First things first: The dollar store is your best friend in the time you have left, and not just as a place to score gifts on the cheap. It’s where you can get most of the supplies needed for the DIY ideas below (but not the vodka), saving you massive amounts of money, especially if you create these gifts in bulk.
If you’re not a DIY kinda person, no worries. We’ve got some easy suggestions for gifts you can still buy, and then add some quickie homemade flair — from the dollar store — so that it will look like you planned your gifts months ago. (Okay, maybe not months, but not five minutes ago, anyway.)
With all that out of the way, here are some ideas so you don’t suck at last-minute gifts.
FOR THE DIY-ERS:
Anything in a jar: Maybe you have a grandma or great-aunt who still makes her own jams, mustard, salsa, anthrax (okay, maybe not the anthrax). Lots of people don’t have that special family member anymore, but it’s hard to go wrong with a homemade treat. Start with some pretty jars from the dollar store, and earmark a couple of hours for prep work. If you make these gifts in bulk, you can drive down your time and costs.
Try some of these recipes: 30-minute jam, pickles, salsa, ketchup and mustard and hot sauce. If you’re not a foodie, here are some other great jar ideas.
Self-contained terrarium: We’re all busy these days, and that means it’s common for the plants in our lives to suffer. Fatally. My home is guilty, except for one plant, housed in a large, plastic Utz pretzel container. My kid brought it home six years ago after winning a classroom raffle at the end of first grade. It gets minimal direct light and we’ve never opened the screw top. Here are some strategies to make your own from SproutHome.com and The Ecology Center.
Photo gifts: In these days of digital everything, lots of homes lack traditional printed photo albums. This is an easy one. E-mail or upload the photos you want to your local pharmacy superstore, office supply store or anyplace else that prints photos, and pick up a photo album at the dollar store or another retailer. Add photos and voila! Thoughtful present done. Or just as simple, print out a 5×7 or two and frame them (again, dollar store).
The gift of music: It’s not just for high-schoolers anymore. Create and burn a CD of someone’s favorite songs. This doesn’t have to be a romantic gift (though it could be). Think of a theme if that helps. If they like Christmas, make it holiday tunes. If you shared an island vacation together, go for some Bob Marley. If it’s for your parents, add delight from the year they got married or graduated from high school. If you have some extra cash, add a $10 gift card for iTunes, Google, Amazon or wherever they buy their music from and wrap it all together in a dollar store basket.
Memorialize a memory: Turn knick-knacks, photos, ticket stubs and other items into a personalized shadow box. Take memories from a special day you spent with your gift recipient and create a gift worth giving. For example, if you’ve spent days on the beach with your recipient, make a beach photo the centerpiece of a shadow box (um, dollar store), and glue in some sand and shells. Or for a concert, print a photo of the band, and add a ticket stub and other paraphernalia to a shadow box. Or for a grandparent or favorite uncle, take photos of the kids, and add a toy figurine, LEGO or the like and create the same. You can shadow box just about anything.
Make ugly sweaters into ugly pants: Take part in a frightening new trend — swants, or sweater pants. Yes, that’s right. You turn a sweater into pants. It’s the perfect gift for that relative who can’t seem to stop buying you all those sweaters for the holidays, or for anyone who could use warm legs. Even if you’re not handy with a sewing machine or needle and thread, you can pull this one off. In fact, we dare you. And please, send your photos to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Family cookbook: Collect your favorite family recipes and add them to a book. Use a handwritten notebook (yes, dollar store) or print them out and add them to a binder.
To get you started, here’s a new favorite for you: “Not Suck Chili,” courtesy of my mother-in-law.
1 lb. chopped meat
2 bottles Heinz Chili Sauce
1 small can tomato sauce
1 can Progresso red kidney beans
1 large onion
bag o’ your favorite tortilla chips
Brown chopped meat in a pan. Drain oils (unless you like ’em, like we do). Place browned meat into large pot. Add chili sauce and tomato sauce and stir. Simmer. Chop onion, not too fine, and add to the pot. Shake in black and hot pepper — 15 shakes each, or about 1 tsp. each, for you specific folks. Stir and simmer for 60 minutes. As you go, taste and add additional pepper(s) to taste. Cook white rice per box’s instructions. Rise beans, and stir them into the chili mix 10 minutes before serving. Serve with tortilla chips, and eat.
