Although some people go all out during the holidays and buy big-ticket items for everyone on their list, others think sticking to a budget is a priority — or necessity.
Find Out: 30 Gift-Giving Ideas for Tight Budgets
To help you spend less on Christmas gifts this year, GOBankingRates asked personal finance experts and money-saving pros to share the best gifts they bought for $20 or less. Click through to see these inexpensive gift ideas.
Last updated: Dec. 21, 2020
A Unique Experience
Philip Taylor is the founder of the personal finance blog PT Money and FinCon. The best gift he ever bought for less than $20 was a unique experience.
“A couple of years ago, I bought our family an annual membership to a local museum and wildlife sanctuary,” he said. “It worked out to around $16 per person.” His family went several times during the year to take hikes and have picnics. “It really brought our little family together outdoors,” he said.
Shannon McLay, founder of financial services company The Financial Gym, favors practical gifts.
“I love giving touchscreen gloves as a holiday gift,” she said. “Most of us are obsessed with our phones these days, so gloves to help us use them in the cold weather are a necessity, [and] they’ve also got lots of different styles for men and women that cost between $10 and $15.”
Electronics are popular gifts, but they can be pricey. Kyle Taylor of The Penny Hoarder found an affordable alternative: low-cost, portable speakers. He picked up OrigAudio foldable speakers, which don’t require external power and were recently listed for $6.39 on Newegg.
“I’ve given away these cardboard speakers many times,” Taylor said. “They’re great for taking to the beach, hiking, etc., and I don’t ever worry about getting them dirty or losing them.”
Lauren Greutman, author of “The Recovering Spender,” uses her money-saving prowess to score low-cost gifts for her children. “We purchased photo books for the kids for $5 each,” she said. “We have four kids, so we spent $20 on all four books.”
She got the photo books for such a low price because she took advantage of coupons and Black Friday deals for sites like Snapfish and Shutterfly. She uploaded family photos from the past year to create the books online.
“They make the best memories and, above every other present, these are always their favorites,” Greutman said.
J.D. Roth, editor of Get Rich Slowly and author of “The Money Boss Manifesto,” said his family has a strict rule for adults who want to exchange gifts at Christmas: No more than $5 can be spent. It can be tough to find a good gift in that price range, he said, but he lucked out one year.
“One autumn, I was browsing at a local antique store when I found an old photo of a cool young couple from the 1920s or 1930s,” Roth said. “Out of curiosity, I flipped it over. I recognized the couple’s names: they were my sister-in-law’s grandparents. I bought the photo for $3 and found a cheap $2 frame at a thrift store. For $5, I gave her a framed photo of her grandmother and grandfather. She loved it.”
Shopping: 29 Ways To Save on Holiday Gifts
Notes and Poems
Emma Johnson, founder of WealthySingleMommy and host of the “Like a Mother” podcast, puts her skills to use to create thoughtful gifts that don’t cost a dime.
“I am a professional writer, and when I am lost for what to give, I remember that this is one of my greatest skills, and I share it with those I care for,” Johnson said. “This has included poems I write to my kids about what I love about them; a loving note to relatives about what they mean to me; or an essay to a lover about our time together. The cost, of course, is free, but the results are something that is memorable, personal, and appreciated.”
The founders of DebtFreeGuys, John Schneider and David Auten, know a thing or two about being money conscious after paying off $51,000 of debt. They recognize you don’t have to spend much on gifts to create lasting memories.
“The best holiday gift we ever gave that was under $20 was the year we invited three of the older people who live in our condominiums to our place for Christmas breakfast,” Schneider said. “With French toast, bacon, coffee, orange juice, and mixed fruit, we spent $11 per person for three hours of talking and laughing. We got a great history lesson, and our guests had a way to celebrate on Christmas Day.”
File this suggestion away for Christmas 2021, since it’s not safe to be gathering with people outside your household indoors — especially not oldsters.
