Updated on 04.04.11

Need a Frugal Gift for Someone? Relieve Some of Their Pressure

Trent Hamm

In July, my wife and I are attending a wedding for a couple that we’re very close to. As that date approaches, the couple is pretty heavily involved in planning things – and they’re really beginning to realize how many little things there are to take care of.

Meanwhile, there’s another couple that are close friends of ours who recently had a baby. Their wedding shower is set to happen a couple months after the birth of their child. I can tell by their Twitter feeds that both of them are running low on sleep.

In both of these cases, the people in question don’t need physical things. Instead, they’re in a situation where they’re under some significant pressure and the greatest gift you can give them is to relieve that pressure.

This is often true of many people in your life. Almost every adult has some sort of pressure bearing down on them – spiritual, emotional, physical, temporal, or something else – and relief from that pressure is the greatest gift you can give to them.

Over the last few years, my wife and I have slowly been migrating towards this direction for our gift-giving. Rather than simply passing an item to someone, particularly the people we care the most about, we ask ourselves, “What can we do to make their lives better?”

Often, such a gift doesn’t have much of a financial cost. The cost is usually in the form of time and/or energy.

More importantly, such gifts usually end up meaning a lot more to the recipient than just another tchotchke.

The best way to demonstrate what we’re talking about is to use the examples above.

For the soon-to-be-married couple, we asked them how their wedding planning was going. They were worried about several issues, but one that stood out to us was the idea of having a small “gift bag” for each attendee. They wanted to give each attendee a memento of their day, something unique that would really stand out. We offered to handle this for them by making individually wrapped homemade soaps for each gift that were in line with the theme of the wedding. All they’d have to do is give us a bit of suggestion for what they’d want in the soap – scents, oil types, and so on – and we would make the soap, wrap it up, and distribute it for them. It’s a problem directly off their shoulders.

As for the couple with the new baby, the biggest thing they need is time for rest and for intimacy with each other. We can solve that by simply giving them a few gift certificates for evenings of babysitting.

So often, gift-giving occasions are met with consternation and cost. They often mean an outpouring of money onto some object that you’re not even sure that the recipient will value – or else you’re just grabbing an item off of a wishlist, which is just a step or two away from just thoughtlessly handing them cash.

Instead, simply step back and ask yourself what the recipient actually needs in life. What, in their life, is causing pressure or is creating a vacuum? What do they have too much of – or too little of?

If you have an older relative or friend, the thing they’d most value from you is likely companionship. Why not promise to spend a few Saturday afternoons with your grandma or grandpa or mom or dad playing cards with them or watching a movie with them?

Parents? They almost always value trusted babysitting. Teenagers will usually value time you spend taking them to do something fun. Younger children love trips to the park (and their parents often value it, too). Many single people greatly value expertise in fixing things, so if you’ve got some skills to share, that’s a great opportunity. Weddings? Take care of a detail for them.

The list goes on and on.

Remember, if you want to give something that the recipient will actually value without spending money on something you’re not sure they’d value, just look at their situation and ask yourself what they most need in their life. Do they need companionship? Rest? Experiences? Something taken off of a long to-do list?

Whatever it is, if you can provide that, you’ve given them a gift that matters without spending unnecessary cash. That’s something everyone can appreciate.

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  1. Johanna says:

    “Remember, if you want to give something that the recipient will actually value without spending money on something you’re not sure they’d value, just look at their situation and ask yourself what they most need in their life.”

    True enough. Sometimes the answer will be time, energy, or expertise. And sometimes the answer will be a material gift, or maybe even just money. Both material gifts and intangible gifts can be either thoughtless and generic or thoughtful and tailored to the recipient’s needs. Neither type of gift is inherently superior to the other.

    And if you’re clearly in a better financial place than the recipient, giving *just* an intangible gift “to avoid spending unnecessary cash” is cheap. Why not give both?

  2. Telephus44 says:

    Totally agree with Johanna here. Everytime I’ve given “babysitting coupons” or whatever, no one has ever redeemed them – because to me, that’s not a real gift. We should be helping out just because we’re good friends and neighbors – Trent may call it a social capital building opportunity – but not to relive ourselves of a gift giving obligation.

    If I knew someone who was having a baby, I would absolutely offer to babysit and let them have some couple time and some sleep, but I would also get the baby a gift. The wedding example Trent gave is better because in addition to their time, they are also offering something physical with monetary value.

