It’s that time of year — you know, the beautiful, magical, spendy holiday season. When you’re trying to save money or pay down debt, holiday gift-giving can really throw a wrench in your plans. You want to give meaningful gifts that show you care about your friends and family, but you can’t really afford to shell out a bazillion dollars fulfilling everyone’s wish list. And even if you can technically afford it, doing that isn’t gonna help you reach your financial goals.

It’s okay; we’ve all been there. But luckily, there are a few cheap gifts you can give that most people will actually appreciate receiving. Now listen, these gift ideas have gotten me through a lot of birthdays and Christmases, and sharing them with you means I’m probably not going to be able to give them anymore, so, you’re welcome.

And I know what you’re thinking — homemade gifts are kinda lame. But I promise these affordable DIY Christmas gifts aren’t all macaroni necklaces and finger paintings.

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Give Treats That’ll Satisfy Every Sweet Tooth

You can’t go wrong giving the gift of deliciousness. Basically nobody is opposed to fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies (except maybe this guy). If you hand out tins of homemade baked goods to everyone you know this holiday season, chances are pretty good you’ll witness someone tear into theirs right in front of you.

Photo of cookies in holiday tin
A random stock photo of some (slightly overcooked, in my opinion) chocolate chip cookies. Baking a batch just to take a photo for this article seemed like a lot of work.

Here’s my go-to vegan chocolate chip cookie recipe (and if you’re worried about messing up, you can always use a premade mix, which is a little more expensive, or premade dough, which is a lot more expensive):

Click to expand recipe

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

2 sticks of Country Crock Plant Butter or Earth Balance Buttery Sticks (if you use the tubs instead of the sticks, you’ll need a little less than 1 cup)

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup packed dark brown sugar

2 tablespoons ground flaxseed — aka flax meal — mixed with 4 tablespoons warm water

2 teaspoons vanilla

⅓ – ½ bag (or more) of vegan chocolate chips (+ some walnuts if you’re feeling bougie)

Stir the ground flaxseed into the water first and set aside (it takes a few minutes to thicken to the goopy consistency you want). While that’s working its magic, grab a bowl and combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Get a bigger bowl for the butter and both sugars, and beat them together until creamy. It helps if the butter is room temperature — soft but not melted. Then, add the flax mix and vanilla to the butter-and-sugar combo and stir until smooth.

Dump about a third of the dry stuff into the wet stuff to incorporate, and keep adding dry to wet until fully combined (it’s just easier this way, but if you like a good shoulder workout, go ahead and pour all the dry ingredients in at once and have at it). Add in your chocolate chips, nuts, or any other mix-ins. 

You’re almost done, so pop your dough into the fridge for a few hours and take a break (I usually leave it in overnight). When you’re ready to bake, take out your dough and preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. If your dough is still too cold and firm to easily scoop out, you can toss it in the microwave and warm it in 10-second bursts. Bake 8-12 minutes to your preferred doneness. A slightly underdone cookie will stay softer longer and not dry out as easily, which is good for gifting.

We gave dessert tins to everyone in our family for a couple years in a row when we were fresh out of college, and we learned a few things on the gift-giving side…

Gif of Oprah giving gifts

Tip #1: Add in variety. While 10 chocolate chip cookies is great, five cookies and five chocolate dipped pretzels seems like more. It’s all about that psychology. Just melt down some chocolate chips, dip pretzels, and add a few toppings (like crushed peppermint, nuts, coconut flakes, or just holiday sprinkles) — it’s not that hard. You can make “bark” pretty similarly by melting chocolate chips, pouring some onto some parchment paper or aluminum foil, and adding toppings. Let it cool, and smash it into large pieces. Now you’ve got a third item for your dessert tin with roughly the same ingredients — and it looks way fancier.

Tip #2: If you have a huge family, stick to one box per household. You can’t be out here giving grandma and grandpa their own 10-cookie packs. Ain’t nobody got time for that. In all seriousness, we tried doing one per person, and it’s actually way more work than you’d think. Be realistic, or you’ll end up breaking down and buying expensive gifts anyway.

Tip #3: Get tins in different colors/shapes, or decorate them differently, especially if you’ll be handing them out in a big group. Sure, you got everybody the same gift, but it doesn’t have to look like it! If you’re really feeling the holiday spirit, you can actually personalize the treats in each pack to people’s tastes.

Gift Them Some Music They’ll Play on Repeat

Creating a mix CD, a USB drive of songs, or even a private streaming playlist for someone can be a really meaningful gift, but it’ll only work well on certain people. Your dad might not care about your indietronic BS, but maybe you have a cousin who lives to discover new music. This isn’t a catchall solution like cookies.

That said, you don’t necessarily have to be introducing them to new music either. Not many old people know how to use streaming platforms, so just burning some CDs of music your grandparents are already into could work for them, if you wanna go that route.

Photo of CDs as a Christmas gift
If you really want to lean into that nostalgic vibe, pick up a pack of Verbatim Digital Vinyl CD-Rs (sometimes cheaper on eBay).

One way to really amp up the wow factor here is to actually give a physical item, whether that’s a CD in a case or a USB drive. Don’t forget to write, color, draw on, or otherwise bejewel the outside — and definitely include a track listing. I know you might be laughing at the idea of actually burning a CD in the 2020s, but the nostalgia factor could actually earn you some extra points.

Put Your Skills to Use for Unique DIY Gifts

If you’ve got artistic skills — painting, drawing, photography, music — use them to make unique DIY gifts for your friends and family. Artists, let’s be real…nobody’s buying our work anyway, so we might as well give some away for free, am I right? 🙃

My cousin has an amazing voice, so she recorded herself singing a few Christmas songs as well as a few she’d written herself for some of us one year. It’s actually still in our camper van CD binder. Personally, we regularly print and give our own photography to friends and family members who express interest in certain images (or if we took a photo we know they’d love).

