When there's too much month at the end of the money...
August 13, 2014 6:17 AM   Subscribe

I'm putting together a gift basket for someone who is on a low, fixed (disability) income. What sort of household staples might they appreciate?

If you were/are on a low, fixed income, what sort of household staples would you appreciate as a present? I'm compiling a gift basket for someone who is on disability, and want to include stuff they can't buy with food stamps. I've got toilet paper, dish soap, and a gift card for a pet supply store. What else might come in handy? Deodorant seems a bit iffy for a gift (I don't want to give a "you stink!" message), and they don't need feminine hygiene products. What else do you think they might appreciate? I'm looking for practical personal and household supplies.
posted by Rosie M. Banks to Home & Garden (39 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Do they need cleaning supplies? Dish soap? Laundry detergent? Plastic bags? Do you know what sort of shampoo/conditioner they like? (Also, of course, you could just give a gift card for Target.) Do they have enough towels and sheets? Is their pillow worn out? (Obviously you can't just buy all the things.)
posted by Frowner at 6:26 AM on August 13, 2014

I'm not in the position of being on a fixed income, but it's hard to see how you could go wrong with a grocery store gift card rather than specific items where they might prefer a different brand, etc.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:26 AM on August 13, 2014 [13 favorites]

What about a Target gift card or similar? They could use it to buy deodorant (which I agree, do not give them that!) and other household necessities.

In terms of more tangible gifts, what about laundry stuff (detergent and dryer cloths)? And shelf-stable groceries would be nice as well (thinking beans, pasta, sauces - that sort of thing). And maybe a small fan, if they are in a hot climate and dealing with the heat.

I'd also include something fun -- a DVD or a book or a board game, for example. Because in addition to practical problems, I think that "just scraping by" can take a real emotional toll on people.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 6:27 AM on August 13, 2014 [11 favorites]

What about sponges? Those yellow dish gloves? Nice airtight containers to hold bulk goods like flour and rice?
posted by stripesandplaid at 6:27 AM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

the basic stuff is great, but also, when I'm low on cash, I yearn for those things that everyone loves and that make life better but are too pricey to spend on, like: pesto, nuts, cashew butter, parmesan, craft beer, etc

if they like cooking but don't have equipment, a decent chef knife and a wooden cutting board, though that could get pricey

it also really sucks to not be able to afford to go places, so if there's some kind of monthly public transport pass that they might need, that could be great
posted by mbrock at 6:27 AM on August 13, 2014 [17 favorites]

I've received toiletries in a gift basket to include deodorant before, along with fragranced body wash and lotion. I wasn't offended!
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:36 AM on August 13, 2014

Laundry soap or powder, vinegar and a spray bottle to make all-purpose cleaner, borax, body wash/soap/gel, shampoo and conditioner (you can treat them to the big bottle of a nice brand from the beauty supply store), gift cards for somewhere "fun" where they won't feel compelled to buy needs instead of wants (Starbucks, B&N, clothing store, Google Play, iTunes, etc), napkins, spices, olive oil, hand soap, otc meds (cough syrup, advil, Tylenol, Tums, benadryl, advil pm, muscle cream, anti-itch cream, band-aids).
posted by Snarl Furillo at 6:38 AM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Can you get them a couple of gift certificates for a restaurant that delivers? When I've been at the "counting the spare change in the couch to see if it's enough for a loaf of bread" stage it would have been such a relief just to have been able to order a plain old takeout meal.
posted by MsMolly at 6:42 AM on August 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

We prepare a similar gift each year for my sister-in-law, and it's always the higher end, shelf-stable foods that she can't buy for herself. It's a way of stretching her food budget while also giving her a little splash of splurge, and she tells us she loves it.

Once the package was all pretty toiletries from Target, all the same color I think, so it looked festive. Again, it was stuff she'd use (shampoo, soap, lotion) but more fun and indulgent than she could otherwise afford, and she loved that too.

The pet store gift certificate is awesome, BTW. Paying for pets is so hard when your income is fixed.

Schroedingersgirl nails it when she says that just scraping by can take a real emotional toll.
posted by Capri at 6:44 AM on August 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Dish soap, laundry detergent.

Some nice, basic body lotion and face cream. I'd go with unscented.

I second the suggestion above to include medicine cabinet basics.
posted by third word on a random page at 6:44 AM on August 13, 2014

My neighbor is on disability and he really, really appreciates chocolate.

