Gift-giving for poor people
September 28, 2018 1:31 AM   Subscribe

I'm broke and will remain so for the next few months. A good friend had a birthday and I have to come up with a gift in about a week or so. She is well off and enjoys the finer things in life. What could I give her without it being or looking or telegraphing "cheap"?

In the past, I would have bought flowers, quality chocolate/candy/truffles/etc, small piece of jewelery, good booze, nice candles, stuff like that.

I have zero artistic ability. Anything that relies on aesthetics will fail. Anything that requires me to buy $$$ ingredients or supplies is sadly out of the question.

I can cook, bake, knit, crochet, sew a little... My primary talents are with computers, but her partner is a computer nerd, so she's got that covered...

I will also have the same problem in about 2 months for Christmas gifts, so any suggestions on that are also welcome!

(I mean, she would understand if I just said I'm broke and couldn't get her anything, but I'd still like to give her something!)
posted by gakiko to Grab Bag (46 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
There is a little shop near me that rents shelf space to crafts people so it’s always full of very interesting and unique handmade trinkets... I’ve bought magnets, a bracelet, and a few other inexpensive but meaningful gifts for close friends... and because they were one of a kind it wasn’t really obvious what I had or hadn’t spent. Maybe there is a shop like that near you or someone can recommend one.
posted by catspajammies at 1:36 AM on September 28, 2018

I would love anything you baked yourself (and honestly would like much better than nice candles/etc.) Do you have any interest in really fancy baking -- ie using time to show how much you care? Think one of these kinds of pies! But really, ANYTHING hand made (a hand-knit scarf, how amazing) would be wonderful.

(And honestly, there have been so many times in my life that I've covered up my financial difficulties, and when I finally just said, sorry, I'm so broke, people TOTALLY understood, so it's nothing in particular you have to hide, I think. Spending time on a gift is so much better than ordering something generic online.)
posted by heavenknows at 1:40 AM on September 28, 2018 [18 favorites]

I totally understand being broke but wanting to give nice things to your friends anyway. It's not impossible but it does require devoting more effort and care than you might otherwise do. And you have to be prepared for your friends to maybe not understand or appreciate the level of effort you go to for that gift. But for me that's often its own reward? It's a thing.

Crocheted basket sets made with twine or rope can look very chic and work up quickly, and depending on the material can be super affordable. Make sure it's something that would work with her home decor, of course, but I don't know anyone who isn't constantly looking for things to store a bunch of little things in.

If your friend likes to cook and has the space in her kitchen, a couple of potted herbs are wonderful. Rosemary and thyme are both herbs that do well indoors over the winter, and are deliciously fragrant. They shouldn't be too expensive at a home and garden store. You could crochet or knit pot cozies for them to coordinate with your friend's kitchen decor!

I think baking something is probably your best bet though. Look at the equipment you already have and let that guide you. Simple flavorings are often the best, no need to get wild. I'd avoid chocolatey things because quality chocolate gets very expensive and it's easily tasted if it's not that good. Think flavors like lemon, cinnamon, walnuts, honey... Or just simple shortbreads, with butter as the main "flavor", are outstanding, really.

For Christmas gifts I think going traditional with some home made cookies is fabulous. My great grandma tessie's apricot thins recipe was my mom's go-to winter holiday gift and she had requests for them for years and years. Now the recipe is in the mefi cookbook! I think they are a hit because while being buttery and sweet, they're not quite so heavy and indulgent-seeming as many other wintertime treats. But anything baked with care and attention to detail will be so much better than storebought gifts, I promise you.

You might also think about pickles? A couple months is just enough time to get a really nice fermentation going. There are likely to be many books on pickling techniques available in your local library, as well as of course plenty of info online. Print out a cute label with a quirky name and an ingredient list and tie it onto a jar with a ribbon and you're gold. For your closer friends, pair the pickles with some nice cheese and a loaf of bread and encourage snacking.
posted by Mizu at 2:01 AM on September 28, 2018 [5 favorites]

I'm very often in your shoes--I love giving gifts, but I'm poor, and all of my friends and family are more affluent than I am.

I bake and cook a *lot* for people. Things that can be frozen and doled out one by one are nice--I'll bring people trays of cinnamon rolls, for example, or a few dozen homemade pirogi or sauerkraut balls. Things where making them at home is tedious and annoying, but also so much better than the purchased version. I really like making soup for people, too, but feel like the best food gifts are ones that don't require immediate consumption, and not all soup keeps well. I'm also about to make a big batch of apple butter, and another of grape jelly, because, again, the homemade stuff is so much better than purchased things.

