12 recession-proof holiday gifts

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If Bing Crosby was around today, he might be singing, “I’ll Be Broke for Christmas.” A recession is not exactly the cheeriest time in which to celebrate the holidays.

A report by the International Council of Shopping Centers, or ICSC, found that year-over-year sales at U.S. retail chains fell 0.9 percent in October, and predicted an abysmal holiday shopping season. “ICSC Research is now paring its holiday forecast to the low end of our forecast range,” said Michael P. Niemira, ICSC chief economist and director of research.

There’s no doubt that many Americans will be looking at drastically reduced holiday budgets — and for gifts that are more practical and affordable than the iPhones and Wiis of yesteryear.

“I think people are re-evaluating their spending and credit usage over the holidays,” says Jennifer Melnick Carota, author The Gift Therapist blog and the book “Shop Smart Give More.” “They’re basically riding out the storm.”

But take heart. Just because you won’t be blowing a Santa bag full of cash doesn’t mean that Christmas has to be a dreary affair. “I’m confident that the current economic situation will not adversely affect the giving season,” says Carota. “People will become more creative and frugal with their giving dollars.”

In that spirit, here are 12 recession-proof ways to use your ingenuity and know-how to boot the bad-economy Grinch out of your holidays and spread some serious holiday cheer.

12 gifts that won’t break the bank

1. Movies. A lot of people on your list may be feeling the pinch when it comes to entertainment. Whether they’ve had to cut out premium channels or trips to the movie theater, giving them a little movie magic might be just the ticket. Two major online movie services, Netflix and Blockbuster, offer gift subscriptions that will keep recipients in movies for months.

Low-cost alternative: Head to Fandango.com and buy a gift certificate good at theaters across the country. “Experiential gifts, like movie passes or museum passes, will be big this season,” says Carota.

2. Energy. That lump of coal you got for being on the naughty list might be looking pretty nice to you now after a year of inflated energy prices. Gas gift cards or an oil change will all help ease the pain at the pump this holiday season.

Low-cost alternative: A tire-pressure gauge as a stocking stuffer can help maintain peak fuel economy.

3. Coffee. As anyone who owns stock in Starbucks knows, a lot of people have been giving up their morning lattes to save cash. You can help your loved ones regain that “java de vivre” with a gift card to their favorite coffee shop. Or enable them to make a high-quality cup of joe at home with a coffee grinder or an espresso machine. A serviceable espresso machine from Mr. Coffee and other reputable brands costs $50 or less.

Low-cost alternative: A bag of tasty gourmet beans.

4. Food. Many Americans’ diets have suffered as the price of good, fresh food has risen, both in restaurants and on the grocery-store shelves. For those who’ve cut back on dining out, a gift certificate to their favorite restaurant may be in order. Gift cards for restaurants are projected to be the top type of gift card this holiday season, according to a survey by the Archstone Consulting. For foodies and cooks on your list, a grocery-store gift card or a rockin’ recipe book may be just the right holiday treat.

Low-cost alternative: A few of your own home-cooked specialties, either in the form of entrees or desserts, frozen and nicely packaged, will fill recipients with holiday cheer. “People are returning to basics like gifts from the kitchen,” says Carota. “You can jazz them up by giving it to them in a new container or something practical that the hostess can keep.”

5. The spa treatment. One of the first creature comforts to go when the budget axe comes down is that regular trip to the spa. “We’re seeing a lot more weakness in more discretionary services like massages and facials — things women view as maybe not necessarily essential and more of a luxury item,” says Brad Masterson, public relations director for the Professional Beauty Association. Don’t let your loved one go unpampered — buck the trend and get her an hour at her favorite spa or a massage therapist.

Low-cost alternative: Gift certificates for manicures and pedicures make perfect, inexpensive presents.

6. Financial peace of mind. Help take the edge off the anxiety about today’s wildly oscillating financial markets with a paid appointment to a fee-only financial planner. Making a plan for how to deal with today’s financial challenges will help your loved one stop worrying and enjoy the holidays.

Low-cost alternative: A classic personal finance primer like “The Total Money Makeover” by Dave Ramsey can help put the recipient on a road to financial well-being.

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.