Handmade Coffee Mug
Family finance expert Cat Alford discovered that giving something handmade for Christmas is both thoughtful and economical. “When I lived in the Caribbean, there weren’t many shopping malls or places to buy traditional gifts,” Alford said. “For $20, I spent a day with a local potter who taught me how to sculpt a coffee cup for my husband.”
Alford said she spent an entire day at the studio making the cup, then the potter fired and glazed it. “My husband loved that I put time and thought into his gift, and he still uses the coffee cup to this day,” she said.
Deacon Hayes of Well Kept Wallet dug himself and his wife out of $52,000 in debt and now helps others do the same. So, he knows how important it is not to overspend — even on holiday gifts. Remember: You don’t have to spend a lot to give a thoughtful gift.
“A couple of years ago, my father-in-law got into photography,” Hayes said. “We wanted to get him a Christmas gift that would align with his newfound interest, so we decided to get him a year-long subscription to Outdoor Photography. Not only did he love it, [but] it only cost $10.99 for an entire year.”
Food for Families in Need
Rachel Underhill of SavingsAngel has found that opting for gifts that help others can be an affordable way to give something to someone who already has everything. Last year, instead of buying her mother-in-law, who was trying to downsize, a gift, Underhill opted to buy two chickens for a family in need through Food for the Hungry.
“She was touched, and the gift meant more than just giving her a gift card for a restaurant,” she said.
The Five-Minute Journal
Jeff Rose, a certified financial planner and founder of GoodFinancialCents, said one of the best gifts he bought for about $20 was “The Five-Minute Journal” for his wife. The journal is meant to be an easy way to chronicle what you’re grateful for each day. Rose’s wife used it to write down good things — or daily wins — that happened throughout her day.
“What made it such a great gift was we started sharing our daily wins together each night before we went to bed,” Rose said. “It forces us to be intentionally grateful for all the little things that we too often overlook.” And, it helped them grow closer as a couple, he said.
Burt’s Bees Products
Gift-giving has always been important to Donna Freedman, author of “Your Playbook for Tough Times: Living Large on Small Change, for the Short Term or the Long Haul” — even when she was going through tough times and had little money for gifts. So, she used frugal hacks to put something under the Christmas tree for her disabled adult daughter.
Freedman cashed in points from a rewards credit card and the MyPoints program to get a $25 Macy’s gift card and bookstore gift cards, which she used to buy a Burt’s Bees gift set and calendar.
“Even though [my daughter] didn’t go many places, she still liked to look nice; the calendar helped her keep track of medical appointments, and the Burt’s Bees products felt luxurious,” Freedman said. And it cost her nothing because she remembered to take advantage of credit card rewards.
Jim Wang, founder of WalletHacks, gives an affordable — yet much appreciated — gift to his parents every year. It costs him less than $20 to create a calendar with photos of his family and his sister’s family.
“They absolutely love it,” he said. “The best part is we also give it to my wife’s parents but swap out my sister’s family for hers. It’s a time commitment to put together, but it’s so much more valuable than the financial cost.”
Locally Made Food
Kate Dore is the owner and editor of Cashville Skyline, a personal finance blog. When it comes to affordable gifts, she’s all about buying local.
“The best gifts I’ve given for $20 or less have always been products from Nashville’s local ‘foodpreneurs,'” said Dore, who often spends $5 to $15 on items she takes to family in the North. “I spend the holidays where I grew up near Boston, so local honey, hot chicken paste, small-batch homemade chai or Southern stone-ground chocolate are always appreciated,” she said.
It’s only natural that Joe Saul-Sehy, host of the popular personal finance podcast Stacking Benjamins, gives gifts that are meant to help others improve their personal finances.
“Last year, I filled my kids’ phones with financial tech apps,” Saul-Sehy said. “Digit to get started saving. Mint to start a budget. Robinhood for a basic investing account.” All three of those apps are free. “I also bought my nephews each $20 worth of stock from Stockpile,” he said. “You can buy fractional shares, and it’s easy to set up.”
