On occasion, forced economy can be a good thing. It can lead to wonderful bursts of creativity that never would have occurred were it not for the monetary constraint. For instance, I remember attending a performance of A Hard Nut, a variation on Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, several years ago. “The Waltz of the Snowflakes” in that more modern interpretation was one of the most magical ballet moments I have ever had the pleasure to enjoy – vibrant, joyous and extraordinarily beautiful. As the music crescendoed, instead of snow falling from the sky, each “snowflake” threw handfuls of fake snow towards the sky. This happened with increasing rapidity as the dancers exploded into the air, an experience I can only liken to a fireworks show with great bursts of snow confetti. It was extraordinary and, in that moment, much more expressive than the traditional version of flakes falling from the stage catwalk.
Why do I bring this up here? Because a fellow audience member told me the reason for the handheld snow was the simple fact that the theater where the ballet was originally staged was too small, or lacking in the technology to implement the traditional snow-from-the-sky effect. If that was indeed the case, working in reduced circumstances (at least in this instance) led to something magical that most likely would otherwise never have come into being.
So, short on funds? No matter. Let’s get creative and give something magical. Here are a few ideas:
A bottle of wine: this one’s pretty tried and true but here’s my tip – find a versatile vin du table that you like yourself and buy a case of it. This might mean a bit more in upfront costs but, generally, good wine shops will give you a discount for buying by the case so, in the long run, it should prove more affordable. Plus, with a case on hand, you’ll have a ready trove to hand for quick and easy gifting. To make your gift a little more personal, consider cooking up a little snack to go with the wine – be it a delicious sachet of homemade bar nuts, cheese crisps, or pita chips. This works best when you’re giving to multiple recipients and can divvy up the batch of snacks. If you’re just giving one bottle, another option is to tuck in a picnic (i.e. affordable but handy!) corkscrew and/or foil cutter.
Firewood: for those in cold climates who have fireplaces, firewood is often a much-appreciated gift and can be the literal fuel to fire many a cozy evening. This can be a great family gift too as it’s something every family member can enjoy. Don’t chop your own wood? Or, need to send a gift by post? I suggest checking out L.L. Bean’s fatwood. Fatwood is the heartwood of pine trees and the resin it contains makes for superior kindling. At the time of writing, L.L. Bean are offering a 25lb. box of fatwood for $39.95, and that price covers shipping too. Side note: when I received my first order of fatwood and opened the box, I was pleasantly surprised by the beautiful piney scent from the resin.
Cashmere: cashmere is usually expensive, so why is it on this list? Well, I’m talking recycled cashmere, folks. It is often possible to find good quality, second hand cashmere sweaters at very good prices. If you’re handy with a needle and thread, such sweaters can be repurposed to make all sorts of things, from hats, to pillows, to ornaments. And, if you’re not handy, may we suggest checking out tallulahssatchels’ Etsy shop? I have no connection to the shop’s owner, Christine Samardich, other than as a customer, but can vouch for her beautiful work, making baby hats, pillows (and more) from recycled cashmere.
Photos and frames: these days, Americans take more photos every two minutes than were taken in the whole of the 19th century. However, based on anecdotal evidence, there seems to have been a trend away from actually developing pictures and putting them on display. It doesn’t actually cost much to have photos developed, but it does take a little planning. Simple, classic, affordable frames are available online or at chains like Michael’s, CVS or Walgreens. I also like Crate & Barrel’s matte black frames, having purchased a couple of the 8x10s and 5x7s – however, a few online reviewers report inconsistent quality so make sure you have time to effect an exchange as needed if you are ordering online – or, perhaps buy in store if possible. I have also purchased Pioneer Photo Albums’ magnetic photo holders in both the 4x6 and 5x7 sizes on Amazon. They are super for the fridge – strongly magnetic and easy to wipe down.
Baked goodies: this one’s pretty self-explanatory, but a few words to the wise. First: if you intend to pop your gift in the post, choosing a freezer-friendly gift (like the plum torte pictured above) is often a good idea. If you freeze your treat before mailing, it helps it to better withstand the potential dings of shipping. A second thing to note: ingredients are not necessarily cheap these days – chocolate, butter, vanilla, fruits (especially those that are out of season), they all add up. So, a little advance planning can be your friend here. Choose recipes that are lighter on the expensive ingredients. Third: goodie samplers, where you give a selection of baked goods, can be fun – not just for you, but for the recipient. This works best when you are giving to multiple recipients or are giving to a group. Samplers are great too when you do not know someone’s food preferences and/or allergies (chances are greater that at least one thing in your gift will hit the mark!). Again, be conscious of ingredients. Choose 3-4 recipes where there is some overlap ingredient-wise. This will also allow you to buy in bulk and minimize your grocery cost. And, as an added flourish, include copies of the recipes you used. This has the benefit of acting as both an ingredient list and as a resource should your recipient wish to make one amongst the selection themselves.
