14 Gift Ideas for the Truly Broke


This year, my holiday gift giving is going to be curbed more by necessity than by my sense of goodness, frugality, or my love for the environment. I just can't afford to splurge on gifts, even though I want to. (See also: 10 Gifts Ideas That Cost Almost Nothing)

I know lots of other people are in the same situation this year, and so I'm not alone in looking for cheaper gifts or gift alternatives. You may hear people saying things like "don't buy cheap stuff; instead, give the gift of your time," but what the hell does that really mean? (See also: 20 Great, Free Gifts)

It means that you give what you can. "What you can" will vary from person to person. What ways can you give of yourself when you're too poor to buy the things you'd like to?

First, ask yourself, "What skills do I have?"

People frequently downplay their own skills and talents, thinking that the things that they are really good at aren't useful to other people. It doesn't matter how trivial your talents may seem; they're probably incredibly useful to someone else.

There are things that other people can do that I simply cannot, no matter how hard I try. For instance, I am unable to pin my hair into a neat updo without injuring myself and those around me. If a friend were to say, "Look, I'm broke as hell this Christmas, but if you give me a week's warning before an event, I will come over and give you an Audrey Hepburn style to die for," I would count that among the most useful presents of the year.

There are some guidelines for giving gifts of time and energy:

  1. Keep in mind that some people don't want to share too much of themselves, so even if most people you know would LOVE to have you help them clean out their garage, other people might find it a touch too personal.
  2. Don't give gifts of time and energy that you are already obligated to take part in. For instance, you really should be visiting your grandmother in the nursing home as it is, so don't say "Well, Grandma, I can visit you 3 more times this year, if you like." Consider something else, like organizing a game night, or some other kind of entertainment for your grandmother and her friends.
  3. Not everyone will need or want what you have to offer.
  4. Consider each recipient when making a gift of your skills. Raking leaves isn't useful to someone who doesn't have a yard.
  5. Follow through. No gift is as meaningless as an empty promise. If you know that you can't be trusted to actually complete the promised tasks, you're better off not offering them.

Here are a few ideas for time and skill-related gifts that you can give to friends and family, and maybe even acquaintances.

1. Childcare

Who can afford a babysitter anymore? If you have experience with taking care of kids and know someone who needs a night or a weekend away, you've got yourself a present, my friend.

2. Sewing/Mending

How many clothes do you currently have that you can't wear because they are missing a button or the hem fell out (probably more than a few, if you shop at Target)? Well, would you be grateful if someone you knew took all of those clothes from you and returned them to you a week later, all fixed and ready to wear? I know I would. You don't have to be a master seamstress to sew buttons on a dress shirt — just be sure to get the spare button and the right color of thread.

3. Photography/Graphics

Being a professional photographer is a plus, but not a necessity, when offering your skills as a photographer for your friends and family. Of course, it certainly doesn't hurt if you've got a good camera and a great sense of how to frame a photo, but friends might be just as grateful if you can manage to take a really nice headshot of them for Facebook/Twitter or MySpace (does anyone use that anymore?). I have at least ten friends on Facebook who would really use a photo that isn't obviously self-taken using the bathroom mirror. If you know how to apply a thin layer of make-up to your subject (or touch up blemishes in Photoshop), you may have an easy-to-give gift for anyone you know who spends time on social networking sites.

You can also offer to take pictures of people's pets — pet owners are all completely insane, and can never have enough formal-looking pictures of their Snookie-wookums.

If you know that someone is looking to sell their home (and you haven't managed to talk them out of it — in THIS market??!), you could take photos of the various rooms of their house for online real estate listings (assuming that their agent isn't already doing this).

4. Writing/Editing/Translating

Do you speak another language? Do you write particularly well in any language? People frequently need help in this arena. For instance, I can write a technical manual with ease, but I can't update my resume worth a darn. If you've worked in HR or hiring, then you know what kinds of things recruiters are looking for. Your friends might need help in this area.

5. Housework/Yard Work

This might seem like an old and tired option, but how many people couldn't use some extra help around the house these days? If cleaning someone's entire house seems too personal, you can always offer to deep clean the kitchen. Sometimes, it's the little things around the house that are the most frustrating, but yet hardest to get done. How about offering to help fix a broken shelf, oil all the creaky doors in your mom's house, or do spring yard cleaning? Maybe you're good at pruning trees or rosebushes. That's good, because pruning trees is a very expensive thing to have to pay someone else to do.

6. Car Detailing

There's a reason why it costs so much to detail a car — it's time consuming and insanely boring. It's also a good activity for someone who has OCD tendencies and who loves a clean vehicle. Me, I don't care if my car is overflowing with papers, but the second something sticky spills inside, I'm there with the cotton swabs and the Windex. This is a great gift because it requires plenty of elbow grease, but very little in the way of skill.

Winter is a tricky time to wash a car's exterior, simply because it is so darn cold in so many places, but offering to vacuum/steam-clean and polish the interior of someone's car is a gift that few car owners can refuse.

