toilet paper– these are the first things to get scaled back (quality-wise especially) when money is tight. If they have little kids this can be ESPECIALLY helpful. My youngest has recently discovered how fun it is to empty bottles of soap or shampoo into a tub when I’m not looking. “BUBBLES!” he’s thinking “MONEY!” is what I’m thinking.

  14. Stacy says 24 November 2010 at 07:32

    I second that about yard work. We ARE young-ish and able to do it, but it’s just so much work year round. A gift of a friend to help out, while we work together and chat, would make it go faster and be more enjoyable.

  15. Techbud says 24 November 2010 at 07:39

    I like movies passes, and a gift card for a restaurant. Fostered a night out for whoever you are giving the gift too.

  16. HP says 24 November 2010 at 07:40

    I’d like to reiterate, if you are giving pet food please make sure you know what brand the pet eats. A quick change in food brand/type can make the pet very sick.

    My grandpa lives alone and hates to cook. My family gives him pre-cooked dinners, muffins, and desserts.

    Great ideas here!

  17. Christy says 24 November 2010 at 08:18

    One year I gave a good friend five hours of yard labor as a gift. I spent my time pulling nails from fence boards and rehanging the fence. She too was working in the yard at the same time. She later told me she appreciated the company as much as the labor.

  18. Jennifer says 24 November 2010 at 08:24

    These are all fabulous ideas. I’m a single mom with an old house that requires lots of upkeep. I try to convince my family that the best gift would be a donation of their time to help with yard work, cleaning gutters, fixing leaks, etc., but they don’t seem to get it.

  19. Edward - Entry Level Dilemma says 24 November 2010 at 08:30

    We buy our holiday cards the day after Christmas, when they go on sale for 50% off. Then they just get stored in a box with the Christmas decorations until next year.

    I take a little issue of giving the gift of free yard work to older/ailing relatives. That’s something you should be doing regardless, not making it a gift so you can save some money.

    @Sandycheeks – I buy wool socks that are purposely larger than my foot so I can slip them over my regular socks for layers. I used to work outside during the winter and steel-toe books can get really cold in January!

  20. frugalscholar says 24 November 2010 at 08:36

    Very nice. My best gift was a certificate for a good haircut. That was much appreciated.

  21. Jo@simplybeingmum says 24 November 2010 at 09:10

    A favourite of mine is ‘babysitting vouchers’ as a Mum of two I know how hard it can be to get a sitter and also sometimes very difficult to ask for help. So make your own vouchers and give to family and friends. If you want to go that extra mile you could place the voucher inside a ‘me time’ box – this would include miniature indulgences such as a quality chocolate, favourite tipple and a bath oil as well as maybe a magazine. Things that can be used up in one go and as an experience so no clutter. For me an hour or two to go out with friends or the hubby is priceless and will be remembered long after the socks I received have holes in them

  22. shorty j says 24 November 2010 at 09:18

    yay grocery store gift cards! We do a lot of gift cards because we have to travel via bus & subway to get to our families and there’s no way I’m hauling around 75 pounds worth of stuff up & down 4 flights of stairs if I don’t have to, haha. Grocery store cards are a totally awesome practical gift. The first time I bought one for someone, she actually cried. It really made me think about giving people the stuff they NEED.

    I’ve also gotten ebay and amazon gift cards in the past, which is awesome because you can use them for practical stuff (I buy my dog food on amazon because then I can get a bigger bag, since I don’t drive) or entertainment. For folks who have fewer practical needs, Chipotle gift cards are a big hit too.

    we’re gifting a lot of homemade food this year. (my partner makes AMAZING homemade pretzels, oh my goodness.) My parents especially are at the point where the LAST thing they need is more Stuff, so awesome food always goes over really well.

    Also, ETSY. They have this feature called Alchemy that allows you to request specific items for a certain price, which means you can get gifts that actually work for their intended target and are in your budget. Plus you’re supporting small businesses. And no matter how weird the request, I’ve always gotten a response, haha.

  23. Steven says 24 November 2010 at 09:19

    Huh. While I like the creative nature of some of these gifts, I’d have to caution that you need to take into account the personality of the person you’re giving it to. For someone who will welcome the help, it’s a home run. For someone with a lot of pride, giving them something that they feel they should be able to afford on their own as a Christmas gift is akin to telling them “Here, you’re incompetent, let me do that for you.”

    That’s clearly not the spirit in which these gifts are suggested, and I don’t know how many people would have a problem receiving them without feeling slighted; I’m just suggesting that it pays to know your audience. 🙂

  24. Bill says 24 November 2010 at 09:47

    Something that shows you thought about the person and their interests has always been my idea of a good gift.

