Whenever I see a typical gift idea list, I have two immediate frustrations.
One, the gifts on it are often expensive. If there’s someone out there I’m going to be spending $100 or more on for a gift, it’s very likely that I know that person well enough that I don’t have to be looking at a gift list for ideas. Gift lists are good for that last-minute person or for the person you don’t know that well, not for your spouse.
That leads to the second problem. Gift lists usually seem to be just tossed together, like someone literally went to and did a search for items in a certain category and made a list out of the top few results. I might like two or three of the items and then have no idea why some of the other ones were even on the list.
This is a list that addresses both of those problems. It’s a list of gifts that cost $10 or less that I would be happy to receive. That’s the common theme here – if I opened these items on Christmas morning, I would be quite happy.
The purpose of sharing a list like this is simple: it’s here to inspire you when you need a good last-minute gift idea that meets at least some standard of quality and doesn’t cost too much. Use these ideas directly or get something that you were inspired to get based on this list.
If you feel that $10 is too cheap, get two or three items off the list and wrap them up together. Many of these items have great synergy together and most of them could combine into an eclectic mixed gift.
The most important thing to remember is that a holiday gift is simply a sign that you care. Slip a handwritten note that wishes the recipient a joyous year to come and says that you love them along with the gift and you make it even more meaningful.
Anyway, here are twenty-five inexpensive ideas that I’m a fan of.
1. Sturdy pocket notebooks, like Field Notes
I carry these constantly and fill up about one a week with miscellaneous ideas and notes and doodles and other things. It helps with short-term memory. It helps with brainstorming. It helps with working through complex ideas. Not only that, a completed one is something of a journal of where my mind has been focused over the last week or so.
Since I keep them in my pocket constantly, I prefer sturdy ones. Field Notes are sturdy, as are the similarly-priced pocket notebooks from Scout Books, Word., and Doane Paper. They’re small and unobtrusive, too, which is important for pocket carrying.
2. The card game Hanabi
This is an excellent cooperative card game for two to five players. It requires teamwork, good communication, and smart decision-making to win and it’s short enough that it can be played over and over again.
In fact, my copy of this game is actually starting to look pretty worn. Some of the cards are becoming marked from overuse, which is a sign that it may need to be retired soon.
3. A memory stick full of interesting stuff
Memory sticks are useful tools and even multi-gigabyte ones are very inexpensive today. You can just plug them into the USB port on your computer and copy data on and off of the device, then hand it to a friend who can do the same, making data sharing easy. I’ve given and received USB memory sticks with all kinds of information on them to friends and coworkers over the years.
You can amp this kind of gift up another level by pre-loading the memory stick with personalized information – family photographs, collections of audio and video recordings, and so on. With just a bit of effort, you can turn something useful into something quite meaningful as well.
4. A thoughtful life-changing book, like Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin or Getting Things Done by David Allen
What book has had the greatest impact on your life? What book has caused you to move your life in a strictly better direction? That book is probably going to be a great idea for a gift for someone you care about.
The two books listed above have both had a great impact on my own life. My copies of these books are littered with highlights and handwritten scribbles because I’ve read and re-read and worn these books out. Why? Because they’re deeply meaningful to me.
5. A great chocolate bar, like Chocolove Almonds & Sea Salt in Dark Chocolate
A really good chocolate bar – like pretty much any of the Chocolove bars – makes for a very good gift idea for a lot of people. It’s something that can be consumed and deeply enjoyed without taking up much space at all.
Even better, a gift like a chocolate bar is a great social tool. You can break off a piece of chocolate and share it with practically anyone so that you can both enjoy that momentary pleasure of the taste of a good piece of chocolate.
A good pair of merino wool socks will simultaneously keep your feet warm and comfortable while also doing a great job of wicking away any moisture if they get a bit more than warm.
Given my propensity for wearing socks into oblivion, a good pair of well-made socks is always a good gift. I’ll wear a good pair of socks for years and years.
7. A few packets of interesting seeds
As avid gardeners, Sarah and I always enjoy devoting a bit of our garden to unusual seeds each year, so a packet or two of interesting seeds is usually an inspiration to me. The timing of such a gift – during the holiday season – is about perfect so that we can start planning our garden out early in the new year, taking into account the new seeds.
