5 Easy-to-Make Deluxe Gifts for Under $15

By Max Wong on 13 December 2010 (Updated 9 December 2011) 1 comment
Photo: Malte.S

As of last week, my home, Dinky Manor, has become my own personal sweatshop. Even though I don’t personally celebrate wintertime holidays that involve gift giving, just about everyone I care about does. Alas, my entire budget for gifts this year is $200 for everyone. So here I am, knitting mittens for my hoards of nieces, canning donated backyard fruit into exotic jams for my friends and neighbors, and planning a weekend baking marathon that will involve the creation and decoration of 80 dozen cookies to give to everyone else. (See also: 31 Great Gifts That Keep on Giving)

If you’ve got a little time and a little knowledge, it’s easy to create beautiful gifts for a few dollars. For example, last year I bought a thick Calvin Klein cashmere sweater at Goodwill, unraveled the sweater, and re-knit the yarn into four cashmere hats for my girlfriends. Had I bought the hats new, they would have cost $75 each at least, but since I knit them myself, they cost me $2 each.

But what if you don’t know how to sew or don’t have the time to knit for other people? What if your apartment doesn’t have an oven? With a little creativity and some planning, you can still give thoughtful, memorable, and even luxurious gifts for less than $15 a piece.

A Lasting Baby Gift

When I don’t have time to knit a baby sweater, my default baby-shower gift has always been a huge stack of cloth diapers. Since all of my friends seem to be cloth-diaper users, everyone loves this gift because they:

  1. Never have enough clean diapers.
  2. Never get enough cloth diapers as gifts because diapers are the “boring“ gift on the registry.
  3. Use the cloth diapers for decades after the baby is done with them as the softest, most absorbent cleaning towels.

A dozen new cloth diapers cost about $12, but what makes my $12 diaper gift the star of every baby shower is my presentation. I wrap the diapers in plain brown craft paper, but then I tie a sterling baby spoon to the top of the package with a satin ribbon. I buy the sterling silver baby spoons for $1 to $3 at swap meets, garage sales, and antique stores and store the little spoons for future gift giving in my silverware drawer, so they are easy to find when I need them (and don’t take up additional storage space).

This present is a huge hit because the gift combines two ultra-practical gifts that are gender-neutral and last forever. The shiny spoon and the satin ribbon make a $12 gift of diapers look really expensive. On several occasions I’ve actually lucked out with the perfect monogram already engraved on the antique spoon, which is just all kinds of win.

Great Greens

The Re-Blooming Wedding Present

If you’ve got even a borderline green thumb and a tiny patch of sunlight, you can give your newlywed friends a present of “wedding roses.” If your friend has roses in her bouquet or in her centerpieces, ask if you can take some with you at the end of her wedding day “for a surprise.” Once you get the roses home, cut off the blooms and all the leaves. Then cut two inches off the bottom of the stems at an angle. Cut the naked stems into lengths that are about as long as a pencil. Dip the cut end of the stem pieces into Rootone or another rooting hormone (willow water, made with from soaking fresh cut willow twigs in water, works great too), and plant the stems in damp potting soil. Water regularly. The rose cuttings will take root within two weeks, eventually becoming tiny rose plants. Remember, Emily Post says that everyone has a year to send a wedding gift. By the time the couple’s first anniversary rolls around, you should have at least one surviving wedding rose plant (if not a dozen) to gift to the couple for their garden.

Succulents for Friends and Co-Workers

You can turn other plants into beautiful, long-term gifts as well. Succulents and cacti are very easy to propagate from cuttings. In general, low-water plants will create their own pups that you just have to separate from the mother plant and repot. I have a round cactus that I got as a gift years ago from a friend. Every year I split the “mother” cactus into ten separate little baby plants and repot them into little ceramic pots that I buy for $1 or less at garages sales or thrift stores. These cacti, which flower in the summer with fist-sized yellow blooms, are unique stocking stuffers and truly the gift that keeps on giving.

