A Ton of Last-Minute Holiday Gift Ideas for $20 or Less

As many of you know, I write a weekly column for US News and World Report (you can find the archives here). With that column, I’m tied to a pretty tight word count of between 800 and 900 words – they don’t want articles longer than that.

Anyway, as I was writing my most recent column for them, I was trying to list a bunch of good last-minute gift ideas for under $20, and I found myself going over the word limit. Way over. I quadrupled the word count on my first draft, actually. (See, sometimes I get lost in a zone and lose track of time and how long my articles are getting…)

I decided right then and there that I wanted to share all of these ideas with readers, but I also had already submitted my topic to US News and World Report. With my editor, we pared the list down to a tidy 800 words and you can find the finished article here: 10 Last Minute Holiday Gift Ideas for $20 or Less.

Here on The Simple Dollar, I have no such word count limitations and I’m actually encouraged to write in-depth articles — so for you guys, I’m going to share my full list. Enjoy, and I hope it helps you find a great gift for a family member or friend this holiday season at a great price.

A humorous but thoughtful book

A thoughtful book is always a nice gift, but it’s often the humorous touch that gets people to actually open the cover and enjoy the book. Here are five great books that mix a healthy dash of humor and thoughtfulness into a book that people will enjoy reading:

Little Victories: A Sportswriter’s Notes on Winning at Life by Jason Gay is one of those perfect little books that you can read in short bursts from the bedside table and get some humorous little individual stories, but they all tie together into a single big picture by the end. This one’s great for a sports fan and for fathers.

Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon is a hilarious novel about the trials and tribulations of a married couple nearing middle age and dealing with it via social media, where people often say way more than they should about their lives. It’s hilarious, but it will leave you thinking about how much you say on social media, how much others say, and what that really means about your relationships.

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari is this comedian’s wonderful take on the difficulties with finding and sustaining romance in our modern world, but it goes beyond a comedic memoir and actually integrates research from NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg (among many others) to present a great thoughtful picture of modern romance with Ansari’s comedic touch.

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran is a mix of humorous memoir and manifesto mostly centered around Moran trying to figure out how to balance society’s seemingly endless pressure for women to appear externally beautiful with her own personal comfort and how she would prefer to dress. It manages to deftly mix short sections about modern feminism with funny stories about Moran trying to figure out what to wear.

The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac by Kris D’Agostino is a great novel centering around the difficulty that a 24-year-old man is having finding his path in life, spreading his wings, and fully leaving the nest. It manages to dig deeply into the challenges facing millennials entering adulthood while simultaneously telling a wonderfully funny and at times poignant story about a family dealing with turbulent times.

Amazing coffee

Almost every coffee lover out there will enjoy sampling a delicious new kind of coffee. As I’m not exactly an avid coffee drinker myself, I asked two people who drink coffee daily and have a bit of the “coffee snob” in them to recommend some great options. Here’s what they suggested.

Kicking Horse Three Sisters comes recommended as a smooth medium roast coffee with almost no bitterness afterwards.

Death Wish comes recommended as a very strong coffee that is packaged in a humorous way that might add an extra chuckle to the gift.

Koffee Kult Ethiopian Harrar is the preferred coffee of one of my friends, who describes it as tasting a bit sweet even without any sweetener.

A notebook and some good pens

Got any writers or hyper-organized folks on your list? Get them a notebook and a high-quality pen or two.

For notebooks, the pocket-sized notebooks in the Field Notes Shenandoah special edition three-pack are classically beautiful and very functional, while the notebooks in the DIY Indispensables Military Memo pocket notebook three-pack are sturdy and very straightforward in their design. If you prefer to give a larger notebook, the Rhodia Webnotebook is an amazing choice, as is the Baron Fig Confidant hardcover and the Vanguard softcover.

As for pens, the Uni-Ball Signo 207 Ultra Micro is a great all-around pen for a low price (it’s actually my preferred pen for everyday use), and the Pilot G2 is similarly good with a bit bolder line. If you’d like to give some color variety, this mix of Pilot Juice 0.38 mm pens comes in a wide variety of colors.

A couple of bars of fancy chocolate

A bar of unusual chocolate (or two… or three…) is an amazing gift for anyone with a sweet tooth. It’s often cracked open immediately and shared, as part of the experience for many chocolate lovers is sharing. Here are three great bars that are distinctive but also easy to get before the holidays.

Amano Ocumare is hands-down the best dark chocolate I have ever tasted and it is the standard by which I judge other dark chocolates. It’s incomparable in flavor, in my book.

Akesson’s Madagascar Single Plantation has won a ton of awards for its distinctive flavor which is imbued by the Criollo cacao beans used to make the chocolate. It smells amazing.

Fruition Maranon Dark Milk Chocolate was judged as the best milk chocolate in the world at the 2016 International Chocolate Awards. I haven’t tried it… but I want to.

A local food product or beverage

If you’re buying a gift for someone who lives far away, a local food product or beverage offer great local flavor. A bottle of wine from a local winery or a six-pack of beer from a local craft brewer are both good gifts. Chocolates or other snacks that are made locally are thoughtful gifts, too.

For example, in the area where I live, I would strongly consider giving a bottle of Snus Hill wine (Sven Red) or a six pack of Exile beer (Beatnik Sour or Sir Moch-A-Lot). All of those options are quite local for me and quite good.