Some people really like knitted gifts, especially if you're fairly competent--socks and shawls seem to always go over well, and I've been asked to mend at least two pairs of years-old gift socks, so at least some people are genuinely pleased and not just being polite about it.
posted by mishafletch at 2:02 AM on September 28, 2018 [5 favorites]

My family gift tradition, with limited funds, was to make mountains of Russian and chocolate fudge (essentially sugar) for everyone we knew at Christmastime. Always amazingly well received. Homemade chocolate truffles are also quite inexpensive to make but very impressive! I've also made caramelised onion jam in large batches for the holidays
posted by teststrip at 2:27 AM on September 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

As they say, its the thought that counts. This year for my birthday I got 2 gifts from friends. I spent my birthday at a roller derby tournament as a non-skating official. My best friend, who has very little spare money, got me a tote bag with a large gold S on it (for Steph Metal - my derby name), a packet of pencils, a clipboard and water bottle - all useful things for a non-skating official - very thoughtful but not expensive. The other gift I got was a chocolate muffin from McDonalds, from someone I only met the day before. She found out it was my birthday and that I wasn't going to have any cake because I was away at the tournament - we'd spent the whole previous day together as we were both working the same position and on the same crew. That little gesture meant so much more than an expensive gift.

Never underestimate the impact of a thoughtful but inexpensive gift or a home-baked treat. I'm sure your friend will be happy to get anything from you
posted by missmagenta at 2:48 AM on September 28, 2018 [8 favorites]

Flavoured vinegars, flavoured salts, flavoured oils are very cheap to make and often very appreciated.
posted by smoke at 3:10 AM on September 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

If you have to give lots of presents to a large group, it is quite hard to come up with anything that works besides food. But for personal gifts between friends, something that says "I listen to what you like and are interested in, and I looked for this because I thought it would make you happy" is a gift in itself.

Secondhand books can be as little as $2-3 and it's the thoughtful note that explains why you chose it that makes the difference for the gift. I know I would MELT if someone hunted down certain poetry or short story collections for me as gifts. And for childhood favourites - I spent years looking for duplicates of books I'd read as a kid, and for classics in certain fields.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 3:35 AM on September 28, 2018 [5 favorites]

For my mother and MIL milestone birthdays I got a small journal and on each page wrote one thing we love about her. I did one page for each year of age but you could do any number. For my mom they were all my thoughts; for MIL I solicited ideas from her kids and grandkids too. They were moved to tears and laughter and treasured those books.
posted by evilmomlady at 3:58 AM on September 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

Trader joe’s has bday cards (all greeting cards) for a dollar and nice but cheap bouquets of flowers at different price points under $10. I would do that
posted by raccoon409 at 4:33 AM on September 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

A book on a shared interest, with a meaningful note. Nobody inscribes books any more. It's nice.
posted by Leon at 5:40 AM on September 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Your time. Invite her over for coffee/tea and a home-baked cake or cookies. Or make the recipe together and send the goodies home with her.

Or, along the lines of the inscribed book, a card in which you've written a favorite memory of your friendship, or a way she's helped you, or an appreciation of what makes her such a good friend.
posted by dywypi at 5:53 AM on September 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Handmade truffles, as someone mentioned, are really exquisite as a gift.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:53 AM on September 28, 2018

Thrift shops, yard sales. Tons of nice vases at Goodwill; I passed on a tall glass cylinder and now I'm sorry - would look great filed with pine cones and fairy lights. You have to be patient and willing to look carefully at stuff.

Or a super-useful gift - small bucket with emergency stuff for the car - flashlight that plugs in to car lighter, 1st aid kit.
posted by theora55 at 6:26 AM on September 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

What about making a beautiful cake?
posted by mosst at 6:42 AM on September 28, 2018

I don't understand - you say you have zero artistic ability, and yet in the very next sentence, you say you cook, knit, bake, crochet, and sew. Maybe you don't see those as artistic, but everyone else does, so you should roll with that.

Some of my favorite things have been gifted to me, made by loved ones. My use again-and-again favorites off the top of my head are crocheted and felted reusable coffee sleeves, both for to-go cups as well as looped ones for at-home mugs. I use those things all the dang time, they're like having my coffee and tea wrapped up in a hug from my friends who made them.

