Inexpensive Gift Ideas for Christmas (and Beyond!)

This guest post from Shelley Turner is part of the “reader stories” feature at Get Rich Slowly. Some stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success — or failure. These stories feature folks from all levels of financial maturity and with all sorts of incomes.

They're coming! Like it or not, the holidays — and all the stress of buying the Perfect Gift — are just around the corner. I actually like brainstorming gift ideas, and have been told I'm pretty good at it. Today I'll share my secrets with you.

The best gifts are appropriate for the recipient, yet don't cost a small fortune. You want your gift to say “I know what you like”, not “I didn't have a clue of what to get you for a gift for but here it is anyway”. I once received a leopard-hair belt. Anybody who knows me, or has seen how I dress, understands that there's never been (nor ever will be) a time that I'd wear a leopard-hair belt. A gift like that screams “I just bought you something because I had to”.

Gift-giving ground rules
Before you buy, take a few minutes to think about what your recipient has in her house or on her desk, what she spends her time doing, what she likes to talk about, where she likes to eat, and even what she keeps in her refrigerator. Even if you don't know her that well, this exercise will help you get some ideas of what the recipient likes.

I'm not a collector, so I prefer practical and useful gifts. However, if your gift recipient is a collector, that's a perfect opportunity. Even if his collection is filled with expensive items, you can often find a small token within that collection that you could give him. The trick to buying a great gift for somebody, no matter what the occasion, is to buy what your recipient would enjoy — not what you'd enjoy.

Often, a consumable gift that provides momentary pleasure and then disappears is best, especially around the holidays when people usually get many gifts. Consumables can be given, enjoyed, and remembered without becoming Stuff.

My husband's 90-year-old grandmother is a perfect example. What can you give a 90-year-old woman who already has everything she wants and needs? Not much. However, I know she really enjoys a good cup of coffee. And I found some European butter cookies and a some jars of preserves made in her native Denmark. I give her this same gift every year. She tells me she waits eagerly for our gift because not only does she enjoy consuming it during the winter, but because it's a small reminder of her home country.

Inexpensive gift ideas
No matter which gift you choose, if it's something your recipient uses over and over, you can give a great gift without spending too much. Here are some of my favorite inexpensive gift ideas. These have all been well-received and cost less than $20. You can tailor the gift idea to fit your budget. Some of these can be used as hostess gifts for holiday parties you may be attending.

  • Personalized note cards
  • A book by her favorite author
  • Monogrammed wine stoppers
  • Travel journal
  • Engraved metal bookmark
  • Monogrammed soap bars
  • Bread basket with quick bread or muffin mix inside
  • Dog or cat breed-specific items — calendars, notepads, keychains, etc. of their pet
  • Cookbook (specific subjects like fondue, vegetarian, appetizers, etc or you could get a book representing their hometown like the Chesapeake Bay, etc.)
  • Personalized insulated tote-style lunch bag (put his favorite snack inside)
  • Sports team items — pick her favorite team mug, hat, t-shirt, scarf, etc. (fill a mug with her favorite hard candy)
  • Gourmet chocolate bars tied with ribbon or raffia
  • Favorite bubble bath & bath pillow
  • Wallet with gift cards or cash inside
  • Amaryllis or Paperwhite bulb package
  • Old-fashioned jar filled with favorite candy or snack
  • Hand-made soap with an interesting soap dish
  • Handmade crocheted or knitted scarf or hat
  • BBQ sauces, hot sauces, grilling rubs, etc (some have funny labels)
  • Ice cream dish with favorite topping
  • Decorative candy bowl with favorite candy
  • Ornament representing current hobby
  • Charm to add to an existing charm bracelet
  • T-shirt from favorite restaurant
  • Crabtree & Evelyn hand therapy (super-rich hand cream)
  • Nice colored pencils and/or sketch notebook for artists
  • Small decorative bowl and package of dip mix
  • Hand towels with initials embroidered (especially if newly married)

Here are a few more ideas with a bit of explanation:

  • Magazine subscription (hundreds of subjects to choose from — and you can give crossword puzzle and comic book subscriptions too). Buy the current issue and put a note on it that you got him a one-year subscription.
  • Lolita glasses are painted wine, beer, or margarita glass that have themes painted on them based on hobbies. There's a recipe painted on the bottom of each glass too.
  • Year of Napkins! This requires advance planning, but makes a unique gift for a very reasonable price. For each holiday throughout the year (plus Happy Birthday), pick up one pack of luncheon-sized napkins. When you've collected all the holidays, package them in order of the holidays in small CD crates, baskets, etc. Usually you can find the napkins in the clearance section right after the holiday. Decide how many of these you want to put together in advance so you can buy as many as you need during each holiday.