An adult coloring book and set of colored pencils

Adult coloring books have caught on as a great de-stressing tool for busy adults, particularly parents. They can make for a great gift for the quirky but overworked person in your life. A Prismacolor Premier colored pencil set serves well for coloring tools as does this distinctively packaged set of Ohuhu colored pencils. As for coloring books, all of Johanna Basford’s coloring books are wonderful, particularly Secret Garden, Lost Ocean and Enchanted Forest, and Myth and Magic by Kinuko Craft is another good option.

Golf balls

Although I abandoned golf many years ago as a hobby that was too expensive for my tastes, many friends and family members still regularly golf and, for them, a box of good golf balls can make their playing experience a little better and shave off a bit of the cost, too. In the under-$20 range, there are several brands of very good balls.

Wilson Titanium balls are very solid, fly nice and straight, and come at a very nice price per ball. Another option is the Callaway Supersoft, which costs a bit more per ball than the Wilsons, but they have a great reputation for flying far and still come in at a reasonable price.

Another great add-on to this gift is a bag of quality tees, like these Pride Professional tees, as most golfers tend to break several tees per round. At least I did, anyway.

A curated crossword puzzle book (or other puzzle book)

If you have a puzzle lover on your list, consider giving Rainy Day Sunday Crosswords, which is a bound collection of The New York Times Sunday crosswords in a nice portable 6″ by 9″ format. If the recipient has a smartphone or tablet, a year’s subscription to the Times’ crosswords plus access to the archives is an amazing gift, though it does exceed the $20 limit by a bit.

If you know someone that loves puzzles but not necessarily crosswords, I highly recommend My Best Mathematical and Logic Puzzles by Martin Gardner, which is a collection of the best puzzles from Gardner’s long-running column in Scientific American. The Moscow Puzzles is another great collection in a similar vein.

A high-end version of an ordinary care product

It’s a simple little gift idea that works for practically everyone. Take an ordinary care product that they use every day and buy them an upgraded version of that product, a high quality item that they might not have heard of that will really suit their needs.

For men, for example, you might consider getting a bar of Dr. Squatch’s cedar citrus soap to create that gentle manly smell, or perhaps a bar of V76 for someone very meticulous about their appearance. A Merkur long-handled safety razor is another great gift for a guy, as the cost-per-use and shave quality one gets from a good safety razor blows away that of a cartridge razor.

For women, a bar of Kahina Giving Beauty lemongrass nettle soap has an amazing aroma, while a bar of Dead Sea mineral mud soap is a really distinctive gift that’s useful for deep cleaning.

A fun game

In case you haven’t been paying attention, there has been a revolution in board games and card games over the last 15 years, with the some incredibly smart designs. This is a category of gifts within which I can make suggestions all year long, but here are just five that are great fun under $20 and won’t take up a ton of space.

Red 7 is a quick card game where each card not only has a number and color, but also describes a rule. On your turn, you must be ahead of all other players with regard to the current rule at the end of your turn and you can play only one card from your hand. Will it be a new rule? Will it help you get ahead with the current rule? It plays very quickly and has a great “let’s play it again!” feeling to it.

Hanabi is a clever little card game where everyone holds their hands backwards so that everyone else can see them, but you can’t tell other players what they have in their hand. Instead, you can only give each other little clues about how many of a suit or how many of a value that they have. The goal is cooperative; you’re trying to build straights of each suit on the table. It’s amazingly thoughtful for how simple the rules are and will get the group talking afterwards.

Trick of the Rails is a trick taking card game where the tricks alternate between the winner claiming a share of stock in a train company or modifying the value of a train company (thus affecting the value of everyone’s shares). The cards themselves double as both rail cards (which increase the value of companies) and share cards (which you’re trying to collect in the most valuable companies). The choices everyone makes throughout the game ends up determining the values of the companies, so you have to be careful with every trick!

For Sale is a wonderful little auction game where you bid openly for properties during the first round and then sell those properties during the second round to the best buyer in the market. It plays quick, but still involves some great decisions.

Jungle Speed is basically a game of reflexes with cards, where players take turns revealing cards from their face down “deck” of cards until two cards match, then the first one of those two players with matching cards race to see who can grab the totem first. It’s such simple fun, yet it tends to click well with almost everyone.

A gift handmade by you

If you have some extra time this weekend, why not spend it actually making a distinctive gift for someone? Sarah and I did this one holiday season, where we made tons of gifts for everyone on our list, and most years we make at least some of the gifts that we give. I’ve written many articles on handmade gifts; here are five of the coolest ones that you can easily pull off in a single weekend.

These personalized cards and stationery are probably my favorite gift to make and, honestly, to receive. This gift gives you the freedom to make a very personal gift as well as an artistically pleasing gift at the same time.


artfully arranged bundle of homemade cookies makes for a wonderful small gift for someone on your list. It only takes an hour or two to make a tasty batch of homemade cookies, and the supplies needed for an artful presentation are simple, too.

You can make a beautiful crocheted hat and/or scarf in an afternoon while binge-watching a Netflix series, plus you have the freedom to choose exactly the color that would work best for the recipient.

Another idea is to make artfully arranged meals in a jar. A great easy-to-make soup kit in a beautiful jar with ingredients you selected yourself makes not only for a pretty gift, but for a tasty one, too.

You can also make a batch of wine jelly, which is surprisingly easy to make and offers a very distinct flavor that sets it apart from ordinary jellies.

Hopefully, somewhere on this long list of ideas, you can find something that strikes a chord and helps you discover the perfect low-cost gift for someone on your list.

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Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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