Back by the overwhelming demand of anonymous Internet searchers (who are already far ahead of their holiday gift planning than I am!), here’s our list of no fewer than 53 inexpensive holiday gift ideas!
Got an idea that’s not on this list? Please share it in a comment.
For even more gift ideas, check out our 2013 holiday gift guide, with ideas ranging from the under-$50 to the $100 range. Or for more affordable gift ideas, check out alternatives to store bought Christmas presents.
A note: “It’s the thought that counts” is a cliché—a facile way to excuse bad or lazy gift-giving. But, as you’ll see from these picks, it’s really not money, but thoughtfulness, that distinguishes a so-so gift from a great one.
For The Home
A potted plant
Once Christmas is over, the winter months can feel like a dreary, leafless wasteland. A little bit of indoor plant life can inject some much needed green (of the non-$$ variety) into the gloom of January and February. Also great for a friend who’s considering getting a pet or starting a family, and who needs a little practice in keeping something alive.
A nice poster or print in a good frame.
If your friends are anything like 95% of the people in their 20s, their walls are totally bare, or covered up with unframed posters left over from college. Picking out decor for other people is always dicey, but the Internet is full of a lot of talented artists making really cool stuff. Are they really into music? Maybe find a nice concert poster from their favorite band. Are they really into Dr. Who? The Internet is overflowing with fan art, and a unique, high-quality print usually costs no more than $20. Look on Tumblr or Etsy to find out what’s available.
It may take a little searching, of both the Internet and your memory of your friend’s passions, to find just the right print, but it’ll be worth it.
Decorative recipe cards and a cute little box, with a few of your favorite recipes already inside.
Recipes from a book or the Internet are great, but there’s something especially wonderful about recipes you get from other people. And no need to worry about spilling canola oil all over your iPad.
A kitchen tool or two
It takes a long time to stock your first kitchen, especially with stuff that’s going to last. For that friend who needs basics, think a can opener, potato peeler, or corkscrew. If you want to get fancier, you could go for a garlic press, a potato masher, or a pastry cutter. Maybe throw in a pretty tea towel for some color.
In those weeks leading up to Christmas, everyone’s house smells of delicious pine. In the weeks after, when that pine tree’s desiccated corpse has been tossed out into the street for trash pickup, a nice scented candle can fill (with a lovely aroma) the void it left behind.
Be mindful, however, that some people were born with very sensitive olfactory senses, and may find strongly scented candles aggravating rather than soothing.
Christmas tree ornament
We all had those favorite ornaments as a kid, the ones we fought with our siblings to be able to put on the tree ourselves, the ones whose origins we didn’t know but whose presence was a cherished part of our childhood. Now that we’re all grown up, it’s time to start building Christmas ornament collections of our own. With each ornament you give, you’re helping your friend get one step closer to not having to throw a whole bunch of those gold balls (that always fall off) on their tree.
A small flashlight
It may sound basic and utilitarian, but that is totally why it’s a great gift. They’ll be so grateful the next time they run the microwave at the same time the coffee’s brewing, and have to trudge down to the scary basement to get to the fuse box.
Small gardening tools
Great for new homeowners suddenly faced with caring and tending to their own garden. Think some basic pruning shears, or the delightfully British-sounding trowel.
A great cookbook
A great way to save money is to make meals at home, but the sheer number of cookbooks available can be overwhelming. For novice chefs, I recommend the Budget Bytes cookbook, which is designed for people who are new to cooking and who want to save money. The focus is on simplicity, with a lot of basic recipes that can be adapted or modified however you wish. Plus, with the food blog boom, you can give your recipient a book that already has a built-in community, where they can seek out further recipes as well as tips and tricks. For someone who really wants to dive in, consider either Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything or How To Cook Everything Vegetarian.
For that friend who’s still pretty into college—and tequila.
A photograph in a a nice picture frame
Do you have a mother? Does she love you? (Of course she does.) Do you know what she’d love almost as much? A nice picture of you in a good frame that she can hang up in the living room or put on her desk at work. Have you blessed her with grandchildren? If you have, then you have already given her the greatest gift of all, but she still definitely wouldn’t mind additional evidence of the existence of those adorable moppets. She can use it to taunt Barb, her workplace nemesis whose no-good son Brad has yet to even have a serious girlfriend. Giving someone a picture of yourself may seem narcissistic, but, trust me, your Mom won’t think so.
This also works with friends, but best to give them a photo of the two of you together, rather than one of just yourself. It’s all about the memories, man.
