2011 gift guides: skip the stores, use your hands


I spent all weekend dreading today because this morning I was supposed to finish up my first gift guide for this week. Every year I write gift guides based on price (they’re still coming tomorrow) but I started to feel less and less excited about them today because they didn’t feel like they really fit my mood or the mood of the season. With all that’s going on in the world and most of our lives these days, sometimes the idea of buying something or dealing with shopping can seem a little hollow. I know buying things is sometimes the fastest and most practical way to deal with gift lists, but if you have the time or inclination to do something by hand or create a special experience for someone, this list is for you. We have a slew of great buying guides coming up over the next week or two, but I really wanted to start the holiday season on a different note this year. These ideas are things I’ve thought long and hard about giving (or wanting) this season- not because they’re fancy or trendy- but because if you were to receive them from anyone, you would immediately know that thought, time and care went into them. I’ve combined my favorite ideas (and included little “bump it up” ideas that may involve buying/making small extras) after the jump, so I hope you’ll enjoy these ideas. Please feel free to add your own in the comment section below. As much as we all love shiny new presents, most of the gifts that people remember for years to come have a special story behind them, and I think these ideas are the right start for creating that sort of memory. Happy Holidays- xo, grace

*Image above via Veer

The full list of DIY gift/experience ideas continues after the jump…

These ideas are meant to be jumping off points for great memories. I’ve included ways to bump them up a notch, but my goal is to hopefully provide the seed that grows into something more customized for someone on your list.

A Day Off: I’ll be honest, this is a selfish way to start, but after what has been one of the toughest and longest years of my life, I know that more than anything, sometimes all you want is a day off. No work, no chores, no cooking- nothing. Just a day to be alone and reflect or restore yourself as much as possible. A lot of time people put the bare minimum into this idea: a gift certificate, or maybe just telling someone they “get the day off”, but to make this gift truly special, you need to do the leg work to ensure it’s really a day free from work- of any sort. Here’s how to do it:

-Behind the scenes: Does your loved one need a day off from a job? Here’s where you put your super sleuth skills to use. Call their boss, co-workers or office and speak to someone who is close to your loved one and discuss the best way to plan a day off for them. Is it possible to have someone cover for them on Friday so they can ease into a long weekend? Even better. Either way, make sure that you’re able to take care of the loose ends so their surprise day off is truly a surprise. I’ve learned the hard way that offering to give a busy person a day off on their own time sometimes leads to them to never actually take that day. Planning ahead and choosing a day makes sure they actually get that time off.

-Day Of: What does your loved one truly love doing? If you’ve been listening closely, hopefully you’ve picked up some hints. Does he/she want to take a trip with friends, or do they really want to be alone? Whatever it is, make plans for what THEY want, not what you think they should want. Whether this involves clearing out of the house for a day so they can catch up with old friends over movies or making reservations for them at their favorite leisure activity, take care of the actual day’s activities as much as possible so they can just relax and be taken care of.

-Day After: Most people forget the hard transition from a true day off to being back at work right away. If you can’t line up their day off with a weekend, try taking care of a few small things for the next day, too. Perhaps you pick up/make breakfast for them so they can sleep in the next morning, or you take care of driving the kids to school-whatever little things you can do to extend the day’s goodwill vibes, the better.

-How to Present: Here’s the best part of gifts like this- they are so fun to give. People often forget to “package” experience gifts because they don’t involve “things”. But the act of opening a gift can still be so important for the overall experience. I like to package things like this with real boxes that contain something tied to the actual day. [For example: a day off for someone who loves to bake could be a cute pie tin filled with tiny doll-house sized objects that hint at what’s to come: a stocked fridge and a new recipe book, a tiny person to represent the babysitter watching their kids for the day, and little cut out pictures of cucumber slices to represent the homemade spa package you gave them so they can get a little DIY pampering on their day off]

*I also love to make big experience gifts more like a puzzle. If your big gift is say, organizing a trip for someone with their best friends or their work buddies and you really only have one thing to say like “Surprise, I’m giving you guys the house so you can host an all-day poker tournament” maybe you laminate the words on the back of a deck of cards and build a house of cards somewhere for them to discover. I’ve actually done something similar before and it was fun to watch the recipient start to pull it all together.

