10 Gift Ideas That Cost Almost Nothing

By Camilla Cheung on 13 December 2011 (Updated 25 November 2013) 8 comments

It’s that season again, when your wallet starts to feel lighter and every purchase means a big nasty surprise when the credit card bill rolls around in January. I am not against spending money for gifts at the holidays — after all, this is the one time of year when people are spending money on others rather than on themselves. But the holiday season shouldn’t be one of financial burden — it should be a time of joy. And there are few things as joyful as being financially stable and responsible with your money. (See also: 14 Gift Ideas for the Truly Broke)

How can you spend almost nothing this Christmas? By being innovative and resourceful when it comes to giving gifts, of course! Some of the gifts below won't cost you anything; most cost you very little if you already have some of the materials on hand. (See also: 31 Great Gifts That Keep on Giving)

1. Buy Presents Using Old Gift Cards

I still had a few gift cards hanging around from when I got married, some of which were from stores I don’t normally shop at. I had never used them because I never found anything I liked from those stores. However, I was able to find some thoughtful presents for friends who like those stores. I consider gift cards free money, so in this way, I was able to buy nice gifts without spending any of my own cash. Dig through your own desk drawers, and you’ll likely find a few old gift cards too!

2. Make Baked Goods

For most of the friends and acquaintances on your list, a bag of cookies is a perfectly appropriate gift. Chances are you probably have most of the ingredients in your pantry, and any you lack will cost far less than buying a whole gift. Wrapping the cookies up beautifully (in dollar store colored tissue paper) makes your gift look even more fancy and expensive. (See also: 15 Delicious Gifts You Can Bake)

3. Make Cookie “Mixes”

Even easier than making baked goods — how about making mixes for baked goods or hot chocolate? You don’t even have to pay for eggs or milk! Put pre-mixed quantities of flour, baking powder, sugar, and flavorings into a washed-out jar and tie it with a ribbon. Large glass pasta sauce jars make pretty containers for cookie and pancake mixes. Or make a peppermint hot chocolate mix with cocoa powder, sugar, and a crushed candy cane. Again, it’s all about presentation. Decorate the jar with lovely labels, ribbons, and other crafty things, and your gift looks gorgeous and not at all cheap.

4. Regift!

Wince. I know, I know. Regifting seems kind of lame. But let’s face it — we’ve all done it. And if something that someone gave you happens to suit another friend better than it suits you, why not? It’s the right thing to do. Just avoid regifting items that have been used, or regifting at a party where the original giver might be present. Now that’s lame. (See also: Guide to Regifting)

5. Revamp the Traditional Gift Exchange

Instead of having a traditional gift exchange or Secret Santa, propose a White Elephant gift exchange. Everyone brings some junk that they don’t want, and then you take turns swapping for the best stuff. You get to clean out your junk drawer and give a gift at the same time! One year, I hosted a holiday book exchange instead of a traditional gift exchange, where everyone brought a used book from their personal collection that they had read and liked. Again, we played a game of swap to see who could score the book he or she wanted. No purchase required!

6. Make Your Own Wrapping Paper and Cards

Wrapping paper can get expensive. Make your own by using brown paper bags and decorating them using potato stamps, stickers, ribbon, and bits of colored paper. Cut out the gift labels printed on Trader Joe’s grocery bags. Use the comics section of the newspaper to wrap a gift. Plus you get brownie points for being eco-friendly and using recyclable and biodegradable materials. (See also: 10 Cheap Gift Wrapping Ideas)

For cards, download free printable holiday cards and gift tags from websites like HowAboutOrange, or make your own, more personal cards with paper, markers, and other materials you have around the house. If you're particularly artsy, you can even bundle several handmade notecards together as a gift that the receiver can use throughout the year.

7. Make a Personal Photo Album

Collect photos of you and a friend, and make a photo album out of scrapbooking or construction paper. Across from every photo, write a cute personal message. Bind the pages together with yarn or ribbon. It may not cost much (or anything if you already have photos printed), but the time and effort you put into this gift makes it a unique and memorable one. For friends who live far away, you can give them a variation of this gift for free! Create a Word or Powerpoint file (or if you're more computer-savvy, a video slideshow) with photos and meaningful notes that you can email to your friends for them to print out.