A photo calendar, coffee mug, or a good old-fashioned scrapbook
True story: At the end of seventh grade, one of my best friends moved to Iowa. I spent that entire year taking really bad (yet cherished) pictures of her and our other friends and put them all together in a scrapbook. In hindsight, it was maybe a little creepy, but my friend loved it.
And now, with services like Shutterfly, Snapfish, or even Target, you don’t even have to put those precious memories into a scrapbook. They can go on magnets, coffee mugs, mousepads, and to-go cups. Or just on a big poster. You could make a calendar for your family or friend group that has everyone’s birthday or anniversary listed on it. No need to find somewhere to get real prints of your digital photos, and no need to spend an afternoon covered in glue and discarded bits of construction paper. (Unless, of course, that’s your thing.) Shutterfly runs big discounts pretty regularly, so keep your eyes open and you might be able to cross a whole bevy of people off your list with one order.
Nice stationary , a quality pen, and a few stamps
Now that our e-mail accounts are mostly just digital landfills full of listserv emails and one-time offers you somehow still get three times, it’s time for good ol’ pen and paper to make a comeback. Writing letters is more intimate than e-mail or the dreaded Facebook message. It’ll last a lot longer, too.
A journal or notebook with a personal note
Keeping a journal can help increase focus, promote mindfulness, and boost memory. An empty notebook is also just full of promise, especially for a person of a creative or analytical bent. I’m a fan of Baron Fig’s Confidant notebook, but the Internet and the world are full of options of varying size, style, and price. Include a little note of encouragement to subtly shame them into keeping up a regular correspondence (with themselves, or the void).
Apparel & Accessories
Hat, mittens, or scarves
Unless you live in Florida or Southern California, it’s probably cold where you are. And cold-weather accessories are, at least for me, always the first things that go missing just when you need them: they fall out of a pocket, or somehow find their way under the seat of your car, or you toss them in the back of the closet and only rediscover them the following summer when you’re looking for some long-lost piece of sports equipment.
What I’m saying is people always need more hats, mittens, and scarves.
Socks are always portrayed as the ultimate lame Christmas gift, but grownups know that good socks—especially warm ones with fun critters on them—are key to a good life.
A nice tote bag
It’s not just for subscribing to the New Yorker or donating to NPR anymore. Out of Print Clothing has a lot of inexpensive ($18) literature-themed totes (as well as pouches and coasters!). The tote bag is often pretty standard band merchandise, so do a little searching and see what you can find.
Ever been trapped on a 6-hour flight with nothing but the headrest to comfort you? Then you know the pain you are sparing your friend by giving them one of these.
Creative key chain
This is another one of those nice-to-have items that almost no one buys for themselves. Most of us have our keys attached to a keychain from a now-defunct bank from 1998, or from our dentist, or from whatever commercial enterprise thrust one into our hands as we left their establishment at some point in a foggy, distant past. A nice, light keychain is an easy way to spruce up anyone’s daily routine.
An action figure or some other kind of figurine.
Work can be depressing enough without a dreary, barren desktop. Give your friend or loved one a reminder of their favorite comic book, TV show, or character from classic literature to bring a little fun to their workspace. (I hear there’s a new Star Wars movie people are pretty stoked about.)
A small die-cast car (again, great desk items for adults, too!)
Vroom, vroom! You can’t afford to give them that sweet 1967 Corvette in robin’s egg blue, but you can give them something to put on their desk, or, for the younger set, to “drive” around the living room.
Cheaper than the sterling silver stuff, and often more fun, costume jewelry is great for your dramatic friend with the colorful wardrobe who wears nothing but “statement necklaces,” or for the budding diva in your family itching for her (or his) first closeup.
Wallet (with your photo pre-loaded!)
This is another essential that often goes neglected, until the poor wallet is dusty, dirty, and warped from all those years of being stuffed in a pocket (or a pocketbook). There are lots of fun options, including card wallets, or more full-bodied options for people who still carry cash around.
Food & Drink
A loaf of homemade bread
Everyone loves carbs (even the people who don’t eat them), and almost everyone is impressed by baking, especially when it involves yeast. Bonus: you’ll learn how to make bread.
A nice vase or jar filled with candy
Food, honestly, is never a bad gift. People need to eat, and they’d prefer to eat something delicious. Similarly, home décor is often the last thing on somebody’s mind. So give them a jar or vase full of the delicious manna of your choice, and once they’ve scarfed that down, they’ll have a nice receptacle for flowers to go on the dining room table. (Or the hand-me-down kitchen table with the bum leg that could really use all the help it can get.)
A coffee or tea mug with a bag of coffee or a box of tea.