A good source for unusual seeds is Seed Savers. Many food co-ops and better gardening stores have a good selection of unusual seeds to browse through, too.
8. Colorful earbuds, like these JBuds
I like to listen to podcasts and audiobooks while I go on walks around my neighborhood, but I have a bad tendency to misplace the earbuds I use. It’s almost always good for me to have an extra pair around – I usually keep a pair in my daily bag and in my vehicle as well as a pair or two at my desk.
An extra pair in a nice color is never a bad idea. Even if I don’t need a pair right this moment, they will see use.
This might seem like a great idea for a child, but why would I like it? Well, I’m a parent, and a gift like this would give me a great opportunity to sit down at a table and make some drawings with my children. I do that sometimes anyway, but a gift like this becomes a ticket to spend time with them on a creative project.
We’ll do things like draw complementary pictures, or we’ll both try drawing the same scene that we made up together and see how the pictures are different. A gift like this, addressed to a parent and a child with a note to draw some pictures together, can be a great way to encourage some quality family time.
10. A local food item from your area
Every area has an unusual local food item or two, like Cheerwine soda in the South Carolina area or Sterzing’s potato chips in the southeast Iowa area. It is always fun to try these local favorites, particularly if you’re not from that area.
This is a great idea for someone who isn’t from your area. If you’re traveling a good distance for your gift exchange, local food items will almost always click as a novel gift for the recipient.
11. A box of tea, like this Box of Harney & Son’s Paris Tea
I enjoy drinking teas, particularly in the afternoons when I need a pick-me-up or before bed when I drink a calming chamomile to send me off to sleep. I like trying different teas, too.
A box of special unique tea is a great idea for anyone in your life who enjoys drinking teas. You’re probably better off getting a smaller but higher-quality item – for example, the one I linked to is more likely more expensive than tea you’ll find at the grocery store. I’d far rather receive the gift of one good tea than a mountain of mediocre ones.
12. Quality pens like the Uniball Signo 207 Ultra Micro
I write in my personal journal and in my pocket notebook all the time. That means that I simply wear out pens over time. I often wind up running pens completely out of ink and while I do have a “nice” pen set that I refill, I usually have several good quality pens around.
For me, the Uniball Signo 207 series is the absolute best bang for the buck pen out there. I absolutely love the black ultra micro pens – they write well with a thin line without smearing or smudging at all. I am always happy to have a few of these on hand.
13. A pocket chess set
For years, I carried a pocket chess set around with me. I would use it to play games with people and I would also usually keep a great match or two written out on chess notation on a piece of paper folded up inside so that I could move through the match step by step and study it.
I still wish I had one for my “daily bag” so that I could do just that. While I’ll never be a truly competitive chess player, it is a great mental exercise that I enjoy deeply. I like to download games from ChessGames.com, like this classic match between Kasparov and Topalov.
14. A homemade soup mix, like this one
Our family is constantly busy, so easy-to-make meals come at a premium around here. A good soup mix that basically requires us to just dump a jar full of pre-measured ingredients into a pot with some water and boil it for 30 minutes (or so) can be a godsend.
I particularly like it when people get a little creative with their mixes. It’s easy to find a “sixteen bean soup” mix that just contains a bunch of beans and a few pinches of seasoning. If you get creative, I’ll always smile.
15. A few bottles of great beer, like Rogue Dead Guy Ale
I enjoy an occasional craft beer and, like most craft beer fans, I enjoy trying new ones. I especially like it when something interesting and new falls into my lap out of the blue.
The easiest way to do this is to stop at a liquor store and simply ask the person working there if they have any interesting new items for a craft beer fan, then pick one or two or three singles (depending on price, of course).
16. A few decks of ordinary Bicycle playing cards (and rules for card games)
If you know someone who enjoys playing card games and seems to always be suggesting that people shuffle up and deal, a few decks of playing cards can be a nice gift idea for them, especially if it’s coupled by some printed rules for different card games. Here’s a great database of card game rules.
Why a few decks? Some games, like canasta, require multiple decks of cards. Other games require serious alteration of the normal deck, sometimes rendering them unusable for other games. Plus, sometimes decks simply wear out.
17. A nice journal, like this Piccadilly one
Anyone who writes for a living or keeps a diary or journal will enjoy well-made blank journals. I fill mine up with all kinds of things, from the events of the day to ideas for short stories.
