Written by Trent Hamm, The Simple Dollar is a popular personal finance blog that chronicles one man's road back from overwhelming debt to financial security. Hamm declared the contents of the blog to be in the Public Domain in 2008 and available for sharing when attributed properly. We will share a couple of posts a week.
Gift-giving can be an expensive proposition. Most of the ideas that tend to pop into people’s minds when it comes to exchanging gifts are expensive ones – or, at least ones that add up to a lot if you have to buy many of them.
That doesn’t have to be the case. There are a lot of good ideas for inexpensive gifts for people that are thoughtful, enjoyable, and don’t leave you hurting. You don’t have to give someone a piece of junk just because you’re keeping yourself to just $5 or $10.
Here’s a list of 30 different gift ideas for $5 or less. For most of them, I’ve provided some very specific examples, so there are lots and lots ideas here.
A Few Tips
It can be useful to just collect these when you have the chance and keep them in a box in your closet for the next holiday or next reason to give a small gift to someone. I have several of these items in our closet for those kinds of purposes – if they don’t get used up, they’ll probably be a part of Christmas gifts in a few months.
These items are all perfect for gift exchanges in the workplace or in social groups. If you have a white elephant exchange at work or a swap with friends from your book club, you can probably find something useful from this list.
If you want to give a bigger gift, give these in multiples. There’s nothing wrong with choosing two or three of these items and bundling them together for a “bigger” gift for someone, too.
If you’re in doubt, go with a consumable item. An item that can get used up won’t take up space in a person’s home and won’t be given away later. Instead, it is much more likely to be eaten or used up in some other fashion.
Everything listed in this article is a gift that someone in my family would like.Either I would like it, my wife Sarah would like it, or one of our children – aging in range from eight to four – would like it. In many cases the item would click with multiple members of our family.
Got the idea? Let’s get started!
A Classic Book
The “Dover Thrift Editions” series of paperback books offers an amazing bargain: classic literature in an easy-to-read format for just a dollar or two. My bookshelf has several books from this series and I’m constantly impressed with the quality that this series offers.
Beyond these books, you can always look for good books on sale at bookstores or at other opportunities. I’ve found books to give as gifts in many different places.
Some ideas Self-Reliance and Other Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson… The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde… Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman… Wuthering Heightsby Emily Bronte… Common Sense by Thomas Paine… Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne
Coffee Mug with Hot Chocolate
It doesn’t have to be a fancy mug, of course; mostly, it just serves as a way to share the hot chocolate with your gift recipient. Also, you’re much better off giving just a few packets of good hot chocolate than a bunch of packets of mediocre hot chocolate.
My suggestion: stop by the dollar store and pick up a $1 coffee mug, then spend the other $4 on a packet or two of really good hot chocolate.
Some ideas Ghirardelli makes one of the best mid-priced hot chocolate and the packets cost $1 each… Land O’ Lakes also makes an excellent mid-priced hot chocolate mix and individual packets come in around $0.50 each
Playing Cards with Rules for Games
I simply don’t go to a family event without someone pulling out a deck of cards and starting a game. Quite often, one of the rites of family initiation is simply being taught the family’s favorite card games.
A deck of cards with a sheet showing the rules of your family’s favorite game is a great “welcome to the family” gift for someone’s fiance or serious significant other who is new to the family.
Some ideas A deck of quality Bicycle playing cards will set you back about $3… Include with that gift the printed rules of a game your family enjoys… Some game ideas include 500, bridge, canasta, cribbage, euchre, and pitch.
Brightly Colored Earbuds
Pretty much every teenager has a phone or some other device that plays music, and those devices are almost always paired with a set of earphones or ear buds. A set of brightly colored earbuds are a great, simple way to make their music listening just a little more fun.
I’ve found that even if you don’t pick the right color, they can find a friend to trade the earbuds with for a color that they do like.
Some ideas JLab earbuds come in a variety of colors and are easily found for $5 or less… Skullcandy earbuds come in a huge variety of colors and actually have pretty good sound; discontinued models and sales often find these at $5 or below
Know someone that likes to garden? A few packs of seeds make for a great Christmas or late winter or early spring gift. Rather than just picking four or five packets from the usual places, spend a bit of time hunting around for an interesting variety that matches the kinds of things they typically grow.
Some ideas Seed Savers offers an infinite variety of heirloom seeds and sells them in a number of stores… High Mowing Organic Seeds offer a wide variety of interesting seeds for almost any type of herb, vegetable, or flower you might want to grow
A batch of homemade cookies can turn into a number of really nice gifts. Just take three or four of the cookies that you make, wrap them in cellophane, and tie a little ribbon around the top to keep it closed. Not only is it visually appealing, it’s also very tasty. Just make sure to keep food allergies in mind!