Beginner Coding Course
Grayson Bell, founder of Debt Roundup, discovered that one of the best gifts you can give is one that helps someone learn a money-making skill. He bought a beginner coding course online for $9 for a friend who wanted to learn how to code.
“He took the course and began to extend his coding knowledge after its completion,” Bell said. “He now has a nice side hustle coding websites for people. So, the course was an awesome gift because it was frugal for me but potentially life-changing for him.”
A great gift is one that shows the giver put thought into it. It’s even better if it doesn’t cost the giver a lot. Lauren Young, workplace, finance, and digital expert for Reuters, found just that gift.
“I just bought my friend the cutest egg cup, shaped like a hen, for $16 at an antique store in Western Connecticut,” she said. “My friend is a foodie who collects egg cups, so it’s the perfect gift.”
Chris Peach, founder of Money Peach, said that the best gift he bought for less than $20 was one that he’s reluctant to admit to. During the 2008 shopping season, he was struggling to find something to put in his wife’s stocking for Christmas. So, he drove to the drugstore and walked up and down the aisles looking for the right thing.
“Then I saw it: the Snuggie. In case you might have already forgotten, the Snuggie was the result of the blanket and coat combining forces to become the ugly blanket with sleeves to keep you cozy on the couch,” said Peach, who confessed that the couple still owns it.
‘Girls Night In’ Voucher
Melanie Lockert, founder of DearDebt and author of “Dear Debt: A Story About Breaking Up With Debt,” said that her best frugal holiday gift was one that she gave to a friend. She created a voucher for a “Girls Night In” that entitled her friend to a night of fun when redeemed.
“We did face masks, watched movies, and had a $5 bottle of Trader Joe’s wine,” Lockert said. “It was a unique, fun gift that allowed us to spend time together without spending lots of money.”
Stacy Rapacon — a personal finance writer for Kiplinger, CNBC and Grow — said photo items have been her go-to inexpensive gifts. “For example, last year I made my kids a photo book about my late sister, written in the style of a children’s book, complete with pictures of her from throughout her life,” Rapacon said. “It cost about $18, including shipping. And we often read it.”
As a result, her children seem to know Rapacon’s sister even though they never got a chance to meet her. “So, it was as much a gift to me and the whole family as it was for them,” she said.
Other photo gifts she’s given include cellphone cases, calendars, mugs and framed photos.
J. Money, founder of Rockstar Finance, said the best gift is cash. “My favorite gift to give people — especially teenagers — is actually a $20 bill,” he said. “But I attach a note to it that says they can only use it toward something that will return back more money down the line.”
He expects them to invest in a stock, bond, certificate of deposit, or — better yet — themselves. “Kids tend to like spending money, so this gives them free rein to experiment a little, and at the same time learning from it,” he said.
Rachel Foxwell, the blogger behind the millennial finance website The Latte Budget, suggests giving time instead of a material object for the holidays.
“The gift of time is not only one of the most meaningful gifts, but it can be one of the most helpful,” she said. “Everyone could use additional help in some area of their life — whether it’s a house cleaning, organizing, cleaning up the lawn, or a special project.”
Indoor Herb Garden
Personal finance writer Lauren Schwahn suggests that budget-conscious gifters looking for a unique present should consider an indoor herb garden.
“Save the chef or aspiring chef in your life a trip to the farmers market for fresh ingredients,” she said. “You can pick up an herb garden kit at Target. Or grab seeds and supplies from your local hardware store to make a crafty DIY version.”
Canadian personal finance blogger Alan Whitton suggests re-gifting mint-condition items that you — or your children, in the case of toys — might no longer want.
“What potentially great toys for your nieces, nephews or your own kids do you have gathering dust in your basement?” He said. “Do you feel funny about regifting? You shouldn’t.”
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