8. Get Your Craft On

If you’re crafty, you might be able to whip up a beanie or scarf from some leftover yarn (it’s not hard — my husband crocheted me a beanie once!). Or use the fabric scraps in your cupboard to make coasters or a cute pillow or blanket. Make ornaments from scrap pieces of wood and craft paint (for example, we're renovating our house and we've got plenty of perfectly good pieces of pine lying around). Makeover an old wood tray with paint or decoupage. Paint pretty designs on smooth rocks to make paperweights. Stick an orange full of cloves to make a clove-orange ornament. Take a good look at the raw materials you have in and around your home, and see if you can make something with them.

9. Give the Gift of Service

If you have a skill, consider offering a valuable service to a friend or relative. For instance, if you’re handy around the house, offer to build bookshelves, paint a bedroom, or do some home repairs. Shovel the snow for a week for a neighbor. If you’re a good cook, offer to privately cater a romantic dinner for two. If you’re a freelancer, offer a free family photo session, a free blog post promoting a friend’s business, a free makeover, or a free design consultation. (See also: 20 Great, Free Gifts)

10. Donate Your Time

If you can’t afford to spend money on gifts this year, consider donating your time instead. Suggest that instead of exchanging gifts, you and your family volunteer at a local soup kitchen, nursing home, or food bank, or cook a meal for a family in need. You’ll capture the true meaning of the season — caring for others, which might just be the best gift you ever give yourself.

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Guest's picture

The donation of time and effort toward the holiday cause can go so far to bolstering up the community and making others feel great. I frankly find that this one's hardly a gift because you get so much out of it yourself. :)

Andrea Karim's picture

I still like making mix tapes. OK, well, they are CDs, but you can personalize them and even record your own voice as an intro to some of the tracks. It's not a bad way to reach out across long distances, too - if your grandmother has a CD player (mine does not).

Meg Favreau's picture

I have a friend who gives out a mix of his favorite songs from the last year around the holidays. Since I tend to be rubbish at searching out new music, I always really appreciate that.

Guest's picture

When it comes to gift cards, I look for bonus deals to purchase gifts. For example, the grocery store just offered a $25 rebate if you purchase $100 in gift cards. I used the $100 in gift cards to buy gifts and some as gifts themselves. When the $25 rebate came I used that for gifts as well. That is a 25% discount for doing nothing! I was also able to take advantage of Target's recent buy $50 get $10 promo. Restaurants are also a good place to look--many offer bonus cards when you make gift card purchases.

Camilla Cheung's picture

Great idea! I'll definitely put this into practice!

Guest's picture
lisa

This might seem lame but Goodwill has lots of things for next to nothing and most of the time (well in my area) they are not even opened! My mother-in-law gave our boys $25 each and that is the first place we went. Our littlest one purchased never opened 5 color paydoh set, unopened baseball bat with holder and balls ( the kind that holds the ball for young people) and a plane that had a couple of neat things on it. $9 and some change. Then we went to the grocery store and purchased some crazy straws, s'mores material to do in the fireplace and spent $12 and some change. He had a little over $2 left. Not bad for a 5 year old making his money count. He even told me I could have a s'more he would fix for me but he had to have a bite!!! I told him that was a delivery fee while I was doing the ironing...

Oldest boy: S'more material and a movie for the family because as he told me ( I had not seen it all the way through). He is waiting until after Christmas to do the rest of the shopping. We are so proud of our boys!

Merry Christmas!

Guest's picture
Guest

Craft supplies are awfully expensive. I've been crocheting, cross stitching, beading, latch hooking, pouring candles, scrap booking, stamping, card making and sewing for 25+ years and I'm only 33, so I have a lot of experience! I look for supplies at rummage sales and thrift stores but not everything needed for a project can be found at those venues.

Food ingredients also not free. Seen the price of a jar of peanut butter lately? Or bag of walnuts or macadamia nuts for holiday baking? Those jars to put the mixes in? Also not free unless you inherited them when grandma passed on.

I am quite frugal and bought several gifts used this year, made a lot of gifts, and we do minimal gifting as it is.

Guest's picture
Megan

I love doing handmade gifts. The pre-made mixes are a favourite, any kind of spice mix goes over really well. Soup kits, with beans noodles and dried veggies are fun as well.

For wrapping - I always pick up a bunch of paper and bows the week between Christmas and New Years - generally for next to nothing.

Great tips in this article - I like re-gifting a lot. If I don't like something, but someone else might - that's lovely!