Remember that you can also go in with others to purchase bigger gifts, such as theater tickets, cooking classes, and other “experiences”. If you're very organized, you can shop all year and pick up interesting gifts along the way. My sister-in-law has a birthday in January, but I often find stuff she'll love in the summer, so I buy it and keep it until her birthday.

Check the clearance racks all year to get even better deals. Unless you really enjoy going shopping the week before Christmas, you may find that buying gifts ahead of time will not only save you money, but also make the holiday season a little more relaxing, as well.

Reminder: Another way to save money on gifts is to make them yourself. Here's a list of 34 great homemade Christmas gifts almost anyone can put together. And over at The Simple Dollar, Trent has been documenting his own quest for family-produced Christmas presents.

A note on packaging
When packaging your gifts, you're not stuck using a gift bag or plain wrapping paper unless you want to. Tulle (that material used to tie up rice/birdseed to throw at weddings) is great for wrapping unusually-shaped items, such as the bowls & dip mixes, candy bowls & jars, ice cream dishes, bottles of hot sauces, soap, etc. It's really inexpensive to purchase by the yard, comes in many colors, and your recipient can see what you gave her without unwrapping it. Tulle is especially good for hostess gifts so they don't have to open them upon receipt.

Some other tips:

  • Magazines roll up perfectly in those tall wine bottle bags.
  • Chinese-food boxes and small tin buckets are inexpensive and fun to use.
  • Bread baskets work nicely to hold all kinds of items and they can reuse the basket later.

When packaging your gifts, use your imagination!

1980 Gates Christmas - Tiff and Kris

Gift giving can be fun — if you allow yourself to be creative and take a few minutes to think about your recipient. The bottom line: If he'll enjoy it, it's a great gift for him!

Happy gift-giving!

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Karen in MN
Karen in MN
9 years ago

Great ideas! A few more: If you cook, some recipe cards with your favorite recipes plus a homemade mix for one such as brownies. Pot holders or kitchen towels–in a color to match their kitchen. Laptop or netbook protective sleeve, or a case for their smart phone. But….as a wine lover, please don’t give me any more decorative stoppers! Whenever my BF & I open a bottle of wine, we usually drink the whole thing that evening. And if by chance we do have some leftover, we use a clamp type stopper to seal the bottle. The decorative stoppers don’t… Read more »

Budgie
Budgie
9 years ago

If you frequent garage sales, remember to look out for baskets so that you can create a theme basket tailored to the recipient’s interests. Many folks accumulate an excess of baskets from gifts (Usually from this time of year), and they load them off during summertime garage sales. Baskets are a very common find at garage sales. I find really nice ones frequently for a quarter or less.

LifeAndMyFinances
LifeAndMyFinances
9 years ago

I love gift-giving! It’s fun to give back to others to show your appreciation for them.

I’m going to make sure that I take Shelley’s advice this year too. It’s important to think about what the passions are of your friends, and to give according to what they like.

If anyone really knows me, they’ll get me a subscription to a Wall Street magazine!

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

If you’ve got any ideas for my MIL… We’re out of cute grandkid picture themed gifts… we just didn’t take enough photos this year. (Though those were lifesavers last year… I can’t remember if we used snapfish or photobucket, but the holiday themed calendars were awesome.) Some other hits: a mini pepper grinder with a lifetimes supply of pepper from pepper passion (we didn’t mean for it to be a lifetime supply… but an oz of pepper is a lot more than we realized). Fancy cinnamon from Penzy’s for the baking grandma. This year we’re getting a book that DH’s… Read more »

Slackerjo
Slackerjo
9 years ago

While those are all very nice frugal gift suggestions,they appear to me as just more STUFF to clutter up other people’s homes.

