Christmas on a zero dollar budget?
December 21, 2010 10:07 AM   Subscribe

Mission Impossible? Christmas gifts for wife with a zero dollar budget. Due to my current unemployment, Mrs COD and myself have agreed that we will not spend a single dime on each other for Christmas. We did spend a little so that the kids have a few things to unwrap. However, having nothing under the tree just seems so depressing. Anybody have any creative ideas?
posted by COD to Shopping (45 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Here are the two ideas that I have come up with on my own.

1) Print out 12 (One for each month) "IOU" certificates for stuff like a date night, movie night, etc., mount them on cardboard, and wrap them up.

2) Collect a few never worn with the tags still on them things from her closet, and wrap them up.
posted by COD at 10:09 AM on December 21, 2010

How about a little book of coupons? A kiss. Two hours of freedom from you and the kids. A load of laundry. Dishwashing duty.

Give her a nice long massage. Even if you suck at it, try to be sweet about it. Do you have baby oil around the house? That helps a lot. Turn the lights down low, light some candles, and treat her to a half hour of peace and quiet and a loving touch.
posted by HeyAllie at 10:12 AM on December 21, 2010

make her something? Are you handy?

How about trade for something she wants on Craigslist?
posted by mattybonez at 10:13 AM on December 21, 2010

Wrap up some colorful leaves with a promissory note for a visit to the park or a camping trip. Box a ziploc full of water with a note that it used to be a snowball, so prepare for the next monster snowball fight. Wrap some nail polish with IOUs for DIY manicures and pedicures. Make some cookies and stuff stockings with cookies and oranges - traditional Christmas gifts and hey, you need to eat, right?
posted by workerant at 10:14 AM on December 21, 2010

Make a list of things you love about her. Pick a meaningful number, like 12 (one for each month) or the date or your anniversary.

Make some "get out of _____ free" certificates, and fill in the blank with chores she really hates to do.

If you have some photos and frames laying around that she's almost meant to get to, put them together and maybe hang them up for her. Ditto for other things around the house that have been put off to do "some time" - hang curtains, organize closets, clean out the garage, etc.
posted by geeky at 10:16 AM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Something written. Depending on your temprament, a love letter, a poem, or my favorite - a humorous This Is Your Life album. This Is Your Life could even be presented as a skit involving the kids.

You were born in Year, Place. Picture. Joke. Repeat, working with pictures you have on hand.
posted by rainbaby at 10:16 AM on December 21, 2010

Homemade cookies.

A real, heart-felt, love letter, written out by hand on nice stationery if you have it.

If you have digital photos, use Microsoft PhotoStory (free download) or something similar to create a nice slideshow of photos of the two of you through the years.

Your coupon/certificate idea is great, too.
posted by greenmagnet at 10:16 AM on December 21, 2010

I would say check out freecycle and craigslist "free" ads in your area, maybe see if anything someone posts would suit her. but you're getting pretty close to the holidays, so finding something that works in time might be a trick...

Other than that, you probably know something that she'd like you to do, and you don't enjoy. Dusting, vacuuming, whatever. Make up a couple IOUs for that stuff too. (It's probably best if you do them without making her hand you the card and say "you promised!")

I would suggest making cookies or something rather than re-wrapping her clothes. Put 'em in a tupperware equivalent and wrap that up. Use your best judgement; if you have a hungry pet in the house, this might not work.

Having nothing under the tree is only depressing if you tell yourself that the tree is supposed to have loads of stuff under it. The presents are only a symbol of your love and affection for your family; they aren't the love and affection itself. While you'd like to spend money on them, you can't for financial reasons - which is a MUCH better choice than doing it on credit.
posted by dubold at 10:19 AM on December 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

Do you have a book that you think she'd like? I mean, something you already own. Wrap that up and put it under the tree. OR even check a book out of the library and wrap it up.
posted by KathrynT at 10:20 AM on December 21, 2010

ah, so THAT'S what preview is for...
posted by dubold at 10:20 AM on December 21, 2010