Some of them can be expensive, but there are some very nice ones at a reasonable price. Piccadilly makes very nice moderately-priced journals, for example, and I’ve used several of them over the years.
18. A puzzle book, like cryptic crosswords, logic puzzles, or sudoku
Puzzle-solving is something I enjoy doing as a way to stretch my brain and I usually work on a puzzle or two each day. I enjoy word-based puzzles, logic puzzles, and everything else in between. I actually prefer doing a wide diversity of them so that I work on both my logic and verbal reasoning.
A puzzle book with a small footprint is a good gift, whether the recipient tosses it in their purse or leaves it on their bedside table with a pen at the ready.
19. A book you’ve read recently and would love to talk about, like The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
If you enjoy reading and you have a friend that also enjoys reading, giving that person a copy of a book that you read recently and loved is a really cool idea. Not only is it a good book you can vouch for, it opens the door to lots of conversations between the two of you.
I chose to mention The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson because it’s a novel that several people in my close social circle have read and loved over the past few years. It’s a great example of what I’m talking about.
20. Good hot chocolate mix, like Land O’Lakes Classics
A delicious cup of hot chocolate is a great treat in the winter months. Hot chocolate is typically something shared by our whole family, as we’ll make a large saucepan full of it so that we can all have a mug.
The Land O’Lakes Classics hot chocolate mixes are my favorite medium-level hot chocolate mixes. You have to stir them well to avoid clumping, but they make for a rich and delicious cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter’s afternoon.
21. The card game Lost Legacy
This is just a nice, simple card game for two to four players that only has sixteen cards to it. It won’t take up much space at all in their home, but it has a ton of replayability.
I love little games like this. They’re easy to transport in the side pocket of a bag or in a drawer somewhere so that the game can easily be pulled out. It doesn’t take up much space – you could play it on a train or on an airplane, too. Plus, the game’s fun, short, and requires a bit of luck and a bit of strategy and a bit of memory, too.
22. A photo album with some classic photos
If you’re an older relative and you have many boxes of old photographs or photo prints that you’re unsure how to handle, consider buying an inexpensive photo album from any local department store and loading it up with some of those old pictures.
Look for ones that depict the recipient when they were younger, especially with people they were once close to and particularly if those people have passed on. Pictures of memorable family members and events are also great to add. If you want to add an extra touch, don’t be afraid to document the pictures by writing what you remember on the back of the prints.
23. Podcasts on CD
Go online. Look for a podcast that matches the interests of the person you’re friends with. Download a bunch of episodes of that podcast. Take a bunch of blank CDs that you have laying around the house and burn a bunch of CDs full of those podcasts. Want a good starting point? Take Welcome to Night Vale, for starters. It’s a great story told in a format that really only works in audio, and you can fit about three episodes onto a CD. Record 4 CDs worth and they have more than four hours of audio to enjoy. Another idea? Serial. You can fit the whole first season onto nine CDs.
CDs are flexible. A person can toss a pile of them in their car and listen to them any time they’re driving anywhere. They can also rip them back to an electronic format if that’s easier for them – whatever works!
24. A pack of trading cards, like this Vintage NBA Starter Pack or Magic: the Gathering
Anyone who ever collected cards with a passion when they were younger will get a smile out of a fresh pack of the latest cards. If nothing else, such a pack provides a huge kick of nostalgia, which makes for a really nice gift.
If you know someone that’s new to collecting or once had a basketball card collection, the NBA starter pack is a great gift to start off their new hobby. For anyone that once played Magic, any pack from a current set will make them smile.
This one’s easy. Just make a simple batch of chocolate chip cookies, following a straightforward recipe like this great one from Alton Brown, wrap about six or so up in a piece of cellophane, and tie the top with a ribbon. Right there, you have a gift that everyone will love.
Homemade cookies are a guaranteed way to bring a smile to my face and they cost anywhere from a dime to a dollar apiece to make (most of them tend toward the cheaper end).
The chief thing to remember about the holiday season is that it is about love and caring for others. It does not matter how much or how little you spent on a gift. What matters is that you thought about the recipient and tried to find a gift that would bring a smile to their face or a warm feeling to their heart. If you do that, you’ll give a great gift every time.
It doesn’t take a lot of money. It just takes thought and a little bit of love.