A group of people sitting at a table with wine glasses

Gifts That Don’t Cost a Dime

Long on Christmas lists but short on cash this year? What you need are tips, tricks, and Gift Guides to help you save money, right?

“Save money?!” you sneer. “What if we don’t have any money?” 

That, my friend, is a reliable signal that it’s time to get creative. Often the most meaningful gifts and the most difficult ones to give are those that cost no money at all.

A group of people sitting at a table with wine glasses

A gift from the heart is a gift of time and talent. It’s going to require some (all?) of your free time over the next week or so, but it sure beats going into debt to buy a bunch of gifts for others—or missing out altogether because you refuse to show up empty-handed.

No one was more creative than my mother-in-law one Christmas years ago. I’d always admired her beautiful crystal, a wedding gift from her parents in 1942. Imagine how stunned I was when she gave it—all of it—to me. My favorite pieces are the water pitcher and cordials. Her gift, which cost nothing in terms of money, was and continues to be priceless to me.

Are you getting the picture? Great. Consider these idea starters to show someone you care that won’t require spending any cash at all. And please, add your own ideas in the comments!

Pass along an heirloom

If your relatives admire something of yours and you can part with it—give it to them! You already know they will like it, so pass it along to the next generation now while you have years ahead to enjoy them enjoying it. You’ll reduce clutter in your house at the same time.

(This is tricky, so do not violate this important rule of heirloom transfer: The recipient MUST have indicated a strong desire for said item in the past.)

Write up the history of the heirloom and encourage the recipient to display, use, and enjoy this new treasure.

Give what you do well

What do you do well? Cook, clean, babysit, garden, sew, drive, shop? Whatever it is, create a unique Gift Certificate and make what you do the gift that you give: A weekend of babysitting, a day of housecleaning, six hours of errand running—you get the idea. More on this below.

Hint: Follow up within just a few days to set the exact time your certificate will be redeemed. Your recipient may be too embarrassed to remind you to make good on the gift.

Teach what you do best

Give lessons to what you do best—knitting, gardening, driving, computer, smartphone, Instagram, Pinterest. Get it? Now find a unique way to wrap this up as a gift. Be specific. Don’t say, “I will teach you how to use your phone, Grandma.” Instead, say “My gift to you is 5 One-Hour Lessons for How to Use Your Smartphone Like a Rockstar!” Then set up the time and place, indicating how these lessons can be redeemed in the New Year. Above all, carry through!

Make a calendar

The idea here is to create a unique calendar for your giftee—a single month that is meaningful to him or her, or better, the entire 12 months of 2020. Now highlight special days—family members’ birthdays, anniversaries and other high points in the coming year. Make it awesome!

Record an audiobook 

A more personalized gift for audiophiles, grandchildren or your long-distance relationship, is an audiobook created by yours truly (not me, you!). Read some original poems or even chapters from their favorite books for this personal tribute.

Sugar scrub

If you can’t afford to splurge on sugar lip scrub kits for all your friends, consider making some spa products at home with a combo of sugar and coconut or other type oil, or salt and other things from your pantry. Instructions here substituting sugar for salt. Or just make salt scrub. 

RELATED: Best Creative and Inexpensive Homemade Gifts!

Offer to sit

Whether they’re dealing with a new puppy or have kiddos, offer your sitting services by gifting them a night out on the town or a weekend away without having to book a sitter. Come up with a creative presentation for Housesitting, Puppysitting and or Babysitting.

Personal cleaning services

Who wouldn’t love the gift of a clean house, sparkling clean windows or a total car wash and detail? Just make sure you know what you’re offering here and that you follow through within days—not weeks or months—setting up the mutually acceptable day and time your cleaning services will be redeemed. Don’t leave your giftee hanging.

