25 Great Gifts for $5 or Less

By Julie Rains on 25 November 2007 (Updated 25 November 2013) 38 comments

Linsey's book review on Debt-Proof the Holidays inspired me to consider quality (but inexpensive) gifts that I have given over the years. She mentioned home-made gifts as an alternative to store-bought gifts, which can dramatically lower expenses — as can limiting your gift list. Having struggled with gift-list limiting (I have 1 husband, 2 children, 2 parents, 9 nieces and nephews, and 12 in-laws) and being hopeless at crafts, I have opted for creative gift buying with some occasional holiday baking. Here are 25 non-crafty gift ideas, all for less than $5, suitable for nearly everyone on your list. (See also: 7 Savory Food Gifts)

1. Fruit Basket

These are pricey if you order fully prepared and decorated from a gift basket company, but it's easy to make your own. You'll need to find a good buy on fruit such as the one offered by Citrus Unlimited, an Indian River (FL) grower that visits my town with truckloads of citrus (oranges, grapefruits, tangelos) for sale. Last week, I bought a bushel of navel oranges for $18. Put five of these in a dollar-store basket and you've got a fruit-basket gift for just under $5.

If you don't have access to bulk fruit, try a member of the Florida Gift Fruit Shippers Association. Prices are slightly higher than the off-the-truck variety, but still a bargain.

2. Flashlight

Everyone can use a flashlight, right? This gift will be especially useful for the outdoorsy but is great for anyone who needs to see outside at night or who happens to find him/herself off the grid or without power. Find one at your favorite hardware store or order this "super-bright" compact flashlight.

3. Classic Books

Dover Thrift Editions have been one of my holiday traditions for nieces and nephews. Titles include A Christmas Carol and Anna Karenina.

4. Children's Books

You'll also find great buys on classic children's books from Dover. Check out the Dover Evergreen Classics, where you can find The Fables of Aesop, or Children's Thrift Classics to buy The Adventures of Old Mr. Toad.

5. Oven Mitt

Ever notice at potluck dinners how oven mitts are nearly always stained and ragged (even those owned by the most persnickety perfectionists)? A green oven mitt (or red, or other suitably festive color) can be paired with red and green Hershey kisses for a holiday-ready and most useful gift.

6. Kitchen Towels

If you like the kitchen linen idea but want something more elegant, consider buying a set of kitchen towels (or cloth napkins) and creating two gifts (or more — you could give four napkins for a gift and stay within the $5 budget); tie with a nice ribbon.

7. Bowls

You can also buy a set of bowls and give them individually; add a decorative touch of ribbon or home-cooked treat.

8. Measuring Cup

For a super-practical and nearly everlasting gift (perhaps for newlyweds who forgot to put a measuring cup on their registry), get a Pyrex glass measuring cup. I use mine for measuring and boiling water in the microwave.

9. Coffee Mug

Someone starting out is most likely to enjoy a sturdy coffee mug. White goes with nearly any china pattern so even more established recipients will like to have an extra mug on hand.

10. Handmade Recycled Drinking Glass

This glass is created by Jahanara Cottage Industries, an artisan group in rural Bangladesh and supplied through Ten Thousand Villages. The manager of a partner store visited a women's meeting at my church a couple of weeks ago. She told us about the mission of Ten Thousand Villages, which works with artisans in developing countries and impoverished areas worldwide. Artisans are paid a fair wage (that is enough to support their families and educate their children; hence, the term "fair trade") in an arrangement that gives artisans merchandising direction, provides supplies and payment advances, and guarantees payment of completed work. There are shops throughout the United States and Canada, an online store, and partner stores (where some, but not all, merchandise is supplied by Ten Thousand Villages).

11. Conversation Piece (Bird Whistle)

While you're visiting Ten Thousand Villages, you can check out this terra cotta whistle that imitates bird song or peruse the clearance section to find handcrafted bargains.

