Updated on 10.27.16

‘What Do You Want for the Holidays?’ for Frugally-Minded Folks

Trent Hamm

My extended family has always been very passionate about giving gifts. We enjoy hunting for and finding interesting gifts for each other. We often make gifts for each other, too, which can require a lot of lead time.

However, sometimes, about this time of the year, we realize that we simply have no ideas as to what the other person might like as a gift.

Often, we simply ask. I’ll often get a few emails and Facebook messages and texts during October asking for ideas, not just for myself, but for other people. At other times, we start brainstorming.

I know I’m not alone in this. This year, I’ve already had spouses of my friends that I don’t normally exchange gifts with asking for ideas. I’ve also already been planning many gifts and have already started making a few things and have purchased a few items as well.

Often, the hardest part is the idea. What can you give to someone that they’ll really enjoy that you can find at an inexpensive price? What can you make for someone that they’ll really enjoy, particularly if that person is frugal?

Here are some of the ideas I always turn to, both as a gift giver and as a frugal person who is sometimes asked for gift ideas.

Experiences: An experience is a wonderful gift because it’s usually something new for the recipient (or else a repeat of something deeply enjoyed), it’s not something that requires storage space, and it’s almost always something that a frugal person wouldn’t buy for themselves.

What kind of things does the recipient enjoy doing? How exactly can you create a worry-free “deluxe” version of that experience for that person? That’s the idea behind an “experience” gift – to take something they enjoy and find a way to amp it up.

One great frugal way to do this is to remove some worry from their life so that they can simply enjoy something without concern. If that person is a parent, for example, you might “gift” them some hours or a day or even a weekend of child care so that they can go do something that they care about. You might even bundle that idea in with the child care offer, like giving someone concert tickets or passes to a convention and a note that you’ll watch their kids during that event.

For example, I personally like child care as a gift if it comes from a trusted friend or relative that enables me to go do something I really enjoy that I might otherwise skip due to family responsibilities. I enjoy nice meals at restaurants, too.

Consumables: Everyone consumes food or drink during their lives. Many frugal people choose to reduce the cost of their food and drink as much as possible, meaning that they often skip over things like eating meals out on the town or trying interesting (read: expensive) food or beverage items.

For example, you might know someone who occasionally “splurges” and buys themselves an entry-level craft beer like a bottle of Sam Adams at a restaurant. That person might deeply enjoy a top-flight craft beer as a gift. You might know someone who occasionally buys a bar of inexpensive chocolate at the grocery store. A few bars of amazing chocolate can make for a spectacular gift for that person. A person who uses highly inexpensive coffee for their morning beverage might really relish a bag or two of high-end ground coffee.

These are gifts that are meant to be consumed and enjoyed. They are things that the recipient often won’t bother – or be able – to splurge for. It’s easy to find ideas – just spend time with the person and watch what things that they consume that they also seem to enjoy.

For example, I always enjoy a bomber or a six pack of some type of unusual craft beer. I rarely buy any, but that’s because I usually make some at home and I don’t drink very much – maybe one or two bottles a week – but when I do, I enjoy them. I also tend to enjoy cheeses, especially well-aged blue cheeses.

Higher-end practical items: Frugal people tend to love practical items, items that they will use again and again in their daily lives. If there’s an item that they use a lot that’s looking worn, a well-made reliable replacement for that item – particularly one that you researched a bit in order to find one that’s actually well-regarded – is going to be a wonderful gift.

What does that person do every day? Do they cook at home? If so, kitchen tools are a good gift. You can also look at things that everyone does every day, like sleeping. A well-made set of bedsheets is going to be a great gift for a frugal person.

Another personal example: I almost always like well-made basic kitchen tools. A great paring knife, for example, is a welcome gift, as would be a bamboo cutting board. I also love flannel sheets – sure, it’s a boring gift, but few things make me happier than flannel sheets on my bed in the winter.

DIY items: Many frugal people tend to embark on do-it-yourself projects, where they handle minor home improvements and home repairs on their own without calling in an expert. This often means trips to the hardware store on a regular basis.

This is why a gift card to a home improvement store is a very good fall-back gift for frugal people. Sure, it’s not imaginative, but a frugal person is definitely going to use such a card. It will often be enough to convince them to take on some project that they might have been putting off – if they can now get that replacement doorbell for free, it might just be time to replace that doorbell, for example.

If you spend time with that person, you can also rummage through their toolbox and watch what tools they use and then upgrade those tools for them. For example, if they have cheap plastic-grip screwdrivers that look kind of beat up, you might replace them with some Klein cushion grip screwdrivers.

Self-improvement items: This can be kind of a tricky area if you don’t know the person well, but most frugal people do welcome self-improvement items. I’ve found that if a person I care about is talking a lot about an area of self-improvement, doing some homework and finding a great book or other key resource on the topic almost always makes for a great gift.

For example, if a frugal person is talking about getting more exercise, you might want to do some homework and get that person a Fitbit, which can really help with encouraging more walking, or a book on body weight exercises at home like this one. If a frugal person is talking about trying to organize their time better, get that person a copy of Getting Things Done.

Right now, I’m really into learning more about meditation and improving my personal ability to focus, so books on meditation would be a great gift for me. I’m also passionate about the big questions in life and understanding them better, so books on philosophy are always good ones for me. These are things that people can easily become aware of about me if they spend much time around me.

Hobby items: Hobbies can be a tricky thing because you’re often unsure as to what items they have related to that hobby. One great way to find out is to simply examine their collections and then do some quick research on your phone for an item they don’t have that they might love. Another even better strategy is to find out if they participate in an online community related to their hobby and simply lurk there a little bit, seeing if they mention any specific items that they’d like or if they have a wishlist.

For a personal example, I’m an active member on BoardGameGeek, which is related to my hobby of board gaming. If a friend or family member wants to get me a game, they’ve been known in the past to check out my account there, where I keep an updated “wish list,” primarily to facilitate game trading but also to help anyone who might be peeking for such a reason.

A final thought: think about the giver. If the giver has a passion for, say, making home brewed beer, suggest that the person give you a six pack of their home brew. If the giver has access to, say, books or hobby items at a discount because of their job, suggest items that they can get at a discount.

The same is true for you. What are you skilled at making? Taking advantage of that skill means that you can produce a gift of much higher quality than the financial cost. Similarly, what special discounts do you have available to you? Again, using those discounts can enable you to buy a much higher quality gift than the sticker price.

In the end, it’s all about paying attention. The best gifts for anyone – frugal or otherwise – often appear right in front of you if you just pay attention a little bit. A person frustrated with an item they use regularly? That’s a big clue. A person longing for a particular item but not buying it? That’s a big clue. A person who’s passionate about a particular hobby or a particular type of item? That’s another big clue. Just pay attention and put some thought in and you’ll never go wrong.

Good luck!

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