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Low-Cost Gift Ideas for the Holiday Season

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I’m trying to take a step back this holiday season, to be more conscious about my actions in the gift-giving realm and focus on other ideas besides new stuff. It’s not easy; the autopilot response is to buy new gifts and wrap them in flashy new paper. Since my children are older now, I don’t feel pressure to create such a magical experience, but holidays can be special at any age so I’m trying to quell my inner Grinch and find other ways to spread joy. Here are some simple ideas to switch it up, save money, and create more fun, less resource-intensive holidays.



If you come from a large extended family, consider a secret gift exchange by drawing individual names from a hat so each person is only responsible for one gift. There are online options (here’s one option) that will help you set this up and you can even specify who should not be on someone’s list. You can also add rules for the gifts that they have to be secondhand, something you already had in your home, or to spend under a certain dollar amount.

Another fun idea is a Yankee Swap. Everyone brings one wrapped gift, preferably something second-hand or homemade, and draws a number. The person with #1 gets to choose from any of the gifts and unwraps it. The person with #2 picks a gift and then can either keep the one they chose or “swap” the gift with the first person; the process continues with the third person until everyone has chosen or swapped. The first person then gets the pick of all the gifts! It’s fun to see who gleefully swaps for another’s gift and who agonizes over the choice.



So, what can you bring that will show that you care without focusing on stuff or spending a fortune? Here are some alternative gift ideas:


Give the Gift of Experience or Skill. Are you good at organizing? Carpentry? Cooking? Sewing? Share your skills! Help clean out a loved one’s closet or their garage or teach them how to make your secret marinara sauce. Give an IOU for a guided hike to your favorite mountain or swimming hole or go on a virtual tour together. Create a scavenger hunt to share unique places in your town. Give a museum membership. As it turns out, these gifts also benefit the giver, and giving advice makes you more motivated to use your skills.


Charitable Giving in the Name of a Family Member. Think about the interests of your gift recipient. Do they like nature? Donate to a local park. Are they community-oriented? Donate to a food shelf. Love to read? The local library. Better yet? Ask them for a list of their favorite charities. One expectant mom asked for donations to a local playground as she knew she would be going there frequently with her future child.



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Make Handmade Gifts. Who doesn’t love homemade cookies, spiced nuts, fudge, jam, or soup? If you save jam and peanut butter jars, then you already have something to package them in. What about a hand-painted portrait of a family pet? A family portrait session? Or hand-knit sweater or socks? Sometimes the old stand-by ideas are the best. It turns out that handmade gifts are viewed more favorably as they are perceived as having more love.


Regift or Choose Second-Hand Gifts. Look around your home. Did you receive something that you don’t need but know that someone else will love? Regift it! Studies show that the original giver will be happy knowing the gift will be appreciated by someone. What about that great book or intricate puzzle you just finished? Wrap them up and pass them on! If you need to look elsewhere for a gift, shop secondhand stores first. Your gift will have been previously loved and your purchase will keep it in circulation and not headed for the landfill. We call this “Thriftmas!


Shop Local. Lastly, if you need to buy something new, try your local stores first. The money you spend will stay in the local economy and continue to support your neighbors.


Thanks to the Center for Biological Diversity for many of these ideas. Check out for even more ideas.



Now that you’ve got the gift, make a beautiful wrapping out of things around your home – a scarf or pillow or reusable gift bag. I save maps and newspapers for wrapping that I jazz up with ribbons that I have saved over the years. I also have star and snowflake stamps and stamp pads in festive colors to make packages look brighter. The stamps can also be used to dress up envelopes for your IOUs or gift certificates.

I acknowledge that the holidays are not always about consuming less as some people need to consume more to have even their basic needs met. Please support organizations helping those less fortunate during the holiday season and throughout the year. Volunteering your time is a gift for these organizations that gives back to you in immeasurable (and innumerable) ways!

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Anne Bijur

About Anne Bijur

Anne Bijur joined the Waste Management and Prevention Division of Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources in 2017 and works with a team to implement Vermont’s recycling, composting, and waste reduction initiatives. She is a sustainability professional with more than 15 years’ experience designing and delivering education and communication programs for both the non-profit and private sector, including Shelburne Farms and AllEarth Renewables.
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