12. Ornaments

I participated in a Christmas ornament exchange with a childhood friend for many years. This very informal arrangement allowed us to select a suitable, affordable gift; when I am decorating my tree, I get to remember the ornaments she bought or made for me. You'll find ornaments anywhere but I like shopping at family-owned gift shops for memorable, one-of-a-kind ones.

13. Chocolate Chess Pie

This gift involves cooking but is simple, absolutely delicious, and freezes exceptionally well. I've been buying them at my church bazaar for a few years and finally snagged the recipe, which makes two pies for a cost per pie of about $4.

Here's the recipe:

  • Ingredients: 4 squares unsweetened baking chocolate; 2 sticks butter; 4 eggs, lightly beaten; 2½ cups sugar; ½ cup warm milk, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 2 9-inch pie crusts.
     
  • Instructions: Melt chocolate and butter over low heat. Temper the eggs with the chocolate and add to chocolate/butter mixture (add a small amount of chocolate to the eggs). Add sugar, milk, and vanilla. Mix well. Bake at 300 for 40 minutes; turn oven off and leave pies in for 5 more minutes. Remove to racks to cool.

14. Potato Soup in a Jar

This potato soup is a dried version that lets the recipient create a home-made lunch at a moment's notice by adding boiling water.

You mix all the ingredients (1¾ cups instant mashed potatoes, 1½ cups dry milk, 2 tablespoons instant chicken bouillon, 2 teaspoons dried minced onion, and 1½ teaspoons of Italian seasoning), place in a quart jar (you can buy a canning jar or plastic quart container, or clean out a spaghetti sauce jar); add a bow on the top and a tag that gives instructions: "Bone-warming Potato Soup: Place ½ cup mix in soup bowl and add 1 cup water. Stir until smooth."

Even with the high price of powdered milk, you can make this soup for approximately $3.50 per gift.

15. Movie Night Basket

Assemble a movie-night basket (or gift bag) with a DVD (I've found Abbott & Costello titles at the dollar store, or check bargain bins), some microwave popcorn, and your favorite drink mix (mine would be Crystal Light pink lemonade).

16. Jump Rope

If your gift recipient wants some intense exercise, a jump rope is an excellent choice.

17. Deck of Cards

Who couldn't use a deck of cards for some non-wired fun? Even if you have a deck at home, carrying these on trips can help pass the time during your travels or give you a game to play when you reach your destination. You can pick these up at the drugstore, the dollar store, your favorite mass merchant, or order online. You can even play solitaire with them.

18. Puzzles

Puzzles are appropriate for all ages. My cousins used to always have a large puzzle set up on a card table in their den for leisurely puzzle-solving mixed with conversation. Prices can vary on these but you can usually snag inexpensive ones at the dollar store or your favorite mass merchant.

19. Sudoku

Sudoku is equally appropriate for all ages. You can pick these up at the bookstore, grocery store, or find one at Amazon.

20. Coloring Book with Crayons

Here's more fun but this time for kids only. If you stocked up on crayons during the back-to-school sales, you're nearly ready for this gift; if not, I recommend buying a sturdy brand of crayons (I like Crayola as other brands I've tried tend to break easily) and pairing it with an inexpensive coloring book, often found at the dollar store.

21. Die-Cast Toy Cars

Die-cast cars are great for busy hands. Even little ones appreciate the sturdiness of these types of cars, which tend to race faster than the cheaper variety. A well-selected edition should create some excitement.

22. Star Wars (LEGO) Key Chains

For the Star Wars fan on your list, you can buy Princess Leia keychains from LEGO Shop (online) as well as many other characters such as Anakin, Chewbacca, and Darth Vader.

24. T-Shirts

If you're lucky enough to have a Rugged Wearhouse nearby, check out its selection of t-shirts and sweatshirts, often seconds but usually with name-brand labels. I've also noticed that craft stores (Michael's and A.C. Moore) carry inexpensive t-shirts in a variety of colors.