This JR Watkins lemon hand cream is a wonderful treat. The lemon is really fresh and clean and the ritual of using it feels like a tiny luxury. Most people seem to like lemon.
posted by mochapickle at 6:51 AM on August 13, 2014

Nice quality name brand zip lock bags and semi-disposable containers in a variety of sizes.
posted by vespabelle at 7:07 AM on August 13, 2014

Gift card to Target or Walmart, but only if they have reliable transportation to get there. It sucks to get a gift card to a store you can't physically get to.

Depending on the details of their disability, you could look into cooking items that might make cooking easier -- crock pot, rice maker, toaster oven -- that kind of thing.

Also, spices and condiments. (Technically, these can be bought with SNAP in some cases, but they are expensive and can be hard to justify on a low budget, and they can make cheap meals way tastier.) If they like spicy foods, Sriracha; if they cook, things like chili powder, cumin, pepper, and basic seasoning blends. Trader Joe's has decent quality spices and blends for low prices compared to most supermarkets, or health foods stores/Indian stores may sell in bulk.
posted by pie ninja at 7:36 AM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Costco-size vats of semi-luxury items, the sort of thing mbrock listed. No precious little jars; go with "You won't run out of this for ages, so pig out" sizes...

Unless the recipient is a teetotaller: booze. With mixers if applicable. It's an expense to have people over, and hospitality is a thing one generally wants to be able to offer no matter what your circumstances. When you are in need, you tend to get help, and then that generates a new need: repaying the kindness. Having some nice beer on hand goes a long way to feeling like you are not just an object of need but still a person who can participate in everyday life.

I disagree with suggestions for anything that one can nowadays buy in a dollar store for cheap. It is not too difficult to rationalise the purchase of dish soap or acetaminophen. I also think it might be easy to look at a gift card for a nice restaurant and think "@#$&, that in cash would feed me for weeks." There's a sweet spot in between, where stuff is not strictly necessary (gin, artichoke hearts) but is still a consumable that will help stretch the existing budget, and still more enjoyable than run-of-the-mill supplies.
posted by kmennie at 7:37 AM on August 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

A book of "forever" postage stamps.
posted by Carol Anne at 7:39 AM on August 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

+1 to nice spices. They can really improve basic meals and are shockingly expensive (or poor quality) in most supermarkets.
posted by barnone at 7:40 AM on August 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Consider another gift card as well like either a transit pass (or gift certificate for local taxi service) or a gift card (or even a membership card) for some place they can get to, like their local grocery store, Target, Walmart, Trader Joe, Costco etc. When you are on a limited income, the gift of being able to go where you want, or buy what you want, can be so appreciated.
posted by gudrun at 7:43 AM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would personally feel very offended if I received a "basic household supplies" gift, but then I'm also the kind of person who think food stamps are offensive (for me, they embody a "don't trust those poor people to know what's best for themselves" sentiment).

If you want to gift "basics", please buy a generic gift card (e.g., Target, Walmart, Amazon) as suggested above.

While it wouldn't be offensive to gift thinks like "luxury" shampoo/lotion/etc., I'm not sure how useful it would be. I was once gifted very nice hand cream, but can't use it because I have sensitive skin.
posted by yonglin at 7:44 AM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you for the suggestions, everyone. I've given it some thought and what I might do is get my friend an iTunes gift card, a drugstore gift card, some spices (that is something I did not think of - thanks!) and some wool dryer balls, as I am not sure if dryer sheets are a go or not (some people are sensitive to the chemicals). I asked where they shopped for food and was given the name of some local store I'd never heard of, and couldn't get a gift card for.

When I was flat broke I so appreciated getting a Michael's gift card for crafty stuff, but my friend isn't crafty, so that's out. I agree it's demoralizing to not have any money for little luxuries, hence the iTunes card (my friend loves music and podcasts).

Do keep the suggestions coming!
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 7:53 AM on August 13, 2014

If this is a friend whose food preferences you're well-acquainted with, think of a meal you shared in the past that they really enjoyed, particularly one that they'd have trouble re-creating right now, and get the ingredients for that.
Or seasonal things that they might not get when they're pared down to basics; not because a watermelon or a bag of cherries is super-duper expensive but because it's "not on the list" (my context: gave a broke grad student friend a bag of pomegranates at Christmastime and it made her cry, because she'd decided she shouldn't splurge on that this year)
posted by aimedwander at 8:00 AM on August 13, 2014

As someone who does not own a car, I think this is really sweet, and I can see why you're going this direction rather than just a gift card. I'm lucky enough to be able-bodied and good at biking; going to Target is still a huge pain in the ass. If I was older, disabled, etc , I am sure it would be even harder.