    So, for most people I have bought books or videos that I thought would interest them and as a wedding present for a teacher and minister, very little money between them, I gave a portable barbecue and cookbook.

  25. Tami says 24 November 2010 at 10:03

    Someone sent our family grocery store gift certificates when my husband lost his job — I was very touched. I also like to send grocery gift certificates to my mom before the holidays because she spends so much on hosting the meal and out of town guests.

  26. Gal Josefsberg says 24 November 2010 at 10:09

    I like to buy people gift certificates/cards for this reason. I try to find places that carry a variety of goods they might need like Walmart or Amazon and then give them an amount of money in the form of a gift. Honestly, I would prefer to just give them the money (that was the tradition back in Israel and I found it much more efficient) but got to respect the American way 🙂

  27. Megan says 24 November 2010 at 10:10

    Another thing I like to do, especially for my mother, who hates gifts, is to buy for someone else and tell them I did it in their name., Heifer International, and other charities will send a cute card letting the person know the gift has been given. I got my mother part of a goat last year for a family and she loved it, since she likes to help out others but doesn’t always have the money to do it herself.

    My mother “gave” my husband her cheesecake recipe, and helped him make a really good one. He still talks about that gift and enjoys making them to show off. Sometimes a gift can be passing on knowledge or skill. Another good idea here – sit down with an elderly parent or grandparent and pick their brain for foods they make, that way, you can carry on the tradition when they are gone.

  28. evelyn says 24 November 2010 at 10:26

    > gift certificates for massage

    > i buy vintage pyrex antique store and on eBay at great prices during the year and give to my children as gifts, something that will last forever

    > gift membership to AAA

    > gift certificates to Whole Foods for my elderly relatives who love excellent readymade food (they love Whole Foods ribs and coleslaw but would never pay for it themselves)

    > my grown sons love iTunes gift cards

  29. squished18 says 24 November 2010 at 10:39

    One of the “hacks” that I’ve discovered about Costco is that if you have a gift card to Costco, you can enter and spend it without having to have a membership. So if you have a membership, you can get your friends temporary access to Costco by giving them a gift card.

    Let’s say your friend would like to spend $200 at Costco. They can give you the amount in cash and you can buy them a gift card with that amount on it. They can go into Costco by themselves with that gift card and make the purchase without you having to be there, as long as they use the gift card.

  30. Crystal@BFS says 24 November 2010 at 10:46

    I’m seriously thinking about taking a weekend next year just to help my parents unload all the crud they’ve been talking about needing to get rid of from the rent house before they sell it. My dad may receive a box with a piece of paper in it that says “01/15/2011 – 01/16/2011” with a picture of a Craigslist ad on it, lol. We’ll see…

  31. Brenton says 24 November 2010 at 10:50

    Last year I got my parents a garbage disposal for their sink and installed it for them

    Buying practical gifts is something I think is overlooked by most people.

  32. BLG says 24 November 2010 at 11:03

    I guess this goes without saying, but I hope people wouldn’t try using the warehouse membership “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.”) if they can afford to buy someone a membership. Maybe you would feel good about saving the $50, but it seems kind of inconvenient and controlling for the person you’re giving it to – they’d have to coordinate with you for every trip, etc. If you’re really hard up for money, I’m sure the receiver would understand, of course.

  33. Sara says 24 November 2010 at 11:17

    There are some great ideas here — I’m a big fan of practical gifts — but I cringe at suggestions for gift certificates for one’s own time. First of all, that implies that you wouldn’t otherwise do things like help an elderly relative with yard work or give a friend a ride to do an errand (or, if the recipient knows you would do it anyway, you look like you’re trying to get out of buying him a present). Also, you have to be prepared for when the recipient wants to cash in on these gifts. What if he wants a ride at a time you have to be at work, or yard work while you’re on vacation? It will put you and the recipient in an awkward situation if you’re not prepared to fulfill your promise when asked.

  34. Briana @ GBR says 24 November 2010 at 11:17

    I like the idea of getting annual memberships and the entertainment book. Buy them something they can use all year long, as opposed to something that’s gone in one day.

  35. AnnieA says 24 November 2010 at 11:17

    Babies never mind socks. The Gap triple roll socks are very reasonable if bought in a bunch, and they can’t be kicked off, which is a big deal in babyland.

    The one time I gave a gift-of-time certificate the person didn’t take me up on it. Definitely figure out ahead of time whether a person would want the help.

