The Best Present I Ever Gave (or Got) Cost Next to Nothing

The Best Present I Ever Gave (or Got) Cost Next to Nothing


If you're like most Americans, that's roughly what you'll spend on holiday presents this season, according to a recent survey by the National Retail Federation.

That's a hefty chunk of your hard-earned cash — and not necessarily a worthwhile expense. After all, how often does a cashmere scarf or shiny new tech gadget end up being treasured for years to come?

Gift givers and recipients around the country told us what you probably suspected: The best presents don't cost a lot, and they don't come from a store packed with grumpy shoppers. Here are seven inexpensive holiday gift ideas — most free, all $40 and under, and all unforgettable — and proof that you don't need a big budget to wow your loved ones.

RELATED: Gifts for Everyone In Your Office That Won't Break Your Budget

Jessica Jessup signThe Gift: “Directions to His Heart”

Name: Jessica Jessup
Age: 31
Location: San Diego
Estimated Cost: $40

"Seven years ago I was going through an especially rough time. I had recently finished cancer treatment, and I was getting ready to move 500 miles away from my boyfriend to attend graduate school at the University of California at Davis.

To help me cope with the distance, my boyfriend built me a wooden signpost showing the exact distance between the university and a few major cities — including San Diego, where he was living. It read:

Hong Kong: 6899 mi.
London: 5294 mi.
San Diego: 477 mi.
New York: 2516 mi.
My Heart: 0 mi.

It was just the right size to put on my desk, so I'd glance at it while studying and have an instant reminder that he was thinking of me. All it cost was some time, effort and the price of a few pieces of wood (he borrowed the woodworking tools). But it was the sweetest gift anyone had ever given me.

We’ve now been married for over five years, and the sign is still fondly displayed on my dresser. It’s a permanent reminder of how much I’m loved."

The Gift: “Girly Socks for a Manly Man”

Name: Becky Clegg
Age: 33
Location: Orem, Utah
Estimated Cost: $10

"After my parents got divorced, I found myself wanting to reassure both of them that I still loved them. But I was a broke college freshman, so all I could afford to buy my dad was a pack of tube socks.

As a way to personalize the present and make him laugh, I hand-sewed white lace across the top of every sock. I told him it was because I wanted him to have a daily reminder of how much his little girl loved him.

My dad is a tall, strong man who was working in construction at the time, so I didn’t think he would actually wear the socks. But he did — despite the heat he took from his coworkers. It was such a ridiculous token of affection, but it provided him with daily reassurance of love when his world was upside down.

More than a decade has passed and he still keeps them."

The Gift: “A Love Story”

Name: Patrick Garmoe
Age: 38
Location: Omaha
Estimated Cost: $1

"In 2012 I decided to keep a year-long journal to give to my wife, Marie, at Christmas. I loved the idea of creating a gift that would really stand out, and all I had to do was spend five minutes each morning writing an entry.

Sometimes I'd summarize how we had spent the previous day together; other times I'd detail how much I love her and why I'm so blessed to know her.

I originally thought I’d use a physical journal, but my handwriting is horrific, so I ended up using Day One, an app for daily journaling projects. This also allowed me to group all the entries into one PDF that she could download onto her iPad.

Here’s an entry from September 16:

Thanks for such a wonderful weekend with you, Marie. I loved taking you to "Spamalot," which ended up being a really fun play (I had my doubts), and spending Sunday going to church, eating chicken at Grizzly’s, watching the Vikings lose while sleeping, relaxing with you on the couch and watching "Anna Karenina." I wish that could be my agenda for every day of my life with you!

Love always and forever,

When my wife downloaded the file on Christmas, it took her a few seconds to fully grasp exactly what I’d given her. But when she started reading the entries, I knew she was greatly touched.

We still have fun going through the journal together, reminiscing about each day. It cost me basically nothing but time, yet Marie said it was one of the most meaningful gifts she’s ever received."

RELATED: What I Learned From My Mom's Year-Long Gratitude Project

Joseph Caserto canteenThe Gift: “A Piece of Family History”

Name: Joseph Caserto
Age: 45
Location: New York City
Estimated Cost: $0

"A few years ago my siblings and I told my grandmother to save her money and not buy us any Christmas presents. She agreed, but still wanted to give us something, so she wrapped up a few items she already had and put them in a grab bag.

I happened to pull out my grandfather's WWII canteen.

My grandfather had passed away several years before, and when I unwrapped the canteen, I immediately felt like I'd received a priceless artifact.

My grandparents met while he was in the Army and stationed in my grandmother's hometown of Baltimore. I can almost picture him drinking from the canteen, while he was training to protect our country.

I now display the canteen on a shelf in my apartment and see a lot of symbolism in it. It provided my grandfather with water — a basic need for survival — and because of him, four generations have been given life."

The Gift: “Coupons for the Kids”

Name: Audrey Fine
Age: 45
Location: Los Angeles
Estimated Cost: $5

"When my twins were 6 years old, I started using their arts and crafts supplies to create homemade "coupons," cutting up red and green pieces of construction paper with pinking shears and decorating them with stickers and glitter.

Each one could be cashed in for things like “one more chapter” at bedtime, “a pass on walking the dog,” “brinner” (breakfast for dinner), or “a special date with mom.” My kids immediately loved these as much as the toys under the tree.

The “one more chapter” coupon, which they could use to extend our reading time before bed, was the favorite. They'd hand me that coupon so often that I considered putting an expiration date or “one time use” verbiage on it!

My kids are 12 now, but I continue this tradition every Christmas — and they still enjoy the coupons just as much as they did when they were younger."

David Cary sweaterThe Gift: “My Favorite Childhood Sweater”

Name: David M. Cary
Age: 31
Location: Chicago
Estimated Cost: $20

"When I was 4 years old, my family took a trip to Disney World. I became obsessed with Mickey Mouse and the Mickey Mouse-adorned sweater my parents bought me there.

My mom swears I insisted on wearing it all of the time — even during the summer when it was definitely not sweater weather.

A couple years ago, my mom was in the attic and came across a bunch of old outfits my brothers and I wore when we were kids, including that sweater. She didn’t have the heart to throw it out, so she got creative and archived it in a 24"x16" shadow box frame, along with a photo of me as a kid wearing the sweater.

Not only is the gift a sweet memory and fun conversation piece — it’s hanging in my apartment, so it’s great for prompting family stories! — but the sweater is fully intact and accessible, since you can open the frame.

Maybe I'll have kids of my own one day, and they can enjoy wearing it too."

RELATED: I Don’t Believe in Buying Holiday Gifts (And, No, I’m Not a Scrooge)

The Gift: “A Trip Down Memory Lane”

Name: Jamie Novak
Age: 42
Location: Los Angeles
Estimated Cost: $25

"One Christmas my husband and I decided to give my mother-in-law, Marta, something truly unique: a road trip of memories.

When we were visiting her over the holidays, we packed a few of her favorite snacks (like mango slices with lime), and then drove her around to all of the places in her area, within a 60-mile radius, that were special to her.

We made stops at landmarks like her elementary school, the apartment where she grew up, the church where she got married, and the hospital where my husband was born. Along the way, she entertained us with stories about each place — many that she had never told before.

All it cost us was maybe $25 for a quarter tank of gas and some snacks, but Marta said it meant more to her than anything we could have ever purchased.

And honestly, I think my husband and I were the ones that received the real gift: Being able to spend those special few hours with her and hear all those stories was truly priceless."


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