If they own a dog, I am always running out of those poop-picking-up bags, and they don't sell them everywhere so it's an aggravation. If they own a cat, litter box liners will make their life a lot easier, and may not be something they'd buy for themselves if they're trying to stretch that pet store gift card to buy pet food for the longest amount of time.

ENDLESS PAPER TOWELS. I am always out of paper towels, and stocking up on them is a pain if you're not a driver since they're so bulky. Alternately, a big stack of flour sack towels or dishclothes.

Pump handsoap for the bathroom sink and a big refill for it.
posted by Juliet Banana at 8:07 AM on August 13, 2014

I have to disagree with anyone who says "cash" for two reasons (as someone who is on disability in Canada):

a) My disability means that I have full use of only one hand and I *hate* trying to use cash in public. I can't count change without making a mess on the checkout counter, so I prefer the use of a debit or credit card.
b) Disability benefits usually mean there is a limit to the amount of money you can receive each month before you have your monthly benefits reduced. In Ontario for example, it's $200/month. Gift cards don't count towards this monthly limit. In fact, it's how I often ask for gifts in order to circumvent the monthly limit rules.

Just some things to think about.
posted by carabiner at 8:19 AM on August 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

How do they get from place to place? A one-month or multi-ride bus pass, or gas money or car washes or free oil change in gift card form, are the sorts of semi-necessities that are really nice to have when the money runs out and there's a storm in the forecast.
posted by tchemgrrl at 8:27 AM on August 13, 2014

A little bag of high end chocolates or a treat you know they'll like. When I've been broke a bag of Girabaldi (spelling?) caramel chocolates that I etched out by eating one a night for 2 weeks was like heaven. If not for them a small treat/toy for their pet, the petstore gift card idea was a great one btw.

If I was broke & someone gave me a gift card to a supermarket chain I didn't use, if one was nearby I'd still use the card so don't think twice about a gift card to another chain. I send my mother, who is on a fixed income in Australia a gift card to the local supermarket every month or so. It helps out because she can always use that for food and her budgeted grocery money for any sudden bills. She also uses the freed up cash to buy herself things she'd like but can't really afford like a nice electric blanket, new shoes etc.
posted by wwax at 8:40 AM on August 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

Perhaps some meals - nice pasta and a jar of pesto, a bottle of wine or good beer, tuna, wasabi mayo and artisanal bread, in the flavors your friend would enjoy. Cans of nuts, olive spread, some dark chocolate. If there's a Trader Joes near your friend, they have lots of tasty foods at decent prices, so it feels like a splurge without guilt.
posted by theora55 at 8:48 AM on August 13, 2014

Response by poster: Just a note about cash - in my circle, only immediate family gives cash gifts. From friends it would look condescending. YMMV, of course. But I'm pretty sure my friend would be offended if I gave them cash.

Treat-type stuff is looking better and better!
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:24 AM on August 13, 2014

Target offers online shopping and delivery, you guys. While some items are only available in-store, many can be purchased online. So OP's friend doesn't need to be able to get to Target, just to a computer with internet.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 9:37 AM on August 13, 2014

Stuff that I would've killed for when I was at the end of the month and my money:

- Gift card to store that sells necessities (toilet paper, dish soap, garbage bags). The reason I would've loved this is because I am a picky person about what I use in my home, so gifting me dish soap of a smell I didn't like would've been used... but not really appreciated. Ditto for garbage bags of a brand I don't want, or laundry detergent that I couldn't stand. It ends up being one more thing you're powerless over.

- Gift card to petstore.

You've covered that, so things I would've really liked:

- Nice cosmetics if applicable - something small and luxe, like L'Occitane hand lotion, nail polish that costs $15 and up, lip gloss that costs $20 and up, something special like that. Sephora actually has a lot of little gifty sets that would work and offer a nice trial.

