101 Guidesgift

2012 D*S Gift Guide: No-Buy Gift Guide

by Grace Bonney

Image by MPessaris

Every year when the holidays roll around, I’m overwhelmed by two very different feelings: excitement for the warmth of the season and time spent with family and friends and the somewhat icky feeling that comes with an intense round of shopping/buying/product talk. While gift guides are simply part of the season, I prefer to start this time of year with something a little different: a guide that’s dedicated to putting down your laptop and car keys and using your own two hands — and your heart — to celebrate your loved ones. Last year, I rounded up a handful of ways to give friends and family experience gifts — moments and special days that they’d cherish without you having to make a trip to the stores. And this year I’d like to keep that concept going with a much longer list of ideas to take those gifts to the next level. Because Thanksgiving is tomorrow and Hanukkah is right around the corner, it felt like the perfect time to focus on ways to show people how thankful we are for having them in our lives. These homemade gift ideas are all about showing people you care through spending time with them or thinking about what they truly love and would appreciate. As always, this post is more of a collaborative project, and I hope you’ll share your favorite ideas in the comment section below. These ideas will hopefully turn into truly memorable moments for all of you reading and for the people you want to treat with something handmade and from the heart. Happy holidays, everyone, and best wishes for a safe and happy Thanksgiving. I’ll be back on Monday with new posts, our first round of traditional gift guides and more holiday decorating ideas than you can shake a stick at. xo, grace

The full 10 ideas (with options for expanding each idea) continue after the jump . . .

1. Decorating Surprise: As a site devoted to all things decorating, it feels only natural to start with a concept that’s near and dear to our hearts. Most of us don’t have an overwhelming amount of time to decorate — or redecorate — our homes. Even the most devoted design fan gets caught up in work/life responsibilities and doesn’t have the time to follow through on every design plan they have. So why not help them make a decorating dream a reality? Whether you’re planning a surprise redecorating project or just committing to setting aside a weekend to help them paint and move furniture around, this gift is all about making a plan that speaks to what your friend or family member wants. (If your friend hasn‘t been talking about wanting to change things around at home, this definitely isn’t a good thing to surprise them with.)

Tips: Do your research. Whether you’re surprising someone with a makeover or planning something for the future, take the time to figure out what they want, not just what you think would look great. Check out their Pinterest pages, their clipped magazine photos and pay attention to what their home looks like inside. Make note of color trends, patterns and overall style ideas and make sure you include them in your plan.

Execution: Decorating isn’t always about buying new things. The best way to spruce something up without buying is to work with what you have. If you’re doing this as a surprise, try focusing on one room (maybe a home office or special space they want to spruce up), starting with cleaning and rearranging the space plan. Rooms feel totally different when things are moved around, so don’t be afraid to start pushing furniture. You can also upcycle things from other spaces. Old tins can be painted or cleaned and turned into vases and planters, and old boxes can be attached to the wall as bedside tables or hung as shelving. Old cutting boards can be given legs to act as rustic side tables — just start looking around and, if possible, ask a spouse, significant other or roommate what they think your friend/family member would like. If you have a total green light, bust out the paint and see how much bang you can get for your buck with that kind of change!

Presentation: If you’re surprising someone, this is all about the reveal and less about packaging. But if you’re planning this as a “future help” option, I think the best thing is to present them with a little mood board inspired by their style and design dreams. Wrap it up with a bow, attach a printed calendar page and select dates that you’re available — it gives them a choice, shows them you’re serious and assures this won’t be like one of those IOUs that never gets completed.

Bump it up a notch: Want to do something extra special? Package your gift with customized decorating supplies like a new tool belt, painted or decorated tools, a nice vintage cloth measuring tape or some embroidered (or monogrammed) work gloves for renovating existing furniture.

Mega budget option: To help decorate without taking on a full room, consider a small task. Make someone a handmade wreath from local greenery and put it on their front porch along with some flea market or pre-used items from your home that you’ve spiffed up (i.e., a repainted umbrella stand or a gently used doormat that you’ve redyed or monogrammed).

