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10 frugal and fine gift ideas

Stand back from the fruitcake! Repeat: Stand back from the fruitcake! Raise your arms up where we can see them and -- slowly -- walk back from that shop display of the festively wrapped baked good.

Yeah, we know the fruitcake's tempting to snap up as a gift. It's relatively inexpensive, it's one-size-fits-all and it unmistakably says "Happy holidays."

Fact is, you can give a more inventive, original and -- as a bonus -- often less-pricey gift than the traditional confectionery. The key is to think out of the box. To kick-start your creativity, cruise through a crafts store, look through your library's how-to books and magazines, and forage through flea markets.

But why get up from your chair, when you can start right here with our carefully compiled list of fine and frugal suggestions.

Remember: Presentation is all
Well, maybe not all, but a lot. Now, a cookbook may be a perfectly fine gift on its own -- but work the ring of a set of measuring spoons through the ribbon tying up the package, and you've just kicked it up a notch. Giving a box of socks or a new pair of sneaks? In lieu of ribbon, wrap the package with an extra set or two of snazzy shoelaces. A lot of bang for a few extra bucks.

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Get best of kind
Only have five bucks to spend? No problem. Just don't do what our friend "Iris" used to do -- try to get a splashy gift, such as a big, fluffy sweater, hoping the recipient would think it cost more, when, in fact, anyone could tell the sweater was marked down to $5, probably from $6. If you've got only a few bucks, forget the ratty marked-down "big" stuff -- and get a really great, exotic bar of soap or the best little blank-page journal you can. That's what I got one holiday, made of Venetian paper, and I love it so much, I still can hardly bear to write in it.

Help the hobbyist
Think rolls of film for the budding amateur photog or balls of yarn for your knit-wit niece are just not "gift-like?" Think again: There's nothing "giftier" than a necktie -- yet how many are appreciated? Let's see, that's ninety-one, carry the one, multiply by 7,300, minus the ampersand ... ah, here's the answer: Zero! Fact is, there's no better gift than one that acknowledges the recipient's tastes and talents, especially when nicely presented with a note saying how proud you are of them and how pleased you are to contribute to their efforts.

Round up the posse!
Instead of buying individual gifts for close family, or the gang at the office or the regulars at your favorite pub -- take them all to see a show, or go bowling, or perhaps visit the new ice-skating rink in town. It'll probably be cheaper than individual gifts and generally far less time-consuming (time's money) -- and, as a bonus, you'll all have a memorable time. (Tote a camera to capture the fun.)

Go for the gusto
Grab bags: They're not just for office parties. Why not have one among a circle of friends and/or family members? Everyone enjoys a surprise and that, not the limited dollar-amount, is the important thing that elevates this time-honored ceremony.

Bookmark this
Take a strip of paper or cloth, and affix a series of head-shots of you and/or the kids -- add some stickers, glitter-glue or gummed stars between, if you wish, and have the whole kit and caboodle secured with a clear-plastic laminate (copy centers, such as Kinko's, generally offer this inexpensive service.)

Light the way
Give an antique-look cup-and-saucer set (available for next-to-nothing at many flea markets and garage sales), sparked up special. Place a small candle, squat enough to fall below the cup's rim, in said cup. Hang a note by string from the handle, saying something like, "May your cup runneth over with all things bright and beautiful."

Predict their future
With a tweezer, coax the fortunes out of fortune cookies and work in those of your own making, such as "This new year will be your best yet!" and "You will always jingle-rock my world." (You can also make your own fortune cookies from scratch, with any ol' cookie dough folded over.)

A tiskit, a taskit ... a store-bought, pre-arranged gift basket?
Fuhgeddaboudit! Get a straw basket from an odd-lot or 99-cent store and -- say, for the movie buff on your list -- fill to overflowing with big "movie-size" boxes of candy, a package of microwaveable popcorn and a gift certificate or two to the local video parlor. Wanna get really fancy-shmancy? "Shrink-wrap" it all with pretty-color plastic wrap from the supermarket.

Make someone an exclusive member of your "You've got mail" club
This is especially thoughtful for older folks -- or for the teen going off to college, away from home for the first time, and maybe a little apprehensive. Print out from your computer, or neatly hand-letter, a certificate entitling your giftee to a gossip-packed, fun-filled letter from you every week of the year. This cannot be transferred and you will accept no other members: This is an exclusive service.

As the shrinks say: What we love is what we give time to. And what better demonstration of your time and love than when you sit right down and write someone else a letter?

-- Posted: Dec. 8, 2003
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See Also
20 last-minute (and cheap) gift ideas
Bargain hunting in cyberspace
Winter wonderland of bargain shopping
Frugal U. definitions
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