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20 last-minute (and cheap) gift ideas

Cheap, last-minute gifts don't have to look chintzy or rushed. If you forgot someone special, postponed someone not-so-special or just couldn't think of anything, it's not too late to get a great gift. You just have to use a little thought and these ideas.

The key to any good gift is that it appears to be handpicked for the receiver. So using what you know about this person, you can get inexpensive gifts and mold them into perfect presents.

Here are some easy-to-get gift ideas, their costs, where to get them and how to make them special.

A gift of money, while useful, may be seen as inappropriate, offensive or thoughtless depending on the giver-receiver relationship. Don't try to hand out cash unless you are tipping your doorman or baby sitter. However, there are ways to give money indirectly and appropriately. Certificates of deposit and savings bonds coupled with a note can be both thoughtful and helpful.

CDs and savings bonds can be purchased at bank branches or online and come in many different denominations. These gifts have the advantage of eventually being worth more than you spent on them.

To personalize this gift, think of something the receiver really wants. Write a personal note saying, "I know how much you want to go to the Galapagos Islands" or "the University of Texas" and then, "Here is something to help you get started."

Small tokens can be added to make these gifts even more thoughtful -- like a turtle key chain for the Galapagos Islands or a burnt orange and white bookmark for the student who dreams of graduating from UT.

Philanthropic gifts
Another way to give money is to make a charitable donation in the receiver's name. Warning: It has to be a charity that they'd be interested in. You might be an avid bird watcher and think a donation to save the northern spotted owl is a great gift, but the logger you give it to will not.

Almost all causes and interests have Web sites for related charities. Animal lovers might appreciate donations to the Humane Society or the Nature Conservatory. Art lovers would appreciate a donation to the local museum. Sci-fi fans might like a donation to the local observatory. Family members affected by cancer would appreciate donations to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society or the American Cancer Society. Get online and pick one. As a bonus, you get a tax deduction for giving this gift.

A less-creative approach to giving money is a gift certificate. The drawback for gift certificates is that they are only worth their face value and if you pick the wrong store, your gift will be useless.

Lottery tickets are inexpensive to give ($1) and could be worth millions, or nothing. They also make good stocking stuffers.

Magazine subscriptions are another inexpensive but thoughtful gift.

Next: Speaking of subscriptions ...
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