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Frugal Gifts for the Holiday Season
It’s like clockwork.
Every year, right around Black Friday, I start getting messages from readers asking for holiday gift ideas. These requests come in one of two flavors — either they’re frugal people looking for good “bang for the buck” gifts to get for relatives, or they’re people wondering what on earth to get for their frugal relative who seems to not want much of anything.
Often, I’ll point them back to previous holiday gift guides, like this one from last year, or this 2017 guide. However, I’m often asked for an updated list, likely because they grabbed the good ideas from older lists and now want more good ideas.
So, let’s answer those eternal questions. What are some great low-cost gift ideas that everyone would like? And what would a frugal person like as a gift for the holidays?
If you’re a frugal person giving gifts, be thoughtful.
If you’re a frugal person and want to give the best gift you can on a limited budget, your best approach is to be genuinely thoughtful about the gift and the recipient. Spending the time to conceive of an inexpensive good match with that person’s interests will go farther than almost anything else.
So, how do you make this happen?
The first thing you should do is some homework on the gift recipient. A good place to start is to look up their social media accounts and see what it is that they share about frequently. You might also dig through your text exchanges with that person or another contact you may have had with them in the past several months.
If that doesn’t give you any general areas of interest to investigate, contact someone who does know them well and just get an idea of the kinds of things they’re really into. You don’t necessarily need to know specific things they want; rather, you just want a general area of interest to hone in on.
For example, if someone in my life did a cursory study of me, they’d probably learn that I enjoy board games, cooking, cold-brew coffee, hot sauces and craft beer. It’s not that hard to figure out things that I like.
Then, take those narrow interests and look for inexpensive gifts in those specific niches. “Stocking stuffers” are often good places to start, for example. Just Google “stocking stuffers for board game enthusiasts” and you’re probably headed down a good road for someone who’s into board games.
If their interest is something that’s usually inexpensive by default, like hot sauce or craft beer, research lists of top examples or unusual examples of those items. You might look for a list of “top craft beers of the year” or “best new hot sauces of the year” in Google, for example.
From there, you should have a number of specific things to buy that are high quality but inexpensive examples of things that they’ll love.
Here are some good general tips.
Unless you know the person well, a consumable gift is probably a better choice. If you buy something that’s non-consumable and they already have it, it can be a disappointing gift. If you can’t find a strictly consumable gift, ask yourself whether it’s something that they could easily use more of if they were to already have it.
Ask an expert. If you’re still stuck, find someone who knows a lot about the particular niche you’re looking at and ask them for specific advice. For example, if you decide that someone would love a six-pack of good beer, stop at a craft beer store and ask for a good but off-the-beaten-path recommendation. If you know anything more about their specific tastes, that’s even more helpful.
Smaller gifts are better than large ones. People often don’t have a whole lot of space for things, particularly permanent things. A non-consumable gift means that you have to find room for it, and for many people, that means having to make a hard choice between keeping this gift or something they already own. A small gift makes that choice simple or insignificant; consumable gifts eliminate that choice entirely.
If you went down this path with me and were trying to keep to a budget of, say, $15, you might end up coming across things like these:
- A couple of Keyforge decks (each one’s unique, two so two people can play)
- A fancy deck of playing cards (cards often wear out, and unusual ones are fun to play with)
- A bottle of Weak Knees Gochujang sriracha (highly regarded hot sauce)
- A six-pack of craft beer recommended at the local craft beer store
- A three pack of national park themed pocket notebooks
Every single item there could be figured out by looking at my personal social media accounts, figuring out what I like and doing just a bit of homework for stocking stuffers. They’re all consumable or unique and aren’t going to take up much space in my home. Not only that, there are many similar items to everything on that list that I’d also like.
If you’re a person giving a gift to a frugal person, focus on what they’ll actually use.
Let’s reverse the picture a bit and imagine that you’re a person who’s less price-conscious but you’re struggling to figure out what to buy for someone who’s frugal or a minimalist. What do you buy for someone who doesn’t really want much of anything?
In general, a frugal person is going to want something practical. They’re going to want something that they’re actually going to use, and that means being at least somewhat in touch with what their interests are.
Consumable gifts or “experience” gifts are often a really good idea for a frugal person because they’ll want to use — and use up — the item. It won’t take up space and, often, it’s a substitute for another expense they might have in their life. A consumable item — particularly a high-quality version of something they like — is usually a good gift for a frugal person.
Of course, frugal people also want something in touch with their interests, meaning some thought was put into the item. The magical ingredient in any gift is that you actually thought about the recipient instead of just buying something at random. What does that person actually like?
So, how do you pull this off? The strategy really is similar to the strategy for the “gifts from a frugal person” noted above. Start by studying the person. Look at their social media and all communication you’ve had with that person in the last several months. What do they seem to like? If you can’t get any leads that way, ask someone who knows them well, not for specific ideas but for areas of interest.
Once you have some areas of interest, start researching gifts in those areas. What are some consumable and/or practical gifts in that niche?
If you went down this path with me, you might end up coming across things like these:
- A book that we can both read and then talk about that’s of overlapping interest (touches on the social/meaningful aspect)
- A really high-quality but extremely practical cooking-related item, like these Pyrex Ultimate food storage containers, that I’d definitely use but never invest in myself
- An “experience” gift, like a ticket to a convention related to a hobby of mine
- A gift certificate to a board game retailer or bookstore (this acknowledges my specific hobby but lets me find what I want within that genre)
- A selection of items from the “stocking stuffer” list above
I would be thrilled to open any of these items as a holiday gift, much more than a random gift.
