An Alternative to Buying Presents

Ali Bar

Considering my bank account has dipped quite low around this holiday season, I'm struggling to get gifts for friends and family. And while they may understand holidays aren't about gifts but about spending time with the people you love, I'd still like to treat them to something nice. In my case, that has to be something nice that also is low cost. Hard perhaps, but lately I’ve been feeling very DIY, so I’m optimistic.

In the past I've silk-screened T-shirts -- a skill I picked up in high school. Plain T-shirts at craft stores cost about $6. Since I already have the supplies, T-shirts have been really good gifts that are also quite personal. I’ve silk-screened designs of artists, and flying horses based on an Ecuadorian textile. If you want nicer T-shirts, try looking at where you can get basic American Apparel shirts for half of what they sell for in the store. You can also stitch designs on T-shirts with different color threads –a technique that’s easier than silk-screening.

Handmade cards are also a good way to let friends and family know you care. Another idea I’m toying with is making a candle holder out of Rockite, a concrete-like material. I’m not sure how this will work out, but if it doesn’t, I’m only out the cost of Rockite, which isn’t too expensive. If I’m happy with the design, I’ll add a few tea candles and it’ll be ready to go.

Another gift that’s always appreciated is giving the gift of yourself – in other words, offering to help someone else with a bit of physical labor or a service. My mother wanted to rearrange office furniture, so I spent a few hours helping her push around furniture and I put her new bookcase together. In the past, I’ve painted the gazebo and a bathroom as a surprise. I found the paint in the garage, so the only expenditure was my energy. These are kind of nontraditional gifts but I think they mean more than just picking up something from a store. And, of course, you also avoid fighting the mobs at the mall.

If you have any other cost-saving gift ideas, post them quick so everyone will be ready for December 25.

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Presenting ... the girl with no gifts

Name bar I have not bought a single present for anyone in my family. For the significant other. For my friends, the lawn guy, co-workers or even me for that matter.

I considered braving the mall last night, but my last meeting ended at 8:40 and my stomach was growling so much I knew I'd end up buying some overpriced gourmet chocolate for myself and walking through the aisles in a bewildered state of confusion.

My family is usually easy to shop for. My parents say they need a thing or two here and there without realizing they are giving me gift ideas. The significant other drops hints without knowing it, too.
My nieces are happy with anything I give them, including books, dictionaries, clotheCHRISTMAS-SHOPPINGs and craft supplies. I usually turn photos of the girls into gifts of some kind -- calendar, coasters, wall hangings -- for my sister and brother-in-law.  

But I've been so self-absorbed lately I haven't even started thinking about presents until now.

A happy new year's it will be for my friends and family, apparently!

For those of you who are wiser than me but still scouting for that last gift or two, I want to share some advice from Kiplinger's.

They have a "10-things-not-to-buy" for the holidays list and if you have fallen prey to one of its members, there's still time to undo your purchase.

Televisions aren't really at their best price this time of year, they say. January or February is when retailers lower prices in the previous year's models. Cameras, what with the likes of Ashton Kutcher hocking them, may be a must-have for someone on your list. Like TVs, it's best to wait a few more months as the older models are put on the clearance shelves. President's Day might be a more fitting holiday to celebrate with a new photo gizmo.

Wait for January white sales to by sheets and towels -- an annual tradition dating to the 19th century, Kiplinger's says. Tools for Dad will be cheaper around Father's Day than they are now.

Check out the other no-no's, never mind the snow blower.

Granted, this collection of don'ts isn't giving me a reason to rush out and abuse my credit cards, because I wasn't thinking I'd get a good deal anyway, shopping in a listless state. If you have suggestions or advice for me and my fellow present procrastinators, well, don't be a Scrooge.

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Gifting Ideas for Kids

Amanda Bar

Being a new aunt (my nieces are 2 years and 6 months, respectively) I've had to become a child-friendly present buyer for the holidays, but sometimes its difficult to find something unique and fun to give when every other relative seems to be purchasing the same thing.  Honestly, how many stuffed animals can two kids have?  Taking a creative approach - and one that's neither hard to do OR expensive - you can come up with cute little gifts for any young relatives, without worrying about giving a gift that's already been given.