2. Cooking Treats: Baking or cooking something by hand is one of the most popular go-to handmade gift ideas every year. If you have a recipe you love and can execute well, this is always a great option. But there are ways to make cooking for someone a truly memorable and special gift. Our favorite idea is to make it a family or a personal affair. If you’re cooking/baking for a loved one, why not call or email your mutual and extended family members to collect old family recipes. Print them out or hand-write them on cards, decorate with stamps, paint or other details, and then combine them in a book or cute tin and present them alongside one of the recipes inside (preferably that family member’s favorite recipe). I think it would be truly special for a sibling or cousin to use an old cookie tin, spruce it up with some paint and attach a beautiful family portrait on top. Fill the tin with not just cookies from a family recipe but also a collection of family baking recipes.

Presentation: If you’re gifting to family, you can try the ideas above, but for friends or co-workers, try using a container that’s specific to your relationship with them. Do you have an old college friend you’d like to cook for? You can always go the traditional route and use school logos and mascots on things, but it’s also fun to find a cherished memory and go with that theme. For example, if your college best friend loved roses, why not decoupage an old box in rose seed packets and tuck recipes for food inside that, alongside a meal scented with rosewater or something that’s theme-appropriate? For a co-worker, you can always use a file box that you’ve dressed up with decoupage, wallpaper or gift wrap.

Mega budget option: If the craft supplies and printing part of this project aren’t in the cards, you can easily use the computer to make this an all-digital project. You can take photos or use photos from the web to create a private Pinterest page, blog or tumblr account where your friend can browse recipes online, with little notes about the person who contributed the dish. (Though it would be nice to follow this with something homemade, even a simple batch of cookies or candies.)

Bump it up a notch: Want to knock someone’s socks off? Turn this into an indoor picnic where you cook an entire meal that replicates a special occasion you shared. Remember what you ate on your first date? A favorite birthday night out? Re-cook that meal, set up a special indoor picnic floor and hand them the recipe collection along with a night full of great food and memories. Want to take it even further? Amy had the great idea of scanning family photos and turning them into custom gift wrap. Then use that to wrap the recipe book. Shazam!

3. Working Parent Help: The older I get, the more friends I have who could use an extra helping hand this time of year. Whether you help them with babysitting, giving kids rides to school or just finishing up tasks that make their lives easier, this gift is ALWAYS welcome with the parents I know.

Presentation: This is a great place to bust out a classic IOU pack, with nicely printed or constructed cards in a little book that parents can turn in for either a night of babysitting or various hours of help with whatever they need.

Mega budget option: Since babysitting is pretty cost-free for you, I wouldn’t suggest bumping this down too much. It’s best to offer at least an afternoon of babysitting, which is free to you and incredibly helpful to the parent(s).

Bump it up a notch: It’s always nice to throw in something extra. Why not pack the parent(s) a picnic lunch and send them out for the afternoon while you play with the kids?

4. Box Full of Letters: This is quite possibly my favorite gift to give someone who lives far away and for whom you want to do something really special. This project is all about spending a few weeks (or at least a few days) writing letters that someone can open up and read over the course of a week, month or — if you’re ambitious — a year. It’s a free and incredibly loving way to show someone how much you’ve been thinking about them.

Presentation: A standard box with handwritten letters is great, but this is an excellent opportunity to be creative. (For Hanukkah, it would be fun to write eight letters that a dear friend or family member could open during the holiday.) I love to tie up letters in red and white twine and stamp them with homemade stamps in fun patterns, but you can always go the extra mile and wrap them like a regular present in tiny boxes. Or you could fold them like old school notes you’d pass in class and link them together like a chain.

Mega budget option: This project is free, but if you want to forgo the cost of paper and supplies, you can always set up a program like Boomerang to send someone an email or a sweet note or picture/video every day.

Bump it up a notch: Want to do something truly special? Hand-make each card with a different color of the rainbow or a range of ombre hues so the overall package feels like a cohesive unit. Want to be even more dramatic? Try adding a small homemade/found object to each letter that corresponds to the theme (I like to cut out little shapes of paper to put in each envelope — like large confetti — that goes along with the letter’s theme).

5. Use Your Skills: This is the best chance to take advantage of any and all skills you have that could help out a friend or family member in a way that they’d normally have to pay for or hire someone to do. Are you a chef? Cook your loved ones a four-course dinner at home! Are you a photographer? Take a beautiful family portrait for someone or a headshot for his or her new business. Whatever your talent, lend it to someone special as a gift, with no trade requested in return.

Presentation: This depends on the skill, but in general, a card explaining the gift should be fine. But it’s always nice to add a little touch like photos, garland, confetti, etc.

