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$15 Present Ideas

I got an email last week from a reader I can really empathize with.  Jen’s an adult putting herself through college so she doesn’t have a lot of money to spend on Christmas presents.  That means right about this time of year she’s probably getting that panicky, doomsday feeling.  You may have experienced it yourself and didn’t even know it was a genuine, ailment.   In the June, 1997 issue of Pretend Medical Journal the condition was given a name; GeezIhopeyoudon’tbuymeapresentcauseIcan’taffordtobuyyouoneitus.

In layman’s terms – Pathetic present syndrome.

I can relate to Jen’s dilemma.  There were years, when I had to handmake my gifts not because I wanted to but because I had to.  Who hasn’t had to resort to “The Coupon Book” at some point in their lives?  Good for one free massage, one taking out of the garbage, one Romanian sexual favour …

So Jen asked me what she could buy for each of her family members that would cost $15 or less but didn’t look it.  She can’t sew, can’t can and isn’t particularly crafty.  So Jen … this is for you and everyone out there who needs to buy a small gift for an office exchange, teacher or neighbour.


Jen described her oldest sister as a working professional, her other sister as an artsy/crafty girl with canning and gardening tendencies and her mother as liking odd, one of a kind things.  For $15 or less the first thing that came to mind was bringing my glowing outdoor orbs, inside.

Orbs off

$3 for each shade, $6 for the twinkle lights = $12

This idea should work for at least one of the women.

orbs on

Other $15 Gift ideas …

Secretly plant $15 worth of daffodils or tulips.  Tell them they’ll get their gift in the spring.

$15 worth of little plastic kitchen gadgets like this.  Take the labels off so they have to guess what they are.

An old, cracked leatherbound book.

A personalized photo calendar.

Vintage tea towels tied up with twine.

A small glass French Press.  French Presses make the best coffee. $10-$15 (add in a very small bag of good coffee if you can afford it)

A magazine subscription.  I’ve never  met a single person who doesn’t like this. (Country Living is one of many that are only $12 for a one year subscription, Dwell is a little more at $20)

This 10.5″ writing slate for $12, along with some chalk and a frame stand from The Dollar Store would look great on any kitchen counter.

$15 iTunes card

A french butter bell

Make a pillow out of  an old sweater.

Salt & Pepper shakers. From modern to vintage – I for one, have never met a set of salt and pepper shakers I didn’t like. Make sure you package them beautifully in a small box with tissue paper or pine shavings and nice wrapping paper and a bow.

That’s my quick list of ideas.  Now, I have a request of you.  You there.  The one reading this post.  Yeah, YOU.  I’d like all of you to add any suggestions you have for a $15 present in the comment section.

So in times of Pathetic Present Syndrome, like Jen’s experiencing now, we can all refer back to this list and breathe a sigh of relief, knowing something on this list will be the perfect present for that sister, mother, neighbour, co-worker.  Or blog writer.  Can’t forget the blog writers.



  1. SK Farm Girl says:

    Visit your local thrifty stores! There are some really gorgeous vintage dishes! Beautiful cake platters, tiered serving dishes, funky vases, groovey liquor decanters, great pottery, the list goes on and on! Who said the gifts have to be brand new! Once was loved, then forgotten and now reloved! Some of my most complimented pieces have come from thrifty stores, yard sales and even back alleys! Give it a shot, you’ll be pleasantly surprised!

  2. Jen says:

    I think I’m going to like this post! Great suggestions so far- I can’t wait to read more!

  3. Aimee says:

    For $14.95, you can buy black mugs at Starbucks that come with a white paint pen. Draw and/or write on it, and bake it, and you have a personalized, useful gift for any tea, cocoa, or coffee lover! I’ve given these a couple of times, and they’re always well-received.

    (I can tell I’m going to have fun coming up with these ideas!)

  4. Aimee says:

    If your recipient is a crocheter or knitter, head to a locally-owned yarn shop (not a big craft store!) and pick out a beautiful skein of yarn in your price range. I have a hard time buying myself a $15 hank of yarn, but I LOVE it when my husband buys me one as a surprise!

    Oh, and visit for some GREAT, inexpensive gift wrap ideas. Pretty, thoughtful gift wrap goes a very long way in making presents feel special.