If you go to Target or Payless you can find plain white sneakers (Keds or any other brand will do) for under $10; then head over to any other craft store and purchase a jar of glitter glue and a bottle of glitter of any color (Martha Stewart products are my preferred brand and are available at Michael's), each of which should cost about $3.  Return home, clear yourself a work space, and set to work.


As you can see, I decided on gold for my color of choice.  I painted the shoes yellow in order to have the color "pop" better, but that's an unnecessary step.  Then you simply apply the glue & glitter a section at a time, and voila!  Adorable and unique little shoes that should only cost you about $15.  They're also comfortable, as I made adult-size pairs for myself & two friends for Halloween:


Make sure you seal the glitter by adding a fews sprays of acrylic gloss or some other clear sealant, though these shoes aren't really made to last.  But they are fun, decorative, and thoughtful little gifts perfect for any child this holiday season.

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A Big Bag of Nothing for the Holidays

Amanda Bar

I think most people have a love/hate relationship with the holiday season.  It's difficult to come up with unique gift ideas for each family member and friend, and (especially this year) my cupeth doth not overflow with money like it did last year.  My solution?  Don't give presents!

Or to be more specific, and to appear less like the Grinch, don't give presents to your friends.  I don't have a huge circle of very close friends in South Florida (many are out of state) but I happen to have a rather large extended family; while I'm obligated by familial guilt to purchase presents for all of my relatives, with my friends I can always compromise.

I approached each of my good friends down here and laid it out for them: Look, says I, we all know that money is tight this year - if you're not opposed to the idea how about we agree that you gift me a big bag of nothing and I do the same for you?  Also, my birthday is in January so just think of it as a way of me saving you the burden of another gift purchase so close to the holidays.

Luckily all of my friends agreed that this was a great idea (naturally, for I am a fiscal genius!) and I wasn't called out for being the cheap miser that I am.  It's a win-win!

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Soups for the Nearing Winter

Ali Bar

Being too lazy to prepare lunch for myself in the mornings before I head to class has threatened to turn into a bad habit lately. Of course, when I’m thinking more clearly at lunch-time, I kick myself for doling out $10 for a meal. It doesn’t happen too often, but enough so I regret it. And when it does, a better option would be picking up lunch at the grocery store instead of a café or some other little lunch joint. At the grocery I can buy crackers for around $2, and while that might not be the healthiest meal, it will usually tide me over until I get home. If I know I’m going to be really late, I can pick up a pre-made sandwich at Whole Foods for about $5. The most fantastic things I've found so far for curing a hunger attack are dehydrated Trader Joe's brand rice noodle soups sold at Trader Joe's for 99 cents. They’re surprisingly filling and a cut above your average noodles in a cup.  While I don’t think I should make these noodles my steady diet, they’re fine every now and then when I don’t bring my lunch. The best option, of course, is to just do a little advance planning and bring my lunch from home. Recently I did just that. A housemate and I decided to make up a soup. Using just miscellaneous ingredients we already had in the kitchen we crafted a very tasty soup. What was in that soup you ask? Well, a can of cream of mushroom soup, a can of black beans, potatoes, carrots, garlic, ginger and a dash of salt and pepper. It was very thrifty and lasted the two of us for three days. It was also easy to take to school: open refrigerator, heat up soup, pour in thermos, place in school bag. I estimate the total cost of the soup was around $10, making the per-serving cost around $1.70. As the snow nears, I expect to be making many more soups since they’re so easy and my laziness factor only increases when the weather outside is freezing.

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Sweating It Out for Fashion

Amanda Bar

What with the holiday season inching closer and closer, and the Florida weather ever-so-slowly reflecting the winter temperature, I’ve once again found myself buying cold weather clothing that I neither need nor use outside of a few weeks out of the November to February months.  The sweaters, jackets, and boots that I already own are more than sufficient to last me several years through, but it’s hard to resist updating your winter wardrobe when so many stores delight in holiday sales.

We live in a sub-tropical climate…just how many scarves does a girl need to own before it becomes hysterically (and financially) impractical?  Just walk outside when the weather dips even the slightest below 72degrees and you will see women wearing fur-lined boots and fashionable overcoats – sweating all the while, of course, but if we paid for it we will darn well get our money’s worth.  Fashion sometimes dictates more than common sense.