Mega budget option: If you can’t offer a full session of whatever your skill is, this is best to skip. If you’re offering your skill set, only offer something you feel comfortable giving entirely for free. Offering someone a discount or a partial session of something doesn’t feel as heartwarming.

Bump it up a notch: Do you have a friend you can pull in to help you make the gift a one-two punch? If you have a friend who is starting a new business, perhaps you could offer your skills as a photographer to take her headshot, and your interior-designer friend could offer advice or a simple space plan for her new office. The combo of two areas of help is really generous and kind.

6. Field Day: Inspired by Atlas Obscura’s Field Day, Amy and I have been talking about the idea of customized maps/trips that help you get to know your neighborhood. Why not expand this concept as a gift for a loved one? Pick an area around town and find inexpensive (preferably free) activities you can do together. Perhaps you start with a walk around town to see historic spots (do your research so you can share information along the way) and drink mugs of hot chocolate you make at home. Then you can visit a park for a homemade picnic lunch, stop by the free evening hours of a local museum and maybe catch a free concert series or another entertaining activity that you find unique to your city. Keep your eyes peeled for discount evenings, free hours, etc.

7. Modern Mixes: Everyone loves a mix tape. But what about a digital 2013 version? In addition to — or in lieu of — a traditional mix tape, why not set up a private Pinterest or blog page where your friend can access a carefully selected group of music, videos, poems or photos that have special meaning.

Presentation: You can always make a digital invitation to something like this as a surprise, but I think it would be cute to construct a little computer out of paper and attach it to a card that explains the digital mix concept.

Mega budget option: This is pretty free as-is. Hooray for the internet!

Bump it up a notch: Make a real mix to go with this. Skip the blog or Pinterest page and make an actual CD for someone to listen to or a group of poetry that your loved one would like to read.

8. Favorite Activity Day: What is your loved one’s favorite thing to do in their downtime? Do they love to play volleyball? Do they enjoy a ride around town on bikes? Would they rather just have a cookout in the backyard? Whatever that activity is, plan it for your loved one and do all of the legwork of figuring out a time, date and location with their loved ones and family, so all they have to do is show up and enjoy the great day.

Presentation: This is really based on the activity, but it would be fun to present in a playful way since it’s an activity gift. Maybe you make a cupcake with a tiny plastic soccer ball inside; they find it, and you get to explain the fun group soccer party (with cupcakes? Yes, please!) they’ll be having soon.

Mega budget option: This is supposed to be a free outdoor activity, but if you want to help cover additional costs, you can see if your loved one’s friends want to chip in to add something special to the day like drinks, snacks or some sort of memento to document the day.

Bump it up a notch: Make something special to commemorate the day. Hire someone to photograph the event, make inexpensive hand-printed t-shirts with the date and name on them — anything to make the memory last a little longer.

9. DIY Gifts: It goes without saying that if you don’t want to offer an experience, per se, you can always make something by hand. My favorite things to make by hand are candles and beauty products and adding custom embroidery to existing objects. Here’s a roundup of all our favorites from the D*S DIY gift history.

Presentation: Handmade gifts always have a bit of the maker in them, so don’t be afraid to customize the present down to the wrapping, using paper you decorate yourself with drawings, decoupage or handmade patterns.

Mega budget option: Working with objects around the house, you should be able to keep costs low, but you can always do this with entirely found objects, too — like gathering wild flowers and greenery for a nice wreath or bouquet.

Bump it up a notch: Add something pre-made to your gift. For example if you made someone a beautiful tea towel by hand, maybe you can combine it with a nice tea tin or even a mug. A combo that continues the theme really takes a gift to the next level.

10. Re-gifting: Ok, I know this is going to sound controversial, but Amy and I thought this through, and we feel there are a few small exceptions to the rule, namely surrounding reading material. All of us have special books, poems and even magazine collections that we love. Why not collect these pieces and customize them in a way that shows you thought about why they’d make sense for the recipient? I’m not saying you should wrap up any old book, but if you have a book that helped you through a tough time and think it would be a good fit for someone dealing with the same thing, passing it on with a special note would be meaningful.

Presentation: This needs to be done well, as you’re re-gifting something you already owned. Take the take to make a book jacket cover or do a pretty wrapping job that makes the gift feel as new and special as possible. I’d suggest grabbing some butcher paper and hand-stamping it or painting on it. Or — my favorite — make custom bookplates! Make them for every magazine in a collection (who wouldn’t want a full set of old Domino magazines?) or for a single book, and make it really feel special for the recipient.

