Starving artist tips: Christmas gifts on the cheap

1. Volunteer: Ladling vegetable soup at a food bank is not just a feel-good, Christmas Day activity; it’s something you can do year-round, and can replace a Nintendo DS in sweat-equity. Offer up 20 or so hours of service to your friend/relative’s organization of choice instead of a gift.

2. Bake: I did this last year. Pick ten cookie recipes and bake like a mad(wo)man for a day. Buy some cheap-o food storage boxes at the dollar store. Distribute the cookies evenly in the boxes and tie them with ribbon. Tuck the recipes under the ribbon and deliver your gifts before they expire.

3. Make a mix tape: of twenty songs that remind you of your friend. Make sure you follow the rules of making a good mix tape, and create an original package. The packaging should look like you actually put time and thought into it, as should the song list.

4. Offer your services: Are you a hairdresser? One free haircut. Mechanic? Free tune-up. You get the idea.

5. Share your resources: Your friends and family understand that you’re in a tough spot. I’d wager a guess that they’re in a similar place [image-1]financially. So, why not share what you have? If mom has a rug rolled up in the closet and you just happen to need one, offer to exchange it for the space heater you haven’t used in three years. You can even throw a bow on it and put it under her tree. Then, call it even.

6. Re-gift a book: Obviously, you have to be careful with this one, because you have to be sure you’re giving the right book to the right person. Personally, I like my used Siddhartha with all the scrawled notes in it from the previous owner. But, Grampa might not appreciate the more subtle idiosyncrasies of his gift, so the used Michael Crichton you give him better look spotless. (Hint: re-gifted books are a lot more effective if you write something special inside).

7. Recycle: For instance: If you’ve got a stack of magazines sitting on your coffee table and a cabinet full of jars, decoupage the jars and give them as gifts. Old band patches and a laundry basket of t-shirts? Sew the patches on the shirts, but make sure you don’t give Death Cab to Punk Rock Dave.

8. Babysit: Offer to take your sister’s kids for any two Fridays next month, free of charge, and then keep your promise. You might want to type this up in a contract to show her you’re serious.

9. Go hands-on for kids: Ignore the fancy-schmancy video games and big-headed Bratz dolls. Does your kid have a box full of broken crayons that are too small to hold? Melt them down into new, multi-colored crayons. Jeans that are too small or too beat up? Turn the pockets into a funky purse. Wrap up a box full of buttons, a travel sewing kit and a two-dollar t-shirt from Wal-Mart. Anything hands-on will have that stupid Bratz doll crying in the corner.

10. Give a growable gift: No, not a Chia Pet, silly! A real plant! Tiny windowsill pots and bags of seeds keep on giving all year round and, all together, barely cost five bucks. Tip: buy herbs (like cilantro or basil) so they can think of how great your gift was while they’re cooking.

Let’s face it: the celebration of Christmas (and, to be fair, Chanukah and Kwanzaa, too) has become reminiscent of a Dionysian orgy in its consumerist indulgence. Flashing lights out the wazoo. Thousand-dollar baubles. Glistening, sugar-coated sweetbreads. Fisticuffs in the Wal-Mart checkout line. Piles and piles and piles of presents beneath the tree.

People, we cannot afford to celebrate Christmas this way in a recession like the one we’re experiencing. The unemployment rate is 11 percent. Underemployment: 17.5 percent. We need to scale it back.

To this end, I dreamed up 10 creative, inexpensive Christmas gifts and tips to save you money in the gift-giving process. Some of them, you will find, are not for everyone, so feel free to tweak these ideas to meet the needs of your giftees:

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