Updated on 12.09.11

Wrapping Paper Alternatives

Trent Hamm

One common theme in the emails I get this time of year is the cost of wrapping paper. Many people find it difficult to swallow that they’re investing $15 to $20 into paper that’s simply there to cover a box and will be torn to shreds on Christmas morning – and, frankly, I don’t blame them. For us, that means supplies for multiple homemade gifts or even a moderately priced store-purchased gift for someone. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather give a gift than give some shredded paper.

So, what can we do about it? Here are some options to consider. I have used all of these at various points.

Plain brown paper This is an old standby, of course. It creates a classic look for packages (“little brown packages tied up with string…”). You can easily jazz it up a bit with a stamp and some ink, covering the paper with little red candy canes or other festive shapes.

How can I get this inexpensively? The easiest way is to just request paper bags at the grocery store. Most grocery stores will bag your groceries in brown paper bags upon request. Then, when you’re home, save the bags. When you’re ready to wrap, just cut off the bottom of the bag, cut a single slice through the side of the bag, then flip it over so that the bag labeling is on the inside of the package.

Newspaper When I was growing up, many of my relatives would give gifts wrapped in the comic pages from the Sunday newspaper. They’d just save them throughout the year and use them as their gift wrapping for all gifts. I actually thought it was incredibly cool at the time, especially since the relatives that did it usually gave interesting gifts. When I was in college, one friend of mine would wrap all of his gifts in old issues of The Onion that he’d get from his parents.

How can I get this inexpensively? There are lots of ways to get free or discounted newspapers. For instance, one local gas station will give away old newspapers if someone is willing to take them, so I would often get the Sunday paper for free there early on Monday morning (for the coupon flyers, if nothing else). You can also keep an eye on recycling bins or else pick up copies of the local free newspaper.

Themed magazines A few years back, I started saving old magazine covers for a project. I simply asked some friends if I could have their old unwanted magazines and saved the covers from them.

When it came time to wrap gifts, I took covers from magazines associated with the gift itself and used it for the wrapping paper. For books, I used things like The New Yorker or The Atlantic. For CDs, I used covers of Rolling Stone. For an article of clothing that I gave to a female, I used a fashion magazine (I think it was W). For a piece of sporting equipment, I used Sports Illustrated.

How can I get this inexpensively? Tell your friends that you’re working on a project and you’d love to have any old magazines they have laying around. You’ll be surprised how many magazines come out of the woodwork if you ask. Then, just save the covers from them throughout the year and try to associate them with some of the gifts you’re giving.

Children’s drawings If you happen to have an excess of children’s art, this can make a perfect wrapping paper for gifts for the child’s grandparents or doting aunts or uncles. I can certainly say that we have an excess of children’s art around our home.

How can I get this inexpensively? If you have a child in preschool or elementary school, chances are you’re going to wind up with more art than you know what to do with. Just save some of the more charming pieces (that you’re willing to part with) and use them to wrap gifts.

Plan ahead If none of these really appeal to you, the best way to inexpensively wrap gifts is to simply plan ahead – way ahead. Just after Christmas, wrapping paper is usually on deep discount at department stores, so that’s the best time to buy yourself an abundance of the stuff.

How can I get this inexpensively? Take a bit of time to buy some paper between Christmas and New Years and stow it away in a closet for next year. Problem solved.

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  1. Laundry Lady says:

    For immediate family I’ve considering moving to cloth wrapping paper and cloth gift bags. There is an old asian art of fabric wrapping that is also coming back into style, mostly for environmental reasons. Obviously if you use a cloth bag to give away a gift, you won’t be getting it back, so it can be more expensive. But I’m considering purchasing cloth gift bags for use with close family only from some amazing vendors on Etsy. Or if you can sew, stock up on holiday fabrics at end of season sales and make your own for even less. With all the waste that is sometimes associated with Christmas, it can be nice to have a low waste option to wrapping paper.