Best answer: 1.) Run around the house when she's not home
2.) Find a bunch meaningful objects, or objects you could make meaningful— jewelry, old band t-shirts, paper weights, your favorite pair of her shoes
3.) Write notes for each, as to why their meaningful to you, in regards to your relationship
4.) Wrap them *terribly*
5.) Don a sheepish expression
6.) Sit back, and revel in the Christmas tears of joy

(Every year, my brother does a version of this, except it's more funny than meaningful.)
posted by functionequalsform at 10:27 AM on December 21, 2010 [12 favorites]

Also, if she's into bath and beauty stuff you can make homemade scrubs and whatnot with ingredients usually found in kitchens. There's a bunch of recipes here but you can google for more. The simplest one I've seen is sugar + honey + olive oil. Put in it a cute little jar (leftover baby food jar, maybe?) and tie a ribbon around it.
posted by geeky at 10:31 AM on December 21, 2010 [5 favorites]

This sounds like a job for BAKING !

Suggest perhaps banana bread; lets you use up old bananas, and is very inexpensive - I calculate a loaf costs less than fifty pence, direct costs, for maybe ten slices.

Simple to make and I'd suspect very endearing if you never cook. Well, I do all our cooking at home and Mrs Mutant still loves it when I bake. So there you go.


* Melted butter or oil, for greasing
* 300g (2 cups) plain flour
* 3 tsp baking powder
* 2 tsp ground cinnamon
* 90g (1/2 cup) sultanas
* 70g (1/3 cup) raw sugar
* 185ml (3/4 cup) milk
* 100g butter, cubed, melted
* 1 egg, lightly whisked
* 250g (1 cup) mashed ripe banana (about 2 bananas)


1. Preheat oven to gas mark six, 180°C. Brush a 6cm-deep, 9.5 x 22cm (base measurement) loaf pan with the melted butter or oil to grease. Line the base and sides with non-stick baking paper.
2. Sift the flour, baking powder and cinnamon together into a large mixing bowl. Stir in sultanas and sugar, and make a well in the centre.
3. Combine the milk, butter, egg and banana in a large jug. Pour into the centre of the flour mixture and use a wooden spoon to stir until combined.
4. Spoon the mixture into the prepared pan and bake in preheated oven for 45-50 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the loaf comes out clean. Set aside for 5 minutes before turning onto a wire rack to cool.
posted by Mutant at 10:34 AM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Is there something she's been putting off or mentioning that she should do when she has time? Try to find a way to make this happen. Either help her make time, or do it for her. And, of course, you can write this on a card and put it under the tree. (Very much along the lines of what's been mentioned above.)

This may just be me, but if someone took the time to really clean and polish a cherished possession, that would make me happy. In my case, if someone got all my pots and pans sparkling clean and sharpened my knives, I would consider that a great gift. It would just take some elbow grease, essentially.
posted by veggieboy at 10:37 AM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have you heard about Book Crossing? You might be able to find a site near you where people have given away books for anyone that wants them.

Apart from that, you may be able to exchange stuff with friends. Or maybe not even exchange, but just ask friends if they're done with any books, DVDs etc that they think your wife would like.
posted by philipy at 10:41 AM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

ditto Mutant -- I've just baked half a dozen small fruitcakes, ready to wrap. Cupcakes or brownies, yum!
posted by anadem at 10:41 AM on December 21, 2010

Are there any song lyrics/poems/quotes that remind you of her or that you think she might just like in general? If you made a little booklet of those and decorated it, you could wrap that up. I know I'd be all over something like that.

Are you in a position to make a mix CD/tape? She might enjoy that as well.

A small book of photos that are special to the two of you?

One year for my parents' anniversary my siblings and I wrote out and framed a list of things we remembered from our childhoods, like "red Christmas pajamas" and "getting doughnuts on Sunday mornings." My parents just about lost their minds with delight, seriously. Maybe you could do something similar with little memories of your relationship.
posted by corey flood at 10:43 AM on December 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

One year I gave my mom a book of coupons for doing the dishes, washing the kitchen floor, etc. She loved them.