Fruit, veg, flowers and bulbs: are you a gardener? Do you thrill at the sight of newly formed buds in the springtime? Consider all the gifts a garden can yield. If you grow fruit and veg, a basket of fresh produce can be a lovely summertime present – or, take it a step further and make your recipient a fruit pie, carrot soup, pickles, jam or chutney with your garden’s bounty. If you’re more of a flower person, a home-grown bouquet rarely goes amiss. Plants too can be shared – irises, for example, thrive if they are periodically divided. If you have a particularly lovely specimen that is ready to be transplanted, this might be an ideal gift for a friend or family member who happens to be a fellow green thumb, or for a new home owner that has just acquired their first bit of green space.
A day or evening out: now I know, this sounds expensive. But, it doesn’t have to be! Theater tickets aren’t cheap, nor are many museums, but a lot of other things are free – or, almost free. Mini outings can be like mini vacations from the weekly routine if done well - so, put your thinking cap on and check out the local possibilities. Here in Boston, for example, admission to the Museum of Fine Arts is free on Open House days and after 4pm on Wednesdays, the BSO regularly holds free tours of Symphony Hall and, in summertime, there are a large number of free outdoor concerts and even movies at the Hatch Shell and other venues. Parks, beaches and ponds abound and are prime spots for picnics or a blanket and an affordable bottle of wine, while bleacher seats at Fenway at $10 a pop (ex fees) can make for a fun summer’s evening! These types of outings work especially well as a gift for a friend or loved one who has been too busy to plan anything themselves. Planning takes time and effort – be it finding a friend who might be willing to take on an evening of babysitting free-of-charge, to making sandwiches for a picnic, or even just remembering to put in for those free tickets. For many folks, when someone else does the planning, that’s a gift in itself!
Maldon sea salt: gifting to a food lover (or a family of food lovers)? One of my favorite gifts to give fellow food enthusiast is a tub of Maldon sea salt. Maldon is, in my experience, one of the premier salts to bake or cook with while still being relatively affordable compared to other “gourmet” salts. It also works well in a salt grinder as it’s a dry salt (unlike some other salts which still contain a fair bit of moisture). Some folks have looked at me funnily when they have received this gift of salt, but then a few months later write or call to tell me that it’s been an fantastic staple in the larder – and (the real proof of successful gift giving!), that they have gone on to give others the same gift too.
A s’mores basket: put together a s’mores basket for someone - include not just the chocolate bars, marshmallows and graham crackers, but take a moment to step outside, find a couple of sticks and, on each of them, whittle one end down for easy marshmallow mounting. I find it’s details like this that can push a gift from simply being about making a purchase to being something quite personal – happily, putting just a little bit of time and effort into anything, seems to have that effect! Optional inclusions: firewood (preferably natural - chemical-based logs are probably not a good idea for cooking food) and/or a box of long, fireplace matches. Another plus: this gift is both winter and summer appropriate – as long as your recipient has a fireplace and/or beach access.
A memory: this sounds a bit nebulous, but bear with me! Does someone you know and love have a particular attachment to a place – a baseball stadium, a town, a city, a national park, a restaurant, a concert venue? Perhaps you have shared memories of that place? Perhaps it’s a place closely associated with your friend or family member’s childhood? Either way, here’s my suggestion. Have a look on the interwebs and see what turns up when you Google that place. Specifically, have a look at sites like eBay and Etsy. You might be surprised by what you uncover – be it ticket stubs, baseball cards, concert passes, menus, programs, pins, bumper stickers, matchbooks or postcards. These types of items generally cost very little but, taken together, can have a lot of sentimental value. Depending on what you find (and what you already have to hand), a method of presentation may suggest itself to you. For example, postcards with interesting messages can be displayed in double-sided frames to allow viewers access to both sides. Again, this is the kind of gift where a bit of creative thinking goes a long way!
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