25. Small photo albums

Last year, my oldest sister gave photo books that commemorated our dad's 80th birthday party. This year, I'm giving a photo album filled with family photos to my sister-in-law. I've also given small photo albums with grandkid photos to parents/in-laws. You can find inexpensive ones at craft stores or drugstores.

25. Picture Frames with Family Photos

I like getting picture frames and I like getting photos of family members but I love getting photos in a frame. I can keep the set as-is or place the photo in an album and re-use the picture frame.

For those of you who are extra busy and don't have time to search for bargains, I hope this guide helps you to stay frugal through the holidays. Add your gift ideas (crafty or not) if you'd like!

Tagged: Shopping, gifts, Holidays
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Carrie Kirby's picture

I am doing framed portraits for everyone this year. I'll actually end up paying a lot because we are having our girls photographed by a very talented photographer, but it's something I really wanted to do *anyway* so it allows me to fulfill that wish along with my Christmas list at the same time. Selfish or frugal? You decide, but when I polled my family members, they all said they wanted the portraits.

Your Tshirts idea makes me think for future years, though. It would be fun to come up with some cute Tshirt messages or images to have printed. A family or local in-joke, or some homemade artwork. As a recipient, homemade gifts always trump retail, yet like you, I'm not crafty at all.

Will Chen's picture

Great list Julie!  It's a bit more than $5, but Threadless is having a $10 shirt sale.  They have lots of cool shirts, check them out.  =)

Guest's picture

This is a great list. I like the movie basket idea best.
I also enjoy making scrapbooks for close friends with a mix of photos, magazine captions and other momentos.

My mom is making pottery pieces for everyone on her gift list. My sister gives beautiful plants from her garden that she bundles with so much love and attention.
Handmade gifts mean so much!

Guest's picture
Gram

Try "Half-Price Books" for movies nowadays or Thrift-type shops. Most video/movie stores have gone out of business where we live.

Guest's picture
Barbara

I've been to Ten Thousand Villages, and while they have some super cool stuff, I've noticed their prices have gone up dramatically over the last few years (input your theory of why here). But if you sift through there you can find some really sweet candles, votives, etc for not too much.

I also really like the movie idea. Blockbuster has the 4 for $20 deal (at least I think they do), so I guess for just over $5, you could add popcord and stuff and take care of 4 people on your list!

Guest's picture
PSK

Thank you for the link regarding dry-milk prices, I had no idea!

Guest's picture
Kit

Most of these are great !
But the coffee mug ?
OMG, plleeeeaassseee no more coffee mugs, no more coffee cups, no more mugs with teabags, flavored coffee, special cocoas, etc !
Coffee mugs/cups are a dime a dozen at the thrift store, are WAY over-gifted at the holidays, and I don't know anyone from broke college student couple to family of 8 that does not have way too many of these !

The rest of your suggestions ?
Excellent !
Please, no more coffee mugs !

Julie Rains's picture

Mugs -- I have too many of these also as do my in-laws, many of which (oddly) have sentimental value. But it's nice to have an extra one I don't care about just to keep at the office community kitchen. If water bottles were a tad less expensive, I would have included those -- saves money on bottled water and nice to have for cycling and hiking sessions. You could take Will's Blog Action Day Resolution idea and buy CFLs for family members; not exciting but saves energy use.

Julie Rains's picture

I did find a water bottle for under $5! Here's a pink one from Dick's Sporting Goods.

Guest's picture
Pila

I dig the ideas including the coffee cups. I'm using them for my spring vegetable "starts"
I'll be giving my services as an above average cook,to a few friends. I'll prepare their favorite meal be it breakfast, lunch,afternoon tea, supper,dinner and/or dessert. All they need do is the Choose a time, decide on the menu,they put together a list of products to buy.I'll purchase the food on their credit card.And cook away!
Thanks for letting me be apart of some great and simple ideas. After all isn't the thought that counts.

Guest's picture
Guest

COOKIES!!!!

