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Gifts That Won’t Wreck Your Checking Account

Every year, I labor over what to buy family and friends around the holidays. I want to find the perfect gift for everyone on my list, but I’m selfish enough to hope the perfect gift won’t take a toll on my bank balance, especially in this economy.

If you’re looking for some heartfelt gift ideas from someone working with an average budget in less-than-friendly financial times, then you just might’ve struck gold with this gift guide; every suggestion is under $75, many of them well under. Happy shopping!

Mom
Unless you’ve done something that got you kicked out of the will, most moms can’t get enough pictures. Give her the updated version of a picture album: her favorite pictures of your family published in a glossy book from Kodak Gallery. Or hip it up a notch with a book from iPhoto; their books look a little more like coffee-table art and less like a traditional photo album than Kodak, and they also offer calendars.

Dad
Both my father and stepfather have been gone for years, but I know they both would’ve loved the History Channel’s DVD series on pretty much everything historic: God, the Apocalypse, Nuremberg, and The Louisiana Purchase, just to name a few. If they were around to give gifts to this year, they’d both get Empires of Industry: War Planes from World War II. Visit amazon.com and search for “History Channel” in the Movies & TV section to find more.

For whatever reason, a lot of dads I know seem to be obsessed with weather, so a weather radio might be a big winner, or perhaps this Weather Channel beanie to make him feel like an industry “insider.” Of course, if your dad’s a carnivore, you can never go wrong with meat. Omaha Steak’s Premier Gift Collection has a little bit of everything: filet mignons, top sirloins, boneless pork chops, burgers, and gourmet franks. The Web site lists the collection on sale for $59.99, but act fast, because you never know when those sale prices will disappear.

Sister
I never had a sister, but if I did, I think we might have enjoyed taking a cooking class together, one where we learn a recipe and then get to eat everything at the end—like First Class Cooking in San Francisco. Do a Google search on cooking classes + your city to find something tasty. If geography prevents you from doing the class together, consider these sturdy monogrammed spatulas from Williams Sonoma, available in grapefruit, clear, or white. Or create a customized cookbook just for her on Tastebook of all those recipes your family used to make growing up.

Brother
I hate to stereotype men by suggesting a sports gift; I just know that my brothers never tire of getting anything related to our family’s favorite team. Look around on Amazon or on your team’s Web site for coffee table books, DVDs of his team’s greatest moments in history, or cool sportswear.

In-Laws
Let’s be honest: what your in-laws need is a nice strong drink. Since I’m from Kentucky, I don’t mess around with wine on occasions like this; I go straight for the hard stuff—small batch Kentucky bourbon—and I like Booker’s Bourbon the best. If you anticipate things will get really tough, come prepared with a premium selection of what I like to call the Fantastic Four and suggest a family tasting to lighten things up: Booker’s, Basil Hayden, Knob Creek, and Baker’s. I suggest the same in mini-sizes just for you. Just to be safe.

Girlfriend
Does anyone ever really get tired of getting pretty earrings? I don’t. I love these wood bubbles by Molly M Designs. (The small are $30, the large are $40; you have to put them in your cart to see the prices.) Or, if your friend doesn’t have pierced ears, give her something you can share, like the makings for your very own girlie film marathon. My choice is a Jane Austen basket, stocked with the Pride and Prejudice BBC miniseries, starring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, a Mrs. Darcy t-shirt, Darcy’s Story, a book which tells the story from the perspective of Mr. Darcy, and depending on your budget, a nice bottle of wine. I’ve recently become obsessed with Failla in Napa. Give their Viognier or Keefer Ranch Pinot Noir a try. It’s tough to find in stores, so call the winery and see if they can ship to your state.

Furry Family
If you’ve got a humper on your hands, nothing beats the Hotdoll for dogs. Bring it out at your holiday party to jumpstart awkward conversation. And if you haven’t heard, canine massage is all the rage. Google “dog massage” + “your city” to find a canine masseuse near you. For kitties, try a DVD. This one brings the outdoors to your television screen and allows them to chase birds—every cat’s dream.

Roommate(s)
Last year one of my roommates gave us all a wine-tasting kit. We hosted a tasting party a couple of months later and it was a huge hit, ending with an 80s dance contest and sing-along.

White Elephant Party
There’s nothing objectionable about receiving a fine bottle of wine or a package of ten movie tickets at a White Elephant holiday party. But if you want to be the hit of the party—the person people will be talking about for weeks when they show off their steals—show up with some pop culture: sniff around eBay for a Dancing Santa Homer Simpson, or maybe consider a More Cowbell t-shirt, made famous by one of Saturday Night Live’s funniest and most popular skits ever.

Boss
Not every boss is like my boss, and thank goodness for that, otherwise I probably wouldn’t love my job so much. If I bought work gifts, she’d be getting a nice bottle of tequila, maybe Chinaco. Maybe she’d even share.

Coworker
Nothing says Happy Holidays like an illegitimate child coming to America to meet dad. David Sedaris’ Holidays on Ice is a collection of hilarious holiday stories that will make even the harshest family critic thankful for their crazy family.

The Unexpected “Oh, You Got Me a Gift, Now Let Me Pretend I Got One For You Too!” Gift
You know the feeling. You have a holiday dinner with a friend, thinking the dinner is your gift to one another. But that’s where you’re wrong. Be prepared by arriving at these occasions with a nice lotion or bubble bath. I like Fresh’s Sugar Lychee shower gel or body lotion. Plus, it’s small enough so that you can hide it in your bag if you don’t need it and save it for the next person who might spring a gift on you.

Distant Family Members Who Show Up at Your House Unannounced During the Gift Exchange
Food never fails in this situation. Gourmet hot chocolate with a pretty ribbon tied around it is always good to have on hand. Or for the peanut butter/almond butter lovers in your life, these artisan spreads from Spread are to die for, in unexpectedly delicious flavors like cookies and cream and dark chocolate lavender. Herbes de Provence make a fantastic gift because they’re usefulness extends beyond the holidays.

Babysitter
Gift cards can be a little cliché, but I never get tired of getting free music. Load up an iTunes gift card for your favorite babysitter and let her go wild.

Updated December 9, 2008

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