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Looking to cut back on costs this holiday season? Here are six ingenious ideas for cheap and free holiday gift ideas for your family and friends.

Giving gifts is the most celebrated of holiday traditions, as it should be! But take a minute to think about how crazy the premise is: You spend your hard-earned money to buy something for someone that they would never, ever pick for themselves. And vice versa! Every holiday season, I walk at least one gift straight to the Goodwill bag, secretly wishing that I had been given the cash instead.

NOW EVERYBODY CALM DOWN, I didn’t show up today to be a holiday Scrooge. But between personalized holiday cards, trimming a 7-foot fir tree in twinkly lights and faux snow, and turkey dinner for 29, the holidays can get expensive! And because the holidays are rightfully special, people sometimes give themselves the free pass to go over budget or worse—into debt.

To quell some of the holiday money bleed, consider freezing off the ol’ present pipeline. It’s not where people usually look to cut back, which I totally understand; I love to be generous with my family and friends. But I also believe that we can have the best of both worlds! It is possible to do something wonderful for a friend or family member all while staying on track with your financial goals. (Being a money ace knows no seasons!) It’s just a matter of getting creative. And oftentimes, the effort and creativity are what means the most to people!

Here are a few (mostly) free gift ideas to sail you through the holiday season:

Make a Photo Movie Montage

Everyone loves to look at old pictures of themselves and their loved ones, and there’s something magical about a montage of highlights set to a vintage tune.

For my mom and dad this year, I am going to make a movie using photos from our first-ever family trip to Europe. Us millennials are pretty desensitized to the wonders of modern technology, but you best believe that my parents are gonna be rocked stupid by a slideshow of pics against my dad’s favorite Motown hits. This gift gets bonus points because we can watch it again every few years, high on nostalgia and tryptophan.

If you own an Apple device, you have access to iMovie, which is intuitive and free movie editing software. Unfortunately for PC users, Windows 10 eliminated its free editing software, Movie Maker. Search for a free app or program on your device that allows you to upload to YouTube!

Offer Up Your Services

Listen to your friends and family. What are they constantly complaining about, but never doing anything about? Is their garage a mess? Do their gutters need cleaning? Is their IKEA dresser sitting in a sad pile of particleboard slats and dust bunnies? Do they need their (probably adorable) dogs walked? If they’re your computer-illiterate parents, could they use help learning to use their new laptop or a patient and thorough explanation of this thing the kids are calling the “the cloud?”

Even better, do you have some sort of special skill that others don’t? What do you know or understand that would make their life better? Personally, I know finance and I am happy to sit down with family and friends for an educational session. In return, I would love to learn more about marketing or SEO, how to change the oil in my car, or be gifted a few hours of coffeeshop Spanish lessons.

A new study shows that when people spend money on services that make their lives easier, it can actually improve happiness; this is not the case with material things! So while a hand-scribbled coupon that says “I’m Deep-Cleaning Your Skanky Garage Next Tuesday” or “Good For One Free Babysitting Session So You Can Get The Heck Outta The House” might not be the sexiest gift ever, it may be the one that makes their life better this holiday season.

Plan Something You Can Do Together

Ideally, you are planning to get gifts for people you want to spend time with. What free or cheap outing can you plan with your pal once the holidays die down? Sure, this might feel like you’re just kicking the can down the road, but sometimes it’s equally as fun to have something to look forward to (and you can spread out the financial cost of the holidays across a few months).

To plan an activity that is (mostly) free, keep it local. You could rent snowshoes for cheap and do a stunning trail around the mountains. Do a hike through the local forest (yes, even in the cold). Borrow passes from your local library to visit attractions like the art museum, gardens, and cultural landmarks. Plenty of bars offer free live music. Finding free activities in your hometown is just about the effort!

Create something physical to give your friend, like a print-out of this magical place you’ll take them. This way, they won’t they won’t think you’re half-assing their holiday joy. Have a couple of dates picked out in advance (and let them choose). Wrap it up in a fat bow. If you’re excited about it, they will be too. Everyone wants to feel like people value spending time with them!

Put Together a Cookbook, Book of Poems, or “Nighttime Book”

For your friend that loves to cook, put together some of your favorite recipes, or search online for delicious-looking recipes for their favorite food types. Or, choose a theme! Did they visit New Orleans last year? Pick out a handful of classic Creole and Cajun recipes. Print out the recipes and accompanying photos, affix them onto whatever paper you have laying around, and bind with twine or ribbon.

Don’t limit yourself to recipes! If your friend isn’t a cook but loves poetry, make a book of poems. Or do a miniature scrapbook of pictures of you two, or of their beloved canine. Or do affirmations and photos of things that make them happy. The options are as unlimited as your creativity! A friend once made me a “Nighttime Book,” which was a combination of all these things. She wanted me to have something that made me smile before I went to bed, so included my favorite things: photos, memories, lyrics, and pictures of Frida Kahlo and LeBron James.

Unleash Your Inner Artist

Some ideas: make frames from scrap wood or paint frames from the local thrift. Make a gorgeous dessert from the ingredients in the dark corners of your pantry. Do a small ink drawing. Make a collage, either with old clippings or with a free visual design program.

You might not think of yourselves as an artist, but I challenge this limiting belief! You don’t have to be friggin’ Renoir (who actually kinda sucks, IMO) to offer something unique to the world.

For example, I have been painting denim jackets for my friends for the last few years. Here’s the jacket I crafted for my sister last year. (FYI, the husky is her university’s mascot.) Sure, the thrift jacket and paint cost some money, but the result is priceless! (A woman even offered my sister $1,000 for the jacket at a football game! She didn’t take it, and I will never forgive her.)

Write Something Heartfelt

Do you like hearing how wonderful you are? Of course you do! It never gets old. And frankly, we don’t tell each other enough! I hate that we wait until our loved ones kick the proverbial bucket before we muster up the courage to express our feelings about them. It makes no sense. Of all the gift ideas I’ve listed here, this is easily the most important.

Write your loved one a letter, making sure to thank them for all they’ve done for you. If this person raised you, makes you laugh, bailed you out of jail that one time in college or just plain believes in you, tell them how grateful you are.

There’s no better gift than telling someone how much you love them. I mean, a trip to Paris is better—but I’d take a wonderful, heartfelt note over some landfill-bound tchotchke any day. If you haven’t done this before, it’ll blow you away how good it feels to put into words just how much you care about someone. And anyway, this is what the holidays should be about!

And PLEASE: don’t feel like your note has to be all mush-mush! People LOVE to get roasted, so feel free to slip a few good burns in there. Bonus points if you write your note in Haiku or Limerick form.

Happy holidays, and have fun bringing joy in new, creative, and (mostly) free ways!

Amanda writes a blog called The Dumpster Dog Blog, which is scrappy, no B.S. financial education for young women.

Article comments

1 comment
Laura Webb says:

Great tips! My family and I recently switched to experiences together rather than gifts for Christmas. It is a great way to spend more time as a family at Christmas rather than only spending money. Last year we went to a wonderful musical on the 24th and all agreed we enjoyed it more than opening gifts.