Myscha Theriault's picture

I especially like the movie night basket idea. Another thing I've noticed you can pick up cheap on clearance throughout the year? Candles!!! If you really keep an eye out, you can get the high quality ones for around five bucks rather than the ones that don't burn evenly. Candles add mood, aroma and are a consumable gift people don't have to find room for after the holidays.

Great piece!

Guest's picture
Guest

Great list! I got lots of good ideas that I'm going to use.

The mug was the only 'so-so' one though. It really depends on the gift recipient.

I do jewelry and beading. By knowing the people to whom I am giving, I can tailor a gift to its recipient and ensure it's something useful and liked.

Guest's picture
Guest

Dover has so many cool things besides reprints of classics. They have an extensive catalog of neat stuff that they've designed or that's in the public domain, from antique paper dolls to special-interest cut-and-paste dioramas (my 6yo was all over the dino diorama).

American Science and Surplus is a great source for kids, although many of the prices aren't bargain-basement as they used to be. You can also put together kits of neat stuff - for fingerprinting, sets of magnets, brine shrimp or triops eggs and a jar, low-voltage electrical components, etc. etc.

Guest's picture

Handy article! But I have to agree about the mugs. We can't give our overabundance away at this point!

Guest's picture

This is a really great article and so handy at this time of year! Especially now with the constant increase in price on everything!

I just wanted to let you know that I linked to you and this article on my blog!

Homemaker of the 21st Century

Guest's picture
WanderingOak

There were some fantastic ideas here. After reading this, I decided to give dollar-store baskets filled with various loose black and herbal blend teas, hot cocoa, tea balls, and cofees. Rather than giving token gifts to all of my first cousins (once removed), most of whom I have never even met, I will send baskets to all of my cousin's families. I was going to give mugs as well, but after reading some of the coments, I am probably going to rethink that.

Guest's picture
Mrs.W

What a wonderful list.

A note on #10--love it! When travelling internationally in the developing world, it's important to look for these kinds of efforts locally when looking for keepsakes or gifts from your travels. When I was in Ethiopia I found a similar effort and it was a pleasure to know that my souvenir-dollars were going to fund a women-and-children's shelter where they taught people how to make various crafts and paid them fair wages.

Guest's picture
pamphyila

$25 for a present is a LOT for me! I generally spend MUCH less.

** Shop at thrift shops/minor antique stores/yard sales throughout the year for interesting things. No one need know that that vintage 50's bowl cost you $5! Find out what the taste is of your recipient and tailor your gift to them -

**The weirder the gift, the better. Look for real oddities. My brother STILL has the preserved piranha fish I bought for him for something like $2 when I just got out of college. (I mean, who would KNOW what you paid for THAT? Confound them.

**Vintage scarves are a good deal. New ones, especially in silk ones are $40+. Check for stains, and iron nicely.

**Give vintage anything to anyone who has the taste for it! There are actually people who work as antique pickers to get the more valuable/interesting things from thrift shops, yard sales, and so on to RESELL to dealers. And every time an item changes hands, the price goes up. Don't pay for anyone else's taste - go out there and be an antique picker for yourself!

**Vintage costume jewelry, or ethic pieces are good choices if you shop wisely. I can SMELL silver and once bought a blackened silver cuff for $1 - because they didn't know it was real silver. Value? $50+ You can also find semi-precious gem stones - check to see if they are glass or the real thing. I scrape them against a tooth in secret to detect the surface. (Glass is smooth, gem stones not.)

**Never TELL anyone where you got the stuff or how much you PAID for it. I just say I picked things up in my wanderings....The things you will be giving won't be things that they can really price. I mean, how much is a set of vintage Harvard Classics I got in a thrift shop for 50 cents a volume? More than that, I assure you.

Happy gifting!

For more, read my weird Xmas gift article at www.associatedcontent.com/pamelamunro

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks for the vintage ideas and $25 per gift is a lot for me also (which is why I gave 25 ideas for $5 or less). I have a friend who has loads of time to shop throughout the year and seems to find, for example, excellently tailored pants for $2. I don't have such luck (usually!)