  2. valleycat1 says:

    We re-use gift bags from the year before – either paper or cloth. I also go our local 99cent store for gift wrap & holiday items. This year at one of the other big-box stores I found small rolls (the width is half a regular roll) of Christmas paper for a dollar – 2 of those will take care of all our miscellaneous gifts to wrap.

  3. Cheryl says:

    I made cloth bags many years ago. We reuse them every year. Original fabric was from Goodwill and other inexpensive sources like the remnant bin at my fabric store. I originally made sizes I needed, then added more the next year in sizes needed then.

    We also used the comics and blank newsprint decorated by the kids with markers and crayons.

  4. Riki says:

    I really don’t find wrapping paper to be that expensive. I got three big rolls, with ribbon to match, for $7 last night at a nearby discount store. I like to pick a coordinating paper theme every year – this year apple green and white.

  5. Becky says:

    I use regular wrapping paper, but I buy only solid colours. I just picked up a roll of red which I used with a blue ribbon for a boy’s birthday gift. I’ll use it for Christmas and again for Valentine’s Day. I keep a variety of ribbon colours which work with white, red, green, and yellow paper – all colours which work for any occasion and gender.

    It keeps the waste to a minimum, storage is minimal, and there’s never any stress about whether I have a suitable paper.

    Grocery stores around here charge for paper bags, I don’t subscribe to the newspaper, but I will recycle any gift bags/bows we receive and use them for future gifts.

  6. Johanna says:

    Nothing wrong with any of these alternatives, if they’re your thing. But if I were spending $15-20 a year on gift wrap and was worried about costs, I’d also take a look at the hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of gifts that I was wrapping with it, and whether the gift exchanges I was part of had gotten out of control.

    “For an article of clothing that I gave to a female, I used a fashion magazine (I think it was W).”

    A female human being is called a “woman.” Or if she’s under 18, a “girl” (or possibly “my daughter”).

  7. Steven says:

    Wrapping paper is sexy. A beautifully wrapped gift is just as, if not more, important than the gift itself. If you’re just going to wrap it in a brown bag, or old newspaper, why go through all the trouble?

  8. Peggy says:

    Great ideas, Trent.

    We use all the ways you mentioned except the magazine covers – that’s a new one for me, but a great idea! Also have used items mentioned in comments (except #8 who has no suggestions – too bad you don’t like the idea of magazine covers, I think it’s quite creative). This year I recycled calendar pages. I’ve also reused calendar pages for stationary.

    I’m a crafter at heart and love to find ways to reuse things that are striking in one way or another.

    Happy Holidays, Trent and family!

  9. Jules says:

    Isn’t the line “brown paper packages tied up with strings”?

    I buy wrapping paper and ribbons throughout the year. I’m also not above decimating old cards we’ve received for gift tags.

  10. Robin S says:

    #10 – Using old cards as gift tags is a good idea! I hadn’t thought of that. If you save last year’s card, I’m sure no one will remember what they sent (except for people that use photos, you might not want to reuse those.)

    I’ve done newspaper for a while. I’ve seen some really pretty ways to do it with brown paper on pinterest, but my grocery store doesn’t have brown paper bags. This year, to go with my newspaper, I got some paint chips in various shades of red and green and will cut the recipients name out of those and glue it to my package. That should make it a little more festive :)

  11. lurker carl says:

    “brown paper packages tied up with strings”

    Before the existance of plastic tape and FedEx, boxes were wrapped in brown paper and secured with string for shipping by mail. It was the best we could do to keep the contents safe from the elements.

    My parents reused the same dozen gift boxes with tissue and bows for years, only the lid was wrapped. The wrapping paper was Food Fair grocery bags – the company printed paper bags one year with some Christmasy designs and my mother saved those bags to carefully wrap some box lids. There were two box lids wrapped with wallpaper for birthdays. Everyone got clothes, a few coins, hard candy and one toy. When there truly wasn’t enough money to buy wrapping paper, there also wasn’t enough money to buy gifts to wrap.

