Low-cost gift ideas for the holidays

By Shelly Gigante
Shelly Gigante specializes in personal finance issues. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications and news websites.
Posted on Dec 18, 2017

A handmade scarf, baked goods, a cherished photo in a nice frame. Gifts for friends and family during the holiday season need not break the bank. In fact, some of the most meaningful gifts you can give are virtually free.

“The best gifts always come from the heart, because you know that person is thinking about you and not just running down to the store and picking up what they think is the hottest gift,” said Aileen Avery in an interview, author of Gift Rap: The History and Art of Gift Giving. “They actually gave it some thought.”

Zero- and low-cost gifts are not only potentially more thoughtful, but they can also help keep your budget in check, so you don’t spend months after the holidays digging out of high-interest debt, a scenario that is all too common.

Consumers this year expect to spend an average of $967 on gifts, as well as non-gift holiday items, such as decorations and food, according to the National Retail Federation.1 Not all shoppers take on debt this time of year, but those who did in 2016 started off the new year with an average of $1,003 worth of new debt, and most said they weren’t in a position to pay it off for at least four months, according to personal finance website MagnifyMoney’s holiday debt survey.2

While homemade and low-cost gifts are generally well received, they do require a bit more effort. Don’t wait for the last minute to start planning your list, said Avery. 

If you’re big on intent, but short on ideas, the following suggestions may help get the creative juices flowing.

Photo book

In the digital age, where precious family photos languish in cell phones and hard drives, it’s a novel idea indeed to print them out. A single photo of a special day, placed inside a nice, inexpensive frame is sure to elicit a smile.

The truly ambitious can opt instead for a photo album of special moments, a collection of pictures over the years with their best friend, or an album of a special vacation with family friends. You can print them out on your printer or take advantage of online seasonal sales and create a printed coffee-table book for $25 or less. Leave plenty of time for cropping and editing,page design, printing, and shipping – especially if you need to ask friends or family members to contribute  photos to the project. Bonus: The trip down memory lane will be fun for you, too.

“I love photo books that go through your relationship with that person from way back when,” said Avery. “There are so many online sites you can use, and this is a gift your loved one will keep and look back on. It also might not be something they have the time to do themselves.”

Home-cooked meals

The gift of a home cooked meal is tough to beat for busy moms, single adults, and seniors — or really anyone who just wants a night off in the kitchen. Think lasagna, chili, or baked macaroni and cheese. 

Every year, New Jersey-native Rose Flanagan makes a week’s worth of homemade soups and meals that can be easily reheated as a holiday gift for her elderly parents in Long Island, New York.

“I’ll make a stew, individual servings of meatloaf, or clam sauce, and freeze them in individual containers that they can eat when they want,” she said, noting the clam sauce was presented with a box of dried pasta. “They don’t need anything at their age, and they don’t really want gifts, so I decided that this might be a nicer way to give something they would appreciate more.”

By doubling or tripling your own recipes in the weeks leading up to the holiday, you can bang out a week’s worth of frozen meals in no time, she said.

Over the years, Flanagan and her husband have also given friends, neighbors, and teachers loaves of banana bread, brownie mix in a jar, and homemade granola.

Similarly, family members might also appreciate a recipe book that culls together favorite family recipes from past and present generations.

The gift of time

Anyone juggling family responsibilities and a full-time job knows time is a precious commodity.

“Time is the new premium,” said Avery. “No matter how many gadgets we use to make things easier for ourselves, everyone I know is short on time.”

Her suggestion? Create a gift certificate or homemade coupon that entitles your elderly parent to an afternoon picnic in the park, or your son to a lunch at his favorite local restaurant (during school!). If you have a boat, take your niece fishing. Or, take your sister to a movie you’ve both been wanting to see and treat her to a large popcorn. 

It’s all about spending time together.

Establish the handmade rule

If your family is large or your budgets are tight, you might also like to establish a tradition of giving only homemade gifts – especially for the grownups in the group. You can’t go wrong with homemade soap, hand-knit hats, or dried herbs from your garden.

Jocelyn Ryan, an Irish-American mother of three whose extended family is still overseas, said the adults in her family went back and forth for several years between drawing names and giving a single gift, and buying for everyone, but doing it for $10 or less. “Doing it cheaply was way better,” she said. “The gifts were usually funny or homemade or both. One year, I crocheted everybody scarves and my sister gave everyone a small jar of sand from the Sahara the year she went to Africa. I still have mine.”

Re-gifting

Re-gifting an item you were previously given is also potentially fair game during the holiday season, with some important caveats.

Allan Liwanag, who writes the Practical Saver blog, wrote that re-gifters must make sure that the item they are passing along was not personalized for them and is something that the recipient would actually want or need.

Avery agreed, noting re-gifters should also make sure they know the original source so they don’t give the recycled present to a friend or family member in the same social circle. “If Aunt Martha sees the scarf on someone else that she gave to you, that’s obviously a huge faux pas,” she said.

One couple from Annapolis, Maryland, takes the concept of re-gifting one step further, making it a household tradition to give their kids at least one gift for Christmas that they purchased at a yard sale. Over the years, they have given their kids, who are now adults, jewelry, handbags, books, stationery and clothes – many still with their original tags, which they believe has helped instill a sense of value.

The holiday season is as much about giving as it is receiving, but your shopping list doesn’t have to break the bank. With a little extra planning and some creativity, you can potentially give those you love a gift that is both thoughtful and budget friendly.

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1 National Retail Federation, “Holiday Headquarters: Holiday 2017”.

2 MagnifyMoney, “Americans with Holiday Debt Added $1,003 on Average This Year,” 2016.

The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of MassMutual.