Please keep in mind you can make a HUGE difference in somebody’s life with a modest charitable donation. I buy gifts through UNICEF because they have gifts for every budget.

http://www.unicef.org/inspiredgifts/index_51968.html

tb
tb
9 years ago

i usually give something that i have made. most often it is pumpkin or banana bread and sometimes cookies. i save all the over ripe bananas throughout the year just for christmas. my family also really loves my bbq sauce so i make a batch and give away pints and quarts. i have given my siblings my favorite photo of us as children in a nice frame-which i usually got from the thrift store and painted. this year i am thinking about giving a handmade sturdy bag to my family to encourage them to use less plastic bags from the… Read more »

retirebyforty
retirebyforty
9 years ago

My wife makes our Christmas cards and our friends and family really loves the personal touch. The card take A LOT of time though, but she enjoys making them and people really appreciate them. It’s harder when it comes to gifts. We don’t really give a lot of gifts because most close friends and family live far away.

KC
KC
9 years ago

These are some great ideas. I think I have a few hints from your ideas of what to get my parents and in-laws – older folks are always harder to buy for since they already have everything. I’m usually careful to cheek the New York Times book reviews to see if I can get some ideas. They recently reviewed a MArk Twain autobio (yes, 100 years after his death) that was published by the U of Cal Press and is flying off shelves. This would make a great gift for the father in law, who is a big fan of… Read more »

Janette
Janette
9 years ago

It is a bit pricy- but I buy the fruit of the month for my aging and out of town relatives. Have been doing it for years. Every year they thank me profusely. Getting good fruit in the winter is always tough.
I wish an organic grower would come up with this service.

Shirley Braden
Shirley Braden
9 years ago

I think these are great ideas, Shelley and J.D.! Even some that I’ve heard and even used before, I appreciate because I’ve forgotten about them. I appreciate the other reader comments, too. I love to bake so I do give some food gifts. I’ve been very surprised when even young relatives (in their teens and 20s) have asked for my pies or cookies as their Christmas present. It makes me feel good, makes gift giving easy, and they love getting their own pie or tin of cookies. I also like to do homemade vanilla extract, pumpkin butter in the slow… Read more »

Leah
Leah
9 years ago

If grandma and grandpa are the type to wear sweatshirts or t-shirts, you can make one with handprints from all the grandkids. It takes a bit of work if you don’t all live in the same place, but it’s pretty fun. My mom is rough to buy for. This year, I learned how to make chocolate covered cherries, which is her favorite treat. I’m going to make the filling ahead and then give her maraschino cherries and melting chocolate so that we can make the cherries together. And I agree that donations are excellent. I do that frequently for my… Read more »

Everyday Tips
Everyday Tips
9 years ago

I love to buy books for people. So many people I know have everything already that a book is usually appreciated.

If the person is a collector, I try to follow that theme. I used to buy my dad Civil-War related things all the time. It is great when people have an interest.

For relatives, I will sometimes make a photo collage of the kiddos.

PawPrint
PawPrint
9 years ago

I make gift bags from holiday fabric that I purchase after the holidays when it’s on sale. The bags can be reused for years. Usually my kids give them back to me, and my friends/relatives return the bag the next year when they send me a gift. My (adult) kids’ favorite gift last year was a bag of sweet and spicy nuts that I made. Given that I noticed the price of pecans and walnuts went up significantly recently, it’s not an inexpensive gift, but it’s certainly something they enjoy. I bought my oldest son fish-themed gifts (he fly fishes)… Read more »

Bill
Bill
9 years ago

I always focus on giving a gift that is actually useful to the recipient. I know I really do not like large porcelain figurines. If I were to receive on as a gift it would probably stay in a closet. That is not the best use of anyone’s time or hard earned money. When confronted with selecting a gift for someone who “has everything”, I often go to the charity idea. I make a donation to the favorite charity in the name of the recipient. This tells the recipient that I am paying enough attention to know what charity they… Read more »

Andrea @ Savings Lifestyle
Andrea @ Savings Lifestyle
9 years ago

Great post, Shelley! Thanks for sharing it here! It is SO hard to shop for my girlfriends. They have everything and what could I possibly get them? I’ve shopped Etsy in the past and plan to do so again this year. It’s less “retail” and more unique and handmade so even if they saw the item in a catalog, they will get the item that is more unique than what they would pick up themselves. I’m also going to give a gift in their name to a a non-profit (World Vision). So my friends will receive a personal gift form… Read more »

elena
elena
9 years ago

thank you. I’ve been avoiding the issue of impending holidays. Better ideas here than the influx of ads in the real mail box.