  5. Marti says:

    I would buy a bunch of apples and toss them in the crockpot for a batch of homemade apple butter. Then put that in some canning jars. Since she’s not crafty enough to have ever canned before, she needs to put a “store in fridge, consume within 1 month” label on it, just so’s she doesn’t poison anyone.

    Even more welcome would be some spiced nuts:

    Easy to make. Present them in a nice (Dollar-A-Rama) tin box.

  6. Aimee says:

    For our teacher gifts during the holiday season, we give a nice card, and inside, we write that we’ve made a donation to a charity they favor in their name.

    The strategic thing about this gift is, if you’re giving to someone who is concerned about how much you spend and wouldn’t be satisfied with your budget, you don’t have to put the amount in the card…and it would be tacky for them to ask. 😉

  7. Aimee says:

    Amazon gift card, if recipient has a Kindle! B&N, if they have a book. An actual book if neither.

  8. Jen says:

    WOW. All I can say so far… this rocks!! Sadly it is near midnight and I have to be up at 5:30 or I would just sit up all night and stalk this post. Great, great inspirations and ideas already (Aimee, can I just borrow you for the season?). Karen, thanks so much for posting this. Even if we ended it here (which we better not!), there are more (and thankfully better) ideas than I could have come up with in a million years. And I think my Mom would love the orbs, btw! Thanks, thanks, THANKS!

  9. Centsational Girl says:

    You are just the helpful Elf this year… I’d love to see you in a green felt costume! Seriously, such great ideas my friend! Esp those salt + pepper shakers, we all need them and rarely buy them for ourselves. You are too smart.

    Now about that green felt costume ….


  10. Home-made chocolate truffles always feel luxurious, and they are dead easy – hard to go wrong.

    Gorgeous soap?

    I used to hand monogram linen tea towels: motif, initial and year…

  11. misskher says:

    Costco has three boxes of Turtles for $12 and once I’m done shoving them all in my face I’ll think of a gift idea!

  12. SK Farm Girl says:

    Another idea! A photo of yours that would be suited for the recipient (you and the person, the recipient’s pet, the two of you as kids, that great sunset shot you got, etc.)! Find a nice frame, within your budget of course – check out the Dollar Store, and VIOLA – the perfect gift!

  13. bex says:

    I came across an interesting gift.. its a teapot and cup in-one. Basically the teapot sits fitted directly on top of the cup. Make your herbal/special drink in the top half and pour it into the second half. Very cute. Hope none of my friends go shopping in that shop 🙂

  14. A paperback novel and a bottle of wine. I often do this in a cute reusable shopping bag, all tied up with a big bow. People seem to love it. Or maybe they are good actors.

  15. ev says:

    While at a friends/love ones house, I have secretly taken somewhat close-up shots of their pet. I print them out and buy an inexpensive frame for the photo. This is a gift that is always appreciated and cherished. Thanks for your ideas Karen.

  16. Elle says:

    I’ve been following your blog for some time now, and I really love this post!
    I don’t live in the US so am not sure about prices there, but my suggestion is: Socks!
    There are some really beautiful things out there, Ranging from crazy colorful through organic cotton/hemp/bamboo/wool blend to knee-high and “house socks”. You can pair these with a nice mug and chocolate spoons (for making hot cocoa – you can even make these yourself) for a great wintery gift.

    you can also get an inexpensive book and add a related personal touch. For instance, I once got a great book about growing bulb flowers (5.49$ on Amazon), attch a bag of tulip bulbs – and you have a gift.
    “Pies & Tarts” by Linda Collister is 5.95$ on Amazon and would be a great gift with a tart pan, a couple of personal tart pans or a pack of pie weights.

    Or a pair of “house socks” and a novel for these wintery evenings and weekends…

    I know I would love any of these presents.

    • Traci says:

      I was thinking about socks this year too. I love your idea of putting them with a book or mug.

      For those of you who shop at Costco, they have 2 packs of Merino Wool Boot Socks for $3 off this weekend.

      I was also thinking of getting some fleece and making fleece wraps/ruanas. Those would pair nicely with cozy socks.

  17. pve says:

    I purchased the most charming boxes on “smock” paper and plan to fill with super cookies! I also love giving a meal….it comes in the form of a hand made gift certificate and then I deliver it….on the date desired.
    Love giving oatmeal, dried fruits, brown sugar and a wooden spoon for a winter b-fast basket.
    Can you tell I love food.

