The Broke-As-A-Joke Holiday Gift Guide

Between family gatherings, friendly get-togethers, office White Elephants, and school Secret Santas, any resemblance between the amount of money you spend on gifts and the amount you can actually spare tends to get washed away in a deluge of social expectations.

The annual Bloodfeast of Capitalism is upon us. From now until the end of the year, just about every public space is a gladiatorial arena where the drive to consume battles to the death with basic human decency and dignity, the screams drowned out by unnecessary pop covers of Bing Crosby songs.

A Gallup survey conducted in November suggests that Americans anticipate spending an average of nearly $900 apiece on holiday presents in 2017, the highest that number has been in a decade. Where is anybody coming up with that kind of money? Aren’t we in an affordable housing crisis? But that’s what happens during the gift-giving season: Between family gatherings, friendly get-togethers, office White Elephants, and school Secret Santas, any resemblance between the amount of money you spend on gifts and the amount you can actually spare tends to get washed away in a deluge of social expectations.

I hate this, because gifts are my love language. There is nothing I find more satisfying than picking out something amazing that someone I love will cherish forever. But the annual ritual sacrifice of our collective credit scores in the name of holiday togetherness is a pain in the ass. It’s an obligation, not a joy, and it ruins anything genuine and beautiful about the tradition. I am really ready to see a cultural shift away from mandatory exchanges of Amazon gift cards and toward more personal, meaningful expressions of affection.

With this in mind, I support anyone who’s making an effort to cut down on the stuff this year, or opt out entirely. At the same time, gift-giving is my favorite thing about the season, and I’m not about to let go of it just because my bank account desperately wishes I would. So while I’m decking the halls with paper snowflakes made from student loan statements, I’ve also put together this list of inexpensive gifts your friends and family will love.

  • Where The Art Is: If you are a crafty or creative person, you’re probably not even reading this because you’ve got the homemade gifts thing on lock. My brother the artist makes these beautiful paintings for one or two people in our family every year, and they are the best thing anyone could ever get for Christmas. If you’re good at knitting or crocheting or sewing or cross-stitch, your problem is likely to be narrowing down all your brilliant gift ideas into what you have time for. Art supplies aren’t always cheap, of course, so a handmade gift can easily become the most expensive thing on your list, but every crafter has a stash of leftover supplies from old projects. Make an abstract collage or crochet a snowflake ornament from scrap yarn – this could be the start of a new annual tradition!
  • Spa Days: A homemade sugar scrub is so freaking easy and cheap, and you can customize it endlessly to suit your recipient’s tastes. My relatives ask for this ever since I made a bunch of little jars one year with lavender and vanilla beans. You can also whip up homemade lip balm, hand or foot soak, bath bombs, soaps, and more with a little help from the internet and a few bucks’ worth of materials. If you really want to go all out, invite your loved one over to use all your gifts at once while drinking sangria (made with Two-Buck Chuck, of course).
  • A Thousand Words: A photo of you and your loved one together, a treasured memory you share, a place you both adore…you can use a cheap frame or one you already have lying around, spend a buck at Walgreens, and remind someone of your smiling face every day of their life. The more they like you, the better this is. If you’ve got a little more time, make a photo album. This doesn’t need to be an elaborate scrapbook with fancy (and expensive) paper; one of my most treasured possessions is the collection of photos my best friend made for me using a glue stick, a sheet of stickers, and a pocket-sized spiral notebook. She filled it with handwritten notes about our inside jokes and favorite places, and I keep it in a place of honor on my bookshelf.
  • Pump Up the Volume: The same friend who made me the photo album was the unsung master of the thrifty-but-invaluable present game, because she also made me a truly excellent duo of mix CDs that I always keep within arm’s reach. Selections from concerts we went to together, soundtracks of our favorite movies, and go-to dance party requests mean that listening to them is the next best thing to hanging out with her. It even includes a burst of amused irritation every time I get to that one song she knew I hated and slipped in there just to piss me off. Inspired by her example, I made my partner a mix CD of love songs for Valentine’s Day one year, and it’s been the soundtrack to every road trip we’ve taken since. Handwritten liner notes and a cover you inked yourself are always a nice touch, but even a personalized Spotify playlist is a great way to show someone you care.
  • Feed me, Seymour: Homemade cookies, fudge, brownies, jam, salsa, granola, pancake mix…the possibilities are endless. This is an especially great gift if your recipient has food restrictions and you give them something delicious that they can actually eat. (If you don’t have food allergies in your family, you may be unfamiliar with the delight such a person can feel when faced with the simple fact of a treat that won’t make them sick.) Throw in a handwritten recipe card so they can recreate it any time.
  • Give the gift of knowledge. Teach someone to knit a hat, bake a flawless vegan muffin, change a tire, or apply winged eyeliner that doesn’t come out asymmetrical, and they will be a more well-rounded human being and love you forever about it. You can present this gift as a lovely homemade coupon good for an hour of one-on-one instruction – just like those chore vouchers you made your parents when you were a kid, except that you’re actually going to honor this one.
  • If you have a chef on your list but can’t afford any fancy kitchen gadgets, take them to get their knives professionally sharpened. You have never seen true joy until you’ve watched a food nerd chop up a whole farmer’s market worth of vegetables with a newly sharpened blade, and it’s really affordable – my partner got three knives done for $15 last weekend.
  • Just a letter or card with a heartfelt personal note about how much they mean to you. It takes 15 minutes, costs anywhere from a few bucks to nothing at all, and is guaranteed to remain a fond memory longer than anything you can get from a Cyber Monday sale. The point of giving gifts isn’t to fulfill your loved ones’ every earthly longing, it’s to let them know that they’re important to you, and that doesn’t have to cost a dime.

Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine,, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, a really cute baby, and two very spoiled cats. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick (Plume, 2016).

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