schmei
schmei
9 years ago

Money is tight for most of my family this year, so we’re really focusing on affordable gifts – it’s been a fun project so far. A few things we’ve come up with: My mother, my sister and I were all camp counselors in the past. Sis just had a baby this year, so mom and I are putting together a book of our favorite camp songs: lullabies, silly songs, etc. It’s a fun project and I think it’ll be a gift sis can use for years. Also because of my new niece, gift cards for airfare are a popular, easy… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago

I don’t know if I’d want any of these things, as I am a) on a strict diet without extra sugar, salt, fat and starches, b) I can’t use just any soap or skin products (i get allergies), c) We are in an ongoing war against clutter (no extra glasses, ornaments, towels, or durable objects of any kind, please– we handpick our stuff very carefully) I think the gist of the article does better than the list of items compiled to illustrate it: put some thought into what you get for each person and don’t buy something just because you… Read more »

Tracy
Tracy
9 years ago

If your family and friends are low key and green, try using the sunday comics as wrapping paper! Reused, recyclable, and you don’t have to worry about ripping it. For a green and intriguing wrapping for small gifts like jewelry, I like to make tubes shaped kind of like pop-up popsicles out of old calendars with pretty pictures (you know, the free calendars from WWF you can’t get them to stop sending you). Cut the picture into a rectangular shape, roll the sides (overlapping a bit) and tape into a tube, then tape or staple the ends closed perpendicular to… Read more »

frugalscholar
frugalscholar
9 years ago

I wrote a post a few days ago on the three best gifts I ever bought my kids, now college age: unit blocks, pattern blocks, cube blocks. Oh–and a marble run. There were played with for years–not days or hours (or minutes!).

Kay Lynn
Kay Lynn
9 years ago

I appreciate the great ideas in this post. I’m not one to make homemade presents but want them to be meaningful to the recipient.

Chris
Chris
9 years ago

JD, it’s a nice pic of you and Ron with the Dutchy figurines, but who’s Robert (read the photo tagline)?

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
9 years ago

@Chris (#22)
Ha. I forgot to edit the image tag from the last time I used this photo. Fixed. Thanks. 🙂

bogart
bogart
9 years ago

Thanks for this list. It’s not all relevant to my gift list, but I agree with others who have said it’s a helpful start. I’d add to it personal calendars of the sort that can be created at Shutterfly (which is the site I’ve ended up using) and other places. Particularly if you want multiple copies of the same calendar (e.g. for grandparents on different sides of the family), the pricing’s quite reasonable, I think. I’ve coordinated with extended family to do one calendar with multiple generations, etc. for a single set of grandparents, also — drives the price (per… Read more »

Lisa
Lisa
9 years ago

This is a great list! I love how most of the gifts add a personal touch so you don’t feel like you randomly grabbed something off a shelf. This will definitely make shopping so much easier and I can even be more creative!

Thanks for all the ideas!

Addie
Addie
9 years ago

one of my mom’s favorite gifts was a basket I put together containing things for her bathroom cabinet. New toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, hand cream, soap, body wash, nail clippers, emery boards, hair brush, comb, etc. She though it was thoughtful and was something she would use daily. I enclosed a gift card to the pharmacy she used to fill her rx’s.

Lily (capital L)
Lily (capital L)
9 years ago

Lovely dolls… LOL.

My favorite Xmas ideas so far:
– a WWF adoption of a penguin for a friend who loves them (with a penguin plush toy too)
– a Oatmeal poster (http://theoatmeal.com/)
– a pencil sharpener for my mum! Not the main gift, of course, but s/th she really needs – she’s got loads of pencils all blunt 😀
– vintage books
– handmade (not by me!) jewellery

cc
cc
9 years ago

my family is starting to drown in Stuff, and everyone has said they don’t want more Stuff this year (myself included)! Most people got items off their Amazon lists- books & DVDs. The men are always the trickiest to shop for- dad who gardens got a new huge lawn ornament, brother in a new apartment is getting a laundry basket full of (hopefully useful) apartment things (basic linens, shopping bags, etc). the sweetheart is always the hardest, but I think it’s going to be this weird esoteric video he mentioned he had years ago. Bless your heart, amazon sellers who… Read more »

Susanne
Susanne
9 years ago

I LOVE choosing special gifts for my family. We don’t go all out because we are all able to buy whatever we want year-round, but there are always plenty of wonderful surprises.
Contrast this- When I was married, we were expected to buy for 21 of his family members, 17 of whom we only saw on Christmas day each year. It was difficult to say the least.