  3. janeowens says:

    Are the gift certificates for babysitting really going to be helpful- can the new parents call you (and your own family of five) to babysit and not worry that they are inconveniencing your family? Those are the kinds of things that have a high likelihood of not getting used.

    As for the couple getting married, I think that is a thoughtful gift, as long as you are absolutely certain you haven’t made the couple uncomfortable by offering the soaps. I know I would feel uncomfortable turning someone down, even if that wasn’t my first choice. Wedding planning is very personal. There is also a reason for gift registries.

  4. Des says:

    I don’t know if this is a universal phenomenon or not, but all the new mothers I know would decline babysitting the first few months, sleep be damned. I am not a mother myself, but there seems to be some kind of pain associated with being away from your new infant in those first few moths. I think a better gift for new parents would be Pizza Hut (or other food delivery) gift cards. That is one less meal to worry about.

  5. sjw says:

    To chime in with some of the comments above, I’ve heard from some new mothers that they aren’t looking for babysitting. What they could really use is a housecleaning service. Or someone to fill their fridge and freezer with some good meals.

    The baby is often the _enjoyable_ part of the experience.

    If they have other children, offering to take those kids out of the house for a day or evening might be meaningful though. (Not take the kids for a day at the family home – the parents would like to decompress there.)

  6. Johanna says:

    Also, some of these “gifts” would have to be handled fairly delicately. If your “gift” to Grandma is a month of Saturday afternoons playing cards, that implies that playing cards with Grandma isn’t something you’d want to do if you weren’t obligated to by a gift-giving occasion. Which may very well be true, but if you let Grandma know that, it could spoil the experience for her.

    And what do you do when the month comes to an end? “Sorry, Grandma, I can’t come over next week – my gift was only four Saturday afternoons, not five. See you next year!”

  7. Lauren says:

    I must be a weirdo, but I totally would redeem “babysitting coupons”. My husband and I had our first child 8 weeks ago, and my parents or sister have watched her a few times. My mom actually watched her for 8 hours one day, while my husband, dad, and I went to an NHL game! I really miss being able to easily go out to dinner at a nice restaurant, so a few hours of babysitting would be appreciated from responsible people.

    Weirdly enough, everyone at my mom’s office has been asking her what she has bought the baby and then act appalled that she hasn’t spent hundreds of dollars on the baby. I’m much more grateful for the babysitting and Sunday dinners she makes, and she even lets me keeps all the leftovers from Sunday dinner! I’d much rather have her help than more baby clothes.

  8. Amanda says:

    My friend was so disappointed people didn’t buy the things she NEEDED off her registry. ie: cloth diapers

  9. Teresa says:

    I think it totally depends on the reciepient of the gift. You really need to know the person(s) before giving a gift of time or even a homemade gift. What one person might treasure, another would scoff at and think “what a cheapskate”.

    Personally when my son was born, I didn’t want someone else watching him, but I would have been grateful for someone to bring in a meal or even a covered dish.

  10. Lisa says:

    We have societal norms when it comes to gift-giving, so I think that in some families it would be helpful to have a discussion about expectations and come to a consensus about gifts before you start handing out homemade gift certificates. If your family has a tendency to be extravagent gift givers, promising your nephew a trip to the park while your sister gives your kid a $50 video game might breed resentment. I think that it would help to discuss plans well in advance with family members to avoid any hurt feelings.

  11. Maggie says:

    My most valued gift of this kind? Serving as the adult licensed driver in the car for friends kids when they are learning to drive. I can be lots more patient with their mistakes and they are lots more patient with my occasional guidance — and it frees mom and dad to be with the younger kids.

    Best time I ever did this? When the kid in question had a daily commute to a school 20 miles from home. One parent or other dropped him off and I picked him up, turning over the wheel so he could learn to drive in rush hour traffic.

  12. valleycat1 says:

    When our child was born, our friends brought in a meal for the first night home (ready to eat) plus a few more to go in the freezer. Some cities have services that allow the recipient to select which restaurant to use a gift certificate for (Eat Out In, in Austin Tx, for example).

    Another nice gift for new parents might be a certificate for maid service, particularly if they have other young children in the household. Or if you’re really close, offer to dust/vacuum/ do laundry a couple of times.

    I have a friend who bakes professional-level decorated cakes & she often offers the cake as her gift to friends getting married (they have the option of declining if they prefer).

