Falling through the Looking Glass

{November 17, 2012}   Awesome Gifts =/= Awesome Prices!

I know this is sort of a cheesy phrase, but it is true. If there is one thing I have been consistently known for in my years of life is that I give awesome gifts. I have also spent my years dirt poor. So not only have I been able to make people go “Wow!” or even cry with my presents, I do so for often less than a dollar a gift. Here is how I do it:

1) Make a list. 

First, put everyone that you have to buy a gift for, spouses/partners, parents, siblings, children, best friends, or grandparents. Chances are anyone on this list should either share DNA with you or be so close that they might as well. Then make a list of everyone that you would like to give a gift to if it becomes available like teachers, co-workers, distant relatives, and other friends. That way you have a track record, this will come in handy in the next step.

2) Buy gifts throughout the year, not just the month before the event.

My son’s birthday is December 5th. If I wait until November to get my shopping done, I have backed myself into corner with sales and it’s just a big financial burden all at once. So I shop throughout the year as things that come on sale or become available.

For example, I like shopping at thrift stores and flea markets. If I find something really nifty or if something that I can alter is there really cheap, I grab it and stick it back in a closet for later. I have found plenty of hardback, first editions for my father that way. Or nice crystal glasses for fifty cents each that I can fill with candy and give to an aunt or my son’s teacher. Sales at big box stores are great too. I found some Lego sets really well priced in July at the end of the toy season. I grabbed a couple then at prices that I know I couldn’t go back in October and expect to have.

Clarence racks at any business are your friend. Every stock is seasonal and I am willing to bet that you can find something for anyone in these little sections. And don’t worry about if you buy a gift you know for sure is perfect for a certain person then find something even more suited for them later. Grab it. You’ve saved enough money on the first gift that you can afford the second and that just means you can pass that first gift onto someone on that secondary list. Nothing is lost in spending only dollars or cents a piece on a gift.

Another option is to buy in sets and then break the set up. For example, at Walmart I found a three pack of earrings, very nice ones, for only a dollar. Well, I snatched that sucker up because now I have three different pairs of earrings that all I need to do is package separate and now I have three different gifts.

3) Set a budget per gift, not overall.

I refuse to spend more than $10 a gift unless it is something that is not only assured to make the person happy or the discount is just that significant. I will also not spend more than a certain amount depending on what the actual gift is. And this is all based on your area, what’s around you and your budget. But if you freak out and say you only have $200 for gifts, it’s easy to blow that all at once and not get the better deals. If you are shopping gradually throughout the year and only spending increments at a time, then you will find that you’ll probably be under what overall budget you were hoping for with having more gift stockpiled with far less stress.

You can have an emergency expense that wipes out your emergency budget. But if you’re buying throughout the year at only dollars a gift tops, it’s much easier to recoup from a loss and you already have things stuck back should you not be able to get anything later.

4) Base gifts on what the person wants or needs, Not what YOU want or need for them.

This is a problem people do unintentionally. But the way I see it is if you care enough to give a gift, you should care enough to at least invest some time into figuring out what it is they can actually use or would like. And that doesn’t mean that you have to like that gift. It’s not about you it’s about them. I have seen this as a big problem from parents and partners doing this to their children and partners, respectively. If what they want is offensive or something you won’t allow, by all means don’t get it. But if it’s just a matter of conflicting tastes, it’s rather tacky to impress your wishes on them in a situation where it’s supposed to be about them.

And now my list of possible suggestions:


Whether in a gift bag or just outright, food is always good for either gender and all ages. How you package it depends on who you are giving it to.

A primary gift would probably entail a laundry basket filled with nonperishable foods  For my college aged brother’s birthday, I used a football Easter basket I bought for a dollar after the season and loaded it with his favorite sunflower seeds, peanuts, chili, and cornbread mix.

A secondary gift could be just a cute saucer or glass from a dollar or thrift store that is filled with cookies or candy then wrapped nice. For my son’s teachers I bought little saucers for fifty cents each and will put homemade cookies on them. For his after school teachers, who are college age, I bough different stemware glasses at twenty five cents each I’ll fill with colorful candies and will cover both in plastic wrap and tie with ribbons. This can be used for men as well, just get a beer stein or a heavier mug instead of a wine glass.

Personalized Items!