Pyrex Measuring Cup
If there’s one gift to give someone who has freshly moved into an apartment with a kitchen for the first time, it’s a Pyrex measuring cup. A Pyrex measuring cup can be microwaved, tossed into the dishwasher, and dropped on the floor and it will keep on ticking, so it’s perfect for someone new to the kitchen. You can find large ones for close to $5 – and it’s never a bad idea to throw a few recipes into the cup, too.
Gaming Card Packs
Many people, young and old, enjoy playing collectible card games. These are games where players not only collect the cards involved, but use them for a strategic game against each other. My son and I often play a number of these games against each other, and he’s an avid collector. The nice thing? It’s pretty much impossible to buy the “wrong” pack.
A candle can add a nice touch to almost any room, bringing both color and aroma into an otherwise ordinary place. They can be festive, romantic, or inviting, depending on the type of candle you choose. This can be a great gift for someone who enjoys rustic home decor. I won’t even suggest how to start looking for these as there are infinite gift shops, online retailers, and other places that sell an enormous variety of candles.
Crayons and Coloring Books
My six year old loves to draw. Rarely does a day go by when she’s not either drawing something unique on a piece of blank paper or filling in the colors on the page of a coloring book. Our refrigerator and some of our walls are practically covered in her creations. Her siblings sometimes get into the spirit as well, but our daughter just simply loves coloring. She’s always thrilled with crayons, markers, paper, and other art supplies as a gift.
My wife and my daughter love to put on nail polish together (though, admittedly, my daughter gets more into the polish and my wife gets more into the idea of spending time with her girl). A few bottles of nail polish for a little girl and her mother (or her older sister) can provide a great window into some bonding time, and some appropriate polishes for an older girl can give her more options for expressing herself through her appearance without permanent changes.
Some ideas This isn’t something I’m an expert on, but I do know that my daughter has really liked these pastel polishes in the past and they’re about $1.25 each.
A Local Food Item
What items do they sell in your area that aren’t often found in other parts of the country? Is there a unique food treat that reminds people of “home” in your area? Those items almost always make for great gifts.
Soup Mix in a Jar
On a cold winter afternoon, few things seem more appealing than putting together a pot of soup. It’s even better when you have all of the ingredients on hand, already measured and ready to use.
That’s the value of giving a soup mix in a jar – you make it easy for someone to have a nice soup on a cold winter day. Just package the ingredients in a lidded Mason jar, include a tag with any additional steps (and the ingredient list), and tie a little ribbon or a piece of cloth on the top for extra decoration.
Coffee Beans (or Ground Coffee)
It’s actually not all that hard to find a small bag of genuinely good coffee for under $5, whether the recipient prefers ground coffee or whole beans. A good bag of coffee will get used up quickly and make each of their mornings a bit brighter for a while.
Some ideas Eight o’Clock Coffee is highly recommended and can be found in 12 ounce bags for under $5… get beans from your local grocery store that add up to $5 (and you can grind them yourself right in the store most of the time)
A handcrafted soap is a perfect little item to stick in the shower, use to get yourself clean, and perhaps leave you with just a hint of fragrance. A great hand-crafted soap cleans well and feels wonderful on the skin. Plus, it only costs a few bucks.
I don’t have any specific recommendations as we’ve made our own handcrafted soaps in the past. Just visit gift shops in your area and find a soap that smells good and has a nice texture.
A Framed Photo
Find an inexpensive photo frame. Take a print of a great moment you shared with the recipient and put it in the frame. Instantly, it becomes a great moment.
Some ideas Just dig through your photo archives and look for pictures that involve both of you … or perhaps ones that involve mutual friends or family members. Anything that will have meaning to the recipient is a great choice.
A Jigsaw Puzzle
A jigsaw puzzle not only provides an evening pastime, it also provides a nice social opportunity for guests, providing a way for new people in the home to “break the ice” by working on the jigsaw puzzle. They also teach a bit of patience while being a low-cost entertainment and they usually produce a nice picture at the end.
Some ideas You can find countless puzzles appropriate for kids, like this one, as well as many that are great for adults and families, like this one. You’ll find a good selection at your local department store.
A Hand-Assembled Fruit Basket
If you have access to your own fruits, this is an incredibly cheap idea. If not, you can still make a nice fruit basket for under $5 if you hit the fruits that are on sale at your local grocer in the week before you give the gift.