Lynda
Lynda
9 years ago

And it’s always a good idea to check that the collection is a real collection. Do they collect owls because they like them, or did someone see 2 owls on a shelf and think it was a good idea to give another owl!
And then, as there were 3 owls, did someone else jump on the bandwagon?

Lily (capital L)
Lily (capital L)
9 years ago

Good one, Lynda.
I love cats and people has given me cat-related things since I was a girl. Well, I mostly love *real* cats and frankly, after a while I grew tired of cat statuettes… (I’d rather see them pet my cat more often than receive those gifts :P)
On the other hand, my friends know I’ve started a koala-kollection and they can’t go wrong with koala-gadget. LOL.

Trina
Trina
9 years ago

I love the idea of really thinking about the recipient and not just contributing more STUFF that they have to find room for. There’s nothing I hate more than having to exchange gift cards for Christmas! Lucky for me, I’m crafty and I love to knit small gifts for everyone. This year I’m knitting little legwarmies for my four young nieces and my daughter. So much better than a toy when they already have too many toys to count.

Chickybeth
Chickybeth
9 years ago

Maybe I’m the only one who read “Year of napkins!” and screamed inside. LOL I’m a person who would rather get nothing at all then something kitchy that takes up space. If I don’t know what to get someone, they get an iTunes card because even if they don’t use iTunes, they can sell the card or swap it, unlike a lot of gift cards from random places.

Becky P.
Becky P.
9 years ago

This is a great post. Full of really good ideas. Thanks!

Eileen
Eileen
9 years ago

Well, I have to say this is the first useless post I’ve ever read on GRS. I hope I am within the bounds of the recent etiquette post of a few weeks ago. When I log out of Yahoo Mail I usually see articles like this, but not here. The list really put it over the top, or, shall I say, under the bottom.

Anne
Anne
9 years ago

For me (I’m a habitual collector) it is a bad idea for think you can add to my collection. Unless you collect the same thing and KNOW what I want. Even my husband who could reasonably just ask what I want, doesn’t dare to try.

Most people see my collection of ceramic figurines and just see figurines. But I don’t see it that way.
When people try to add to my collection, they never come close to giving me something I actually want. Often it’s something I hate.

Jennifer
Jennifer
9 years ago

I often use discount certificates for travel. Many radio stations and tv stations will have 1/2 price certificates for hotels, restaurants and entertainment. Recently I’ve gifted some certificates and it seems to be well received (and affordable) My friend’s (single mom of 3 girls)daughter turned 6 and I gave her a hotel certificate along with a homemade card showing a swimming party with her family. I didn’t know how that would be received amongst all the boxes of shiney paper and bows but she loved it. She felt like a big deal, taking her whole family to a nearby hotel… Read more »

Katelyn
Katelyn
9 years ago

I just got a great holiday gift idea from my boyfriend: he takes each of his little sister’s shopping. They each get a certain amount of money and a whole day alone with their brother to spend it. This ensures that they get exactly what they want, and the gift is much more personal than money or a gift card because its also time spent with family. Also, for his brothers he gives them a year subscription to Netflix. Its kind of like the magazine subscription without the added clutter. Something I have been doing for my parents for the… Read more »

cookiemonster
cookiemonster
9 years ago

Great post! I think that finding the right gift can sometimes be difficult. What I think is that people tend to like unique gifts that are hard to find and not sold in stores. People like the gifts more this way since they cannot be replaced. I have been buying a few items from http://www.thinkfuntoys.com and giving it away to my friends and they all love it. They have a lot of stuff that are pretty cheap with free shipping and they deliver fast.

Gilberto Typhair
Gilberto Typhair
8 years ago

It’s like you read my mind! You seem to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you can do with some pics to drive the message home a little bit, but instead of that, this is excellent blog. A great read. I’ll definitely be back.

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