The Best Holiday Gifts When You’re Strapped for Cash


Feeling kinda broke this holiday season? Try some of these ideas and you’ll be gifting like a boss!

When you’re low on funds, the thought of holiday gift-buying can be stress-inducing. About 60% of Americans find gift buying the most stressful financial activity of the year, even more so than taxes. It can be challenging if you have other things to pay for and have no room left in your budget for presents.

Don’t despair. Gift-giving can be an art, and it doesn’t have to cost much—or anything. Part of saving money involves remembering why you’re giving the gift and making it about the person. Try these strategies to leave your budget intact and give in ways to make your holiday memorable and fun.

When You Have Money but Not Much of It

Board game. They’re making a comeback, and most only cost $10-20. You’re not just paying for the board game. You’re also buying an experience—quality time for your friends or family and perhaps a few laughs. Procure some snacks and plan for a comfy evening of games. See which games the New York Times says are the best.

Photo by Pixabay on

Afternoon at the box office. Take your favorite person to a movie (if you can be COVID-safe). Save a few bucks and hit the matinee. If you don’t want to venture out and have a streaming account, make it an all-day movie marathon with your loved ones. Don’t overlook streaming for free—my favorite is Peacock. Maybe others can chip in for the snacks.

Road trip! Is there a town near you with the best light display in the area? Now is a good excuse to pack up the car and go. Consider packing road trip packages instead of gifts to keep everyone occupied during the drive if you’re taking your family. If your budget can handle it, stop at a favorite restaurant or coffee shop before heading home.

Make Your Gift!

Brainstorm a list of your skills and talents. Do you knit, draw, or take stunning photos? If you’re musically inclined, consider recording a tune. If wordsmithing is your thing, write a poem, essay, or letter expressing how much that person means to you. If you have some great photos, how about creating a calendar? Here are some of my favorite homemade ideas:

Personalized coffee mug. If you have a dollar or two, go to a dollar store and buy a white or blank coffee mug. Also, grab a few permanent markers if you don’t already have some, and personalize the cup for your recipient.

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Jar mixes. They’re personal, fun to make, and they add convenience for the recipient. Show someone how much they mean to you by encouraging their taste buds with a cranberry-chocolate chip cookie mix, marinara sauce, or pickled red onions. Any jar will do—pasta sauce, jelly, etc.

Picture album or collage. Whether digital or physical, a customized photo album or collage is one of the most heartfelt gifts you can give. Your parents and grandparents will LUV it! Check out Pinterest and Instagram for excellent ideas on putting together a photo gift.

Gifts That Are (Virtually) Free

No gift is completely free. There’s the thought, effort, and time that should go into any gift, even if no money was exchanged. If your recipient is a decent person, they’ll recognize what you put into it, and that’s the point.

Love-note-a-day. I’m not talking about one of those cheesy coupon books that you’ll just be too lazy to redeem. If you have a sweetie with whom you exchange romantic texts, why not restore the lost art of handwritten notes? Start early and write sweet nothings for each day of the coming year. Use your imagination to package the messages so that your recipient can pull out one per day.

Photo by cottonbro on

Re-gift. Yep, it’s perfectly okay to re-gift an item, especially if it’s a gift card to a merchant you don’t usually patronize. But only re-gift something under certain conditions.

  • The gift is brand-new or never used—not ever.
  • You’ve removed the gift tag that already has someone’s name on it.
  • You don’t give it to the person who gave it to you. (Duh.)
  • The recipient will want or need it.
  • You can guarantee that the original gift-giver will NEVER find out. (This can be difficult if you both run in the same social circles.)

Instead of Giving Stuff, Give an Experience

Receiving an experience is a minimalist’s dream. You don’t have to go out and fight the mall crowds, and the recipient doesn’t have to figure out where they’re going to put the gift.

Go on a picnic. It can be a romantic date for two or a family outing. So many memorable gatherings happen around food, and a picnic is ideal for introducing a new tradition. It’s even better if you don’t have to splurge on extra groceries.


Offer free babysitting. This gift can be a blessing to many moms and dads, especially when a recent birth has hit their pocketbooks or if one parent needs to give up their income to stay home. This idea will work with people who know you extremely well and trust you with their kids’ lives. As a bonus, hand the parents $20 toward dinner or a movie.

Teach a skill. Do you have a friend who seems envious of your calligraphy or video graphics skills? If you have a talent or skill, it might be fun to teach it to someone else. Don’t underestimate what you can do; it has value if someone else wants to learn it. When you offer some free tutorials, perhaps plan for an end product, like a homemade present.

Final Thoughts

As I said before, you should put some thought and effort into gift-giving. There’s a bit of an art to it, but these questions might help:

  • How can I spoil them?
  • Can the gift help them achieve a goal (e.g., get out of debt)?
  • What gift might help with their daily or weekly routine?
  • What gives them joy?
  • Can the gift enable me to spend time with them?
  • Is there something they secretly want but are too afraid to ask for it?

Just remember that the only lousy gift is one you buy but can’t afford. Therefore, be realistic about what you already have and what you can spend. Most importantly, have fun with it!

Photo by Liza Summer on

If you like what you read here, consider chipping in for a cup of coffee. I’ll really appreciate it!

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Doug McNamee says:

    “Start early and write sweet nothings for each day of the coming year. Use your imagination to package the messages so that your recipient can pull out one per day.” I wish I would of thought about the love note idea to do for a person I loved so much but went away because I was harsh and angry in my language, something I now have to live with and will always regret. I couldn’t appreciate the beautiful person that was in front of me every day, who loved me for me, who accepted me completely, even with my flaws. I would have started each note “I love you because…” and maybe we would have got closer instead of drifting apart.

    Liked by 1 person

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