I’ve desperately avoided perusing the numerous boot aisles in the department stores – dependent upon quality just one pair of knee-highs can run over into the triple digits – but I’ve already been lured into buying two new jackets ($95 in total) to add to my already numerous jacket pile collecting dust for 10 out of 12 months in my closet.  It’s only early November yet, so I’ll have to monitor my wallet and my impulses to keep my checking account safe enough for imminent holiday shopping.

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Clothing Diet

Ali Bar

Heidi Hackemer, a strategist at a New York advertising firm, has launched what she calls "a global experiment examining the power of what we don't wear." Six items or less is the game. Meaning all you can wear for one month is six items of clothing from your closet. Heidi says generally people who try this experiment fall into one of four categories:

--The uniform type. The thinking behind this is that if you are freed of choice in clothing, then you can focus that energy on something else. (That’s most likely what they were thinking when they imposed navy or khaki bottoms and polo shirts at my middle school.)
--The creatives. These people want to see how creative they can be with such a limited wardrobe. A savior for this concept might be the fact that accessories aren't limited.
--The anti-consumers.
--The curious.

Another challenge that people are trying is to not buy clothes for an entire year. To some, this might be difficult. Others, probably without giving it a thought, may not have bought a new piece of clothing in more than a year.

Heidi says this experiment changed how she related to her clothes. Staple pieces that have a certain longevity became more valuable to her. She also remarks how the clothes she wore weren't built for the way she used them. That brings up environmental and economic factors. While one shirt might be less expensive than another shirt, take into consideration the quality. A more expensive shirt might last longer that the cheaper shirt. Perhaps the more expensive shirt, in terms of quality, might be the equivalent of three of the cheaper shirts, making the more expensive shirt, in the long run, the better option. Of course, some fashionistas would rather have three shirts than one, but I guess it just depends on your thinking. I was contemplating trying out the six-items thing, but that means laundry more often, so that's out for me.

But maybe I'll try the not buying any clothing for a year. So, as of November 16, 2010, I will not buy any new articles of clothing until November 16, 2011. Ha, this is really not going to last – especially since I’m going to Rome in January. But, we'll see. It isn't too difficult now considering I have no money to spend on clothes.

Here is the site that started it:
Six Items or Less

and the sister site that followed it up:
The Siol Collective

Via Six Items or Less here's an interesting entry on College Girls in 1941.

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Warranty wise

Name bar I don't usually buy warranties for anything. They usually sound like they will expire the minute the car/phone/coffee maker is old enough to begin falling apart.

When I was buying a new cell phone a year ago, however, the manager at a Radio Shack I went to had been so helpful, I found it a bit embarrassing to pooh-pooh a $2 warranty for a new headset I was getting to go with the phone. When I'd called the store inquiring about a new battery, the manager suggested it might be cheaper to buy a new phone. She was right. I walked out of there with a new phone (that was about 10 years more modern than my old version) and paid only about $20. The phone was free, and the whole transaction cost less than a new battery -- which would have run about $30. I did have to sign a new, two-year contract, but I'd had the account for four years at that point, so this wasn't an issue.

Hence my reluctance to look like a cheapskate about a $2 warranty fee. Cheap-headset-2005.06.26-09.07.40

Sure enough, about a month ago, the headset started falling apart. The doodad from which sound enters my ear was disintegrating. I could still hear, but last week, the whole thing got lodged in my ear, which did not seem like a good idea.

This isn't one of those fancy Blue Tooth jobs that people wear everywhere but the shower (or maybe not.) My significant other pointed out that if the point is to get the cell phone away from my head, having an electronic device essentially planted in my ear defeats the purpose. It's a basic little headset that fits over my ear and attaches by wire to the phone. Since I spend hours on the phone as I do my job, this is way more comfortable than scrunching the phone between my ear and shoulder.

But while I'm typically overrun by papers in my pat-rack lifestyle, the warranty for this quality-of-life changing device was nowhere to be found. I've been on a cleaning fit lately and may not have recognized the document as important, or it could have simply been eaten by my other papers. I wasn't even sure exactly when I bought the thing, which in hindsight I realized I could have figured out from a credit card bill.

