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. 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.

More about...Giving, Planning

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others
guest
63 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
LifeAndMyFinances
LifeAndMyFinances
9 years ago

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.

Sandycheeks
Sandycheeks
9 years ago

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.

retirebyforty
retirebyforty
9 years ago

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.

Eli
Eli
9 years ago

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.)

Shelley
Shelley
9 years ago

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,… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
9 years ago

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).

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

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.

Brian B
Brian B
9 years ago

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.

Anne
Anne
9 years ago

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! 🙂

KC
KC
9 years ago

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.

LAS
LAS
9 years ago

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.

Amy
Amy
9 years ago

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… Read more »

MutantSuperModel
MutantSuperModel
9 years ago

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… Read more »

Stacy
Stacy
9 years ago

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.

Techbud
Techbud
9 years ago

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

HP
HP
9 years ago

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!

Christy
Christy
9 years ago

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.

Jennifer
Jennifer
9 years ago

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.

Edward - Entry Level Dilemma
Edward - Entry Level Dilemma
9 years ago

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… Read more »

frugalscholar
frugalscholar
9 years ago

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

Jo@simplybeingmum
9 years ago

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.… Read more »

shorty j
shorty j
9 years ago

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… Read more »

Steven
Steven
9 years ago

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… Read more »

Bill
Bill
9 years ago

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.

Tami
Tami
9 years ago

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.

Gal @ Equally Happy
Gal @ Equally Happy
9 years ago

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 🙂

Megan
Megan
9 years ago

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. thebreastcancersite.com, 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… Read more »

evelyn
evelyn
9 years ago

> 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

squished18
squished18
9 years ago

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… Read more »

Crystal@BFS
9 years ago

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…

Brenton
Brenton
9 years ago

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.

BLG
BLG
9 years ago

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,… Read more »

Sara
Sara
9 years ago

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… Read more »

Briana @ GBR
Briana @ GBR
9 years ago

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.

AnnieA
AnnieA
9 years ago

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.

elisabeth
elisabeth
9 years ago

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… Read more »

Samantha
Samantha
9 years ago

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.

PB
PB
9 years ago

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!

David Hunter
David Hunter
9 years ago

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.

Erin
Erin
9 years ago

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.

Kate
Kate
9 years ago

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… Read more »

Andy
Andy
9 years ago

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… Read more »

Jan
Jan
9 years ago

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… Read more »

rb
rb
9 years ago

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.

April Dykman
9 years ago

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.

Lisa
Lisa
9 years ago

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.… Read more »

Kristin
Kristin
9 years ago

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… Read more »

elena
elena
9 years ago

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.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
9 years ago

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.”

Lizzie
Lizzie
9 years ago

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… Read more »

shares