Mugs are another place where your knowledge of your friend or loved one will come in handy. Do they love owls, penguins, or turtles? (I hear owls are having a good year, merch-wise.) What about Bob’s Burgers? (Maybe they’d like this Tina mug I’ve been eyeing.) And if their grand passion somehow doesn’t already adorn a fetching mug, you could probably make one on CafePress. And then sell it to other lovers of that thing, and become rich, or at least slightly less broke.
A pour over coffee starter kit.
Pour over coffee is the latest in coffee connoisseurship, and it doesn’t require all that much to get started. A ceramic cone (like this one, from Hario) cost about $17. If you’re comfortable spending a little more, Crate and Barrel has a pour over kit available for $26. (A good burr grinder is pricy, so maybe be sure your coffee-loving friend already has one, or a loved one who plans to give it to them.)
A bottle of good bitters and a book of cocktails.
Once you’re past college and have stopped drinking trash can punch and Smirnoff Ice, you inevitably start to turn your taste-buds toward more sophisticated ways of getting plastered. Bitters is an extract that goes into classic cocktails like the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned, the Mai Tai, and the Mojito. Give it to your vaguely pretentious friend who’s really into Tom Waits, along with a book of drink recipes.
A handful of nips of quality whiskeys
Whiskey can be an acquired taste, and it usually takes a few tries to get it just right. Give your friend several small samples to get the acquiring done quickly and economically.
A nuts and trail mix gift bag
Your gift will be a savory island of salty goodness in the holiday sea of sugar and rich chocolate.
A gift bag or basket of gourmet chocolate truffles or bars
Your gift will be another delicious drop in the holiday sea of sugar and rich chocolate.
A six pack of a specialty beer
You can’t swing a dead cat around the countryside without hitting a craft brewery these days. Pretty much everywhere you turn, there’s a bunch of bearded guys in flannel shirts offering you a free sample of their latest creation, usually something with a clever name like Hops on Pop IPA. You could get something local, something seasonal, or something weird. Great for that friend who’s still drinking Natty Lite at age 32.
A good $10 bottle of wine (plenty abound)
Go to Whole Foods, or whatever vaguely chichi market you have in your town, and loiter in the wine section. Look a little confused, and it won’t be long before a concerned person wearing an apron or a nametag will wander up to you and ask you if they can help. And, oh, can they: tell them your budget, what your friend likes, and they’ll give you plenty of options. Be upfront if you don’t know anything – they can still make recommendations. Wine store employees are a lot like librarians: they wander about all day just dying for someone to ask them a question.
Bottle of nice olive oil
If you’ve ever watched Ina Garten’s show on the Food Network, you know Ina’s all about using some “good olive oil,” and I’m told by people who actually follow her advice that you really can tell the difference. So, for that foodie-ish friend, consider doing a little research (or going to a specialty store) and getting them a bottle of olive oil that’d make Ina proud. And you might include a recipe for this delicious dipping sauce, which is especially great with some of that “good olive oil.”
A collection of nice hot chocolate mixes, plus a mug and marshmallows
As apple cider is to fall, hot chocolate is to winter—regular, steaming mugs of that chocolate-y goodness can propel you through the short days and oh-so-long nights of January and February. Grab a few packets of your favorite brand (and don’t forget you can get different varieties, like mint or Mexican chocolate) and put them in a festive mug for your recipient’s pleasure. Unsure which kind to get? The good people over at Epicurious picked Land O’Lakes Cocoa Classic Hot Chocolate Supreme as their favorite of 14 hot cocoa mixes. Add in a little pouch of mini-marshmallows (cinched with a jaunty little ribbon), and you’re good to go.
Pancake mix and maple syrup
Pancakes are the ultimate weekend indulgence, light and fluffy and redolent of sleepy Saturdays when you were a kid. While the idea of pancakes is almost always appealing, the actual fact of making them usually isn’t. A mix can help expedite and simplify the whole process, allowing for less time measuring flour and more time stuffing your face.
Fun & Leisure
A few free months of Netflix (or Hulu Plus) and a bag of popcorn.
Netflix is great for that friend who never gets your House of Cards jokes, or who’s yet to experience the joy of Orange is the New Black. Consider Hulu Plus if the recipient is an art house aesthete, as Hulu Plus has a large selection of Criterion Collection films.
A mix CD, a $10 iTunes gift card, or a month (or two) of Spotify or Rdio.
They’re not just for hopeless crushes or your girlfriend from college. Most people, as they get older, get less and less invested in new music, or even in finding cool old music to listen to. Getting a curated CD (great for people with longish commutes) or playlist can allow them to feel current without having to trawl the depths of Pitchfork for something they like. (Choosing between Spotify and Rdio is one of personal preference, though if the recipient is a T-Swift fan, then you should go with Rdio, which has her full catalog. Update: Rdio just declared bankruptcy, so go with Spotify.)