  36. elisabeth says 24 November 2010 at 11:29

    Some great ideas here — we do the paper/cards and stamps gift often for those we know will use them. But another vote AGAINST the “home made coupon” idea. I think a lot of people do have too much pride or just are a little shy or whatever, and won’t ever “use” those coupons. I’ve even been guilty of not using regular coupons (many years ago, before I learned to love them, a friend gave me a massage coupon and I let it expire — it just wasn’t something I was willing to try). Even restaurant coupons may not be used if it’s for a place where someone doesn’t fee comfortable or isn’t convenient….

  37. Samantha says 24 November 2010 at 11:44

    Every year for Christmas my parents get each of us a AAA membership. It makes them feel better we live so far away and might get a flat tire, and I don’t have to drop the $45 for an ‘extra’ that isn’t on my list of necessities.

  38. PB says 24 November 2010 at 11:46

    My nephew, who is a professional chef, used to give my mother a “meal a month”. She got fabulous food, lots of leftovers, and good company. Just the thing for an elderly person who no longer wishes to cook!

  39. David Hunter says 24 November 2010 at 11:53

    Great post! I change my oil all of the time, and I never thought about doing that as a gift. Another great gift may be gift cards to a carwash. It will help protect the car’s paint from wear and tear, which could be costly.

  40. Erin says 24 November 2010 at 11:59

    Some of these are great ideas but sometimes a person on a limited income just wants something nice to enjoy. Yes, food and gas are necessities that they certainly need but when they can’t buy luxury items for themself (such as a nice sweater, a piece of jewelry, etc) it can really brighten their day for someone else to do so.

  41. Andy says 24 November 2010 at 12:06

    Heartily agree on a AAA membership for someone who owns a car and isn’t a member. Having car trouble while driving by yourself can be scary.

    Heartily disagree on the entertainment book, though. I got one of those a couple of years ago and even though I go out to eat and travel a bit, I never remembered to use any of the coupons inside of it.

    Many restaurants will offer 50% coupons online at sites like groupon, where you can buy a $50 gift card for $25. You could give the gift card, or you could buy the card and take the person out so that they have company if they are single or lonely. It’s a good way to go out and try new places.

  42. Kate says 24 November 2010 at 12:07

    Two of the best gifts I’ve received:

    1. Magazine subscriptions. I cut them all out of my budget and so getting one as a gift feels like such a luxury. Plus you get something to look forward to each month and not just use up once. They are usually around $15-30.

    2. A car emergency kit. My older sister gave one to me when I was in college. I would never have spent the money myself, but it was a lifesaver the first time I needed jumper cables. 12 years later that bag is still in my car trunk!

    Gifts that I’ve given and gotten a good reception for:

    1. Homemade jam. This does require some pre-thought since I do U-pick and make the jam in the summer. But by the time the holidays roll around, I can just reach in the cabinet and it’s ready to go.

    2. A family recipe book. After my grandmother died, I digitized all her recipe cards and printed them into a book. I think that it averaged about $20 a book and at least 3 relatives cried when they opened it up. Definite success.

  43. Jan says 24 November 2010 at 14:48

    The comments tell that this is something for each individual. My mom (80) sends back jewelry and clothes. She is embarrassed to get them- because she is trying to downsize. You might really check before you do something expensive for someone. She says,”you couldn’t afford anything more than what I already have”lol.
    Crystal- could I pay you to come and do that for us? That is the BEST present on this list for us as we retire!
    My mom wanted a self threading sewing machine ($80) this year. She can no longer see the needle well- and would like to repair things herself.

  44. rb says 24 November 2010 at 15:28

    As the community goes green I helped my parents adapt with the counter top compost container. They collect vegetable peels, coffee grounds, etc and put them in there before the twice weekly trip to their backyard compost pile. The kitchen looks better and it motivates them to look for other ways to decrease household waste and clutter.

  45. April Dykman says 24 November 2010 at 16:15

    Good ideas, though I have to say if I got a homemade coupon, like some of the others, I wouldn’t redeem it. Not that I wouldn’t appreciate the gesture, but I’d feel awkward calling the giver up and asking them to come mow my yard or wash my car.

    I’m sure it works for some people, though, and as others have said, it’s all about knowing your recipient.

    Love the CSA idea for people who like to cook.