7. Painting

I love painting the interiors of homes; nothing feels so new and remade as a fresh coat of paint in the living room. If you've got some painting experience under your belt and already know the drill, offer to help anyone who is planning on doing some remodeling or redecorating.

8. Pet Care

Pet sitting is extremely expensive for the owner, but caring for a pet for a couple of weeks really isn't pricey for the caregiver. It's time consuming, and if you have a keen sense of smell, the poop-scoop duties aren't that much fun. But it's not a bad way to make someone happy. If you have a living situation that allows you to accommodate pets for a time, offer to take care of someone's little darlings while they take off for Hawaii. It'll save them a couple hundred bucks, and might even start you off on a new career path.

Heck, even offering to do a daily litter box scoop for a few days for a friend who lives close to you might be greatly appreciated.

9. Music

If you play an instrument, offer to provide entertainment for a friend's party or event. If you can teach music, offer some free music lessons, either to friends or friends' children. Kids love music, so offer to give them a jam session.

10. Computer Help

My parents are very, very good at downloading viruses and malware to their home computer. I happen to be pretty good at backing up data and reformatting hard drives. Where demand meets supply, a decent gift is born. Maybe somebody you know needs some adjustments made to make their computer run faster. If you can remove all the malware, defrag the system, and insert those memory sticks that your brother ordered months ago but doesn't know where they go, well, you've just saved someone at least a hundred bucks in computer repair fees.

11. Organizing Collections

Some people are simply better than others at organizing. There are people who keep all of their photos in acid-free albums, neatly labeled and categorized, and then there's my mother, who has never met a cardboard box that can't be filled with old photos from the 1970s. If I had a friend who could take my hand and spend a few hours showing me how to make a molehill out of the mountains of pictures in my mom's spare bedroom, I'd be so happy.

How about CDs? Yes, there are still people who are just buying their first MP3 player and who haven't ripped all of their CDs. Can you spare an evening or two adding a CD collection to someone's hard drive while you cook dinner and watch backed up episodes of Glee? Right there, that's a decent gift.

12. Beating Someone at Scrabble

My sister beats me at online Scrabble all the time. I would be forever indebted to anyone who could take her down a peg or two under my login name.

13. Lessons

Do you speak another language fluently? If any of your friends have ever expressed interest in your native tongue, why not help them to learn a few phrases? Maybe your best friend is trying to impress a Latina coworker — if you can teach him to sing a ballad in Spanish, he might owe you big time. Are you a particularly gifted cook? Not everyone is. If you know how to cook exotic dishes, or simply how to prepare really good food on a shoestring budget, there are probably three people in your immediate circle of friends who could benefit from your knowledge.

14. Budgeting/Taxes

Well, obviously you're no good at budgeting, or you wouldn't be broke this holiday season. OK, let's say you know how to make a budget. Do you have friends who are in desperate need of some advice in this arena?

Or maybe you're really adept at filing taxes. Of course, some people would much rather have a complete stranger look at their income filings than allow an acquaintance to be privy to their finances, but I know several people who use close friends to get their taxes done cheaply every year. Maybe your nephew is fresh out of college and filing for the first time. You can save him a couple hundred dollars by keeping him away from H&R Block if you help him e-file.

Note on Presentation

The style with which you offer your services in place of regular holiday gifts can be as important as the actual deed itself. You can explain your predicament and offer over the phone to each recipient, send an email (do these individually), a letter, or print out a list of options on some nice card stock and ask all your gift recipients to choose a service and RSVP for your time.

Make sure to present the offer with enthusiasm and without a hint of embarrassment, but also without too much in the way of bravado ("I'm SUCH an awesome photographer that I thought you'd be happy to have my take photos of stuff for you" might not fly). Remember, there are people who will be grateful for your time and energy, and your talent. Don't be offended by those who don't partake, but don't be ashamed of what you have to offer, either.

And remember, the spirit of giving wasn't always about the latest gadget.

What do you give for holiday gifts when you have next to nothing in your checking account? From time to tiny trinkets, I'd love to know what Wise Bread readers give when their piggy banks are empty.

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Guest's picture

last Christmas, I gave the gift of bread. It cost about a dollar a loaf to make. I wrapped it in colorful saran wrap that was the same price as the clear stuff and very few people dislike fresh bread. This year with things a bit better and my debt paid down to manageable proportions, I found Christmas decorations on sale at a local department store (Kohls) for just a couple of bucks each. Really cute ones. Next year...who knows, but the one thing being broke taught me is the value in the gift is not the amount you spend, but the thought you give.

Andrea Karim's picture

That would definitely be an appreciated gift in my household! I personally can't bake worth a darn, but admire anyone who can.

Myscha Theriault's picture

When I don't have a lot of cash to give family and friends expensive gifts, I make it a point to do some sort of gift, either dry mixes in a jar, or homemade sweetbreads, cookies,  chocolate covered pretzels, etc.

You can also follow me on Twitter and Trek Hound.