-Bump it up: This gift idea, when done well, takes a lot of work. So bumping it up may not be necessary. But if you want to really wow them, I’d consider stocking their home with treats and snacks they love, whether it’s a homemade pizza or cake or some relaxing homemade candles to make everything smell nice. Or, if you REALLY want to do something special, hire a cleaning service to clean while they’re out (or the day before). That way when they rest up at home they can enjoy a nice clean space.

(Simpler option: If you have a busy friend who can’t really take a full day off, but could use a little help- think about taking care of their meals and chores for a full day. Make a delicious no-cook/work breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert they can serve their full family so they get that time back to be with loved ones or just rest. Package the meals as beautifully as possible and deposit it in their fridge/kitchen so they have everything they need)

The Home Spa: When it comes to relaxation, a lot of people really love traditional spa “medicine”: facials, massages, pedicures, etc. But those things can be incredibly expensive. Not everyone has the budget for it, so why not make it yourself? Again, this is an idea best packaged in a way that’s fun and personalized, and that can have the whole day in mind.

-Behind the Scenes: If you’re the person doing or making the spa experience put a little extra effort into researching techniques or ingredients specific to them. If your loved one is athletic, maybe you want to study up on sports-based massage techniques you can learn for free online. We’ve all been the recipient of a half-hearted back rub now and then and however well-intentioned, they can send the message of “I’m not really trying very hard”. Show your loved one you care and pay attention by showing something new you learned or including an ingredient in their handmade mask, massage oil or lotion that they specifically love. (Or that comes from a place you enjoy- for example, there are excellent lavender farms across the globe so it could be special to find lavender to use that came from a city you visited together or that they love).

-What goes inside: Here are some of my favorites from our own DIY bath/beauty expert, Ashley English

Warming Bath Salts + Body Scrubs
Warming mustard baths
Homemade lip balm
Homemade stress relievers
DIY love potion
Hot chocolate basket (who wouldn’t love this?)

-Packaging Ideas: Skip the plastic tubs with black markers- this is a great place to make use of special apothecary jars you’ve collected or bust our your trusty glue gun or special ribbons to decorate other glass jars. If that’s not your cup of tea, try what the tea comes in- tea tins. I love the patterns on fancy tea tins- if you have any left over, consider filling it with calming teas, homemade bath salts and other special homemade spa treats. Top with a ribbon and you’re good.

-Bump it up: There are so many places to bump it up here, but these are my favorites. Hand-monogram a new towel for their day of spa-fun (whipstitching should work for their initials). Pick up a copy of a book (or a stack of magazines) they’ve been wanting to read so they have something to browse while luxuriating. Yes, I just used that word. It is the holiday season, after all. Go with an herbal theme and carry that through to snacks or accessories. If you’ve made lavender-scented masks and lotions, make some lavender lemonade (or a more adult beverage) and a lavender-colored sleep mask (or make one) to complete the package.

Box of Appreciation: People compile recipe boxes and photo albums, but rarely do they take it a step further to focus the collection on something to celebrate the recipient. When someone you know has had a long week, month or year, it can be nice to remind them how much you notice, appreciate and love all the great things they do. A simple way to do that is to create a beautiful box full of notes or cards that celebrate all the wonderful things that person has done to help your life and others. Here’s how:

-Behind the scenes: What will really move the recipient is targeting the things they really need to feel appreciated about. Are they working full time and raising kids? Are they working grueling hours at a job with little thanks? Did they start a new business and give up their personal life this year to make it all come together? Whatever their struggle is, focus the notes on that. Reminding them how much you notice what they’ve done, sacrificed or work hard on to make something great happen.

-How to package/create: This doesn’t necessarily need to be a box, but it’s the easiest way to start. You can customize a wooden box with some DIY woodburning skills or you can cover something as simple as a shoebox with old maps or pages from their favorite travel destination. If you want to go more grand-scale, you can consider creating a mobile to hang above their desk or even a collage or scrap board to put in their home office or a space where they’ll find it. But I find that the smaller version means the person will really hold on to it for years to come.

Cute box ideas:
JM Craftworks on Etsy
Wood & Resin boxes
Felt storage boxes
Birch boxes

-What to put inside: Simple things can be the most powerful. If you remember how a good friend went out of their way to drive you home on a rainy day when they needed to get home themselves, write that down on a note. Just acknowledging small moments like that really add up. You can include images (writing on the back or adding little paper notes to them), objects or ticket stubs/receipts that recall memories, too. One time a friend in college wrote on a back of a coffee shop receipt “Thanks for listening to me that night. I needed a friend and you were there, thank you.”. I held on to that in my wallet for over a year. Appreciation goes a long way.