Other expertise: If you’re not a chef, you’re sure to have some talents your loved ones could benefit from. Create a guidebook, with photos (selfies work just fine) and step-by-step instructions for something you’re good at: plumbing or other home improvement tips, ironing, scanning a computer for viruses, saving money and budgeting — anything! You can add a subscription to a specialty magazine to match your topic, toss them together in a dollar store basket and you’re all done.
Family tree/history: Talk to your relatives and get the scoop on your family’s history, and create a family tree that can be framed and hung up. To go with it, write some stories your family will never want to forget: the time Uncle Bob got his tie stuck in the blender; the Thanksgiving when MaryLou dropped the hot bowl of mashed potatoes and they exploded all the way up to the ceiling (okay, I did that once); that unforgettable moment when Joey’s dog peed on the Christmas tree. Leave extra pages so the receiver of the gift can add more tales as time passes. Place it all in a (let’s say it together now!) dollar store basket with a few nice pens.
Homemade alcohol: Give a holiday de-stressor that packs a punch. Buy a few large bottles of your favorite vodka and infuse some flavor — your favorite fruity candy, mints, fruit or even — gasp! — bacon. You can do this in bulk, and add the spirits to smaller bottles from the dollar store. Try this guide on how to make your own distillery of sorts.
IF YOU MUST GO SHOPPING
Movie night: Get some movie rental coupons or buy a few cheapie classic movies (you can get many online for under $10) and add to a dollar store basket with some microwave popcorn, maybe a bottle of wine or other beverage.
For tea or coffee lovers: Buy a few flavored teas or coffees, or both, and add to a basket with a mug or two. If you want to splurge for a coffee grinder — the simple ones go for as little as 10 bucks — buy beans instead of ground coffee.
Kid art: Ask your child to create a special painting or drawing for that special someone, then frame it for art, or laminate it as a placemat. Or, help your kid cut out and decorate some tall and skinny drawings, then have them laminated as bookmarks. If you’re splurging, add a book or two and create a reader’s basket.
Game night: Classic board games come pretty cheap. Buy a couple, or just one, and wrap together with a note remembering your favorite memories of playing the game with the receiver.
For travelers: If that special someone has a trip planned, put together a basket with essential travel items: a guidebook or history book about the destination, a travel alarm clock and a toiletry bag with small, carry-on-size-approved bottles for shampoo and other liquids.
Help the wanna-be: Create a basket of quality kitchen tools for someone who wants to be a better cook. Add in some potholders or kitchen towels. You can buy those and the basket at the dollar store, of course, but you may want to go slightly higher end for the kitchen tools.
For someone with a new home: Give them their junk drawer in a basket: small flashlight, batteries, screwdrivers of varying sizes, duct tape (you can never have too much duct tape, and you never know when it will come in handy), picture hooks, safety pins. Open up your junk drawer for some ideas.
Get girly, even for the guys: Fill a basket with some bubble bath, bath oils, a nail care kit, hand cream and the like. Don’t forget the good old loofa sponge.
For drivers: Put together an emergency kit so your loved ones are never stuck out on the road unprepared.
For your techie: A thumb drive and some writable DVDs and/or CDs. And of course, a dollar store basket.
Get puzzled: Put together a basket of crossword puzzle and Sudoku books, and get a little retro by adding Mad Libs.
For… well, anyone: Buy a few shot glasses and choose a bunch of mini-liquor bottles. Toss them in a dollar store basket and hope your receiver wants to share after they open it.
What are your quick and cheap last-minute gift ideas? Leave a comment or write us at email@example.com and share the wealth!
Have a topic you’d like to see covered in How To Not Suck? Or maybe you’re an expert who would like to share your insight with Consumerist readers? Send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can read Karin Price Mueller’s stories for The Star-Ledger at NJ.com, follow her on Facebook, and on Twitter @kpmueller.
PREVIOUSLY ON HOW TO NOT SUCK:
How To Not Suck… At Saving For The Holidays
How To Not Suck… At Charitable Giving
How To Not Suck… At Disputing Credit Report Errors
How To Not Suck… At Lowering Your Utility Bills
How To Not Suck… At Home Inspections
How To Not Suck… At Understanding Credit Card Rewards
How To Not Suck… At Getting Ready For Tax Season
How To Not Suck… At Picking A Retirement Plan
How To Not Suck… At Deciding When To DIY
How To Not Suck… At Getting Out Of Debt
How To Not Suck… At First Year College Budgets
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