Another year, being unemployed, I did my Christmas shopping at good will and got neat little things for about $2-5 each.
posted by jb at 10:50 AM on December 21, 2010

2) Collect a few never worn with the tags still on them things from her closet, and wrap them up.
Don't do this. This would not go over well with me. I love the idea of stuff you can do for each other. I'd be beyond thrilled to have a massage coupon from my husband.
Is there stuff around the house you can do as a present? Organize photo albums and sorth through drawers. That would also be a huge gift.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 10:51 AM on December 21, 2010 [7 favorites]

If you have access to a color printer, you could make her some paper toys like these. There are all sorts of pop culture and historical figures if you look through the archives. I made a bunch on Valentines for my boyfriend and put them all over the house. He loved them. There are other paper craft sites with different styles of toys if you Google around.
posted by kimdog at 10:54 AM on December 21, 2010 [5 favorites]

Check the public library for secondhand book sales, you can often get stuff for like a quarter or a buck.

Is it snowy where you are? Mix a pitcher of Kool-Aid, sneak out early and write "COD (hearts) MRS.COD" in the snow where she can see it from the window.
posted by hermitosis at 10:54 AM on December 21, 2010

Also, if you have even a few dollars to spend I'd go down to the local hardware store/nursery and buy some packets of seeds. Vegetables, or flowers, or whatever you think she might like. A few packets tied together with a ribbon would be a very sweet gift, and symbolically hints at better times to come.
posted by hermitosis at 10:56 AM on December 21, 2010 [5 favorites]

Things you were going to buy anyway? Like...her favorite shampoo, soap, floss, toothpaste, razors, etc. And the gift, on top of the fun of unwrapping, is that the next time she runs out, she doesn't have to think about stopping and picking up more.

If you already buy in bulk, that exact idea wouldn't work, but maybe there's something you were going to buy anyway and have therefore already budgeted that would be fun to wrap and unwrap.

Stay up late Christmas Eve doing a whole bunch of laundry, then wrap the basket full of clean laundry? I know when I get clean laundry back from the laundromat, it feels kind of like a present.

I like your idea of wrapping something she already has. It doesn't even really have to be something that she's never used. It could just be about the fun of rediscovering something she already loved. Or you could make a game of it--both agree to secret away something from the house and wrap it up for the other, and try to guess what it is.
posted by lampoil at 10:56 AM on December 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

Many years ago when money was really tight (it was food or gifts but not both) we went through the house and looked at the things we already had and someone else took it and wrapped it up so we'd have something to unwrap on Xmas morning.

My brother gave me 10 books from my to be read pile, my mom gave me her hand-me-down boots. I have my dad his books from his TBR pile, gave my brother his video cartridges etc etc.

Again, these were all things we already had or were going to get anyway (hand-me-down stuff). Mom had lots of wrapping paper so didn't need to buy that.

There were a couple of small 'new' presents for each person -- I don't even remember what those were but I remember getting my books & those boots.
posted by jaimystery at 11:04 AM on December 21, 2010

have my dad gave me dad
posted by jaimystery at 11:05 AM on December 21, 2010

Lots of little origami animals under the tree!
posted by Greg Nog at 11:13 AM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Stay up late Christmas Eve doing a whole bunch of laundry, then wrap the basket full of clean laundry? I know when I get clean laundry back from the laundromat, it feels kind of like a present.

Ooo. I personally would consider someone doing all the laundry (or housecleaning, or other domestic chore that's been freaking me out) for me a Christmas miracle and probably prefer this over an expensive gift. YWMV.
posted by theredpen at 11:13 AM on December 21, 2010

Best answer: We're in a similar position, because people are being very casual about paying me this season, and I don't feel like chasing them. Here's what I'm thinking of:

Give her a note promising to stop doing that thing that you do that she hates. (mrgood would no doubt like it if I never let a sink full of dishes sit in elbow-deep cold greasy water again. I'd like it if he learned to go up and down stairs without gigantic loud stomping noises that our attached neighbours have mentioned they can hear all too well.) I'll do it if you do it!

