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Stop shopping; Give cash as a gift
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There are no service charges when your recipient uses the stored-value card for services or merchandise. But if the card can be used at an ATM, there generally is a fee. And if the card isn't used within a certain time period, its value could be eaten away by a monthly charge.

Many people prefer gift cards because they are widely accepted. They also are a good choice if you want to send money outside the country because the monetary exchange is automatic and usually at a better rate than what's available at a store or exchange kiosk.

Gift certificates and cards
There's always the old standby of a gift certificate to a favorite shop. If you'd like to offer a choice of stores, a certificate (available for a small fee) from will provide your gift recipient a choice of about 300 places to shop.

Most merchants also sell their own gift cards redeemable for services or merchandise. You can buy them online or at the retailer. But read the fine print; some of the cards are fee-ridden.

U.S. savings bonds
Bonds may be boring, but they're a gift that grows. The minimum purchase of a Series EE or I bond is $25 and they are available at most banks, although Uncle Sam would prefer you buy them online. Delivery takes about three weeks, but many banks offer certificates that say the bond is on its way, or you can print out a savings bond gift certificate courtesy of the U.S. Treasury.

Buying a savings bond requires a Social Security number. If you don't have the one of the person you're buying the bond for, use your own. Even though your number will be printed on the bond, you'll incur no tax liability. The Treasury says the Social Security number is used for tracking purposes only, in case the savings bond is lost, stolen or destroyed.

Consult your broker or check out the Mutual Fund Education Alliance's list of funds that accept investments as low as $50. At ShareBuilder as little as $25 will get a portfolio started, but don't forget to add in the transaction fees. At you can buy one framed share of such kid-popular businesses as McDonald's or Disney. Your cost depends on the price of the stock, plus a service charge.

The United States Mint sells collectible coins. There are a lot of possibilities on the agency's Web site, but an affordable choice is the 10-coin United States Mint Proof Set of the five state quarters issued in 2003 (Illinois, Alabama, Maine, Missouri and Arkansas) in proof condition. The collection also contains proof versions of the Lincoln penny, Jefferson nickel, Roosevelt dime, Kennedy half-dollar and the dollar coin featuring Sacagawea.

If the recipient hangs onto the coins for a few years, they'll likely be worth more than face value. But if times get tough, they spend as well as standard pocket change.

Giving the big bucks
Families often take advantage of the holidays to share the wealth. Large estate planning isn't really a do-it-yourself project. Professional help from a lawyer or an accountant can save everyone lots of grief.

But one move a financial professional might recommend is giving away some assets now to reduce the amount that could eventually be subject to estate taxes: assets in excess of $2 million in 2006.

Next: A large lump-sum gift could have advantages.
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