Unless you've already received that big bonus for your role steering the stock market out of freefall this past year, you're probably a little desperate about the holidays right about now.
Nobody wants you to go into deeper debt or give up eating to buy presents (except your credit card company, retailers, stockholders, leading economic advisers and your teenage daughter, if you have one). But nobody is offering any real, socially acceptable options (except Hallmark who is offering almost personalized holiday cards for $3.00 each).
I've compiled a list of affordable gifts that are as thoughtful and meaningful as the presents you might have given if you had money. All within a realistic budget of 7 cents a person or less. If you play your cards right, you could have enough money left over for a three course ramen holiday feast (chicken, beef, and vegetable flavored)!
This season's "must-have" item
Perfect for multitasking, the potato serves as a vegetable, a complex carb, a useful arts and crafts tool, entertainment, breakfast, lunch, dinner, a source of potassium and other vital vitamins and minerals. Chic-ly packaged in a discreet brown wrapper, the potato is one of the few gifts left you can buy with spare change or food stamps that will give your recipient any pleasure. Designer models in red, blue, and gold are also available.
Find out more about the potato's many applications, including recipes and tips.
Something cute and cuddly for the kids
In an age when a child's wish list contains several $200 items, I suppose a $9.95 toxic fake rodent constitutes a bargain. But it's still too rich for my blood. Especially now that they're going for $30.00 on eBay and Amazon.
That's why I'm giving all the kids in my life the latest evolution of Zhu Zhu hamsters -- Dust bunnies. They're furry. They're cuddly. They're wind powered, biodegradable, non-toxic (or only as toxic as the place under the couch you got it) and they're made locally.
Each one is different and has its own personality. I like to decorate mine with bits of used dental floss. When the child tires of it in a few days, it can easily be stored in any sized vacuum bag or under furniture.
If you have unresolved issues with the child's parents, a pet rat is a gratifying alternative. Like the dust bunny, you can probably pick one up without leaving home, although chances are you will have to get off the couch.
When only the best will do
Who doesn't love free luxury hotel toiletries? For me, nothing brings back the warm memories of having a job, an expense account and clean, nicely scented hair and skin like a whiff of L'Occitane Lemon Verbena (offered at the Four Seasons).
You may still have some of your favorites stashed away from the good old days (if you haven't sold them on eBay). If not, there are other ways to nab these luxe items for gifts. First, locate the brand of choice with my handy leading hotel toiletry guide.
Some say that lurking in hotel hallways and grabbing as many as possible when the maid isn't looking is the most time efficient method.
I believe that honesty is the best policy (at least during the holiday season). I usually tell the front desk that I'm in room 206 and I accidentally spilled all their complimentary toiletries down the sink and would like a new set (or four ... I'm very clumsy). Telling them that you need the toiletries for an article you're researching has also been known to work.
High Tea Technology
Many retailers have been plugging a $100 portable espresso maker as the perfect gift for those who panic if they're more than 10 yards from the nearest Starbucks. Oddly, they don't seem as intent on selling a similar device for tea drinkers.
The portable tea maker contains everything necessary for a great cup of tea on the go (water and cup not included). This handy, lightweight gadget has adjustable brewing time for different tea strengths. With a little smart shopping you can get 100 of these babies for $2.00. Shopping done!
For every cloud, a Snuggie lining
Let your friends be the first to own the Snuggie weatherizer! It's the perfect gift gift for anyone who shelled out $19.95 (plus shipping and handling) for a Snuggie. They may not appreciate it now, but they'll be eternally grateful when they're wearing their Snuggies in inclement conditions.
All you need to make one is a large trash bag, dry cleaning bag, tarp, a sheet of bubble wrap, old plastic tablecloth or any waterproofed material you can find around the house or dumpster. Cut holes in the appropriate spots, add a few staples and voila! A shower cap makes a great accessory (try to grab a few when picking up hotel toiletries.)
Warm feet, warm heart
If you happen to have some spare sanitary napkins or poise pads around, or know where you can borrow some, you've got the makings for some cushy slippers with non-slip grip strips and a built in deodorant feature for fresh feet.
I like to use the maxi-pads for heavy flow for the soles (or Poise or Depends if you can get your hands on them -- they're like walking on air) and a thinner mini pad for the strap.
If you can't find anything to decorate them with, I can personally recommend using Channel waterproof long-lasting smoky eye crayons. The colbalt blue and indigo go with everything. A great gift for doting grandparents who love everything you make.
Learn how to make them.
An eco-friendly gesture
The care and love that goes into making a fruitcake is always appreciated even though fruitcake itself is largely considered inedible.
This year, instead of getting costly ingredients from a grocery store and spending hours chopping, mixing and baking, let the composter take care of everything. Press the mulch into a loaf shape, decorate it with fruits nuts and berries from the yard, park or road dividers and nobody will know the difference. No new waste is created and the product is endlessly recyclable. The recipient will appreciate the love and care you put into your gift long after they've returned it to its natural habitat -- the compost heap.
If all else fails, use your credit card
Instead of using a credit card to buy presents this season, use it to create them.
Make cufflinks, earrings, bracelets, pendants in gold, platinum and other precious plastics. The beauty of giving these (aside from the joy of giving) is it won't cost you a cent out-of- pocket and rewards include thousands of dollars in savings on future interest and penalty fees. Now that's a gift that gives back! Learn how to make them.
Have you ever wondered what it's like being broke in France?