  18. Doreen Stuart says:

    I have picked up wine glasses at second hand stores and will have them engraved at a local store for some of my girlfriends and my twin sister with something this is meaningful to us.

  19. Pat says:

    ….a book, a basket/gift bag filled with special edible treats, a gift card to a favourite coffee shop, sample/tasting packs of teas or coffees, movie pass, gift pass for a yoga class, pass to local swimming pool/recreation center/fitness center, donation to a favourite charity, wine, special beers, make poppycock or nuts and bolts. I was thrilled when a friend bought me a variety of new sewing supplies, e.g. measuring tape, marking pen, ripper, etc. Check out those thrift shops and consignment shops for interesting pieces of jewellery, scarves and bags. I have found lovely silk scarves for a couple dollars.

  20. Susan says:

    How bout a favourite photo or a special person… Either the giver or givee framed or even a bunch? I cherish mine. Photo albums are better than looking at a cell phone screens any day!

  21. Susan says:

    Or a big bag of chicken scratch! 14.95 at the local feed store for the premium stuff! My girls love it! 🙂

  22. magali says:

    Books on Amazon. Books are always cheaper on Amazon and you can usually get free shipping.

  23. Antoinette says:

    I’m going for Large hanging baskets (about $12 AU from the $2 shops) which come with a thick natural coir like insert ~ the name illudes me, but you know what I mean. Using rich mushroom compost (20c a 15 kilo bag from the growers {and WAY better on SO many levels, than any bought potting mix}; I’m making hanging herb gardens with a rooted sprig of our special family-loved Hoya ~~~~ so … along with the emerging & up-front useful herbs, eventually they will hopefully have a big ball of beautiful blossoming and highly scented, wax flowers.

  24. Jules says:

    Fun post Karen! Love thrift store gifts as Farm girl said…visit your local one and find some Mason jars and some candlesticks- just go by shape of the candlesticks-paint the lids and bases the same color, glue the jars (E6000 glue) to the top of the candlesticks and fill with candy…or use one large jar on a candle base and fill it with homemade cookies- unique gift on the cheap! I have also made the solar lights in Mason jars (glass topped ones of course) and given them as gifts..very inexpensive. Good Luck!

  25. Thera says:

    The dollar store is always good, the trick is to dress it up with other dollar store items or cheap stuff from the hardware store.

    Easy teacher/neighbour/co-worker gift:
    Dollar store mug, filled with dollar store candies, wrapped in dollar store cellophane and ribbon (app $3 each as you use the wrap and ribbon for more gifts, you could cover 4-5 people with this gift).

    Other idea’s:
    Dollar store basket, fill with dollar store baking items or the stuff to make a perfect hot chocolate, add a printed out recipe.

    4-6 dollar store mugs (preferably a light colour) and chalkboard paint. Paint a fair size strip around each mug, include a pack of dollar store chalk and the person now has a set of matching mugs they can personalize when they need to and not get them mixed up with company or darling hubbies that like stealing the last of their coffee.

  26. Cindy Marlow says:

    First, let me say that when you put links to past blogs or other sites, I NEVER seem to get through the current one – I’m off on the amazing path that is Karen’s archives. Now that I’ve lodged that small complaint, I’ll share my go-to spot for inexpensive gift ideas: There are tons of ideas for creating treasures from junk. Everybody has junk around the house, right? Another idea is Heifer International. One year when I was feeling particularly philanthropic, I made donations in my family member’s names to to buy chickens, bees, ducks, and geese. I then sent gift cards to my family explaining where their present went. Really a ‘feel good’ idea. This is an exciting blog that I will refer to many times. Thank you, Jen, for asking the question!

  27. Tracy says:

    Everyone (provided they are over 21) loves a bottle of wine. There are lots of decent ones in the $15 range.

  28. hunter says:

    Movie night…

    1) big bowl
    2) sack of popcorn
    3) box or two of movie style popcorn
    4) cheesy 80s movie

    Place 2, 3, and 4 inside of 1…tie up, hand over.

    Or what about tickets to the zoo or a local attraction?

    • Mickey says:

      I’m going to use that great idea for family members and friends.