    To wrap a gift in brown paper (or newspaper and other paper scraps) and twine is like attending a wedding dressed in worn coveralls with muddy shoes. I have seen some very creatively wrapped gifts but the vast majority come across as cheap, cheap, cheap.

  12. deRuiter says:

    Bingo Jules #10! “Isn’t the line “brown paper packages tied up with strings”?” Yes, Jules, you got it right!
    What’s wrong with attending a few house or estate sales and buying a whole armful of new or partly used rolls of gift wrap paper and ribbon for a couple of dollars? Saves the environment and wraps your packages so they don’t look tacky. Keeps the person running the sale from having to throw the paper and ribbons in a landfill. Gives a few cents back to the family who bought the stuff in the first place. You often get unusual vintage / older paper this way, and striking ribbons, nicer than the cheap polyester Chinese junk peddled today. While you are at it, save any gift bags you get (or buy these at yard or estate sales for pennies) and reuse them minus the used gift tags the next year. I want to be thrifty, I don’t want to appear poverty stricken or tacky. We no longer exchange gifts among adults, we all have what we need or will buy EXACTLY what we want, without having to thank people for useless or incorrect items we don’t want. Instead we spend time together, Dutch treat at a restaurant or potluck dinners, or for a fancy meal I will cook myself and invite friends who may or may not bring a bottle of wine. Honestly, most people have so much in America, they don’t need more. You can tell this by going to estate or other sales and seeing how many clothing items still have the original tags, how many tapes are still in original plastic, how many things were opened, shoved back into box and stuffed in attic or closet. Stop consuming and start enjoying your friends. If no one has to shop for unwanted gifts they are less stressed, have less debt, and more time to socialize. Children can have toys as gifts, they’re children!

  13. Riki says:

    Brown paper can be pretty – it doesn’t have to look terrible.

    Two years ago I wrapped everything in brown paper with a wide gold and red ribbon that was wired so I could shape it into a large bow. The gifts looked really beautiful. But I used a roll of brown crafting paper instead of paper bags. Bags are very thick and I find the paper doesn’t fold nicely for neatly wrapped gifts.

  14. pat says:

    The local dollar store is great for buying wrapping paper and gift bags. Also check a local party goods store if you have one close by…..I have bought very large rolls of gift wrap inexpensively. And after the holiday, you can get some great deals on paper pretty cheap. Matter of fact, I havent bought wrapping paper in years since I have a huge supply…all bought very cheap!

  15. Gretchen says:

    I’m the only one who remembers Trent’s sad red yarn wrapping of last year?

    I don’t think I’ve spent $20 on wrapping paper in my entire life, but we also grew up on top and bottom of boxes being wrapped separately. Bows were also scotch taped on.

  16. Our family has managed to keep gifts and therefore wrapping to a minimum – but this advice is good for gifting all year round. My brother is an accountant, so I wrap his gifts with the stock market page. Kids get the comics. You do however need to be careful what’s on the other side. No one wants a gift wrapped in the obituary column!

    I’m currently using up someone else’s wrapping stash – its quite vintage and lots of fun!

    My best gift wrap? I wound a ball of thick yarn around a small jewelry box in which resided a very fine vintage opal ring. It was fun watching the process!

    But, all things aside, there’s a lot of fun in

  17. kristine says:

    I bought some gorgeous hi-end gift boxes after the holidays a few years back. Waited till the second week of January. Top quality, very sturdy, no wrapping necessary, bows get taped on. Beautiful, and always complimented. Since we host Christmas, we save attractive store bags through the year, and guests greatly appreciate bringing home their combined gifts in those bags, instead of in multiple boxes. So the boxes stay, and get used another year!

    We also store our decorations in heavyweight printed or tin storage boxes with metal handles. After emptying them for the holiday decorating, we use those boxes for the family gifts! We sometimes use tissue paper inside, and sometimes our old family nostalgic Christmas tea towels from grandma’s house. It’s kind of sappy, but we love it!

