Frugal Gift Ideas for This Holiday Season

It’s early December, and that means my mailbox is full of requests from readers for frugal gift ideas for the holidays, both in terms of inexpensive gifts that will be appreciated and gifts to give a frugal person.

I usually address this question in some form or another each holiday season, but I update the ideas each year because I discover new things and older ideas tend to fall out of date, though many are timeless. Here’s my list from last year and the year before that and the year before that and the popular article from several years ago that seemingly started this trend of people asking me for frugal gift ideas.

Each time, rather than going back and reviewing every item on previous lists, I start from scratch, making a list of several things that frugal people might want to give and several things that frugal people might want to receive. The goal is not to encourage a bunch of useless buying, but rather focus on good practical gifts and inexpensive gifts that will truly be appreciated. So, you might see some repeats from previous years, along with some new things.

Let’s dig in!

If You’re Giving to a Frugal Person, Think Practical

For this part of the list, I usually think of myself because, as a pretty frugal person, I tend to think of the types of things I want to receive as being very in line with other frugal people. I know that the things I tend to appreciate as gifts are things that are appreciated by friends of mine that are also incredibly frugal.

In short, frugal people tend to appreciate practical things, things that they’ll actually use regularly or consume in short order. Usually, frugal people would rather have something well-made and carefully chosen rather than a “gift set” or something bought on impulse – they’d rather you spend less and be thoughtful than spend more and just click “add to cart.”

Eight Gift Ideas for a Frugal Friend or Family Member

With that in mind, here are eight items that a frugal person might enjoy as a gift.

Something that respects their wishes: If a frugal person says that they don’t want a particular type of gift, respect that. You’d be giving them something they have no use for whatsoever. You might think that the person is just telling you something so that you won’t “splurge” on “what they really want,” but trust me, if a frugal person is telling you they don’t want something, they don’t want it, and you’re far better off just respecting their wishes.

Something you made yourself, especially if it matches the other items on this list: If you have a particular skill for making something, especially if it’s consumable or if it strongly matches another idea on this list, that handmade gift will almost always be appreciated. For example, my sister-in-law made some gorgeous handmade Christmas ornaments one year that probably cost her a dollar worth of supplies to make, but they were made with such care and were so beautiful that I was thrilled to get them and they’ve been used for decorating for many years.

A high-quality food item of a type they like: If the person you’re gifting has a penchant for a particular food item, finding a high quality or unusual version of that food item makes for a really great gift. It’s consumable, so it won’t really take up space in their home, and it’s something that’s chosen particularly for them. This does not mean a “gift box” or something like that. You’re far better off finding a single, high-quality item than a gift assortment. This is an example of where a little bit of homework can go a long way. Put in the time to Google something like “best hot sauce 2018” and order a bottle of that rather than snagging some random “gift box” at a store. It’ll be far more appreciated and probably be less expensive.

High-quality footwear, including socks: This sounds almost goofy, but trust me – a pair or two of true high quality socks will make almost any frugal person smile. Socks that are comfortable and long lasting and work in a variety of weather are almost always welcome. I usually point to the socks made by Darn Tough as an example. Shoes can be another good option, but you need to know the person pretty well in terms of their footwear and what they like – if you’re going to buy high-quality shoes, make sure it’s going to be something they’ll like and wear.

Good food storage containers, particularly if you notice they have beat-up plastic ones: Frugal people tend to make lots of meals at home and often in large quantities, so leftover containers are always valued, particularly when they’re both freezer and microwave safe and they’re rugged enough to last for a while. A good example of this are these Snapware containers – they’re made of a really sturdy Pyrex-like glass and work in the freezer, the fridge, and the microwave without a problem, and they won’t eventually crack like cheaper ones do.

An item related to a hobby that you know they have: If the hobby doesn’t include obvious consumable things, then look for a specialty retailer related to their hobby and give that person a gift certificate to that retailer. Just make sure they can either buy online with that certificate or have local access to the store. It’s usually a bad idea to buy “permanent” gift items for a hobby unless you know the hobby well, so a targeted gift card so that they feel fine expanding their hobby a bit in the way that they choose is perfect. For example, I’m a tabletop gaming enthusiast, so a gift card to a place like Game Surplus is a great idea.

Flannel bed sheets, particularly if they live in a colder climate: This is pretty much the definition of “practical gift,” but it’s one that most frugal people, particularly those who live in a climate with a colder winter, will really appreciate. I highly recommend these sheets, as they’re very cozy and come in a variety of basic colors that will work well with most room decors.

An “experience” gift: Think of something like concert tickets or amusement park passes or museum passes or a certificate for a massage. These are things that frugal people will enjoy but often won’t spend the money on.