      • hunter says:

        Happy to help.

        Of course I was an idiot and midtyped number 3…I meant a box of candy!

        And, right now in the dollar section of target, they have big cups that look like the popcorn cups you get at the theater. Could be a cute addition!

  29. Kathy RS says:

    I love baskets – of stuff! Go grab some baskets at your local thrift store and do kits – food is always good. Italian? good sauce and pasta, a couple dish towels for napkins and utensil(wooden spoon or pasta fork). Party? Dip mix or already made, selection and some great gourmet chips or cookies (you can add a beverage if you like). Baker? That’s easy-hit the baking aisle and add a novelty pan or cookie cutters. Pets? …you get the idea…

  30. Betsey says:

    Get yourself some Fimo clay, a piece of lace and a snowflake cookie cutter. Roll out your clay, use your lace to imprint a pattern, then cut out your snowflakes. Don’t forget to punch a hole in each for a ribbon. Bake them and viola! Beauteous ornaments. You can even write their names/date/whatev on the wet clay before you bake it for extra credit!

  31. roxana says:

    It’s too early (in the morning) to fire up the thinking engine but I am Romanian and I am very curious as to what “one Romanian sexual favour” might be!!

  32. christyl says:

    Arm&Hammer is having an awesome deal. On marked boxes you can buy 2 1lb. boxes ($2.00)and then they will give you (or send it to a friend) a free 1 yr subscription. I bought one for all the ladies in my family (although I had to get creative with the emails-they are required-and i didn’t want to use theirs)

  33. KJ says:

    I usually either make a bean soup mix (they’re easy), various Christmas cookies on a pretty plate, or I gather seeds from my garden & package them with either dollar store gardening gloves or a small pot. I tried giving a weekly homemade dinner “coupon book” once, but my grandpa just laughed at me. It didn’t go over well.

    Wine is usually an appreciated gift, too.

  34. Lindy says:

    I am a big fan of Etsy for finding fairly priced gifts. Here are two Etsy stores that I have used for special Christmas presents this year.
    Here is a darling French sachet for $9.00 plus sh.
    Stencil art is all the rage. It smells divine.
    Best Friends Studios has the most darling handmade dog ornaments for $22.50 plus shipping. OK, a little over $15.00, but check it out!

  35. Sharon says:

    I think something for a baker or cook might be a really good bottle of vinegar or vanilla extract or a hunk of imported parmesan–something most people would think too extravagant but would fall into your price range as the gift-giver. Throw in a dish towel or wooden spoon or something related and decorate a gift bag.

  36. Emie says:

    For the foodie…. a great bottle of olive oil or speciality salt…. 2 movie tickets….

  37. Cheryl in Wisconsin says:

    One year I got basic clay plant pots and painted them in a personalized way. It could be something as simple as their house number, initials, or just matching an unusual color they use in their home. On my mother’s I painted caricatures of her cats. I put a hunk of wood in the bottom for loft, a basic white pillar candle in the middle and filled the rest with glass marbles from the dollar store.

  38. JulieB says:

    I _love_ all these ideas. I have a question for Karen – are you happy with your ceramic butter bell? One reviewer said it developed cracks and the butter seeped in and then the whole thing went rancid. I suspected it might be preferable to hand wash, but I also thought it could be just one damaged crock. Do you use a dishwasher or hand-wash yours?

    My suggestion is for some pre-made goodies in canning jars. Mix up dry ingredients for cookies or hot chocolate or bean soup, write the recipe on a card, and use some ribbon or twine to attach them.

    If she likes to bake, make some homemade bread and a nut butter
    2 cups walnuts, shelled
    ¼ teaspoon salt
    1 teaspoon honey
    1 teaspoon cinnamon
    2 teaspoons walnut oil or canola oil

    Soak the nuts overnight. Spread them out on a cookie sheet and toast them at 350 for about 15 minutes, turning them once or twice so they don’t burn. Then, once they’ve cooled, mix them in a food processor with the salt, honey and cinnamon, then drizzle in the oil until it’s as creamy or chunky as you like. It lasts about 2 weeks in the refrigerator.