    For other gifts- I use interesting remnant papers from art projects, or lovely fabrics and satin ribbon, or recycled gift bags. Things that can be reused. I have a bigger than penny-pinching problem with the waste generated by millions of people wrapping trillions of presents, only to the have the paper dyes eventually leech into the ground after only 30 seconds of use, as a bizarre way to celebrate good will toward men. We all know what landfills are these days, we cannot claim ignorance of that amount of yearly waste. I try to use long term solutions, or repurposed/rescued wrapping.

  18. Sara says:

    I wait until after Christmas and buy wrapping paper on sale for $.50-$1.00 per roll. I am known in my family for having nicely-wrapped gifts, so this small cost is worth it to me. The problem I have is that non-Christmas wrapping paper never goes on sale — it’s always $4-6 per roll. I suppose I could buy solid-colored paper at the post-Christmas sales, but I like using paper with colorful patterns.

  19. Maya says:

    My favorite current form of decorative “wrapping” for gifts is old calendar pictures. I love getting wall calendars for my home and office. I consider them to be a “cheap” way to have ever-changing art. But at the end of the year I just can’t bear to throw them away, so I came up with the idea of wrapping gifts with them. Small gifts often fit within one sheet, maybe with a slip of plain paper at the back; things like large books use two sheets for front and back. Anything much larger than that and brown paper or butcher paper with decorative stamps is more practical.

  20. M E 2 says:

    I agree with the commentor who stated that she/I don’t find wrapping paper all that expensive. Between the dollar store(s), Walgreens (which had rolls 3/$2) and/or 50-90% off at Target after Christmas, I am not spending tons of money on anything having to do with wrapping gifts.

  21. asithi says:

    We always get made fun of for being creative with our gift wrapping. Once we used leftover textured wallpaper, plan drawings from a construction project, and the brown paper bag by our more shopaholic friends.

    I don’t understand why we need to spend $2-4 on a gift bag when our gift wrapping reflects the personality of the gift giver.

  22. Anna says:

    One thing I do is purchase a package of plain white gift bags and just change up the tissue paper depending on the gifting event. For Christmas, I would do a white bag with red and green tissue, or something similar. I also have bought a lot of Christmas wrapping paper after the holidays when it goes on clearance. It seems like they are often about $1 for a large roll. This year, I have so much leftover paper from previous years that I have cut myself off from buying any at all. :)

  23. joan says:

    Some great ideas, but i have a large amount of wrapping paper bought after Christmas 6 years ago. It was 15c to 25c a roll and I got carried away. I do check the Christmas sales each year for paper that can be used for other events. I have found some great paper for birthdays mixed in with the Christmas paper.

  24. Brittany says:

    ““For an article of clothing that I gave to a female, I used a fashion magazine (I think it was W).”

    A female human being is called a “woman.” Or if she’s under 18, a “girl” (or possibly “my daughter”).”

    Yes. Thank you for pointing this out again, Johanna.

    I’m still rocking a $1 roll of paper I bought 2 years ago. $20 on wrapping paper? What? Is it made out of hammered silver?

  25. Kai says:

    I don’t find wrapping paper all that expensive, and silver is the perfect colour to buy one roll and have it appropriate for any possible occasion.

    However, I don’t buy any wrapping paper for environmental reasons. It seems completely wrong to me to purchase heavily processed paper to be used once and then thrown away.
    SO I re-use any sort of colourful paper I have, and if the recipient can’t appreciate a gift wrapped nicely in something other than wrapping paper, we’re probably not close enough that they need to worry about getting such ‘trashy’ gifts from me again.

    I regularly reuse wrapping paper that was on a gift given to me, and I currently have a large stock of colourful paper from the inside of shoeboxes. It does the job of nicely covering the gifted item so the recipient can have something to open up.

  26. Jennifer says:

    Last year I wrapped gifts in leftover fabric. I placed gifts in the middle of the fabric, brought the four corners together to look like a gift bag, and tied a ribbon around the corners, several inches down. I was pretty pleased with the effect of this, but I did not get most of the fabric back to use again.

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