Good recommendations above on edible gifts. For years, I was known as the hot cocoa lady, because I made my own hot cocoa mix, packaged it in jars I got from Goodwill (and cleaned thoroughly of course), and decorated. Just add instructions. EVERYONE loved the cocoa, I still get asked for it. Many recipes online, but it's basically powdered milk, cocoa powder, powdered sugar, and dehydrated mashmallows.
posted by juniperesque at 6:45 AM on September 28, 2018 [11 favorites]

She is well off and enjoys the finer things in life.

Home-baked goods are one of the finer things in life. I think that's way better than trying to figure out how to afford a material object she can buy herself.

Your time is the best gift you can give someone (in this case, I mean the time you spend baking). The best gifts I've ever gotten were not the most expensive. My daughter made a booklet about what I'd done right as a parent. It cost her less than a dollar, and it's worth way more to me than anything anyone could buy.

Also, I'd recommend seeing if your library has The Complete Tightwad Gazette, which is all about having a rich life without spending much money. The author says that frugality without creativity is deprivation.
posted by FencingGal at 6:46 AM on September 28, 2018 [5 favorites]

If you can knit "a little", you can knit mittens! Mismatched mittens look cuter than cute (google "solmate" for pictures) and it's the right season. I like the finer things in life and I would die for friend-made mittens.
posted by rada at 7:33 AM on September 28, 2018 [5 favorites]

A broke friend gave me a rock she found on a hike for a birthday. The rock was beautiful, and I loved the gift. This may not work for all people, but a found object like a rock or a lamenated fallen leaf or a collection of sea shells can be great and meaninful gifts.
posted by Pineapplicious at 7:49 AM on September 28, 2018 [6 favorites]

In my experience people truly cherish handknit scarves and hats, even (sometimes especially) if they are plain, "not artistic," and unadorned. If you have a yarn stash that needs to be used up this can be effectively "free." If you don't, an oft-overlooked source of cheap high quality yarn is thrift shop sweaters -- look for large size plain sweaters that ideally have some stitch definition (increases the likelihood of being able to easily unravel them), and you can unravel them for re-knitting.
posted by telegraph at 7:54 AM on September 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

You could invite her over for a private birthday tea party! Very special and affordable.

As for holiday gifts, all of the suggestions to bake something are great. Quick breads/loaf cakes are great if you’re making a lot of gifts because they’re not too fussy and they use oil instead of costly butter as the fat. If you already have a well stocked spice shelf, gingerbread loafs are decadent and affordable. A marbled loaf looks fancier than a simple banana bread. Maybe a banana, chocolate marble!
posted by defreckled at 7:56 AM on September 28, 2018

Homemade spiced nuts in a gift box or cute jar. I love when my friend does this, and the years she doesn't, I really miss them! It's her own secret blend of spices, so it's not something I could find in a store.
posted by kapers at 8:14 AM on September 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

I don't know if Mishafletch is willing to share their cinnamon roll recipe, but if they are, and if you're up for what I gather is a time-intensive process, GET THAT RECIPE and MAKE IT and you are 100% covered on gifts forever, those rolls might be the best things I've ever put in my mouth.

Honestly, no one needs more Misc. Gift Stuff, maybe/especially those who can afford Misc. Stuff themselves anyway. Consumable gifts are great, and I'd honestly rather get something baked or cooked for me by a friend than some store-bought food anyway unless it happens to be some specific special treat I love and can't easily get on my own.

Other thoughts: I have another friend who makes candles and soaps and scented hand lotions for gifts. I don't know how $$$ those crafts are but if they sound at all interesting to you, might be worth investigating?

One year I did homemade peanut butter cups filled with various tasty substances and they were really well-received. They're not particularly hard to do, but no one ever really seems to make them at home, so they impress out of proportion to how much cost and time they actually take. (Mind you, mine were not pretty, if you want PRETTY you probably have to practice. But then you get to eat the practice ones, or maybe give those as gifts to your friends who won't judge you if you give them lumpy candy. So all won't be lost.)
posted by Stacey at 8:26 AM on September 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

A jar with mixed ingredients for making a cake with instructions for adding other ingredients and cooking can be a fun gift. Going to a unique location with someone can also be a fun gift. Gifting is a token for expressing that you matter to someone, so if you expand your definition of what constitutes a gift, there are many ways of expressing gratitude for friendship, even without spending much money.
posted by metasunday at 8:28 AM on September 28, 2018