I'd also love a blank honey-do list. We have coat racks that have fallen off the walls, windows that need some insulating strips applied, an oven that needs a good cleaning, cracks in the kitchen floor that need filling, baseboards that need washing, nail holes that need patching, pictures that need hanging... I can do all of these things myself, but not having to do them is better than a romantic date or dinner out, and yes - better than kisses. For me, time at home with fewer nagging obligations is a great gift.
posted by peagood at 11:17 AM on December 21, 2010

as to why their meaningful to you


I can't believe I did that.
posted by functionequalsform at 11:22 AM on December 21, 2010

When I was a kid one year and money was tight, my Dad wrote a short story for each of us, starring us, and printed it out. Then my mother illustrated it with watercolors. It was a big hoot.

So maybe try something similar for your wife-- write down the story of how you first met, your first date, your wedding day-- all from your perspective and filled with tiny details that she may not have noticed (or even remember.) Print it out and hand-bind it via sewing (

Bonus points for colorful illustration, no matter how wonky. It'll be a very special thing.
posted by egeanin at 11:25 AM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you have any blank CDs around that you can burn, make her a mix-tape. A mushy one, a fun one, do a whole "Time Live Series of our Marriage" set. That's under the assumption that you have the CDs around the house that you can take the original singles from, but once in awhile my husband will either burn me a CD for in the car or put music on my iPod for me, and it just makes me incredibly happy.

Also, there are a lot of sites online that let you do free crossword or word searches, using your own clues, then you print them out. You could do a similar "Crossword Puzzles of our Life" with different themes, print them out and make a book.

Both of those would tickle me, because it would be more about the time and the thought you put into the relationship and your time together, than the money spent.
posted by librarianamy at 11:32 AM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Is there anything she has that's needed to be repaired, mended, maintained, cleaned, etc. for some time but neither of you have gotten around to it yet? Take care of it, and then wrap it up (if feasible).
posted by Jacqueline at 11:32 AM on December 21, 2010

Best answer: All the coupon/IOU/fix/make ideas here are great, but you might like this presentation idea that Mr A did for me one moneyless Christmas.

Fill a somewhat-bigger-than-a-shoebox box with, uhm, filler. Mr A used popcorn. Torn and/or balled-up newspaper would work just as well. Take your coupons, etc. and tie each of them to a length of string/twine/yarn. Arrange the coupon+string in different places and depths in the box with the ends of the string hanging out. Mrs. COD can then "go fishing" and each string will bring out something different. Some strings may not even have a coupon attached: maybe an "I love you" note, a poem, or even a "Sorry, try again" note.

Mr A also puzzled me because he enclosed a potato (a heavy, rolling around thing) and a box of mints (a rattly thing) in the bottom of the box. He wrapped it, dared me to guess what was inside, and of course I couldn't.

We've been married over 30 years and that is the Christmas present I remember. I've had lovely gifts since then, but that one probably meant the most.
posted by angiep at 11:35 AM on December 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

I think it would be cute to write out a recipe for cookies or some other fun baked good, and put all of the necessary ingredients pre-measured and individually wrapped in a box, together with a promise to make the recipe with her.
This would also work with chili, or a bean soup, or bread, or any other recipe that takes a little bit of time to make that would have the two of you spending time on it together.
posted by newpotato at 12:05 PM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

One of the nicest gifts I've ever received was a small blank notebook that had a single memory or thought written on each page.

The gifter had included things we had done in the past, things we did at the present time, and things they were looking forward to doing together in the future.

It was extra-special to read about the thoughts/feelings we didn't share out loud with great frequency.

Examples might include:
- "When I fist saw you, I remember thinking ____"
- "On our first date, I ____"
- "Remeber that road trip we took to ___?"
- "I love it when you ____."
- "I always look forward to spending time with you at ____."
- "____ reminds me of you because _____."
- "I can't wait to do _____ with you!"
- "I love your ____ (smile, laugh, xxx, etc.) because____."

It can be as PG or as R as you see fit.

Maybe you could find an unused or partially used notebook (just tear the used pages out) or gather some scrap paper and bind it into a small book.

I really enjoyed flipping through it when I had a moment of downtime or needed a distraction/something to look forward to.
posted by nathaole at 12:13 PM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

peagood: "Give her a note promising to stop doing that thing that you do that she hates. (mrgood would no doubt like it if I never let a sink full of dishes sit in elbow-deep cold greasy water again. I'd like it if he learned to go up and down stairs without gigantic loud stomping noises"

Oh my god, yes! This is fabulous. If I received Mr. Squirrel's smelly, dented, leaky silver thermos that I am convinced he only keeps around to annoy the snot out of me, all wrapped up with a promise that I never had to see it sitting on the counter again, I would believe in miracles.

