Clutter-Free and Almost-Free Gift Ideas


In our affluent society, so many of us have everything we need or want. In fact we have so much that we are often trying to simplify by reducing “stuff.”

Here are some ideas for valuable gifts that don’t create clutter and don’t have to be expensive.

Give an Experience

Research shows that people appreciate memorable experiences more than material possessions, reports Money magazine.

Create Memories Together

What about going together to a musical, play, or concert?  A day at the basketball or football game?  When I lived in New York, my friends would buy us seasons tickets to a theater.  No matter how busy life got, we knew we had a standing date every month or so.  Discounts can be found if you plan ahead or don’t mind sitting farther back.

Children are so easy in this regard.  They appreciate almost anything, and they don’t have complicated schedules to work around.

To have something wrapped under the tree, purchase a program, CD, souvenir or t-shirt and tuck the tickets inside.

Permission to Pamper

Treat someone to a manicure, massage, or facial.  A foot massage is an economical alternative to a back massage and, because pressure points in feet are said to be connected to every part of our bodies, it can feel just as fabulous.

A lot of women I know won’t spend the money on a manicure or a hairdo, but a gift certificate gives them an excuse to treat themselves.  Last year my husband got me a 10-class pass to a yoga studio/community center that I had been wanting to try.  It was the push I needed to do something good for myself.

Children (or spouses) can easily make up a coupon for a chore-free day or breakfast in bed.  Here is a tutorial (and easy printable) on how to make a coupon book of favors.

Develop Skills and Hobbies

If a ballet class is not in the budget, maybe it is in the holiday gift budget (especially if relatives want to chip in).  What about classes for:

  • scrapbooking or robotics
  • ice skating or hockey
  • knitting or writing
  • learning to play a musical instrument
  • tennis, soccer, or skiing
  • cooking or ceramics

Low Cost and Low Impact Gift Ideas

Have an accessory or essential tool wrapped and under the tree to create a sense of excitement.

Give Your Time and Effort

In a poll by the Center for a New American Dream, 82% of Americans said they would rather receive a photo album of memories than a store-bought gift.

Assemble Photo Books

Choosing, uploading and arranging photos can be time-consuming, but it’s hard to find a more treasured gift.  Most grandparents are at the point in life when they have all the things they need:  their families are what really matter.

Professional-looking albums are relatively easy to make these days with digital cameras and services like Shutterfly and Snapfish.  If you have a Mac, iPhoto’s seamless interface with Apple’s printing services can’t be beat.  For other platforms, TopTenReviews rates 10 photo book programs.

Memorialize Children’s Creative Work

The same concept can be applied to kids’ drawings, stories, or poems.  The easiest and least-expensive method would be to make your own book using card stock for the covers and ribbon for binding.

For a more sleek look, scan or take pictures of the drawings and use the same photo services above or try a book-making site like Blurb or My Publisher.

Low Cost and Low Impact Gift Ideas

Make Coupon Books for Kids

Tim Kasser, author of the High Price of Materialism, says the most memorable gifts in his family are coupons for favors.  On Christmas Eve, he and his wife create tickets with colored pencils for things such as:

  • Get to skip fruit or vegetable (and still eat dessert)
  • Stop everything and play a game with me (or read me a story)
  • Get to stay up 15 minutes later
  • Be excused from cleaning up mess after playing

He says that he and his wife have even received coupons in return for back massages, taking out the compost or no fighting all day.

Inspired by his example, I made coupon books for my kids, which they loved.  You can print the coupon template here.

Give Consumables

The beauty of food is that it disappears after it’s been enjoyed.  To save money in addition to clutter, you could give batches of homemade cookies, frozen pasta sauces, or spreads and jams.

If you live close by, what about a promise to come over and cook once a week or once a month?  If you’re far away, how about a care package that repeats itself over the year, with a different theme each month.

Ready-Made Mixes

If you’d like something a little less labor-intensive, you could give mixes for making scones, muffins, soups, or pancakes.  King Arthur Flour in Vermont, a respected resource for home and professional bakers, has an assortment of baking mixes (and pretty packages if you want to make them up yourself).

Gourmet Food & Organic Produce

What about chocolate and decorated cookies, or pesticide-free nuts and fruit?  Lots of companies will deliver gift baskets for you, or you could make your own by visiting a farmer’s market, assembling a collection of cheeses from the international aisle, or making a collection of baked goods that are wrapped beautifully.

Dinner (Almost) on the Table

Many people — from college students to busy moms — would appreciate a gift card to a coffee shop.  What about a free pass to indulge at a gourmet food store that would normally be off-limits?  A gift certificate to a meal assembly service like Let’s Dish?  See this nationwide directory of easy meal preparation kitchens — where you can quickly assemble dinners from prepared ingredients into freezable portions.

When we had baby number four, a faraway friend, figuring we had all that we needed, sent us frozen sirloin steaks and side sides, like garlic mashed potatoes and  green been casserole.  It was not your frozen aisle fare, and it was very appreciated.

This list of of gifts that don’t become “Stuff” is simply a smattering of ideas.  I know you have lots more, and I’d love to hear what you’ve given or received over the years.

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  • M November 30, 2009, 8:07 pm

    Wonderful suggestions.
    If you’re at all creative, gifts that you make yourself will reward you, the giver, as well. Regardless of the money saved, it is just so satisfying to deliver a hand-made plate of cookies, a set of gift cards–even some holly from your bush. Your gift is one from your heart and hand.

  • Nancy November 30, 2009, 1:54 pm

    I love this post. So many great ideas. Re experiential gifts: a couple of times as a gift, my daughter and I have gone to Disney on Ice one of the days after Christmas. The show itself isn’t high culture but it’s the whole experience: taking the train into the city, being amidst the crowds, the spectacle of the costumes and skaters. Even if the show is only 2 hours long, she’ll talk about it for months. And once kids reach school age and start getting assginments to write about special personal experiences, you get to see just how much these events mean to them! Also, thanks for the recommendations for book-publishing sites. My 7-year-old has just completed her first “chapter book” and wants to give it as gifts, so I am looking for the best way to package it. I’ll look into the sites you recommended.

  • Elizabeth Marcotte November 30, 2009, 12:47 pm

    Hi Amy! Thanks for the Let’s Dish! shout out.

    I wanted to let your readers know that Let’s Dish! in the Mid-Atlantic also delivers. We ship overnight via FedEx and can reach residences from North Carolina to most of New York. This year for the holidays we’re shipping Festive Feasts. You can select one of three package choices of some of our most favorite dinners that come complete with appetizers, sides, desserts and signature scones for the next day’s breakfast. Go to to see the different package options and to place your order.

    Today and tomorrow, we’re running an awesome special for the buyer too. If you order a Feast today or tomorrow, we’ll send you a $25 Let’s Dish! gift card. You must place your order by midnight on Tuesday 12/1 to get the gift card bonus but we’ll be selling and shipping feasts through mid-January. You place the order now but specify when you want it to arrive.

    If you have specific questions about Let’s Dish! Feasts – please call the Baltimore store any time during regular business hours. 410 560-5634

    Elizabeth Marcotte