-Bump it up: Including a special surprise inside the box is always a nice way to take things to the next level. Tickets to a movie, show or performance are always nice.

Year Of…Gifts: One of my favorite “buying” gifts is “of the month” clubs, because they keep giving for months to come. But they can be expensive and don’t necessarily keep that handmade “from the heart” feel after a few months. So why not make your own version? You’ll save some money and give your recipient a lot of extra love.

-Behind the Scenes: One thing to think about with this gift is whether you want to go the “need” or “want” route with this gift- or both. Do you want to give someone something every month that they wouldn’t get themselves, or do you want to make it more of a helpful gift that makes their life a little easier each month? Both are important, but it can help you find a theme each month if you start with that basic question.

-What to include: For me, the best idea is to stick with what you know you’ll follow through on. Are you promising someone a homecooked meal each month and you hate to cook? Probably a bad idea. But if you love to bake and promise to drop off a new batch of cookies each month, it’s a safe bet you’ll follow through. No matter what you choose, keep it simple- that gives you the best chance of making good on your year-long promise.

-How to package: Depending on what your gift is, consider something simple that makes use of items you can find around the house. If you’re brewing your own beer and gifting it, recycle old six-pack containers and cover them with decorative paper. The simpler and more home-spun the better.

-Bump it up: I think this entire gift idea is really about committing to celebrating a friend in a more long-term way. So a nice way to bump it up would be to combine this with some sort of special time together. Are you dropping off cookies each month? How about you treat them to coffee each month when you drop them off? You provide the snacks and the total cost is less than $50 for the year and you get guaranteed quality time with your friend each month. Believe me, this is the sort of thing that means a lot to any busy working person. Taking the time to sit, talk and bond usually falls wayside when life gets hectic.

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These are some of my favorite ways to celebrate friends without having to face the local box stores. What are your favorite ways to celebrate your friends and family? xo, grace

  1. Adrianne says:

    Thank you for posting this! My husband doesn’t need or want anything so it’s hard to shop for him. The ‘box of appreciation’ is perfect! I love reading the traditional gift guides but the typical “guy in his 30s” ones so don’t apply to him. love love love it!

  2. Erin says:

    I am so glad you compiled this guide! Lots of great ideas, I’m thinking of putting together a “year of gifts” type gift for my boyfriend this year. We love to go on walks, so I will be making 12 maps (one for each month), with a special route planned out in advance. One walk might be a hike in the mountains, or a walk through downtown to do some urban exploring, or even a walk through our own neighborhood. I plan to highlight 6-8 special spots on each route… a place to stop for coffee, a scenic place to take a photo together, a really cool piece of public art, etc. I hope he loves it!

  3. Kelly says:

    Thank you for this wonderful and inspiring post Grace. I love your holiday spirit and the wonderful ideas.

  4. Nicole says:

    Great ideas thank you for the article! This year my boyfriend and I are making a Barbie closet for his daughter and I am making some clothes to go in it. I have had so much fun making the clothes and I know she will love it. My grandma used to make me clothes for my Barbie I loved them so much more than the store bought things.

  5. Susan L says:

    Awesome post and comments. I would add only that if you’re crushed with work and don’t have time for handmade this year (like me!), your purchases can still be soulful. Skip the mall and get out to the holiday craft fairs, buy from friends who are artists, or stop by fair-trade markets so that you put your dollars to good use. You can get your giftee something unique and well made, and know that you’re supporting an independent artist/artisan versus a big box store.

  6. Over the last five years, I have made nearly all my gifts, some simple & some extravagant ( I am blessed to have an in-house studio :)) but… one of the most welcomed gifts has always been a coupon book.. with coupons for things like a homemade meal for my single brother, babysitting coupons for a single mother, movie days for kids… the list goes on. I started doing this when I was in my early 20s, when one christmas, money was… tight to say the least! You would be surprised at how touched someone is to see that you are willing to give them some of your precious time.. as a gift :)
    and of course.. the designer in me can’t help but make these books look soooo good! ;-)

  7. I can’t overstate how much I love this post. Not just the content (excellent!) but you captured the truest essence of what the holidays are (supposed to be) about. Reflecting on your loved ones and giving a genuine gift of caring and appreciation. As a creative business owner, I’m thrilled to see this type of gift guide mixed in with the other shopping gift guides you produce. Thank you Grace!