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Orchids: Solve a Mystery, Save Some Moolah

Another great plant gift buy is the “mystery orchid.” Since most garden stores are strapped for space, they don’t want to take the time to water and care for the orchids after they’ve bloomed until they re-bloom. Mystery orchids are the plants that have already bloomed, but not sold, and I buy all my orchids off the sale table at my local garden store for under $5. Although orchids have a reputation of being difficult, they only need to be watered once a week and are actually pretty hard to kill. Orchids make great gifts for men or women and are my favorite thank-you gift to send to business associates, as they match any interior and last much longer than cut flowers.

Signed Books for Bibliophiles

Since part of my job involves working with writers, publishers, and book agents, I attend a lot of book-related events. One of my least-expensive, but certainly sneakiest, gifts for friends is getting their favorite books inscribed by their favorite authors. Obviously, the easiest way to get a book signed by an author is to buy a book at a book signing. While I would personally love to support my local bookstores and authors, purchasing multiple copies of books for gifting, alas, is not in my budget. So, I’ve figured out a low-budget method of book inscription. The easiest part of this gift is asking the author for a signature or inscription. The hardest part of this gift is stealing your friends’ beloved books off the shelves in their homes without them noticing.

Since attending book signings is not something that is easy for everyone, most people can create this gift via the U.S. Postal Service. Some writers will sign books that are sent to them with return postage. Some best-selling authors are too busy (or old) to deal with the post office chore of sending back every book that is sent to them for signing, but instead are willing to send you a signed bookplate if you send them a stamped, self-addressed envelope. (Check out the FAQ section of a favorite author’s blog for specifics on autographs and bookplates).

An Updated 1985 Gift for Music Fans

A gift that has been largely forgotten because of technological advances is the mix tape. Once a staple of high school romances, homemade mixes have fallen out of favor in exchange for the iTunes gift card. One of my favorite music gifts is the updated version of the mix tape — the personalized CD. A few years ago, I gave my friend Jane a CD of 15 songs that are about girls named Jane. I made a similar CD for my friend Lala, where I collected songs where La-La-La figured prominently in the songs’ choruses. (According to several lists, I’m not the only one who had this bright idea). 

The mix tape can also be the audio version of a scrapbook or photo album. I think for most people, music is connected with specific memories and events in their lives. For example, I will always associate “We Are Family” with Panama, since Sister Sledge was practically the soundtrack of that country when my family travelled there in 1979. Thirty years later, Abba’s “Dancing Queen” still conjures memories of my neighbor dancing around on the shag carpeting of her rumpus room when she thought nobody was looking. Creating a time capsule CD of songs that remind you of a certain event or time period is a great way to share memories with your friends. 

The Totally Free Luxury Gift of Time

Last but not least, one of the best gifts you can give your loved ones is time off from housework. Whether it’s the new parents who are trying to figure out how to deal with their first baby, the friend who has just lost her mother to cancer, or the HR Lady at the office dealing with the aftermath of the company Christmas party, all people appreciate a clean bathroom or kitchen, especially when they are stressed out. One person can deep clean a room in less than hour and make someone’s day so much easier. In today’s world where everyone is overworked and worn out, the ultimate luxury gift is the gift of free time.

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Just a slight tip of advice on the succulents and cacti for gifts... Coming from years of experience working in greenhouses and owning a business focusing greatly on cacti and succulents...

The photo you have used for this post is a beautiful Opuntia or Prickly Pear cacti of which there are thousands of different species and cultivars. Be forewarned that a gift like this could be disastrous!

The spines are not the worry but the Glochids are. These are the tiny little hairs that surround most spines and are present in just about every prickly pear and in one form or another on other cacti and what appear to be succulents. In this photo they appear an orange or red color.

Touching them the slightest bit will cause a mess of them to get in your skin or on your clothes and they are not easily removed. They irritate and develop rashes although seldom allergic, just irritating. This would not make a good gift.

Although I agree plants are a great gift idea as they are often what I have given and will continue to do, a little quick research could save you a lot of heartache. I would hate to be the person who gave someone a prickly pear plant. They will never forget when they brush up on what appears to be soft hairs.

Although my blog has nothing to do with this response I thought it fit well with my expertise to mention this as it is relevant to the photo and the text. My blog is relevant with the content of yours and I hope you get a chance to check it out. I really like your layout and ease of use on this blog. Thanks!