If it’s metal, it’s a potential present. I found some cheap metal compacts in the clearance rack of my local Hobby Lobby for just two dollars each. All I did was take them to my local engraver and for just seventy cents each had names engraved on the back of them. Instant class! For my guy friend, I got a men’s bracelet with five spaces and had his name and the name of his four sons engraved in each spot with their last initial in the middle.

Other items that are easy to find cheap and can be engraved: platters, cuff links, key chains, bracelets, glass either mirrors or cups, boxes, tie clips, hand mirrors, flasks, and even model cars or vases.

Feel free to look at nontraditional items. Talk to your local engraver and see what they are capable of doing and have fun with it!

Customize any cloth items like blankets, totes, backpacks, handkerchiefs, tshirts, scarves, hats, folding chairs, anything like that with either iron on patches or letters or if you cannot iron it look into the stick on patches or letters that don’t require an iron. Dying items with cheap fabric dye can help in making awesome presents. That white table cloth you got at a yard sale cheap only needs a $2 pack of dye to turn into a cool wall tapestry or curtains.


They may not be that fun, but every one needs socks, underwear, toilet paper, gas cards, or basic food items. One of the best stocking stuffers I ever got was a roll of duct tape. Yep, duct tape. Not only can I make anything out of duct tape, it’s just really handy to have around. Chapstick, bandaids, foot cream like Blue Goo, sticky notes, good pens, cooking tools, most of these items are very unisex.

One idea to make giving a needed item more fun is what I call the TP Bouquet. Take a roll of toilet paper, and use tape to cover the bottom hole while the roll is on it’s side. Fill it up with candy, straws, and goodies like a vase then tie a ribbon around the width of the actual role.


Homemade treats are awesome, but homemade items are great too. Bead kits to make basic jewelry are cheap and a good way to make a whole lot of presents out of one basic kit. Homemade spice mixes, dry mixes, and jars are great for anyone. Basic crafts like ornaments, magnets, stationary, and pictures are super easy and very cost effective. Making collages or painting on mini canvases are fun and sentimental. Most of these items can be found easy at your local craft or big box store unfinished but ready to go.

One year I bought a six pack of nutcrackers from a store on sale for two dollars. I painted them up to correspond with my two grandfathers and four uncles. Both of my grandfathers were in different branches of the military, so I painted their pieces like their respective uniforms. For my uncles I just did their favorite colors except one that was painted like a hunter with a neon orange hat and camo body. For the ladies of the family I just painted ornaments individual to their tastes. For birthdays I often do little gift boxes or birdhouses.


Children are like kryptonite! No gift, no matter how silly, is voided if it comes with the touch of a child. If you don’t have children to assist in the gift items above, shanghai other people’s children. My sister stole my nephew in order to stamp his handprints on a card for me. It’s awesome! Framing or making a scrapbook of kid’s work for a parent or grandparent is sentimental and a treasure no one can replicate. Tracing silhouettes, hands, growth charts, or time capsules are great spoilings for presents. Even making video or an audio recording and giving that tape as a gift is nice. Most photo development places also can do cassette to cd or dvd burn.  Maybe pulling out those old family slides and having them converted to DVD will help. The munchkins can color a case for it!

Gift bags/bundles: Themes are your friend!

Automotive care items arranged in a bucket

A movie from the $5 bin at Walmart with candy, a bag of microwave popcorn in a bowl

Homemade cleaning supplies arranged in a bucket

Spices, basic cooking products, dishtowels arranged in a laundry basket

Roll kitchen utensils up in dishtowels tied off with ribbon

Bath products are okay so long as you know that the scent or whatever is going to be liked

Tackle box full of art supplies

Journal with pens and stationary in a filing box – don’t forget to include stamps!

Office supplies in a wastepaper basket

Pet gear like brushes, toys, food, or medication in a backpack

And don’t be afraid to use nontraditional storage situations. If it can hold something it can be used as wrapping: kitchen canisters, small trashcans, baskets, buckets, tins, bowls, purses, backpacks, wallets, hats turned upside down, tool boxes, bottles, jugs, and anything else you can think of would be fun and different!

Feel free to ask me for more specialized gifts for that hard to shop someone. I’ll be more than happy to bounce some probable items for you that will more than keep you in budget. Until then, happy hunting!

Shared with Your Green Resource, Frugally Sustainable


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