- Nice kitchen tools. Not fancy tools that make me embarrassed that I don't have enough food to use on them, but really good every-day tools, like a good can opener that didn't hurt my hands, a durable set of spatulas and spoons and such, a sturdy pair of oven mitts. Something like a garlic press or mandoline slicer sounds nice (and I probably would've used it when I could) but they may not have the cash for the fresh food that goes with it, so think of things that you can use to cook canned soup, not something that belongs with gently seared salmon on a bed of quinoa and fish roe.

- Nice household stuff, like a good blanket, good pillow, new sheets.

- This is an odd one, and I don't know if it belongs in a gift basket, but I really would've liked good stuff for the medicine cabinet... brand-name adhesive bandages that stick, cold medication, Tylenol, etc. Like I said, I don't know if you could put that in a basket!

- Books & magazines & DVDs, but I would go with an Amazon GC unless you know of something specifically they want to see/read. A magazine subscription would be really nice, actually, and I loved the National Geo sub I had - I knew I would at least get ONE new thing to read every month.

Things I would not have used:

- GC to a restaurant; I couldn't've afforded the tip.
- Any foods. I am a particularly picky eater (and other people in my household had restricted diets) so it really didn't go over well when people would give me food - maybe I'm too proud, but it felt like a handout and half the time we couldn't use it.
- Wine. I don't drink, so... thanks, I guess I have some alcohol? that's less useful than the stuff in my medicine cabinet? Great if your friend drinks, kind of irritating as a gift if they don't.
- Anything that requires me to assemble, mix, prepare the gift. When I was broke, I was working long hours in retail and had extremely limited energy - I could barely manage to clean my house. Someone offering me the ingredients for homemade cleaning supplies or a complicated brownie mix... assuming I could've afforded the milk and eggs... would not have been giving me a present. It would've sat on a shelf for me to feel guilty about until I tossed it.

I guess the key for me was "give me stuff that I can't afford but that also feels like a regular present you give to regular people, not a 'poor people' gift". My parent could give me the poor people stuff, but pride would've killed me to get it from friends.
posted by Nyx at 10:09 AM on August 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree with a lot of the practical answers like Target gift cards. But I once gave someone Outback's gift cards when I knew that was not in the budget and I wanted them to get a little bit of a life and eat really well once in a while, in spite of the chronic stress and chronic budget crunch they were enduring. It's still a free meal that helps stretch the budget but it is also a free meal that adds other important dimensions. And they can still use it however they see fit (go to the restaurant and order drinks and everything! or get take-out and be very mindful of how they spend it -- totally up to them).

So if you know of a restaurant they like but can't really afford, a gift card to that restaurant might be a great thing.
posted by Michele in California at 10:13 AM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd absolutely go with a luxury food gift, maybe a few things - hopefully you know your friend well enough to know if they'd particularly like wine, nuts, good cheese, a good balsamic vinegar, fancy fruit, chocolate, or whatever else. If not, fancy chocolate is pretty much always safe, at least as much as any food product can be. Nut-free, if you don't know about allergies. Wine+nice cheese+maybe a baguette or fancy bread would be another awesome gift for a lot of people, though definitely not everyone.

Caveat: if they have any allergy/digestive problems or their disability might include problems with some foods, you should probably ask first to be safe, or go with non-food gifts.
posted by randomnity at 10:34 AM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Some suggestions for 'high-end foods' which feel luxurious and last a long time:

- Fancy hit chocolate mix
- Other fancy drink mixes (chai tea, lemonaide etc.)
- Sampler box of flavoured teas (Stash brand, herbal teas etc.)
- Or a box of loose-leaf tea from a fancy store, with one of those little metal balls
- Fancy wild rice mix or those bean mixes for soups
- Flavoured peanut butter (chocolate, jam swirl etc.)
- A big box of that Bisquick-type stuff and maybe print a recipe booklet for it
- Fancy muffin or cookie mix
- Super-rich truffles, the kind you only eat one at a time (it'll be rich, and last longer)

Have fun shopping!
posted by JoannaC at 10:57 AM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've been down to nothing but rice and BBQ sauce, and I would have jumped for joy for a case of paper towels. Being able to keep my house clean was really important to stave off my depression. For me, rags don't cut it. Seconding paper towels.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 10:57 AM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm really into the gift certificate idea, especially if they have a way to get around or internet access that allows them to order online and have it shipped to them. I think Amazon, Target, a gas station (if they have a car), or a home improvement type store even would be appreciated. I'd also go for a gift certificate to a local restaurant that delivers, maybe a pizza place?

