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10 Alternative Holiday Gift Ideas

by Michelle Schusterman Nov 24, 2011
Maybe you don’t want to support excessive consumerism; maybe you’re just broke.

NO MATTER WHAT THE REASON, you don’t have to rack up debt and spend half of December waiting in check-out lines. And you don’t have to look like a tightwad, so long as you replace the amount of money you would have spent on your gifts with time and consideration.


If you haven’t ever tried them, Movie Maker (PC) and iMovie (Mac) are paint-by-numbers easy to use. One option is to create a media holiday card, but depending on the recipient, you could make this a much bigger project.

If your parents still have boxes of old photos from your childhood, scan them in and create a slideshow with soundtrack, or even personal narration. Collect as much footage as you can from a recent trip with a friend to make a video with all of the highlights. Make a tribute video for someone and post it on YouTube. There are tons of possibilities here for a really personal gift.


Not 80s love ballads on tape, please. If you’re at all familiar with programs like GarageBand, you can go a lot farther than just burning a CD with a few tracks. Arrange your own version of the recipient’s favorite song; create loops or make your own beats with samples of other songs.

Media services

If you’ve got skills in website design, graphic design, writing, photography, videography – offer them. Even something simple, such as creating a header for a friend’s blog, would make a great gift and require relatively little work on your part. Help a friend set up his first website; offer to edit and proofread resumes, cover letters, bios, or newsletters; do a free photo shoot of your nieces and nephews.

Other services

Create a certificate offering other services. Cooking meals, car washing, shoveling snow, babysitting, cleaning, manicures, giving massages…I’ll let you use your imagination from there.

Host an exchange

Get in touch with a few friends and/or family members who are also interested in saving money during the holidays. Pick a day and a place for everyone to gather and share anything – decorations, books, clothes, toys – they don’t want anymore.

No money changes hands; everyone picks what they want. If there are leftovers, bring them to a charity organization.

Another option: exchange baked goods.


If you’ve got the skills, use them. Personally, I’d love a hand-knit scarf as a gift. I had a friend who was great with woodwork give me a really nice cutting board he’d made one year – so much cooler than one in a Bed Bath & Beyond package.

Matador reader Jessica Hutcheson recommends “bath bombs,” which just require baking soda, epsom salt, and citric acid. Other bath and beauty products are simple to make as well; try homemade lotion, or make a body scrub by combining salt or sugar with any type of oil (olive, grapeseed, almond), along with a dash of herbs or a few drops of essential oils. Fill a used (and clean) glass bottle or jar, seal, tie a ribbon around it, and you’ve got something that would run $30 at most beauty stores.

Need a gift for an adventurer? Make them paracord survival bracelets or key chains. Try a cigar box guitar, a QR code cross stitch patch, or soap made of Crisco.


Yes, this is a craft. I’m listing it separately because even if you aren’t crafty by nature, it’s hard to screw this up and it looks pretty cool when you’re done. All you need is decoupage glue (available at craft stores) or diluted white glue, a foam brush, printed photos and/or decorative paper, and nearly any object with a smooth, hard surface – vase, frame, hard cover book, dishes, mirrors, etc.

Personalize this one by choosing pics involving the recipient, or pics relevant to his/her interests. Don’t limit yourself to photos – you can use clips from magazines, printed poems or quotes, clip art, anything (just avoid printing with an inkjet printer; it’ll smear).

Paint a liberal amount of the glue onto the back of your clips and paste them collage-style onto the object. If you run into wrinkles, use a popsicle stick to smooth them out. Once you’re finished, allow it to dry completely, then use the foam brush to add another coat of the glue. Let dry and repeat, adding coats until you get a shiny, smooth texture.

Write a letter

If you really put some time into it, this can mean a lot. A few months ago I did a favor for a friend. Two weeks later, I checked my mail and found a thank you letter from her – not a card, but an actual letter. I think it may have been the first handwritten letter I’d received in nearly a decade. It meant a whole lot more than an email or a Facebook wall post.

Buy stuff from Fiverr

“Buy stuff” doesn’t fit the theme of this post, but hear me out – if you haven’t checked out, its tagline is “The place for people to share things they’re willing to do for $5.”

That sounds…potentially dirty. But you can get some great (not pornographic) stuff. People offer up voiceover services, hand crocheted fingerless gloves, bowls made of vinyl records, cartoon caricatures, Russian matrioshka dance videos…it’s a pretty wild grab bag.

Your companionship

Specifically, accompany them to do something they might otherwise not do, like surfing, rock climbing, or bungee jumping, advises Matador staff writer Richard Stupart. “All it would really take for some people to do a thing that really excites them is to be able to share the initial terror/awkwardness with a friend. Sometimes being that #2 can be a great gift of your own time.”

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