  13. Maggie says:

    And about babies — I agree that, in general, the new baby can be the fun part. But in the case of a colicky baby, or one who never lets the parents sleep? A night of baby care could be priceless.

  14. Jen says:

    As a mom who nursed, a night away wasn’t practical because I was nursing or pumping every 3 hours. But I LOVED LOVED LOVED when friends would come over and without too much conversation, would let me go upstairs, take a long shower, put clean clothes on, and maybe even nap for an hour. I was just a flight away if my son was hungry, but I could totally relax knowing he was taken care of.

  15. kristin says:

    I don’t think that people who just had a baby and likely got a shower for that baby should also get a wedding shower gift. That’s just greedy.

  16. Sonja says:

    Having a thoughtful friend is a wonderful gift.

  17. Amy says:

    Amen, Sonja. Thoughtfulness is never cheap or tacky. Sounds to me like Trent & his wife are wonderful friends to have.

  18. Rebecca says:

    Its important to ask a recipient what they need, rather than what you think they need. My 1st had extreme colic, and screamed for about 8 hrs a day, I would literally pace up and down the sidewalk with him to give our apartment neighbors a break while waiting for my mom or mom in law to come. They gave me a break when I needed it after a very tough delivery. They took home laundry to do so we didn’t have to go to the laundromat. And often would order carry out or bring along something to heat up for my husb and I to eat.

    When our third was born, my mom asked those coming to a baptism party at our home to bring a meal we could stick in the freezer instead of clothing, etc as a gift. I didn’t even know, and loved the fact that I had a months worth of meals stored away for times when I needed a fast meal.

    Mostly, mean what you say when you offer assistance. I have lost friends over redeeming promises of “help”. I have 3 kids, 2 with autism. Many people say “oh, call me if you ever need anything” but when I call and truly need help of some kind, they are shocked that I called in their offer.

    And I second the idea of a take out gift card. If you can’t bring over a meal, that is the next best option. We received several with the birth of our first and it was a huge treat for us.

  19. Olivier Gratton-Gagné says:

    As several friends startedto have babies, we gave them homemade canned meal such as chili, soups, and so on.

    It requires skills and training (don’t improvise, there are dangers), but you can easily offer 24 ready-made, fresh, nutrious homemade meals to the new parents. They told us that it was by far the most useful gift they’ve received.

  20. momof4 says:

    Our 5th child is just a few weeks old and the best gifts we’ve received have been meals and offers to take our older children to activities, or to have them over for an afternoon. I think babysitting is a great gift if it’s from someone who is close enough to the parents.

  21. Julie says:

    Sonja and Amy…I agree with you. Trent’s wife probably spent hours making and wrapping that soap. To suggest they did it because they were cheap is very insulting.

    Maggie…I think your idea is wonderful. As the mother of a 16 and 18 year old driver, I know how hard it is to get enough behind the wheel time. My dad would come over and drive with my boys. My boys were thankful because he was so patient…and we were thankful because we are both working parents and this was a gift of time for us.

    I also would have accepted an offer of free babysitting from a close friend.

  22. Dr. Confused says:

    I agree with many of the above commenters. If the new baby is breastfed, babysitting in the early days is just not going to work. And either way the kid is being fed, the parents need time to just sit and bond with the baby.

    A recent blog post got it right, here’s what new parents really need:

  23. Lex says:

    For my birthday I would LOVE it if people gave me coupons for a specific week in the summer of the next year of petsitting and plant watering so I could plan a vacation.

  24. Emily says:

    My husband and I got married last year. For our wedding one of our friends made our cake. Another brewed the beer. A couple took care of all of the day-of planning duties including emceeing the event. Another dear friend officiated the wedding. We will NEVER forget those gifts of time and energy.

  25. Baley says:

    Having just gone through a few baby showers in preparation for my first baby, the only thing I’d add is that registries are really valuable! I wish more people had actually purchased things off my registry than just some outfit they think is super cute (most of them were cute, but not all, and now I have tons of clothes, but not necessarily in the right sizes). I don’t think it’s thoughtless to simply buy something off of a registry; that’s what they’re there for! They are valuable tools to help new parents (or newlyweds) get what they really want and need other than what someone else thinks they need. And once the baby comes, I only have a few weeks off of work and probably won’t appreciate babysitting as much as I would prepared meals and/or pizza gift cards or an offer to clean my bathrooms. On the handmade side of things, the handmade blankets I received are some of my favorite gifts, but those take money and time, as well. I think it’s the thought that counts, but if it comes across as a “cheap” gift, then obviously there wasn’t a lot of thought put into it. In other words, some of these more frugal ideas are great if they really match what the recipient needs, and in that case, the recipient will be super grateful, not thinking worse of you for being “cheap.”

