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How to Make Cheap Gifts Look Expensive

Updated on November 11, 2011

In this economy, finding just the right gift for just the right person without breaking your budget can really add stress to a holiday that's supposed to spread peace on earth and goodwill to men. There is absolutely nothing wrong with shopping clearance deals and close-out stores to find gifts at bargain prices. This article offers tips for lending a personal touch to such gifts giving them a heartfelt, and sometimes more expensive look.

Arts and Crafts

Local craft stores offer endless possibilities for inexpensive gift ideas, especially when it comes to refurbishing an existing item. For instance, with a little glue, some glitter, and a piece of ribbon or yarn you can turn plain ornaments into artistic creations. The same goes for sprucing up items found at thrift stores and flea markets.

One of the most well received gifts I ever gave anyone was a large, wooden cigar box purchased at the local smoke shop for just a couple of dollars that I gave to a co-worker a week or so before Christmas. I sanded the box down and painted it dark green. Then, using pages of sheet music from a music book purchased at Goodwill for a quarter, I cut out paper snowflakes and decoupaged them here and there onto the box. I placed them so they folded over the sides in places, and in the center placed a vintage-looking label printed on cardstock from the convenience of my home computer. I wrote "WRAPPING SUPPLIES" on the label, and then tossed in some cheap gift tags, tape, a pair of scissors, and an ink pen, all purchased at the local store where everything cost one dollar. My co-worker loved it, and after the holidays told me several times how much it came in handy when wrapping last-minute gifts.

Vacation Mementos as Gifts

Sure, not many people on vacation in the summer are thinking ahead to Christmas. But it's inevitable that most people take vacation photos. Online companies like Snapfish or businesses like Costco and Walgreens offer photo services including the option to turn your favorite photographic memories into gifts. Every year for around $10 I order a calendar for my in-laws, and it's always a hit. Since they don't live nearby it gives them a chance to keep photos of their grandchildren around without having to find space for more picture frames. I've also ordered coffee mugs, Christmas ornaments, and photo books without any trouble at all. The gifts look professional and are very personal.

If your budget doesn't allow you to use services from a company, no worries! Lately dollar and craft stores are selling their own version of a make-your-own photo calendar for under $5. And close-out stores sell previous year's photo-related gifts -- like albums, pillows, and tote bags -- for a fraction of the original cost. These make especially nice presents for parents, grandparents, and sitters. And they don't just work well for babysitters! Last year for our family's dog sitter, I used a metallic sharpie to personalize a standard ball ornament. A bit of curling ribbon added a festive touch. She said it was by far one of her favorite gifts. A little creativity can go a long way to add a personal touch to an otherwise generic gift.

Edible Gift Ideas

Gifts in a jar aren't as popular as they were in the mid-to-late 90's. However, they usually go over well with teachers and co-workers. Unless the recipient suffers from allergies, you can almost never go wrong with edible gifts. Some of the ones I've given with great success in the past were: specialty cocoa mixes, bean soup, M&M cookies, rocky road brownies, and chai latte mix. Finding recipes for these are easy, and the drink mixes can be broken down into smaller jelly jars which means more gifts for the same price as the big mixture.

Dinner baskets are also a great idea that don't have to cost a mint. A kitchen towel from the dollar store makes a perfect lining regardless of the theme. Here are some I've done in the past:

  • Spaghetti - Line a cheap colander with a cheap kitchen towel then add a box of noodles, jar of sauce, spaghetti stirrer, and perhaps a matching kitchen timer or magnet.
  • Chili - Fill a basket or a cheap soup pot with a large can of crushed tomatoes, a can of light red kidney beans, a can of dark red kidney beans, a can of black beans, a can of corn, and a small can of chili peppers. Add some wooden spoons, hot sauce, and for a comedic effect perhaps a small bottle of heartburn relief pills.
  • Cake - Fill a cheap cake pan with a can of no-stick cooking spray, a box of cake mix, a container of frosting, candied decorations for the top of the cake, a kitchen towel, and some wooden spoons. If you want to get fancy, toss in a package of snowflake themed paper plates and matching napkins.

If you're a whiz in the kitchen, think about food dishes you cook that get the best reviews. For instance, my mom makes this delicious apple cake. The recipe uses honey instead of sugar, and once baked each bite literally seems to melt in your mouth. One year for Christmas she invested in some mini-bundt pans and spent an entire day baking dozens of cakes. The result was a huge success. Her co-workers, friends, and family enjoyed the delicious fruits of her labor, and it didn't cost her a fortune to make them.

Please share your ideas!

You're welcome to share your ideas on this topic or any other comments in the spaces below. I'd love to hear from you!


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  • tammyswallow profile image

    Tammy 6 years ago from North Carolina

    Great ideas. I think I will try some of these suggestions this year. Thanks!

  • Leslie Jo Barra profile image

    Leslie Jo Barra 6 years ago

    Great hub with wonderful penny saving ideas!