My niece, who does not have a ton o' money, made homemade soap for everyone last year and it was perfect! I'm not super crafty but she said it was beyond easy and the ingredients were inexpensive. I think she made something similar to the Lavender Oatmeal soap found on this site (Natural Living Ideas).
posted by hapax_legomenon at 8:31 AM on September 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

I almost always give handmade/consumable gifts. Things like jams, jellies and pickles (pickled green beans, e.g.) are good if you know your giftee's tastes. I've also done interesting pancake mixes, quickbread mixes, homemade hot cocoa mixes, chai tea mix, etc. This holiday season I'm planning on making these mixed nuts (sooooo good, and I'm not even that big on mixed nuts usually), and packaging them in pretty jars with some pretty ribbon and handmade gift tags. Basically I compensate for not spending a lot by having my gifts appear as though I put a lot of time and effort into them.
posted by Empidonax at 8:33 AM on September 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

In these situations, I always vote for "take the time to write your friend a thoughtful handwritten letter about what you like about them and some memories you value from your friendship."

I'd always rather receive that than $StoreboughtGift.
posted by ITheCosmos at 8:39 AM on September 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

A thoughtful note outlining your appreciation and love for your friend would never be seen as cheap.

Another possibility . . . you say your primary talent is with computers. If you think it would be well-received, you could go that route. A few of my friends have blown each others' minds with epic powerpoints (or Google presentations) full of photos and inside jokes. In some cases they have been in the format of a "how-to" or describing the individual as if they are a mysterious and wondrous creature. In some cases, cheesy formatting (all the transitions!) was part of the charm. Personally, I have gone back to these again and again for the laughs and the appreciation of shared humor and history.
posted by annaramma at 8:57 AM on September 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

Pass along a good book you think she'd like
Short story, maybe featuring some common event
Quilted coasters, placemat, table runner, tea cozy or ??? made from old jeans/clothes that you are done with
Time: take her for a birthday walk in a beautiful garden or a lovely hike

Ah, how I miss the mixed tape!
posted by chapps at 8:58 AM on September 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Plants can be good, and seeds are cheap. Terracotta pots are a bit less cheap but can be found at garage sales.
posted by slidell at 9:08 AM on September 28, 2018

You could gift tiny potted plants with tiny knit or crocheted pot cozys- so cute! Think of plants you can start from clippings, like rosemary or succulents, or plants that are always reproducing, like spider plants. It's probably possible to get plants like these, as well as little plastic pots, or mugs, or other small containers suitable for covering up, for free via some local social media like nextdoor or a buynothing group.
posted by Secretariat at 9:09 AM on September 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

One of the sweetest gifts I ever received was from someone in a knitting group I was in about ten years ago; we did a secret-santa exchange one year, and the woman who got my name was one of our less-experienced knitters. She gave me something fairly simple - a garter-stitch neckwarmer that closed with a button - but she chose a really nice yarn for it, in a beautiful color. She told me that she really took time with selecting the yarn and blew her budget on it "because you've had a really hard year this year and you deserve something really nice; I can't knit anything with cables or anything super fancy like that, so I decided to splurge on the yarn itself." Now, to be honest, I rarely wear neckwarmers, so I don't use her gift much. But I'm gonna keep that thing until I die because of what she told me about why she chose the yarn she did - she spent specific attention on thinking about what my specific situation was, and how she could do something to please me specifically.

My point is: crafted and handmade gifts don't always have to be expert jobs. Sometimes it means much, much more if you think of how to specifically please the gift recipient, and then make that the focus.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:24 AM on September 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

A heartfelt card listing how they are “one in a million” & some lottery tickets :) Even people who would never buy a lottery ticket get a kick out of them as gifts, maybe especially so. Smiles every time!
posted by iiniisfree at 9:36 AM on September 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

I second a card but would leave out the lottery tickets. Write about how much you appreciate your friendship. That really is enough.

Thankfully my friends have stopped with the birthday gifts. I have enough stuff. Baked goods and a nice heartfelt note make my day.
posted by cairnoflore at 9:41 AM on September 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

You can use your computer skills to do a really clever photoshop image that will cost nothing but be total win for uniqueness and thoughtfulness. When my father remarried, I took photos of all the family dogs (his, hers, my own and my brothers') and photoshopped it on the classic picture of dogs playing poker. It took hours but it was a perfect gift.

