I Forgot! Last Minute Holiday Gifts That Won’t Spoil Your Budget

At the start of the month, I shared an article with a bunch of frugal gift ideas for the holiday season. The big message behind that article is this: a little bit of thoughtfulness and homework goes a long way. If you spend just a bit of time doing the homework on people that you might be buying gifts for, you can get a low cost gift they’ll actually like.

But what if that falls through? What if you’re realizing just a day or two before a gift-giving event that you need to have a gift for someone and you completely spaced it off? What if someone reminds you as you’re leaving work that there’s a white elephant exchange at the holiday party tomorrow night? What if you thought you got someone a gift and then realized when you were going through the presents that you accidentally left someone out?

Here’s what to do.

If you have time, brainstorm two or three things that you know the person likes.

Rather than panicking and heading to some generic gift list on some website and clicking “buy” on whatever will get shipped in time or running to the store and looking at the shelves hoping that something will pop in your head, take a breather.

Instead of starting with the gift, start with the person. Take five minutes and ask yourself what exactly you know about the recipient and what they like. This doesn’t have to be a long intense process. Here are some questions to prompt you.

  • What foods does this person like? Does this person have a sweet tooth? Do they like salty or savory snacks? What have you noticed before?
  • What beverages does this person like? Do they like to drink wine or beer? What have you observed in the past when spending time with them?
  • What hobbies does this person have?

Often, just answering these questions will get you close to a gift idea for that person. From there, just look for an inexpensive but popular item in that specific niche — almost every hobby and type of food will have specific lists online that will help you with exactly this.

If you have a mutual friend or family member who might know specifics better than you, send a text immediately. Just say, “I’m going through my holiday gift list and still need something for [INSERT NAME HERE]. Do you have any ideas?” They’ll often be able to point you at least in the direction of something.

OK, you’ve mined those avenues and you’ve still got nothing. Now what?

If you have a meaningful memory with someone, use that as inspiration.

This is a really good strategy for a last-minute gift that the person will actually appreciate.

Just try to think of the most meaningful moments you’ve ever shared with this person. What were you doing together? What happened? Where were you at?

Now, take that memory and see if it immediately translates into a gift.

Was there a food item or a beverage or a hobby item involved in that memory? Give that as a gift. You can likely find whatever that item is fairly quickly and inexpensively.

What if the memory is associated with a particular place or activity? Give a gift card related to that activity or place.

You can make that gift extra meaningful by simply including a photograph or, even better, a quick note regarding your shared memory. You can write a note like…

Remember that time we stayed up all night in your sister’s apartment watching horror movies and drinking those awful alcoholic seltzers? We need to do that again sometime… maybe with better seltzers. Here’s a six-pack of good ones to get us started.

If you don’t want to write a note, just remind them of that shared memory right as they open the gift.

If you don’t know anything about the recipient, give something consumable and shareable.

Food or beverage items are almost always a great default choice when you’re in a white elephant exchange or you know little about the recipient for some reason.

Consumable items are a gift that everyone can relate to — we all eat and drink, after all. At the very least, if it’s not up their alley, they can easily share it with their friends who would like it.

It might not be the most personal gift idea, but it’s one that will at least be appreciated and valued by the recipient.

Ask someone that knows.

If you have a good general idea for a gift — like, say, a bottle of wine or some good chocolate — your best approach for getting something worthwhile and getting it done quickly is to stop at a specialty shop and explain your situation. Know your exact budget in advance before you stop in, as that will help the person there make a reasonable suggestion.

For example, if you stop at a hobby store and tell the person working there that you have $15 to spend and you need a small gift for someone who is into that hobby, they will almost always find something that’s perfect.

Avoid gift cards unless they’re going to be easy for that person to use.

Gift cards are kind of default “I couldn’t think of anything” gift that at least has some appeal to the recipient. In general, however, it’s good to keep the recipient in mind when choosing one, at least a little.

The biggest sticking point is to make sure that the gift card can be used in their normal life. Is that card usable where they live? Obviously, this isn’t a concern with cards that can be redeemed online, but if you’re giving someone a restaurant gift card, make sure that the restaurant is in the area where they live.

Thus, you should avoid giving gift cards for local businesses unless the recipient is local, too. While a gift card to a local business can be a nice gift, it’s a pretty bad gift if the recipient doesn’t live near that business.

Need something more specific? Here are 10 specific ideas that might work perfectly for your gift-giving.

You ran through those other suggestions quickly and you’re still empty-handed. What can you do?

Here are 10 inexpensive gifts that I believe have widespread appeal, provide a lot of value for the dollar in most cases, and should be easy to acquire at a moment’s notice as the holidays approach. All of these items are either consumable or very small.

For each one, I’m simply listing a general type of gift, then providing a couple specific examples of that gift, along with some notes as to who might like it.

A copy of a book that changed your life
If you have time to order online: Abe Books or Amazon
If you need it immediately: Visit an independent bookstore near you, and if they don’t have it, check Barnes and Noble

It can be really hard to pick out a book for someone when you don’t know them well, so a different approach is to give someone a book that you really loved or that changed your life. Unless you’re fairly confident about the recipient, try to choose something that will have some level of general appeal. It’s a really good idea to put a handwritten note in the book talking about what the book meant to you and inviting the person to talk about the book with you when they finish it, perhaps suggesting going out for coffee or something at that point. (If I were giving this gift, I’d probably give a copy of Your Money or Your Life or Middlesex.)