  8. These are truly thoughtful and thought-through and thorough ideas to really make loved ones feel special, without being consumeristic. Great Great post!

    Thanks for these tips. Will use them in various ways as great reference and inspiration.

    Happy Holidays!

  9. Rachel says:

    This is awesome Grace! I’ve always made presents for Christmas for as long as I can remember… Something that started in childhood and never quite ended. I’m so glad you are encouraging creative ways to do this for others. I often like to bake different goodies and wrap them up with recipe cards, or make Summer fruit jams (in Australia all the great fruit come out around Christmas) with home made gift tags. I collect jars all year and have even painted the jars with Pebeo Vitrea paints before. Last year my Christmas project got so huge I ended up self publishing my first recipe book for friends and family with photos of us eating together and inspirational quotes amongst the pages. It didn’t quite get printed in time for Christmas, so I printed everyone a photo of our front cover as a gift certificate and wrote Christmas messages on the back with details what was to come. It finally was finished a couple of months later and people are still ringing me saying they’ve just made my Maple Muesli for breakfasts or Cinderella Salad for lunch and loving it. The gift lasted all year and just keeps on giving! It cost a lot more than my usual DIY gifts I had originally planned, but little handmade recipe books printed off on your home computer or handwritten recipes with some goodies to eat always go down well too.

  10. Connie says:

    May I add how these can be used year-round, too! Years ago, I was a room-mother for my son’s class. During Teacher Appreciation Week, I scheduled other mom’s and we each adopted a day of that week. Then, we each selected an easy meal to prepare and deliver: spaghetti and garlic bread, fried chicken and sides, personal casserole favorites, etc. For each of our days, we simply “doubled up” what we would prepare for our own home whether we cooked in advance, cooked that day or even picked up to-go. Meals were put in disposable foil pans so there were no dishes to return and a personal note was attached by each mom. For a week, this busy elementary school teacher – a working mom with her own teenage children – was delivered a full, ready-to-serve meal to take home to her family. She loved it!

    AND, what made this even more special? The idea came from a conversation I had had with her in which she mentioned her life had become so hectic that she never cooked anymore. She only took home something she could get at a drive-thru (and afford). We made a special effort to give her home-cooked meals. Many people are in this predicament.

    Thank you for the well-thought out suggestions you shared! So much better than the shallow ideas often seen in magazines this time of year! God bless!

  11. Andy says:

    Some great ideas here, home made presents are so much more personal and in these tough economic times it make sense to try and save money on junk that nobody really wants. I like creating photo books or calendars using personal photos, makes a great memorable gift!

  12. MFT says:

    great post – like the idea of the ‘Box of Appreciation’. You’re completely right; sometimes the simplest, most well thought out gifts can be the most treasured

  13. LusterNYC says:

    The ‘day off’ idea is a great one! I have been wracking my brains for gift ideas but that is so simple and perfect I never thought of it!

    Will take some work but well worth it.

  14. *aterese says:

    I always love making little stocking stuffers but as previous have said many buy the things they need or want before Christmas anyway. We were just talking about how we hate buying something that someone just put on their list.. it’s not even fun to give them it because they are already expecting it. I got together a few things to make extra special meals for my fiance and printed out some pictures of us. We’ll probably go sledding or skating too for something fun to do. Last year I sat down and typed my all family’s recipes. My parents had all different size cards and papers in their recipe box. I alphabetized them in categories and printed them all on different colored papers for different groups. It was nice to give them one nice new binder of everything and I had a copy for myself so I didn’t need to call my mom evertime I cooked too!

  15. Lori Wiseman says:

    When my husband +I got married, we made an entire ‘iron-on’ photo quilt from his side of the family by donating familiy portrats of the paternal great-granma. We did everything at home,starting with her wedding certificate in the center & each families legacy out from there. Graduations, marriages, births ect…Scanned on HP printer, flipped, printed, & ironed. Then we layered the quilt pieces & had it professionally sewn & bound. It turned out priceless.

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