  26. I am totally on board with housekeeping help for new moms! That would be WONDERFUL!

  27. Amy says:

    I’m rather amazed at the number of people that are criticizing gift givers as being cheap. By nature a gift is something they didn’t have to give you at all. The fact that they took time to acknowledge your special event in any way should be appreciated.

  28. Melissa says:

    I remember the pains of being away from my child when she was smaller. I definitely would have loved having someone cook or clean for my family though. As she’s gotten older, I relish a week that she goes to visit one of her grandmothers. I always miss her after a few days, but those are weeks that I can sleep in, get projects done, and eat at nice restaraunts. My cousin is having a baby in July, and I found myself thinking of the things I wanted the most after the birth of our daughter. For her baby shower, I’m offering house cleaning/laundry service. When the baby is older, I will offer to let him come and stay a week in the summer.

  29. Tanya says:

    So many of my friends are already at the point of not wanting more “stuff” – and I don’t have room for more “stuff.” Thoughtful, practical gifts – and I love them even more if they’re handmade – show that people know you and they understand what you want and need.

  30. jackson says:

    Sometimes the best gift for busy people is the gift of time. For new parents, try volunteering to babysit, pick up some extra diapers etc. Often times, just being there for someone is the best gift of all.

  31. Kyra says:

    Yes. We are blessed to have great, GREAT friends and family, and just got through a hellish week of hospital care for our three-year-old plus stomach virus for me, my husband, and the baby. We had friends clean everything, bring us food (for those who could eat), run laundry, and watch the older boy once he was well enough to want to play.

    It was priceless.

    I second or third home cleaning and meals for new parents. Come over, clean the bathroom, bring something to eat (that can be eaten with one hand!), hold the baby while she has a shower, and then leave. If there are older kids, take them to the park for a couple of hours. They will be deeply grateful.

  32. Johanna says:

    @Amy: “By nature a gift is something they didn’t have to give you at all.”

    If this were true, then you’d be right. But in our culture, there are a number of circumstances in which gift giving is both customary and expected. Trent seems to acknowledge this, with his mention of “gift-giving occasions,” so it sounds like he’s talking about how to get out of gift-giving occasions without spending “unnecessary cash.” The idea that gifts of time are always more meaningful and useful to the recipient than material gifts comes across as a rationalization, because it’s clearly not true.

    If you’re taking this approach to gift giving because you’re struggling financially and you really can’t afford it, that’s one thing. But if your money is good enough to spend on (say) a new Prius for yourself, or to save up for a house in the country for yourself, but not to spend on thoughtful gifts on appropriate occasions for the people you care about, then yes, that’s cheap. That’s the definition of cheap, I’d say.

    What rather amazes me is the number of people who suggest that a recipient is somehow obligated to appreciate any old gift, even an unwanted one. Of course, we’re all taught as children to say “thank you” and *act* appreciative, but that’s not the same thing as actually *being* appreciative. Your view of things seems especially weird – nobody’s ever obligated to give a gift, but recipients are always obligated to appreciate what they’re given. Huh?

  33. partgypsy says:

    As a new mom and now as an old mom, certificates for babysitting and/or takeout food vouchers would have been awesome! I’d feel permission to redeem a certificate for a night of babysitting while I might feel reticient to ask somone to watch my kids, even if they informally mentioned they would. So for me those would have been a great gift.
    Gifts of someone’s time or talent, is often a more thoughtful gift than picking up something on the spur of the moment that the gift giver thought would be fun to buy but is completely unnecessary and just more “stuff” for them to deal with.
    That is the biggest feedback I’ve gotten from new moms. They have a registry filled with the items they actually need (thermometers, bulb aspirators, diapers, diaper changer covers) but many people just pick up a cute outfit you had to have, so the mom has too many outfits of the same size and then has to go out to get the actually needed items. To me that’s selfish.

  34. Fiona says:


    Would you consider yourself a pedantic person? Just curious.

  35. Justin says:

    I love the idea of giving time and energy instead of gifts. My wife and I receive gifts every year that we never use, then we feel bad because someone spent their hard-earned money on that!