If you have time to order online: Heart Coffee, Tandem Coffee (I can vouch for both, and they ship directly)
If you need it immediately: Visit an upscale food store

If you have a coffee lover in your life, a bag of good coffee beans can be a great gift for them. If you’re not sure that they have their own coffee grinder, you can get ground coffee to be safe, though if you’re really wanting to splurge for them, a small burr grinder can be found inexpensively at most department stores.

A nice candle
If you have time to order online: KarmaLit “Favorite Hoodie” Soy Candle, Homesick “Long Island” Candle
If you need it immediately: A local Yankee Candle, Hallmark or a gift shop

Many households like to burn a candle in the evening to provide a bit of accent light and to add a nice aroma to the air. We often have a large candle as a centerpiece on our dining room table, for example, as we sometimes receive them as gifts and quite happily use them. There are infinite aromas out there, so find one that suits you.

Craft beer
If you need it immediately: Visit a local craft beer store or liquor store and ask for suggestions

A six-pack of distinctive craft beer is a gift that many will love, especially that person who seems to always bring something unusual to events. If you’re buying craft beer as a gift for someone, you’re better off sticking to something from a brewery local to you, and thus a specific recommendation really does come best from someone at a local craft beer store or liquor store. They’ll know what’s local and what’s good.

A classy notebook and pen
If you have time to order online: For the notebook, pick up a three-pack of Field Notes; for the pen, a Parker Jotter is a very classy and portable pen for a low price
If you need it immediately: Visit a local stationery store or, if there isn’t one, an office supply store

My wife and I, my parents and several of our friends use little notebooks constantly for jotting things down, so a “starter kit” for this is a good idea, particularly for busy people with lots of interests and hobbies. I use mine several times a day; my wife uses hers a bit less frequently, but still manages to finish one every few weeks.

Hot sauce
If you have time to order online: Weak Knees Gochujang Sriracha, Mike’s Hot Honey, Secret Aardvark Habanero Sauce
If you need it immediately: stop by an upscale grocery store

If you have a family member or friend who dumps hot sauce on their food or gravitates toward spicy foods, an unusual bottle of hot sauce is going to be a guaranteed hit as a gift for them. I will personally vouch for all three of the items above; the two sauces are amazing, and the honey is surprisingly good on lots of things and makes a great gift with a bit of “novelty” to it.

If you need it immediately: stop by a local jeweler

My belief is that an expensive piece of jewelry shouldn’t be a last-minute gift and should instead be well considered, but a small jewelry item can often be a really nice gift. A simple pair of earrings, for example, can be very meaningful, as can a simple necklace with the birthstone of a child, both of which are relatively inexpensive options as jewelry goes.

A portable cell phone charger
If you have time to buy online: Anker PowerCore Fusion 5000, HAME Super Slim
If you need it immediately: stop by an electronics store

Portable device chargers are a useful gift for almost anyone. You can charge one up and toss it in your purse or in the glove compartment along with a small cable and when your phone is low on batteries, you can just get some juice wherever you’re at. Both of these are small and super portable; I particularly like the Anker one because it has a foldable plug built right in, so you can just plug it in whenever you want. This is a great practical gift that most people will find useful.

If you have time to order online: Dr. Squatch Cedar Citrus, Bali Soap Variety Pack
If you need it immediately: Stop by a health food store or a beauty store

A good bar of soap with a nice aroma is a pleasing gift that almost everyone will use and will be appreciated by almost anyone that takes care of their skin and body. It rides a nice line between personal but not too personal and there are basically infinite varieties to choose from.

If you need it immediately: stop by a local winery; if none, stop by a wine shop

As with beer, ordering wine online can be tricky, so you’re better off stopping by a local winery to grab a bottle or, failing that, stopping by a local wine shop for a recommendation. For low-cost wine that’s consistently good, I am a fan of Columbia Crest wines, as it’s been consistently tasty for the price.

Whatever you give, supplement it with some time and attention and conversation.

When you’re at a gift-giving occasion, you can make that gift far more meaningful if you supplement it with some time and attention and conversation with the recipient. Take the time to sit down with that person, ask them how they’re doing and listen to what they say — don’t just sit there trying to think of your next conversational point. If you don’t know what to say, ask a question about them and listen. Give them the gift of your attention and focus for a while; it will mean a lot.

If you’re at a larger group event, especially one where you don’t know for sure who will receive your gift due to a white elephant exchange, take some time to go around to as many people in the room as you can and have a meaningful conversation with them. Ask them how they’re doing, what they’re up to and, again, listen to them. If you don’t have something more to say but don’t yet want to walk away, ask another question and listen to their answer.

Simply giving someone real focus and attention is a seemingly small thing, but it’s an incredibly powerful way to make someone feel valued and perhaps deepen the connection you share, just a little. Best of all, it’s something you can give for free.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.