  46. Lisa says 24 November 2010 at 19:25
    My SIL asked for a gift certificate for a massage since she has back problems. She told me the name of the spa and really loved that gift. I also make calendars and take photos throughout the year to include in the holiday calendars. These calendars are expected every year and I hear about it if I don’t make them!!
    I will share a touching story. I work in a retail store that has a contract with the local bridal shop. Well, the bridal shop was advertising gowns for less than $100 and a bride-to-be and her sister stopped in. They were dressed rather shabbily and asked to see gowns in an uncommon size. The shop had 3 gowns and the BTB tried on all of them. She fell in love with one and said that she couldn’t afford the $49 gown but thanked the staff for letting her look. Unknown to everyone, another bride kept her eye on these ladies.As the two went to leave the shop, the owner ran up to the BTB and told her that someone had purchased the gown for her. She then introduced them to the purchaser. Tears were everywhere and I well up just thinking about this! Anyways, my point is that a thoughtful gift is always appreciated, even if it’s for someone you don’t know!
  47. Kristin says 24 November 2010 at 19:43

    When I was student last year and hard up for money, my brother offered to take me to Costco and pay for as much food as I could fit in a cart. It helped me through a tough time and it was by far the best present I have ever received. Yes, receiving “luxurious” gifts are nice when your budget is tight, but when you’re really broke, there’s a point where you think “oh, this sweater is nice, but maybe I can return it so I can buy groceries”. Luxury becomes keeping your belly full and your house warm. Grocery gift cards or gift cards to WalMart/the pharmacy are not insulting to people in tough situations; they are lifesavers.

  48. elena says 24 November 2010 at 21:54

    Seriously like the ideas here and the added bonus of the “frugal hack”. JD, you’ve found a writer I really like!
    Looking forward to coming back and reading the comments, because these ideas are right up my alley for certain people on my list.

  49. Donna Freedman says 25 November 2010 at 00:42

    Really enjoying all these ideas. Keep ’em coming!
    For those who want to keep giving simple between spouses or from parents to children, I once heard this suggestion: “Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.”

  50. Lizzie says 25 November 2010 at 01:33

    I would also suggest you think about your family members and their likes and needs before purchasing a gift of any kind. For instance, I often get gifts of sketch pads or paints or pencils and charcoals as my family knows these are the things I run out of all year long and need. My daughter, who is into cooking and finance usually gets books that deal with these subjects. I am a professional artist. Right now, Dan Cavalli is her favorite author. His books are available on Amazon for very reasonable prices. My hubby is always in need of good work cloths and paper towels. He’s a mechanic and uses these items all the time.

    This year, I’m painting a house for a relative while my husband is overhauling her car. She’s elderly and alone. These gifts will mean much more to her than trinkets she has no room to display.

  51. PawPrint says 25 November 2010 at 11:58

    We gave our oldest son, who has allergies, a coupon for two hours of work (two people) in his yard. Instead of waiting for him to cash it in, we called and asked if a certain date was good. We then went over and weeded, trimmed, deadheaded and in general cleaned up his yard. I told my husband that I would love the gift of his time helping me in the yard next summer.

  52. donny says 25 November 2010 at 14:43

    Give to a charity in the name of a friend or family member. We live in the land of plenty, but some people have nothing.

  53. Kara says 25 November 2010 at 14:55

    I agree with @amy and @Steve and a few others.

    You really need to think about the recipient when you give “frugal” gifts. I know for myself, there was a time years ago when money was tight but I was able to pay all my bills and feed myself. The things that I missed were not the groceries or the help with the chores. I missed being able to go get a pedicure. I missed going to my favorite salon and getting my hair done. I missed being able to buy a pair of trendy but impractical shoes for the spring. I missed being able to go see a movie (much less a movie for a date at full price instead of a 2 p.m. on Saturday matinee).

    For a lot of people, buying them food or paying their bills or buying them undies is insulting, as well as not being much of a gift. I always appreciated the people in my life who gave me things that I *wanted* (not crap to clutter my house) but didn’t make me feel like I was accepting charity. A gift certificate for a pedicure costs $25 or so in most cities. A gift certificate for 2 movie tickets is about the same. Heck, even a bottle of wine (something I wouldn’t have spent money on when I was on a tight budget) is a great gift. Something consumable that can be enjoyed with a friend.

    OTOH, the CSA would be a much appreciated gift, since I love to cook and love to try new foods. 🙂

    So again .. please take into account what your RECIPIENT wants and not just what you think is a good gift. Giving a gift should be about the receiver, not the giver.

  54. Melissa says 25 November 2010 at 19:23

    When we were teenagers, my grandmother would give us gift certificates to movies and fast food joints – not needs, but helpful when friends with more were going out. Also, magazines and pedicures are great “extras”. My grandfather once bought me an expensive book I really wanted but would never spend the money on.