Mega budget option: You’re re-gifting. It doesn’t get more affordable than that.

Bump it up a notch: If you’re re-gifting reading material, it would be great to hand make some bookmarks to go with it so your loved one can keep their spot. All you need is some spare paper for fabric and a little creativity.

Suggested For You


  • Great ideas! Thank you! My personal favorite – a box of letters! I love making greeting cards and knit luxury scarves (hand-made scarves + luxury yarns = great gift on a small budget). One thing I learned: if you love the scarf, doesn’t mean they’ll love it, so I usually ask what color(s) my friends would wear, or go with white.

  • There are some great ideas in here. I actually love the idea of regifting a book when combined with something new, personalized or handmade. I might try a book, cute mug & some tea for one of the people on my list. Bonus points for colour coordinating! Haha.

    I made my grandmothers homemade soy candles again (at their request) and I’m thinking of something to add to their gift. Any ideas?

  • As an Interior Designer and artist I hesitate to offer my design services as a gift. I will offer my friends advice when asked for it, but only then. I will, however, always give my art cards, or hand made ornaments. These always seem to hit the mark with my friends. Packages of 10 art cards are also used frequently for door prizes at events.

  • Janelle, how about a beautiful box of matches? I see them at decor and stationary shops a lot. Or something thrifted/repurposed/handmade to nestle the candle into?

  • @Janelle: I’m always frustrated that I don’t have nice matches — or, at least, matches long enough to light a pillar candle or candle lamp without burning my fingertips. Somebody once gave me long fireplace matches in a lovely box, and it was the greatest gift.

  • These are all lovely and thoughtful ideas. We have gone the small-budget, homemade route this year, and for the folks who are hard to buy for, let alone hard to MAKE for, it’s a good reminder that the present doesn’t have to come in a box. I know my mother-in-law has been wanting to paint her room, but doesn’t care to do it by herself. Help with it plus a new painting will be great for her!

  • My friends and I have all decided to skip traditional gift-giving this year, in favour of a big old fashioned mixed CD exchange. We’re going to use them all as our playlist on New Year’s Eve, and then everybody goes home with one that night.

    Love the list. I’d be overjoyed to receive a box of letters from someone special.

  • I love this post….this year my parents will not be here until dec.20th, so I’m going to decorate the house for Christmas. Making it a black, gold, bronze and white theme, I’m making pompoms, glitter balls, rosettes and dip-spraying gold mason jars. I’m super excited about this and wish I could be there to see their faces. I won’t be there til the 23rd. I’m going to take pictures, I’ll send them so you can see. Ps to All Pinterest is the best internet invention

  • Loving this fresh approach to gift-giving, Grace. It feels so fitting for the season.
    This year, my Mom’s side of the family has decided to pick names and find something that’s special and unique to them from a second-hand store or vintage/antique shop. The idea is to spend next to nothing, but come up with a wonderfully personalized gift! I’m really excited to start hunting…..

  • I’m all about re-gifting but my boyfriend complains that I only re-gift things to HIS family, not to mine. The bottom line is I give things people will like. Is it bad that the tings I get given but don’t want to keep are the kind of things his family loves? (apart from the fact that it means many of my friends/family don’t know my tastes)

  • Plein Jane & Maggie: Thank you for your suggestions! I think matches are a great idea. I could customize a pretty box or something to put the candle in too. :)

  • @janelle I love and third the match idea! I think using double sided tape to adhere a beautiful paper to a simple match box is a great idea. I also wanted to share an idea I came across at Terrain… they sell plain old matches in a cute vintage style glass bottle with a narrow neck. My boyfriend and I bought that it was a lovely way to store matches. The price at Terrain was less than reasonable so we just picked up a thrift store bottle.

  • I like all of these ideas – it takes just a bit of creativity to make a holiday special without boatloads of money. Especially re-gifting — I think re-gifting gets a bad rap when people give crap gifts that clearly are used, crap, or unwanted. I like your approach to tailoring the gift to a specific person or situation and adding some personality.