    Also, never underestimate the power of warm, really soft socks. I got a pair from my uncle years ago and would have worn them every day if I hadn’t needed to wash them. And I’m a barefoot gal. 😉

    • Karen says:

      JulieB – I love my butter bell. I handwash it and put it in the dishwasher. But this summer my butter *did* get mouldy. So did my mother’s. I’d always read that you should let the water come just to the bottom of the butter, but now I’ve seen where the water should come 3/4’s of the way up the bottom of the jar. So … maybe this would help the problem, making sure no air gets in contact w/ the butter. I like it because it helps to keep the butter spreadable in what is my freezing cold kitchen during the winter. ~ karen!

  39. Cindy Marlow says:

    My father sent me an email that reminded me to shop locally for presents this year. I love the idea of gift certificates for a haircut, groceries, wine, chocolates, car wash, etc.

  40. Liz S. says:

    Several of my girl friends are recently married (last 2 years or so) and still building their decor. Most all of us concentrate on staple items like getting rid of the couch from college that you bought at a yard sale and getting a real couch from a furniture store. So I like giving nice decorations for all year long or for Christmas. So I saw this neat idea of Pinterest ( to paint vases and turn them into candle holders. Those nice cylinder vases aren’t cheap (especially when buying like 30 of them). So I’ve bought two boxes of these glasses from WalMart for a little less around $10 each box( That’s $0.625 a glass. Plus a big bag of rubber bands ($3) and 4 cans of the cheapest white spray paint ($1 each). Hitting up Dollar Tree for the battery operated candles (6 candles for $1). So tax and all, 30 candle holders for less than 40 dollars. Add a 10 neat home made gift bags and tissue paper. So gifts for 10 people for around $50. Not bad if I do say so myself.

  41. Libby says:

    I’m making eReader cases for all of my friends. There are plenty of ideas on Pinterest. I know it sounds goofy, but I’m planning to upcycle some of those ridiculously strong plasticized pet food bags to make them…not sure yet how it’s going to turn out. They may be so stupid-looking, I’ll have to resort to fabric cases instead.

  42. Ashley says:

    Giving an experience rather than an item is always a great route. Don’t take the people you’re giving to, too seriously. My fiance and I went to the zoo one Saturday just the two of us and it’s one of the best times we’ve ever had. Even a 25-year-old curmudgeon like my love can’t keep a smile off his face when feeding a giraffe.

    My favorite experience gift is to give someone all the tools for a Christmas lights tour. Make a map of the area they live in and design a route that will take them past tons of houses with christmas lights displays. Plan a stop at a public park where they can get out of the car and stretch their legs.

    Pack all of this in a little basket with some hot chocolate mix, maybe a couple of thermoses, and a homemade cd of christmas music. Don’t forget to include a little map light. Book lights work great for this and they come as cheap as $2 at Books-a-million.

  43. Susan says:

    This isn’t necessarily an idea for a $15 gift, but one for one of those hard-to-buy-for men! My dad was murder to buy for – anything he wanted, he got, after he retired. But he loved a drink in the evening and he enjoyed good beer. So I went to the big liquor store and picked out a basketful of singles, imported and different beers. The one made by monks in Belgium was the eventual winner but it was one of his favourite gifts ever. Every evening he’d say to my mother, “now which one should I try today?”

  44. Alex says:

    your first picture gave me an idea. run down to the community college’s art class and ask if you can buy a drawing from a student (heck, they’ll probably just give it to you). buy a frame at walmart. total cost would be around $10-$15, depending on how nice the frame is.

    there is a nice, one of a kind drawing by a real-live artist, framed and all. perfect for a bathroom or quirky mantel.

  45. Gloria says:

    I like to shop at Victorian Secret…they have body sprays on sale….and of course there is always Bath and Body works… do have to go to the store….that’s where the best buys are…..

  46. Regan O'Rourke says:

    Mixed CD’s from your itunes-Cheap, easy, and you can make different play lists for different people. I know it is cheesy, but I did this last year and my family LOVED it.
    By the by, LOVE THIS BLOG!!

  47. Lydia says:

    Way less than $15 – black socks. Everyone always needs black socks.

    • Ginny says:

      Last year for Christmas I have my husband a big box of socks. He had been complaining about none of his socks matching and quite honestly he needed them. I wrapped the box with ribbon and made it seem just as important as any other gift. HIs first response was laughter and then he was very thankful. He was very happy with that present!

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