    I think underwear, socks, shoes, PJs and the like are okay IF the person receiving appreciates practical things and the item is of a nicer brand than the person would ordinarily buy (those things need to be kind of fancy). If it seems like those things are true needs, but the giver is afraid of being insulting, I’d say a gift certificate to WalMart or Target might allow the person to make his own choice.

  55. Darcy says 25 November 2010 at 19:47

    A gift I give that always hits the bulls-eye is a battery charger and rechargeable batteries. Every house has items that require batteries on an on-going basis….think TV remotes or childrens’ toys. Rechargeable batteries are an expensive outlay initially but save the recipient loads of money over time.

  56. Debbie M says 27 November 2010 at 12:34

    One thing about a grocery gift card for someone feeling poor but who can afford groceries–the money they would have spent for groceries can now go toward a luxury item they couldn’t otherwise afford.

    I like PawPrint’s idea about calling to ask if this is a good time for the gift recipient to cash in on the coupons–whenever I’ve given those, no one has ever cashed them in, but with a little prodding, they might have.

  57. ImJuniperNow says 28 November 2010 at 12:37

    I’m a (somewhat reluctant) pet rescuer and wish desperately that friends and family would give me pet food, gift certificates to my vet or Just offer to assist me when I take them to the vet.

    Alas, I’m certain that, despite my gentle hints and apparent needs, I’ll be getting a thimble collection, stuffed toys, candles and other items that will only end up at the consignment shop where I’ll gratefully walk away with a few dollars.

  58. Joanna says 29 November 2010 at 12:29

    If you are doing the gas/grocery store/drugstore gift cards, make sure that it’s a retailer that has outlets in the location where your recipient lives. For instance, there are no Jewel-Osco or Exxon stations around my location, so that would be a pretty useless gift for me.

  59. ScottS says 29 November 2010 at 22:45

    My favorite gift after hearing the idea in a podcast (either NPR or the Economist, can’t remember) — is a donation in the recipient’s honor.

    The story goes that an economist was studying the deadweight loss of gift-giving. In a nutshell, gift givers pay more for gifts than the recipient would pay for themself. When he originally presented his study, he recommended gift cards as a gift with no deadweight loss.

    Realizing that gift cards can be kind of cold, he later recommended donations in the recipient’s name as having more warmth and no deadweight loss. Donating to charity is what everyone says they would do if they could afford it, and many people actually do do when they can, and it feels great. The giver, receiver, and charity all get significant satisfaction.

    I tried this with my girlfriend for her birthday and she absolutely loved it. The key, of course, is to make it a charity they would like (or leave it up to them). In my girlfriend’s case, she’s an animal lover and has adopted a shelter cat, so I cruised for the best animal charity, and gave her the check to mail in to Actors And Others For Animals.

    Even if the recipient isn’t terribly well off, don’t write off the donation. Proportionally, the poor give more to charity than the rich. Again, It’ll all hang on which charity. That’s your chance to show how well you know them.

  60. Melanie says 02 December 2010 at 12:37

    Movie ticket coupons are a thoughtful gift for people who hesitate to spend money to go to a theater. Costco offers discounted tickets that don’t expire (at least in California). Just make sure that the coupons are for a theater chain that your friend attends. That is, don’t buy AMC tickets for people near Century theaters.

  61. Valerie says 08 December 2010 at 02:08

    I keep a list of things that I find throughout the year that I would like to have, but wouldn’t buy for myself and it becomes my Christmas and Birthday list. I try to keep the same principal in mind when I buy or make gifts for others. I want them to be useful and something they wouldn’t think of for themselves.

  62. Maf says 19 December 2010 at 12:57

    I love these ideas!
    Another one that we’re trying this year are frozen slice-and-bake cookies, wrapped in wax paper, with ribbons on each end (wrapped kind of like a giant piece of taffy).
    While we love the idea of a tin of freshly baked cookies, there are so many of these in December, and the thought of popping some cookies in the oven and enjoying them in January or February is very appealing.
    You can do this with most standard Chocolate Chip Cookie recipes or Molasses Cookie recipes.

  63. karen patrick says 25 January 2014 at 07:00

    I’ve always loved Christmastime because the season inspires people to focus on everything that’s important in life. After years of surviving on meager paychecks, I’ve learned having less money can actually help us give a lot more. Some of the most meaningful gifts I’ve given or received have cost little to nothing.

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