Mr. Frugal's Gift Guide for the Cheap

Today I'm here to give you advice on how to save money on Christmas gifts. Sure, sure, there are other guides available to help you do the same thing, but the Mr. Frugal guide is better. Why? Because my guide will help you save almost as much money as not giving gifts at all. We all know the true meaning of Christmas – spending retail dollars – but Mr. Frugal can provide you with the illusion of giving without too much cash-outlay retail getting.

Forget about budgets; your goal should be to give gifts you do not need to purchase. And think beyond regifting; don't embarrass yourself by giving something you obviously received last year. Search for that older gift, like the cherub-adorned, still-in-the-box, heart-shaped platter you received for your wedding twenty-five years ago. Or the barbecue set Uncle Eustace gave you before humans cooked on stoves. Or Antie Flo's voodoo trivet she made from bottle caps, sea shells, and bleached chicken bones. You can give friends or family members just about any piece of junk you have laying around if you call it vintage, an heirloom, or a collector's item – and they'll actually appreciate it.

Which brings me to another point: you can create gifts using any odds and ends festering in your house.

Let's start with treats. A mix of flour, baking soda, and water baked for 10 minutes at 375 degrees, topped with a sprinkle of powdered sugar, makes affordable Snow Cookies. Use your uneaten Halloween goodies as Spooky Christmas Candies. Or stir up your Thanksgiving leftovers in a crock pot, add lots of gravy, and serve as Santa's Stew. Refer to any food gift you make as “delicious” and your recipient cannot disagree without appearing ungrateful.

Since children are naïve to the value of things, you can skimp when giving kids' gifts. For the boy obsessed with pirates or astronomy, an empty paper towel cylinder makes a perfect telescope, or tape two toilet paper tubes together for binoculars. Draw a face on your discarded dish sponge and toddlers will fall in love with your instant SpongeBob. A golden Russet and some thumbtacks are a thrifty alternative to buying a Mr. Potato Head. And kids won't know that the gunk you scraped off your shoe isn't really Play Doh. Be creative; kids are easy to fool, and they'll play with anything.

For adults, you'll need to be more crafty. Cover a styrofoam ball in a Wendy's foil hamburger wrapper, write “Merry Christmas” on it with a marker, and string it with yarn for a budget ornament. Recycle a battered picture frame into a holiday wreath by wrapping it with used tree garland and gluing on some beer nuts. Or can your cookie mix: pour the Snow Cookies recipe into an empty spaghetti sauce jar, and tie the top with a used ribbon and a square of fabric from your worn-out Grateful Dead T-shirt. You can pretty much get away with giving anything stuffed into a jar.

In your quest to be economical, resist the temptation of following others' advice of offering up home made “coupons” for personal services. Gift recipients will expect you to keep your word and follow through, most likely at a time inconvenient for you. If you do offer up a personal service coupon, put an expiration date on it or specific times when when the coupon can only be redeemed. For example, “Good on Monday evenings when I'm not bowling, playing poker, or watching football, and not too tired from work. Expires the first Tuesday after I'm able to accommodate you.”

If you must purchase gifts, try to use a large sum of money borrowed from a friend you never intend to pay back. You'll have to balance the loss of that friend with the number of new ones you'll make by showering them with expensive gifts.

Or, find alternatives to traditional shopping. Avoid the phony “doorbuster” sales, the clearance items, dent and scratch bargains, and the prepackaged ready-presents. You can even skip the thrift stores and save money. How? Check the store dumpsters. Drive through the parking lots looking for items other shoppers dropped, or cruse the restaurants on busy shopping days for items left behind. Or simply ask the store's service desk clerk, “Did you find a bag I may have misplaced? It was a of, those things, you know...I'm having trouble remembering, this place is so know, that (cough, cough) that all the kids are crazy about.” The clerk will give you something just to get you out the door. Especially if you haven't bathed.

Don't worry about being too thrifty, or lowering gift giving standards. Yes, the gifts you receive may as crappy and worthless as the ones you give, but the spirit of the season is about giving, not receiving. Besides, by being ultra-frugal, you'll save enough money to treat yourself to the things you really want.