Similar skills - for my in-laws, I took a photo of their house, used filters to turn it into a line drawing, printed it on card paper and made note cards out of it. (For MIL who likes to write real letters)

You could also do a collage of places or things that meaningful to your friendship. Using digital photos makes this much easier.

Which reminds me that my grandmother used to use decoupage to make custom gifts for people - collecting photos, clippings, stickers etc. to create a custom image that she would used to cover a box or tray. There is a little more cost since you need to buy both the object and the supplies but the final result is worth far more than the component pieces.
posted by metahawk at 10:11 AM on September 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Do you have some old t-shirts? You can make necklaces out of them. (There are many variations on this if you search).

Some people have mentioned little edible things like onion jam - a few of these made with inexpensive ingredients are a great gift to eat with cheese (like onion jam, apple butter, chutney, small portion of spiced nuts - even homemade crackers are super cheap to make). Take it a step further and repurpose a slate tile as a cheese board, and arrange it all in a basket, which are easy to find at second-hand stores.
posted by beyond_pink at 10:24 AM on September 28, 2018

Locally-sourced honey isn't too costly, and is nice to have. It's also recommended as an anti-allergy foodstuff.
posted by anadem at 12:43 PM on September 28, 2018

If you wanted to try your hand at cheesemaking, labneh is very cheap to make - all you need is yoghurt, or milk if you want to make the yoghurt - but package it up in a fancy jar with some olive oil and herbs and and it becomes a very impressive gift most people wouldn’t buy for themselves.
posted by Jubey at 2:55 PM on September 28, 2018

Homemade pie with woven/decorated latticework and sugar. It looks incredible and fantastical to people who don’t bake but isn’t actually that hard if you bake regularly.
posted by corb at 3:36 PM on September 28, 2018

Nthing fancy baked goods. In my experience, my wealthier friends have understood when I've been low on money - showing attention and caring is the meaningful bit. Also - are you somewhere where there's a Buy Nothing Group on Facebook? People in mine have asked for and received nice things to give as gifts. Around the holidays I usually give away a piece of nice pottery I made there and ask that it go to someone who wants/needs to give a fancier gift than they can afford.
posted by centrifugal at 4:26 PM on September 28, 2018

I got some (store-bought) sugar hand scrub as a gift once and it was amazing. It seems like it would be quite easy to make and there are a ton of recipes online like this one from
posted by selfmedicating at 4:45 PM on September 28, 2018

Could you propagate an existing succulent or indoor plant? One of those pots wrapped up with brown paper and a jaunty ribbon would do the trick.

Also, crocheting and kniting are amazing skills so perhaps a cushion cover or even some dish/face scrubbies in colours that suit your friends home?

Could you do special baking? Like christmas is soon to be upon us and I like to make spiced nut mixes, jams or tasty cookies as gifts.
posted by latch24 at 6:38 PM on September 28, 2018

What about a nice knitted scarf or shawl for her? Ravelry has hundreds of free patterns for small shawls and scarves that knit up quickly, and look lovely. (this pattern isn't free, but I've made it, and can attest that it's a very fast and easy knit, and looks really beautiful even in non-fancy yarn.)

Or, if she's into pampering herself, you could knit up a couple of nice washcloths and maybe buy a bar or two of handmade soap?
posted by sarcasticah at 9:44 AM on September 29, 2018

Body scrubs! So easy. Coconut oil, sugar, scented oil. Mix it up, put in a mason jar, tie a ribbon on it or whatever. I love these!
posted by poppunkcat at 4:47 PM on September 29, 2018

This works better if you have a washing machine and a dryer so you can “felt” the sweater, but one of my fave gifts I’ve ever gotten is a handmade pillow that my friend made me out of a pink thrift-store sweater and a small pillow insert. There are many tutorials online, and punchy throw pillows are pretty trendy right now. Kid sweaters work, too, and sometimes have funkier patterns.
posted by Charity Garfein at 8:00 PM on September 30, 2018

A friend had a milestone birthday and big party I got a big, sturdy wine glass at Goodwill and used glitter glue and fake gems to decorate it extravagantly as a goddess goblet. Cost the same as a nice card and way more fun.
posted by theora55 at 11:14 AM on October 3, 2018

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