Some ideas Use a basket or other container you already have at home… choose fruits that are easy to eat with minimal preparatory effort, like apples and oranges
A Bottle of Good Beer
A bottle or two of a good craft beer will be incredibly appealing to anyone who is a fan of such beers. If you don’t know what to pick out, you can just head to your local liquor store and ask for their recommendations. Suggest that you only have $5 to spend, but you want one or two bottles of beer that a craft beer fan would appreciate and they’ll find you some great selections.
A “Cup of Coffee”
Just simply get a $5 gift certificate from a coffee shop in your area. Stick it inside a little card and let them know that their next cup of coffee is on you.
Some ideas Get a card from a big national chain like Caribou or Starbucks so that they can use it anywhere, or find a local coffee shop with some local flavor.
A Recipe Box with Recipes
Get a recipe box at your local dollar store, then also pick up a pile of index cards that fit in that recipe box. Now, get to work.
All you need to do is find interesting recipes, then open up your word processing program and use a template for a recipe card – most programs will have an easy template for this. Fill in the recipe, then print it on the card. Rinse and repeat.
This way, you can choose recipes in a very specific way for the recipient with items you’re sure they’ll like and are reasonably confident that they might actually make.
Sports Card Packs
Got a sports fan? They’ll probably get a smile on your face if you get them a few packs of cards related to their favorite sport, especially if they happen to open a card depicting one of their favorite players. One of my friends actually has a framed picture in his home that he fills up all the time with his favorite baseball players.
Even better, modern packs sometimes have cool memorabilia in them, such as signed cards, pieces of baseball bats, uniform swatches, and so on.
A $5 Bill with the Menu from Your Favorite Quick Restaurant
Get a take-out menu from your favorite local quick serve restaurant, then fold it up with a $5 bill and give it as a gift. $5 is often enough to buy a nice sandwich or a small meal from a restaurant of this type – I used to get a sandwich for that price from Jimmy John’s on a regular basis, for one example.
There are countless options to choose from, so just look for a restaurant that you think the recipient might particularly like for a quick lunch.
A Blank Journal and Pen
A blank journal can become a diary. It can become notes for a book – or even the first draft of one. It can be a commonplace book, filled with notes of the day and grocery lists and other random thoughts. It can even be a sketchbook. It’s just full of possibilities.
You can find nice journals for a few dollars at your local bookstore in the sale section or at a dollar store. Wrap it up with a new pen and you have a nice gift for a thoughtful person.
A Snack “Stash”
Everyone has a particular kind of “munchie” that they enjoy when the desire to snack hits them. Feed that desire in your loved ones by getting them a “snack stash” that’s just a collection of their favorite treat. If they like nuts, for example, a big jar of nuts is perfect; if they like candies of other kinds, get them candies. This really depends on the recipient, of course, but there are some general items that will work well for lots of people.
If the children in your life are as artistic as mine, a batch of sidewalk chalk makes for a wonderful gift that will fill up many summer afternoons. Our driveway has been covered in sketches of all kinds, hopscotch grids, and giant checkerboards. There have been messages and giant hearts and, once, what appeared to be hundreds of bats.
A box of sidewalk chalk is just begging for a child to unleash creativity all over a sidewalk.
A Puzzle Book
A good puzzle book can keep a thoughtful person engrossed in thought for many, many hours. Personally, I enjoy a variety of puzzles, but some people may just want more sudoku puzzles, for example.
A Pet Treat
If your loved one is a pet lover, they’ll often appreciate a special treat for their pet as much as they appreciate a treat for themselves. Pet stores often have a number of wonderful inexpensive treats for pets, such as dog cookies, catnip balls, or dehydrated strawberries.
Find out what pet your friend has and whether they have any dietary restrictions, then stop by the pet store and find out what they have. A pet treat can make both your friend and their pet quite happy.
For tea drinkers, a steady supply of tea is a wonderful thing. You can find a lot of very good tea out there at a surprisingly low cost. The best approach, if you’re unsure, is to find a good sampler at a low price.
A Bar of Good Chocolate
It’s really hard to go wrong with a bar of really good chocolate. There are lots of retailers that sell good chocolate bars, so don’t be afraid to pick one that seems interesting and a bit unusual for the chocolate lover in your life.
The goal of all of this is simple: identifying inexpensive gifts that people will actually like. If there’s one principle above all else to remember here, it’s that gifts that are consumable, like food items and puzzle books, or gifts that can easily be added to a collection, like trading cards, make for the best inexpensive gifts. They don’t turn into knickknacks that eventually wind up in a yard sale.