You can never, ever go wrong by adding some additional meaning to the gift.
I could make long lists of specific items similar to the ones mentioned above, but there’s value in doing your own research. Often, you’ll find something somewhere that’s in line with one of their interests but has a little something “extra” that makes it a more meaningful gift.
For example, if my dad found some excellent bottle of hot sauce and gave it to me as a gift, it has a little extra meaning because hot sauce is something we both enjoy and have shared over the years. I’d probably pop open the bottle immediately and find something to sample it on, and we’d both try it. That adds a little extra meaning to the gift.
Another example is if a friend gives me a book that they’ve read and really love that they think I would also enjoy. This opens up the opportunity of being able to talk about the book with them, giving the gift an extra social layer on top of the gift. There’s a potential connection between us there that doesn’t exist if you just buy a random book for someone.
A great way to enhance this kind of meaning is to include a note with the gift. Just get a sheet of paper and write down why you chose this gift for this person. Touch on that shared experience in the past, or mention how you hope it will help you connect in the future. Put it down in words so you don’t have to have the right words on your tongue at the exact instant they open the gift, because it’s often hard to plan it well and remember it.
For example, I might get a copy of one of my best-loved books for a friend and write a note on a sheet of paper to stick inside the book. I could simply write about how much I loved the book, how I remember us reading similar books in the past, and how I can’t wait to talk to them about the book when they get finished with it, maybe even suggesting going out to lunch with them to talk about it in a few months.
Another great way to make a meaningful gift is to make something that you know the recipient will like. Does someone you’re giving a gift to love hot sauce? Make some homemade hot sauce and bottle it and maybe print off a personalized label for them. Does someone you know love craft beer? Make some homemade beer that you chose specifically for their tastes and give them a six-pack or 12-pack of it. That type of personalization adds some nice meaning to the gift.
Whatever you do, don’t just give something random and thoughtless.
Most people, when they don’t know what to give someone as a gift, will default to giving something with incredibly broad appeal, like an Amazon gift card or a Starbucks gift card. The thought process makes sense: it’s something everyone can use, right?
The only problem with such a gift is that the recipient is also aware of the lack of thought into the gift. If you give someone an Amazon gift card (outside of rare situations where it’s actually an item on a teenager’s gift list or something like that), it’s pretty clear that they’re giving you a gift as an obligation and with minimal thought.
Try to avoid that. A $1 gift with some thought behind it is worth more than a $10 gift card to Starbucks. I’d far rather get a deck of Bicycle playing cards from a friend who shouts “DEAL ‘EM!” as soon as I open it than a $10 gift card, because that deck of cards actually has meaning and camaraderie with it, and in my experience, most people feel the exact same way.
Use the advice above. Do some homework into the person. Find something good that’s actually in line with what they like and, even better, something that touches on a commonality you have with that person. Write a little note to say why this gift is specifically for them, ideally touching on your shared relationship. That’s what makes a great gift.
What if it’s a “white elephant” or some other random exchange?
Sometimes, you wind up in gift exchanges with rules that leave the specific recipient outside of your control. In those situations, go for something either highly practical or consumable within the price range of the exchange. The nice thing about a highly practical or consumable gift is that it can easily be shared or re-gifted if the person doesn’t like it.
My approach in these situations is to think of a general type of item I want to put in that exchange — “hot sauce” or “chocolate” or “movie” or something like that — and then I do a few minutes of homework to find something of good quality in the price range of the exchange, either by searching online or asking someone with some expertise. That way, you’re never the person that put the “dud” gift in the exchange.
For example, if I decided to put “hot sauce” into an exchange with a $10 limit, I might go for the aforementioned bottle of Weak Knees Gochujang sriracha. If I decided to put “coffee” in a $20 exchange, I’d probably just go to a local roaster and buy a bag of their best beans as recommended by the person working there (most coffee shops have a specific type they’re known for).
If you are still stuck, why are you giving this person a gift?
If you are still finding yourself struggling as to what to buy for this person, this might be an indication that you shouldn’t actually be buying a gift for this person. A gift exchange usually relies on a close relationship with someone you know well, and if you’re still struggling to come up with something for that person, do you really know them well?
A struggle to find a gift for someone can be a sign that you need to work on your relationship with that person. For example, I could find a lot of gifts for my wife without much trouble, and the same is true for each of my kids, but for some of the people on the fringes of my extended family, I’d really struggle to come up with a gift, even after doing some homework. To me, that’s a sign that I shouldn’t be buying a gift, but also a sign that I should be working on that relationship or accepting that it’s distant (and probably fading).
What should you do if you’re obligated to give a gift in this situation? I’d really focus on the past, on what you once had in common, and use that as the basis for a small gift. After that has been handled, think seriously about whether you want to repeat this experience next year. Is it time to end the gift exchange, or is it time to build up that relationship again?
People come first.
The one thing to remember with holiday gift-giving is this: it’s about the people, not the stuff.
Don’t worry about giving the perfect gift to someone. Rather, just follow your initial instinct after using the tips above, then make an effort to spend meaningful time with that person and connect with them in a meaningful way.
The gift you give will be forgotten, but the relationship won’t be. The time you spend with people in a meaningful way, actually listening to them and doing something with them rather than just telling them about your life, is what will be remembered most of all, and if you do somehow mess up the gift, it’s much easier to forgive if you share a strong connection.
People come first, not stuff. Don’t overthink the gift and don’t overspend on it.
Happy holidays, and good luck.