Find that one thing you [do/don't do] that just drives your wife murderously crazy and vow to [stop/start] doing it.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 12:40 PM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

One of my favorite gifts EVER was a found-art Valentine my husband made from junk and our many dogs' fur. It was huge and AWESOME, I loved it so much. It was made of pieces of an old surfboard, dog fur (for the lace), leaves, flowers, twigs, beads, shells, etc. Perhaps you can make something like this? Part of the fun for me was that my husband (we were very poor at the time) spent a lot of time thinking about it and looking for items. The dog fur was my favorite part.
posted by wandering_not_lost at 12:46 PM on December 21, 2010

If you have any daylight free time hours between now and Christmas, take a hike through the woods and collect up a few armfuls of seasonal evergreens, colorful berries, pine cones, interesting dried grasses or sticks or other bits of nature, and make some seasonal arrangements in vases or containers you already own, or use to create a candle centerpiece with preowned candled, gussied up with a few bows, shiny baubles, etc. Not only will you have a nice gift, but it will make your house MOAR CHRISTMASY.
posted by SomeTrickPony at 1:21 PM on December 21, 2010

Response by poster: She has been after me to stop biting my nails for over 20 years. I think I just found my motivation to actually do it. What a brilliant idea! Thanks everybody.
posted by COD at 1:27 PM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Please call the Salvation Army, United Way, your church, or other organization and ask for a little help. At Christmas, especially, people like to share with their neighbors. I gave to my local Salvation Army. Please let your local charitable organization help you have a Merrier Christmas. It makes people feel good to give, and you will help others when you are working again. You are part of a community; this is what communities are for.
posted by Mom at 1:35 PM on December 21, 2010

And, I mean that in addition to the many other excellent ideas here.
posted by Mom at 1:56 PM on December 21, 2010

If you are at all creative you could make something out of found materials to give her. If you live near some wilderness areas the materials for a dried flower arrangement might be easy to find. If you live near the water something with driftwood. Many people fashion various pieces of scrap metal into fun sculptures. Do you have souvenirs of various travels or other adventures laying around? If so, find an interesting way to display them and keep them from gathering dust in the back of a closet. For example, my wife is good at arranging seashells our daughter gathered at the beach (which are mostly just broken pieces of unremarkable shells) along with some sand in a clear glass container as a reminder of the good times. Is there a photo album you could complete for her?
posted by TedW at 2:25 PM on December 21, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks Mom. (Wow, that seems out of context here!) I appreciate the info about Salvation Army, etc, but I feel like that is for people that are in need. This is all about want. I want to see my wife smile when she opens a gift on Christmas morning. We aren't hurting for anything important. We have each other, food, shelter, etc etc etc. But I've been so busy and focused on finding a job that it just sort of hit me today that Christmas is in 4 days, we agreed not to buy gifts for each other, and that I was really going to miss seeing her smile on Christmas morning when she opens up whatever I got her. However, I have that covered now, thanks to all the great input here.
posted by COD at 6:02 PM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

You could each choose one gift that you have been given by each other previously, something special or that has meaning to you, or something you just love and use every day. You each wrap these gifts you have previously been given by each other, and the other person gets excited to see which gift you chose to unwrap. It's free and gives you appreciation for your partner and the things you already have.

I did this with my pound puppy last year, my chosen to-bed-every-night stuffed animal as a kid, given to me by my grandma. She always talks about how excited I was when I opened it when I was 5. At 25, I wrapped it up and wrote "To Jamie, From Grandma," and she was touched that I still had it.

Merry Christmas to you both!
posted by shortyJBot at 6:06 AM on December 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Read her "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry aloud as a bedtime treat. Reading to your partner is undervalued.

Also, if you have access to old videos or photos, make a photo or video album using free/cheap video editing software.
posted by benzenedream at 12:45 PM on December 22, 2010

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