For that extra special touch (and for something to actually wrap up in a box), include liner notes you wrote yourself.
The first issue of your favorite comic book or graphic novel series.
Comic books are a growing market, and there’s a lot more out there these days than just Marvel and DC. There are classics like The Watchmen (for someone who’s interested in a new take on superhero tropes), socio-political graphic memoirs like Persepolis or Maus, and literary works from Chris Ware or Daniel Clowes. A great recent series is The Wicked + The Divine, about 12 gods who are incarnated every 90 years as David Bowie-esque pop stars.
And, for a hardcore superhero fan, you might consider getting them a month’s subscription to Marvel Unlimited.
Cards are a great holiday game (for many years, my family always played a highly contentious game of spider on both Thanksgiving and Christmas), and injecting some novelty into an old tradition can keep things from getting stale. Go for a classic deck, or maybe for something themed, if that’s your thing. Introduce your family or friends to such classic games as whist (kinda out of fashion, but ripe for a comeback), bridge, or the many varieties of poker.
You can go old-school with childhood classics like Trouble, Hungry, Hungry Hippos, or Sorry. Or you can go with strategy games like Settlers of Catan, Risk, or Agricola. For word nerds, consider Scrabble or Bananagrams. Again, consider your friend’s interest. Are they really into pigs? Well, there’s a game for that.
A few of the recipients’ favorite magazines
True story: I asked for a subscription to The Economist for several years in a row, and never got it, and it always bummed me out. Now, The Economist is not a cheap gift (there’s a reason I asked someone else to buy it for me) but there are plenty of other magazines subscriptions to be had for far less than the combined newsstand price of a few issues. (For instance, you can get three months of print and digital access to the New Yorker for only $12, plus a free tote bag! Tote bag!)
Whether they’re crazy for crosswords or mad about Sudoku, puzzle enthusiasts can almost never get enough. Load them up with head scratchers to keep them busy until the spring thaw. If you’re willing to spend a little more, and know someone who loves doing puzzles on their iPad, then consider a year’s subscription to the NYT Crossword for $39.99.
A travel guidebook for an upcoming vacation
This is where it’s all about the thought. Do you have a friend who’s always dreamed of going to Paris? Or who wants nothing more than to sunbathe along the Amalfi coast? Backpack through Thailand? Give them some encouragement—and the tools to create their dream itinerary.
Winter skin care kit
The horrors of winter are manifold—frigid temps, bone-chilling wind, the radiator that slowly leaches any and all moisture from your skin. Give a gift that will protect its recipient from the worst of winter’s physiological terrors: some nice lip balm, a good hand lotion, some cuticle oil, and maybe a facial moisturizer or shaving lotion. Kiehl’s has a nice kit for $18.
A great shade of nail polish, cotton, and remover
Consider something holiday-themed, like a nice pine green or a glowing fire-engine red. Be sure to get a brand of nail polish that doesn’t contain TPHP, which has recently been linked to endocrine disruption. Nothing spoils the holiday season like disrupted endocrine. Your endocrine system: decidedly not ripe for disruption.
A three-month subscription to BirchBox
This is also pushing it in terms of cheap, but a BirchBox subscription could be the gift that keeps on giving….for three months! Instead of trying to pick out what you think your friend might like, give her three months of chances to find something great on her own. (They also make BirchBox for persons of a more masculine variety, but those gift subscriptions start at $60 for six months.)
With the TSA still refusing to let us take our full-size bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and body wash on the plane, and the airlines still charging $25+ to check a bag, it’s more essential than ever to have a good travel kit filled with 3.4oz toiletries.
Bubble bath, bath oils, or a nice soap
Winter can be hard on both the body and the soul. A nice, warm bubble bath can take a little of the misery out of the sun going down at 3:45pm.
For pet lovers: A box of pet treats and a pet toy
Pamper them by helping them pamper their furry friends. Make your own BarkBox! (Or, if you’re willing to pay a small premium for convenience, you could just get them a free month of BarkBox, which retails for $29.) Maybe do a little snooping, find out what Fido or Fifi’s preferred flavors and textures are.
Hydration is important, and water bottles are everywhere. From the classic and rugged Nalgene to something a bit more decorative, there’s a lot of (BPA-free) options out there.
A $50 savings bond (at a cost of $25).
Look after their financial health with a nice little investment in the future. (Okay, $25 is pushing the envelope of “cheap”, but what a great gift!)
What’s your favorite cheap or free gift idea? Please share!