When I was a broke-ass worker bee with minimum wage job, I would also have appreciated a big can of coffee (or several boxes of tea), since caffeine was necessary and often expensive.

Even while broke, I was still interested in feeding my mind, so a newspaper or magazine subscription would also have been very welcome. You say your friend loves music, so are there any music magazines out there s/he would find interesting? Even Rolling Stone would be a nice, regular treat.

Also any kind of OTC medications in large, Costco-sized jars. Things like Ibuprofen, antihistamines like Benadryl/diphenhydramine (which can be used as an allergy med and as a sleep med). Do they take vitamins? How about a big jar of gummy vitamins?

If they drink and/or smoke, you might consider a case of their favorite beer, a box of wine, or a carton of cigarettes. (I know, you might not want to contribute to their vices, but when I was a smoker, I would've fallen down on my knees in thanks at the gift of a carton of smokes.)
posted by GoLikeHellMachine at 11:00 AM on August 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

As someone who's been on the far end of the month with a paycheck stretched too thin things I couldn't justify on my grocery list but would have loved: ketchup, real fruit juice, fresh fruit, ice cream, chocolate. Especially really good chocolate. Cookies or the stuff to make cookies if they're into cooking/baking. Fresh herbs. Bonus if it's in a wee pot and can be kept for a while on a sunny windowsill.

Gifts card to a local coffee shop or pizza joint so they can treat themselves out sometime.

Tea/coffee/hot chocolate mix. Great for the person; also great if they have a guest to entertain.
posted by carrioncomfort at 11:56 AM on August 13, 2014

I love to give Amazon gift cards, because people can sometimes be like "I won't shop at Walmart" or "Target is too pricey". Amazon gives them the opportunity to price-compare, and best of all they deliver.
posted by vignettist at 1:13 PM on August 13, 2014

Tin foil
Cooking oil
Dental floss
Razors (maybe - depends on the person )
If long haired, good quality hair elastics
Ibuprofen or Acetominophin
Advantage for the pet -critical but often too expensive on a budget
Light bulbs
Unscented all purpose cleaner
Dish clothes or sponges
Soy sauce
Garlic powder
Onion powder
Cheese (large, inexpensive block)
Grated parmesan
Beef boullion (bottled or powdered)
Honey (don't buy cheap stuff!)

Other stuff, mentioned by other people above

Stuff to be creative with that matches their interests: Felt pens, yarn, good pen with a wide comfortable barrel, gift certificate to bookstore etc.

Fresh fruit gift basket

Membership to a produce coop/farm share that delivers
posted by Jane the Brown at 1:31 PM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I remember my mother cutting her hair over the trash can when I was young, which I assume was to save money by not paying for a haircut.

[it was that time in many 1990s immigrant family narratives when the highly-educated parents are working under-the-table cash-paying restaurant waiter jobs while getting their Master's in a field that does not require interpersonal schmoozing]

So a gift certificate for a haircut? Eyebrow wax?

Strictly as an in-addition item to tangible goods that last a long time and feel luxurious, though in some ways, a haircut lasts as well.
posted by batter_my_heart at 2:07 PM on August 13, 2014

Since you said practical, I'd go with a grocery card to one of the major groceries and a note that offers a ride there with a couple times you'd be available to take them. Target is more expensive than most groceries by us and with Amazon, you have to order $35 to get free shipping and most food choices are bulk items (looking at you, Chi Chi's fajita seasoning, 24 pack). A grocery card lets your friend buy what they like/want and most stores carry a lot more than food now. Plus if you can give them a ride, it lets them buy things in bulk that they normally might have a hard time getting home.
posted by stray thoughts at 6:47 PM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Chiming in again as someone without a car, I love straythought's suggestion. My only worry would be that would you would like "ok gurlfriend let's go on a shopping spree!" and then watch everything I bought and I'd be embarrassed to get condoms or buy clothing or stock up on frozen pizzas for bad weather nights when I don't give a fuck about making something out of the last of the rice in the fridge. I'd feel more comfortable if you phrased it like "I go there all the time, omg I practically live at Target, and I'm always happy to take you too! I'll call/text/email you whenever I'm planning a trip there, ok?"
posted by Juliet Banana at 6:58 PM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

« Older Does your Six Flags have fake histories?   |   Will a Viagra pill go bad if I keep it in my... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.