If You’re a Frugal Person Giving to Others, Think Value and Meaning

As a frugal gift giver, there are two things I consider when giving to others: value and meaning.

When thinking of value, I try to seek out items that the person will actually use and get value from for the minimum price. This generally moves me in the direction of consumable gifts or gifts that take up minimal space that actually fit the recipient’s tastes while also having a relatively low price tag. This takes some time, but that time is usually well rewarded.

When thinking of meaning, I try to think of something that will actually mean more to the recipient than the “typical” gift. Often, that means something I invested time in or something with a personal touch. I find that listening is often the best source of gift ideas. If you pay attention to what a person is saying, you can usually figure out what they really want, and you can use that as the backbone of a meaningful gift.

Here are seven items I often consider for gift giving occasions:

A handmade item you made yourself (particularly if you’re good at it): In years past, Sarah and I have made things like handmade soaps, handmade stationery, a crocheted hat and scarf, and many other things to give away as gifts. I think our most popular gift that we’ve made to give away was vanilla extract, made when we found a great bargain on vanilla beans and had some small bottles to use.

The point? Make something. Make a craft (if you have any crafting abilities). There are infinite things that you can make, and many of them also involve learning a skill along the way.

Sarah and I really like making food items for people. Sarah is a master of desserts, as she can whip up amazing cookies and bars out of seemingly nothing at all. I love making savory items of all kinds. Unsurprisingly, these things often turn into great gifts.

An organized photo archive: A frugal friend of mine once gave several relatives cards for Christmas. Taped on the inside of each one was an SD card. On that SD card was a curated and organized collection of their digital photo archives, organized by date and then, in another folder, organized by person with shortcuts. It took quite a bit of time to organize all of those images, choose the ones worth saving, and organize them in folders by date and by who was in the picture. It included a lot of older pictures from the pre-digital era, too. The cost was minimal but the meaning was very high.

A family recipe book: Collect some of the recipes that have been used frequently at family events and family dinners over the years and put them in a notebook. Take some old photo prints that you have laying around and paste them to the pages and add some handwritten memories. This can take some time, but it’s an amazing gift for siblings or other family members with whom you have a lot of overlapping family history.

A “book club” box: This is an amazing idea that a friend of mine gave to her sister last year as a gift. They used to read books together when they were kids, so she simply checked out used book stores and yard sales, accumulated two copies each of 12 different used books that she thought they’d both like, and gave one set of 12 to her sister, along with a monthly schedule of eating lunch together at her home to talk about the books and catch up. The books were maybe $0.25 or $0.50 each and were easily re-donated afterwards, but the magic was in the thought, the curation, and the planning.

A notepad or notebook with an addition: One of my good friends once received the wonderful gift of a notepad with a handwritten sentence on the bottom of each page. Each one was a meaningful quote for that person or a reminder of a shared event or a really positive affirmation. The notepad came with strong encouragement to actually use it for notes and then read the affirmation on the bottom. The only cost was that of an inexpensive notepad, but it was really meaningful.

Their favorite hard-to-find treat: If you know that a person has a particular treat that they love that’s just hard to find any more, investing some time to actually track down that item and give it as a gift can be really meaningful. I have personally witnessed someone being brought almost to tears by a six pack of soda that they loved when they were a kid that they didn’t realize was even still being made (it was “Big Red,” by the way). I once made it a point to pick up a six pack of Cheerwine for a friend when I was traveling in the southeastern United States – it was probably the most excited for a gift that I had ever seen and it only cost me four or five bucks.

Help with the holiday event: Simply tell the person that your holiday gift this year will be to do the “grunt work” for the big holiday event. You’ll handle the unwanted jobs, bring a good side dish, move around furniture, and take on a big part of the cleanup. This allows the host to actually be the host of the event while taking a lot of stress off their shoulders and it allows you to have a bit of extra time with the host both before and after the event. Just send an email now offering your services – you’ll make a key side dish or two and bring them with you beforehand and then take care of any and all last minute tasks both before and after the event.

Final Thoughts

Gift giving is actually pretty simple: Being thoughtful about a gift makes up for any spending shortfall. If you don’t have the money to spend or don’t feel like you should spend on an expensive gift but you still want to convey to the other person that they mean a lot to you, be thoughtful. Consider that person carefully. What do they like? What do you share? Use those thoughts as a source to come up with something meaningful, either something you make yourself or something you can find inexpensively with a little hunting.

Remember, frugal is not cheap. Frugal means getting the best value for your dollar, and when it comes to gifts, giving (or receiving) something thoughtful or something you’ll actually use provides far more value (even if it costs far less) than something given with little thought.

Good luck!

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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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