Nevertheless, I thought I'd test out the warranty. Surely the store had to have some record of it. When I arrived, I was relieved to be greeted by the same nice employee who sold me the whole deal in the first place. When she eventually found a record of my warranty, she noted a year had past. Waitasecond.  A year and two days. But she was kind enough to give me a brand new headset anyway and sent me on my way.

I'd say that was worth $2, and then some.

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Postal Service Freebies

Amanda Bar

'Tis the season for shipping, as my fellow blogger, Nirvi, has already discussed.  Funny enough, the day she posted those helpful hints I received yet another freebie mailing opportunity:

Here’s another little heads-up to all of you who have loved ones out-of-state that require holiday shipping - if you head over to you can receive a free flat rate Holiday Shipping Kit with four boxes of varying sizes – all you have to do is pay for the postage (which can be paid for and printed online via  True, you still have to fork over the cash for the mailing fee, but you can save yourself some cash if you sign yourself (and maybe willing your roomies/family members & just snag them for yourself!) to receive some free boxes.  According to the advertisement they’ll even pick up your package for you!

All of these offers are available for perusing on the United States Postal Service website.

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Shopping for shipping

Name bar I long ago gave up the frenzied ritual of Black Friday shopping. I figured the really good deals, like the $3 appliances Target will offer this year will be in short supply and there is nothing I need so badly that I should deprive myself of sleep to get it. Or risk being trampled.

And it's hard to tell whether I'm really getting a deal. A recent check by ShopSmart (a mag by the same people who produce Consumer Reports) found that some sales are anything but. For example, they found that a coffeemaker was marked on sale at Kohl’s and at for $61.99, a discount from the retailer’s posted $69.99 regular price, but the manufacturer’s suggested retail price for that model was only $59.99. They list other findings in the edition that came out this week.Online shopping

I also hate paying for shipping if I shop for gifts -- or necessities -- online. I'm annoyed that I have to spend a minimum amount for items to ship for free. I know this isn't a fair rant. It costs the companies money to ship things. (Although it costs me money to go to the store and buy them, in the form of gas and time.) But some of their shipping fees don't make sense. I recently ordered three items from Amazon. All qualified for free "super saver" shipping. A fourth item didn't. To ship that single item, the fee was going to be more than $7. I deleted the item from my list.

This year, perhaps because we're all still a little hesitant to shop as much as we used to, the discounts I've seen for the shopping season apply to shipping, too, but you'll still have to be cautious. Not all of the deals are straightforward or easy to understand.

Walmart is offering free shipping on 60,000 items through Dec. 20, no minimum purchase required. There's a link to the eligible items on their home page. Everything from personalized jewelry to massive TVs qualify for free delivery. Other companies, including Banana Republic and Bath & Body Works, are offering free or cheaper shipping for orders that are a minimum of $50 and $25, respectively. (Bath & Body Works' deal ends today and you have to enter the word SHIPHOLIDAY at checkout. They don't mention this on the site that I could find quickly.) Some of the offers are a tad complex for my taste. CVS offers free shipping on orders over $49, on eligible items, as long as they don't weigh too much.  

Consumer Reports points out that some companies will ship items for free if you're willing to pick the item up at the store. This is a decent compromise if the store is close enough to you that you don't spend more retrieving it than you would in shipping. And the item is ready and waiting for you -- you don't have to hunt for it and get tempted to buy crud you hadn't planned on.

Another option is waiting to buy until Free Shipping Day. When you buy from participating stores on Dec. 17, they will ship the items at no charge. You can see which stores are involved now, but if there are any caveats, they won't be revealed until that day. At, there's a list of codes (like the one Bath & Body Works offered for the $1 shipping) for discounts and deals on shipping that you can enter when you're checking out.

There's one other way to deal with all of this: Give yourself the gift of not giving. My parents, for example, need and want for little. I give them the gift of my presence (ha!) and like to cook a meal or two, tackle the thicket of things I've left at home (still) or treat them to a movie. And for me, no mall excursions or shipping ordeals are necessary. A few laughs over a homemade meal, and a few days free of any critique of my life, would be the best present.

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