    For some people who like to give physical things, it’s hard to understand though. If we told some of our family members that we just wanted to spend time with them instead of a physical gift, or asked for something like babysitting coupons, they just wouldn’t get it.

  36. Kenia says:

    @ Johanna

    “nobody’s ever obligated to give a gift, but recipients are always obligated to appreciate what they’re given”

    Actually, yes. This is technically correct, and Miss Manners, I’m 100% sure, would heartily agree with Amy. Gifts are *never* obligatory, no matter what the occasion. And when someone does go out of their way to gift you something, you are you smile and say “thank you.” That’s not something that ends when you are no longer a child, regardless of your true feelings about the gift. It is simply rude not to at least act appreciative, even if you’re not.

  37. Kenia says:

    Just to further illustrate:


    Notice Miss Manner’s answer to both questions, but especially to the first question where she states, (in answer to the question asking why is it improper to write “no gifts please” in an invitation) “it is impolite because it shows you have been thinking about getting presents.”

    You are never to expect gifts, period. The company of your guests is all you should be thinking about getting.

  38. Des says:


    Johanna acknowledged that people are taught to *act* appreciative. That is just common courtesy. The question is are they beholden to the giver to cherish and *actually* appreciate the gift. The Miss Manners answer to that would be No. Anyone may give any gift they want, but the flip side is that the receiver may then choose to do whatever they want with that gift, be that love it forever or throw it in the garbage, without any guff from the giver. Your only obligation upon receipt of a gift is a proper and polite “Thank you.”

    (Technically, that is. I think we would all agree that in practice there is usually a social obligation to keep and use certain gifts from certain givers. Does that say something about so-called etiquette masters that their advice doesn’t work in real-life situations?)

  39. joyce says:

    Am I the only one who doesn’t know what a tchockte is? I can guess…..a frivolous gift, something not utilized? I’ll look it up.

  40. Johanna says:

    @Des: “I think we would all agree that in practice there is usually a social obligation to keep and use certain gifts from certain givers.”

    Certainly. You keep the ugly, ill-fitting sweater that Aunt Sally took the time to knit you, so you can put it on when she comes to visit, because you know it means a lot to her. But even an obligation to do all that is not an obligation to actually *like* the sweater.

  41. Kenia says:

    @Des – You’re right! I misread what Johanna meant about acting vs. feeling appreciation. Common courtesy should always prevail, but your feelings are what they are, and if you don’t like a particular gift, you can’t realy control that – you simply have to act appreciative.

    @Johanna – I agree, you don’t actually *have* to like the sweater! ;)

  42. Johanna says:

    …and furthermore, I also don’t think you’re obligated to never tell anyone ever that you think the sweater is hideous and you really wish that Aunt Sally would give you something more useful for your birthday.

  43. Amy Jo says:

    Just catching up on your posts and I have to agree with this one. As a mom-to-be I would very much appreciate someone coming over to help finish up some house projects before the baby arrives. I would much rather have that than a random baby outfit.

    I do want to add that if you want to give a material item as a baby gift, please do look at the registry. Moms spend a lot of time and effort researching products and figuring out what they need to put that registry together. And if you don’t have a lot of money to spend consider banding together with other people to all chip in on a large item. I would rather 10 people contribute to buying the carseat that we MUST have than get 10 newborn onesies that my baby will only wear for a couple months. Just my two cents.

  44. Brittany says:

    When I was in high school, a teacher/scholar bowl couch I was really close to had a baby–the team and I threw her a “diaper shower.” We each bought a package of diapers (varying sizes) and gave her this huge pile of diaper packages. This was years ago, but I still keep in contact with this teacher, and last time I spoke with her, she mentioned it. She said that it was incredibly thoughtful and appreciated, so much so that she was planning one for a work friend. Another idea that is inexpensive, practical, but also touching.

    I’m a major fan of practical+silly gifts. My preferred wedding gift combination is something small off the registry, and then something personal and mildly frivolous that I think the person will appreciate–a common combination is kitchen stuff + a goofy cookbook (favorite: The Star Trek Cookbook!).

  45. asrai says:

    And what do you do when the month comes to an end? “Sorry, Grandma, I can’t come over next week – my gift was only four Saturday afternoons, not five. See you next year!”

    Uh, I think the point was you don’t see Grandma once a year to give her an obligatory gift, you spend time THROUGHOUT the year with her. You make time because the last thing she needs is another trinket and a once a year visit.

    With our familes we give a picture of our children each year (the first in a frame meant to be changed every year).

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