I regularly forget birthdays of friends and family, only remembering them at the very last possible second. I used to think that running to a specialty store and picking something at random was a great idea, but quite often I would wind up giving gifts that would go unused and forgotten - even worse, these gifts were often expensive.
Eventually, this tactic bit me very hard a few times: I found myself with literally no money on the day of a gift-giving occasion and no gift in sight - or even in mind. It was time to get desperate - and get creative.
Here are ten really inexpensive gift ideas that you can whip up quickly that will impress your friends and family - or, even better, be a gift they'll really appreciate.
(i.e., everything you need to make a certain recipe) For Who? Anyone
Take a favorite recipe, make a copy of it, then put all of the non-perishable ingredients together in a jar or bottle. Most of the ingredients can already be found in most kitchens. You can tie a ribbon around the top or any other simple personalization you'd like. My favorite example of this was when I made cajun seasoning in a jar, but put it in a Corona bottle with a replaceable cap instead ... it was a huge hit. Some great ones include gingerbread cookie mix in a jar, soup mixes in a jar, and hot chocolate mix in a jar. If you're lazy, go to a coffee shop and fill a jar with about half a pound of beans or ground coffee, though this will be a bit more expensive.
A framed picture
For Who? Family members, friends
For grandparents, this is easy: pictures of grandchildren always do the trick. For others, it can be harder, but photos of moments that you shared together can usually work. Look through your digital photo archives, go get a one hour print of it (remember, last minute!), and while it's printing, go find a nice picture frame to put it in.
A music memory stick
For Who? Techies, music fans
I have a bunch of memory sticks laying around that were given to me during various giveaways. I would feel pretty cheap giving them as gifts, but with a little spruce-up, they make great gifts. I load up the memory stick with a bunch of mp3s of my favorite songs (that I own, of course), then give the memory stick as a gift. It's a legal way to share music with friends (the legal issues come with anonymous sharing) and it enables you to make a gift with utility and excitement out of stuff you might have laying around.
For Who? Parents
Get an envelope and a piece of paper. On the paper, write "One evening of babysitting." Put it in the envelope. Seal it. Give it to parents of toddlers. Watch the tears of joy.
A computer spruce-up
For Who? Anyone who has a computer but isn't highly technical
If you're reading this, there's a decent chance you're technically proficient, and there's also a very good chance you know someone with a computer who isn't. Offer to give their computer a tune-up, which basically involves running a defragmenter, running Ad Aware, cleaning up their Startup folder, and so forth. You can even go the extra mile and pop open the case and give the insides a good cleaning, too. Many of my relatives really appreciate this gift, and it only takes me an hour or two to make their computer run noticeably faster.
For Who? Anyone
You probably have a fair idea of what foods really hit the buttons of your friends (hint: if all else fails, try chocolate for girls and meats for boys). Just go to the grocery store and select an assortment of appropriate finger foods. Put them in a box. Wrap it. Give it. For me, this would be cheeses, but that can run to the expensive; chocolate assortments can be pretty cheap. For teenagers, get them five random candy bars and they'll flip (if you don't believe me, try it ... it almost always works!); the best part is that the gift can be assembled at the local 7-Eleven with pocket change.
A charitable contribution
For Who? Adults or charitable children
If the person is giving and doesn't seem to really need anything, give a charitable donation in their name. Go print off some basic information about the charity as well as something showing your gift amount. Need a good charity? How about Heifer International or my favorite charity, the Child Abuse Prevention Center. Charitable donations are tax-deductible, so if you donate $50, it could save you up to $14 on your income tax as well. If you've got no money, pledge time to give to a charity like Habitat for Humanity.
For Who? Your significant other
Forgot your anniversary or her birthday? Rather than buying something, be romantic. Make her some food, give him a long massage, cuddle up with her in front of a movie she likes, massage his feet, pour a hot bubble bath ... do something exceptional and romantic. No preparation time required.
A home-cooked meal
For Who? New parents, the elderly
An offer to go to someone's home, prepare a meal for them, and clean up everything afterwards is an unbelievably great gift for new parents (who are pretty much burning a candle at both ends for the first few months) and for the elderly (who may have difficulty preparing meals for themselves). Much like the babysitting offer, all you need is an envelope and a piece of paper. You might even want to specify the meal to be sure you know how to prepare it.
For Who? Anyone with a car
Offer to detail someone's car on a future Saturday morning so it can be nice for a big date that night, or on a Sunday afternoon for a fresh ride in the week ahead. If you're unfamiliar, here's what the process of auto detailing involves - it's mostly just some hard work and a few cleaning supplies that you can get later.
At least one of these ten ideas should rescue you in any gift-giving occasion.