You are spot-on about getting the right gift for the right person. I got a Christmas ornament replica of a plane that my brother-in-law flies from My Pilot store a couple of years (less than $5 though a tad more with shipping) and he was absolutely fascinated by it.

Guest's picture

I really like the flashlight gift Julie. It's so economical and useful. Coffee Mug is also a good one. People really go for a cup of coffee every morning. So this is a no brainer.

Guest's picture

awsome topic, just bookmarked your article for future referrence

Guest's picture
saim

i really like the {.. Movie Night Basket... T-shirts...Die-cast toy cars } such a great gift i really like it....... if you living abroad and sending gifts to their loved ones in Pakistan
visit on this website http://www.giftxperts.com/ Our gifted professionals design appropriate gifts for every relation and deliver all gifts to Pakistan on time. So express your orders online for flowers, cakes, sweets, sarees, bags and many other Pakistan gifts with us now and cheer up your special ones with enthusiasm

Guest's picture
kiran

These are wonderful gift ideas.i really like these ideas.

Sending gifts to your loved ones on different occasions is a
tradition and it is way to express your love to them.
This website is providing very affordable gift offerings.
http://www.giftxperts.com

Guest's picture

i really like these ideas.i have seen here very nice collection of gifts with usefull description. very cheap and attractive!

if you are far from your loved ones, then you can send flowers pakistan.

Guest's picture

Chocolate Chess Pie is the inspiring idea.

Guest's picture
Kylie

AMAZING LIST! I actually did the movie basket gift before I read your article, but I'm glad you posted about it (there are some interesting DVDs at the dollar store!). I love the ornament/used book ideas so I'm taking those. Thank you!

Guest's picture
Kaye

I just did a gift with a stack of "theater candy". The big boxes can be purchased at the dollar store. Pick boxes that are the same size if possible, wrap each one in a different color paper and stack, wrap with ribbon and add a bow. I did 4 boxes of candy and a $10 dollar certificate to my favorite used book/media store, so a total of $14 for a very lovely gift.

Guest's picture
Lollipop Lover

Amazing... I found the perfect gift thanks Wise Bread! <3 :)

Guest's picture
Mojoh25

NEVER BOIL WATER IN PYREX IN THE MICROWAVE!!! NEVER!!!!! Because of the way a microwave heats and the nature of pyrex glass (no imperfections) water heats to well beyond the 'boiling point' in the microwave (in pyrex) When you open the door and it is exposed to the air temp outside of the microwave, It can 'explode' causing extreme burns. This is serious- research it if you doubt me but Please- NEVER HEAT WATER IN PYREX IN A MICROWAVE- IT IS VERY DANGEROUS!!!

Guest's picture
charlatte214

Put a chopstick in the glass/pyrex container of water and the break in surface tension will allow the water to boil normally. No risk of explosion.

Guest's picture
Faisal

Right now i have 5$ i cant take out and want to spend buying something online. Thanks for sharing this list

Guest's picture
Madi Rosales

great list Jullie

Guest's picture
Add Value

video games are nice. like COD black ops, HALO reach. (unless he has these games). he obviously needs a console for them (but an xbox 360 is pretty cheap now a days!)

Guest's picture
Guest

Try the website: half.com for great movie deals.

Guest's picture
Cliff

These are awesome cheapies. There are also some cool ones I found on http://www.fivedollarfinds.com or Thinkgeek.com, for more gag gift or geeky type cheap stuff.

Guest's picture
Villas for Rent in France

For a super-practical and nearly everlasting gift (perhaps for newlyweds who forgot to put a measuring cup on their registry), get a Pyrex glass measuring cup. I use mine for measuring and boiling water in the microwave.

Guest's picture
GuestPoppy

Please don't buy someone an oven mitt, measuring cup, or a flashlight as a gift. Honestly. That's awful.