Make a mixtape, I mean playlist

Okay, so it doesn’t have to be an actual mixtape (who even has a cassette player anymore?), but creating a custom playlist is a sweet gesture, especially when you choose songs that are meaningful, relevant and enjoyed by your giftee. Burn the playlist to a CD—yes, an actual CD—and decorate the case rather than just file-sharing the music. It’s nice to have something physical to unwrap. Perfect gift for seniors and grandparents who long for the music of years gone by. Every major media program and provider will allow you to create lists of your favorite songs or videos. You can organize by genre, artist, mood, or however you like. Follow this guide to learn how.

Food, obviously

Yes, buying groceries costs money, but you probably have the ingredients you need already. Plus, cooking costs nowhere near as much money as dinner at a stuffy, expensive restaurant. Cook a romantic dinner or give baked goodies to all your friends. It’s a gift everyone will appreciate.

Get crafty

Let your inner Martha Stewart out to create some thoughtful art or flex your crafting muscles with all those craft supplies you’ve been harboring. Your friend might love a pillow with a quippy quote from her favorite movie, hand-painted Mason jars to hold her kitchen utensils, or a pair of hand-made earrings. Browse Pinterest and Etsy for inspiration!

Give the gift of compassion

Do you want your gift to say how much you care? Then find a way to show you care about what matters most to that person. Is he or she passionate about medical research? Become a bone marrow donor. An animal lover? Volunteer at a local shelter. Environmentalist? Plant a tree in his/her name. Do something that this person will find meaningful and then do it in their honor. Write a description of your experience and gift it to your recipient.

Scrapbook anyone?

Create a good old-fashioned photo album of times together and memories your share.  If you hold onto things like ticket stubs and mementos from times together, include them scrapbook-style.

Make a movie 

Make your friends or relatives a movie they’ll watch for years to come. Record all your mutual friends talking about why they love that friend. Ask their parents for adorable, vintage footage from their childhood years to include. Finish it off with your own personal message.

Write it down 

Grab some nice stationery, sit down, and get to writing. It can be a sincere letter or a funny tribute to your relationship. Handwritten letters are quickly vanishing from our culture. Do your part to keep this kind of communication alive and well. Tell your giftee what he or she means to you, why, and mean it. This is something your recipient will treasure forever.

Find a free event

Create a Save the Date card for a no-cost cultural event you will attend together in the New Year. Every city has something. Do your research on local gatherings you and your friend will attend—a concert, museum, festival, street market, lecture, or gallery. Hint: Most museums, even zoos have a free day each month. Check websites for specifics.

“All the Money in the World” fun

Go shopping and “buy” for your person what you would if you had all the money in the world. Think private jet, beachfront mansion, jewelry, clothes, etc. Next, find a picture(s), photo, or other visual representation of the object(s) to create your gift. Print it, frame it, posterize it—whatever you can think of to make this wild and crazy fun! Write a message about your gift. Get creative. Properly wrap up your gift. Get ready because this is going to be so much fun!

First published: 12-18-17; Updated for 2020 11-27-20

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2 replies
  1. Sherry says:

    We got the best gift ever when a family member took our grandmother’s handwritten recipes, copied them, and created a family recipe book. Now that our grandmother is gone, I treasure her recipes even more, and seeing them in her handwriting is sentimental. This is a gift I truly treasure.

  2. Patricia Williams says:

    Many years ago when I knew my parents didn’t have extra money to buy gifts, Mama would ask me what I wanted for my birthday, Christmas or my anniversary. I would tell her I would be very happy with anything of hers and Daddy’s that she would like me to have. Also, as the parents of an adult daughter who still lives with us and can’t be trusted to be left alone, I would tell Mama that there is nothing she could buy for me that would be more valuable to me than her time. Jennie doesn’t require any special care and can actually be a helper so she is easy to supervise. She would stay with Mama and Daddy so we could go out for dinner and even for a weekend so we could get away. Mama and Daddy are gone and I have several family pieces that I cherish, but I realize now how priceless their time was to me.


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