7. A 'new' car. Many are trying to draw out the lives of their autos just one year longer as car loans get more scarce and budgets tighten. Kidnap a loved one's car for a makeover at your local auto detailer to help them get a whiff of that new-car smell without the new-car payments.
Low-cost alternative: A hand-written gift certificate promising one free homemade car detailing.
8. Wealth builders. As you know from watching the news right now, stocks and other investment vehicles are cheap. Use this to your advantage by giving blue-chip stocks as gifts. Shares of blue-chip titans like General Electric, Microsoft and Bank of America are down to the point where they make relatively inexpensive gifts. For younger giftees, consider opening a high-yield savings account with a few dollars and introduce them to the joys of compounding interest. Who knows? Your gift could be multiplied many times over when America's financial ship finally rights itself.
Low-cost alternative: A brand new piggy bank half-full of change is one way to jump start a young saver's nest egg.
9. Sell the house. If the loved one on your list is one of the many Americans looking to sell a home, help them out. A professional home-staging job can make their home stand out big time. While not cheap, this is sure to be a memorable gift and one that could pay huge dividends for the recipient.
Low-cost alternative: Realtor lore has it that a statue of St. Joseph buried upside down near a For Sale sign (or in one of many other configurations) will speed a sale. These figurines are widely available at religious book stores or can even be bought as part of "Home Seller" kits offered by many online retailers.
10. A 'new' home. For those "upside down" in their homes, moving into a new place may seem like a dream deferred until house prices recover. That's where you come in. If the recipient's reason for moving was space, hire a professional organizer (this makes a great "group gift") to go through their home and help them make it more space efficient and livable. Ever see "Clean Sweep?" You get the idea.
Low-cost alternative: Roll up your sleeves and volunteer your time as an "amateur organizer." A homemade gift certificate shows you're committed.
11. Health. With health care costs perpetually rising, good health is more valuable than ever. A gentle push in the form of a three-month, all-expense-paid membership to a gym or a nice pair of athletic shoes may be just the thing to part that special couch potato from his or her couch. For those on your list who have little workout experience, a session with a personal trainer will help them learn the exercises and establish a regimen that will work for them.
Low-cost alternative: Find a schedule of free or low-cost exercise classes offered by community centers or other nonprofit or government agencies in your area and pledge to go with them. After all, a little fitness does everyone good.
12. A 'new' wardrobe. While many of us would love to go on a big-ticket shopping spree, the fact is, Americans are spending less on clothing. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that clothing sales fell $443 million, or just over 2 percent, from August to September as the economic crisis deepened. Instead of giving your loved one a single shirt or pair of pants, you can give his or her whole wardrobe a makeover: Raid their closet and head straight for the cleaners. (Be sure to point out any particularly troublesome stains to the cleaners.) Or you can plunder your giftee's shoe rack and take a few pairs in for a professional reconditioning at your local shoe repair store, which will have them looking great and remind their owner why they bought them in the first place.
Low-cost alternative: Take your loved one out for a thrift-store shopping spree. You'll have a blast and probably find more wearable duds than you expect.