Guest's picture

I have to share this idea. Myscha mentioned the dry mixes in a jar. I was at a craft show this fall and saw the cutest idea for this that was a little different and more personal. Instead of doing the dry ing. in a jar they put them in a baggie, and then they encased it all with a flour sack dishtowel that you could either embroder a design or name, or use paints and do a theme for say Christmas, or a wedding shower the bride and grooms names. They did not do anything on the cloths so that is what I came up with for ideas. They then took rafia to tie a bow with it and had a small whisk tied into the bow, along with the directions. So, you are being creative, personal and using a reusable to wrap the gift in. I plan on doing this idea for a few wedding showers I have coming up. You could put small kitchen tools in the cloth, maybe some recipes, etc instead of the dry ingredients.

Julie Rains's picture

Great advice in giving something of worth to both the giver and recipient.  A few thoughts on holding costs down: limit the list in the first place (something your friends may come to appreciate at some point); host a holiday party instead of individual gifts; give the fruits of your work already packaged -- for example, one year, we received a nice photo of the family homestead (such a gift in a traditional size such as 8 x 10 or 5 x 7 would be nice); or a handcrafted or handpainted item.

Guest's picture

I saw the cutest idea at a craft show this fall. They put the dry ingred. in a baggie instead of a jar. they then wrapped it in a flour sack type dish towel. They tied it with rafia and had a small whisk tied into the bow. I was thinking that instead of just leaving it blank, you could embroider on the towel or use fabric paint. You could do Christmas trees for now, or if a wedding shower you could put the bride and grooms names on the towel. I have a couple showers coming up and thought you could put some small kitchen tools in there, some recipes, etc. You know are really giving something personal, and wrapping it in something that is reusable! So many ideas on this one that are coming to me! If you have kids they could do handprints for Grandparents, or just let them go to town with the paints for one of kind artsy towels!

Guest's picture

I love these and am always delighted by gifts. If someone would, for example, load some of my CDs onto my computer, I'd be in heaven!

Such a great list, Myscha. Merry Christmas!

Guest's picture
an edible Christmas

I can afford to buy Christmas presents, but try to avoid those that aren't consumable, since most of us have too much clutter already. I haven't had time to bake this year, and a creeping waistline is an extra incentive not to. However, my latest obsession is simple, quick, and so tasty!

Melt bulk dark chocolate in a double boiler (I usually use around 1&1/2 cups).
Add the minced, grated peel from one orange, plus about an 1/8 teaspoon each of cinnamon and dried, ground chipotle pepper.
Spread on a piece of parchment paper on a cookie sheet, about 1/4 inch thick.
Liberally sprinkle in toasted, chopped almonds and dried cranberries.
Press into chocolate to set, and freeze.
Break into pieces and give to appreciative friends and family!

It's worked like a charm for me :)

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Guest's picture

Love the comment about the bread and about the consumables.

Whenever I think about the whole "spend time, not money" thing, to me it means more of just what it says--spending time.

Not that I have to throw in a skill or a tlaent or a favor--just time.

For family, I think my parents would love it if we visited them one extra time per year (trips to my parents' house really cost nothing).

With my son, it is more of a commitment to myself to spend more time with my son. its a gift he doesn't really know he's getting, but I know he will love and cherish.

Guest's picture

Why in the world was this NOT posted BEFORE Christmas morning?

Guest's picture

Yeah, I gave bread this year. I make HUGE loaves in the pans they sell at Walmart for $9.95. The loaves uses 6 cups of flower and I get about two and a half loaves per $2.24 bag of bread flour. No kneading is involved.

Basic bread:

6 C flour
3 t salt
1/2 t yeast
3 T sugar
1 1/2 C water

You are spending about a dollar per HUGE loaf, and people think you are a magician!

You CAN make great bread. Check out Breadtopia.com for an easy video.


Guest's picture

Although my family can afford to buy Christmas presents we felt that this year we should all make an effort to be more frugal and try and move away from the commercialism of Christmas.
The 5 of us each made brownies and we placed 1 from each of our cooking efforts into a little box that we dressed and then gave them to family. It worked like a treat because everyone kept telling us which was their favourite brownie in the box (each had a white chocolate initial on to identify who made what)

Plus the fact that as a family, we enjoyed doing it together.

Guest's picture
Pam Munro

This year I knit all Fall & made EVERYONE scarves! (my hubby even got a hat...) It was relatively inexpensive - & justified my expenditures on my yarn stash!

Guest's picture

My husband, my brother, and I gave my mom the gift of raking all her leaves for Christmas. I put some leaves in a gift bag and buried a note in there saying we would take care of the yards. I think it was her favorite gift this year. It took the 3 of us about 5 hours to do, but it was totally worth it.

Andrea Karim's picture

That's a great idea, and a really cheap way to take care of someone else's dreaded burden. Thanks for sharing, Robin!

Guest's picture
christine burd

I used the scrap pieces from past sewing projects to make placemats ,table runners and wall hangings