Photo of Lauren with art gift
One of our favorite photos from our trip to Sequoia National Park. Feel free to check out our art shop if you’re interested in more.

Some people may even like something you made just because you made it, which means you can choose almost any craft idea online (no, not macaroni necklaces) to make and give. Just remember that some crafts, like ornaments, can be cute or a huge fail depending on how much time and effort you put in (plus whatever natural talent you have for crafting).

I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t make Christmas gifts, but only do this if you’re actually skilled at the thing. If it ends up sucking, don’t bother giving it to anybody (just being honest).

Christmas Presents Don’t Have to Be Something You Wrap

One thing people always appreciate is when you spend your time helping them out. Does your uncle need help ripping old VHS tapes? Does your mom want to scan and digitize old printed photos? Does some old person in your family need help setting up a printer? Well, that last one you should probably just do, but the other tasks could easily be used as cheap Christmas gift ideas (especially if you use that tip about putting it on media you can decorate and wrap).

You’ve probably made chore coupon books as a kid — you know, the kind that let your parents redeem dish washing or laundry service. Well, those household chores still have to be done, and if you’re really wanting to give a gift you know will be appreciated, try offering your help around their home. This works best for parents and grandparents.

If you want to give your friends a good service-based gift, take their screaming kids off their hands. No one is going to turn down a free babysitter for a night. You can also offer to petsit, plantsit, or housesit, depending on what would be most helpful for your intended recipient. For more ideas, try to think about the responsibilities the people in your life struggle with or complain about. That’s where your gift of service could be most useful — and therefore most appreciated.

Another non-physical gift option is to share an experience with someone you care about. Obvious examples include concert tickets or a trip to Disney World, but there are plenty of great experiences that don’t cost much money, too. Try looking up your nearest National Park, State Park, or campground. Take a friend on a long bike ride. Nature is full of free entertainment and incredible destinations.

If your intended recipient isn’t much of a nature lover, you can also Google around for upcoming cheap or free events in your area. That point is that getting out of the house and spending quality time with someone can be a much better gift than any object.

Save Money on the Christmas Gifts You Do Buy

Sometimes, you just find the perfect gift you want to buy for someone in a store. There are a few ways to save money on these types of Christmas presents too, though. One thing I’ve started to do is to be on the lookout for gift ideas all year long, this way I can take advantage of seasonal sales and discounts. For example, if you’ve got a friend who’s into plants, you can score better prices at the end of spring and summer on gardening stuff as stores make room for next season’s goods. And once you know the thing you want to get someone, it’s easier to track prices online and get the best deal using promo codes or coupons.

Buying gift cards is another interesting hack to save money on giving — and I’m not talking about buying a gift card as the gift. You can buy promotional or discounted gift cards for yourself to then use when purchasing gifts for others. Around the holidays, lots of places offer gift card deals where you buy some dollar amount in gift cards and get a special bonus card for free. We’ve talked about this before as a restaurant hack, but this year I actually bought a $100 Ulta gift card to get a free $20 Ulta bonus card. Now I can use those cards to buy gifts for the ladies in my life, and whatever money is left over I can use on stuff I need throughout the year.

You can also buy discounted gift cards or coupons on eBay for stores you’ll definitely be shopping at for gifts. For example, you can buy a 10% off Lowe’s coupon, and when you use that coupon to pay for the socket set your brother wants, you reap some net savings. The more expensive the item, the more likely this is to be worth the effort. On a side note, just buying gifts on eBay in general is an often-overlooked way to save a lot of money.

No matter what, you’re probably going to have to buy some stuff this holiday season, whether it’s Christmas cards, gift wrap, or supplies for your DIY gifts. Don’t focus on getting the lowest price for these items, but rather the best unit price.

Here’s a good example of finding the best unit price from our cookie tin-giving days: Dollar Tree had a big bag of gift bows for $1 that was $3 at Walmart, but Walmart had a 5-pack of decorative tins for $3, while the dollar store charged $1 for each one. So we bought the bows at Dollar Tree and the tins at Walmart. If you’re going along with the holiday baking idea, consider buying ingredients in bulk to save money — especially if you know you’ll end up using some of those ingredients throughout the year before they go bad.

Just Don’t Forget About What’s Important

If you’ve never done this before, you might still be a little hesitant about these DIY Christmas gifts. Maybe you think they won’t be “enough.” But consider why you feel that way. You shouldn’t be guilted — whether by corporate advertisements or by your family’s expectations — to give more than what’s right for you financially.

You can create new holiday traditions based on more important things than material objects. We hardly ever exchange gifts with our best friends because none of us value that experience more than just spending time together. We’d rather cook dinner, play games, and sit around the fire pit swapping stories. No amount of stuff can ever compare to good memories and fun times.

Even with our personal de-emphasis on gift-giving, we still end up buying some Christmas gifts for people on our list. You’ll probably buy a few gifts too. But if you can replace some of those purchases with DIY gifts instead, you’ll not only save money, but (in the case of consumable gifts like cookies) you’ll also prevent clutter from accumulating around your friends’ and family members’ houses with each passing year.

And by saving money with DIY gifts, you’ll end up getting richer over time. That may sound a little selfish at first, until you realize that you can exchange money for freedom and time. That time can then be spent on the people you care about and those new traditions you’re creating instead of being spent in an office late at night working to pay for more gifts. The point of the holidays (although I’d argue that this is true any day) is to remember what’s really important to you and those you care about (it’s rarely going to be a PS5 or Gucci belt). This season, give DIY gifts, give your time, make memories that don’t involve brand names, and know that you’re doing the right thing.

— Lauren

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