  • I’m making Hanukkah gifts (8) for my special someone. I loved the letters idea and hope to add that to the list. I’m making soap in a favorite scent, a bathing basket – loofah, bubble bath, body oil, body butter, scrub and an old copy of Treasure Island, a Hardy boys book and maybe a copy of Tom Sawyer, two separate, upcycled pieces of art, a box of embroidered handkerchiefs, a Hanukkah wreath, handmade refill oils for his plug-ins (he hates buying refills), recycling bins (he never has time to pick them up), the letters would be the final one. I love doing this type of thing. Is this too over the top?

  • Allysha: Oh! I’ve seen some of those mini bottles at a local craft store. They would go perfectly with the mason jar soy candles. Thanks for your input!

  • Absolutely love the box of letters idea! I have an elderly friend in Scotland who I write to, but not often enough. A box full of letters would keep him from feeling lonely during the weeks I’m too busy to write. Thanks!!!

  • I’m growing my friend a window box of Asian veggies (they love Asian food). Hopefully by Christmas they’ll be almost fully grown (they’re still seedlings at the moment). I’ll also give them seeds so they can replant after they harvest. It obviously helps that I’m in Australia where it is currently Spring, and so possible to do this!

  • this was really refreshing. thank you so much for this post. i really love giving people things i have thought about and made for them. because the truth is (especially for adults) anything that they want, they have most likely purchased for themselves and if they haven’t purchased it yet, its probably because they can’t afford it, which probably means i can’t either! plus, i just never feel like it cost me anything if it hasn’t cost me any of my time. but this post was really great and gave me some new jumping off points. <3

  • This post is a perfect was to start the giving season. I was already planning on having my boys recite some Shakespeare for fun to my English teacher father-in-law. Now I’ll think I’ll get them and maybe other family members to record bits for a Shakespeare mixtape. Both fun and sweet, I hope!

  • Great ideas.

    A few years ago I made postcards (my fave photos printed on thick paper) and put stamps on them. I gave 1/2 to my grandmother, with my name and address already written on, and kept the other half to reply to her with. just quick little messages to one another.

    This year my family and i are going to try emailing each other a photo and message every tuesday. A combination of new photos we’ve taken of family, home, neighbourhood, and old ones and the memories they bring. Fingers crossed we stick to it!

  • Great ideas. The letter writing is particularly inspiring. I had been thinking about something similar for an estranged relative; the holidays are perfect for reconnecting.

  • I love these! I kinda wish someone would give me a box full of letter. The Working Parent Help is a very thoughtful gift too. Actually, these are all fantastic!

  • I gave a friend a craft day as her birthday gift this past summer. I supplied a list of simple craft projects that could be completed in a day, she chose one, I supplied all materials, instruction, and a yummy lunch. It was a lot of fun for both of us since we also spent the day in conversation while working on her project.

  • Sherri, I would not give all of those things to the same person at the same time. I think it would be much nicer to give them at different occassions, i.e. unexpectedly, throughout the year

  • Related to the box of letters idea, I made an advent calendar for my then-boyfriend-now-husband for the last 6 months of my 2-year stint in Japan. Every week, he got to open one of the windows, in which I had written a short memory about us, hope for our future, or just something I appreciated about him that I didn’t think he knew. It was a HUGE hit and definitely made the last few months of our separation easier.

    I think it would be a very special, very budget-friendly gift for any loved one living far away!

  • These are great ideas- taken further than just a short blip. A box full of letters is also a great gift for military loved ones about to go on deployments. My husband is in the Navy, in the submarine service (no snail mail there!) and will be receiving that for his next tour. I also love Martha’s craft project box- so often we don’t have what we need on hand for a project! Mix cds, bookmarks made of lux papers, and handmade stationary (simply cutting out papers I already have) make great presents that I give year after year.

  • An addition to the box of letters idea- Old fashioned metal mailboxes can often be found at thrift stores, antique shops and building reuse / second use yards. They are super easy to mount to a piece of wood which can be framed and painted / decorated in a design that matches the recipient’s personal aesthetic. The letters will be enjoyed and the mailbox kept for future mail organization. Great for apartments and people with roommates!

  • I had recently gifted someone a bunch of small little things of their interest and it just touched their heart!

  • Thanks for all these great gift ideas. I was planning to make home made truffles, and want to include a note about my donation made to the local food bank in lieu of gift buying this year. Is there a tasteful way to say this?

    • christa

      do you mean literally or just to display that idea? it could be cute to make a tiny grocery bag and tuck a little tag in that they can pull out that says “groceries will be going to families in need in your name” or something like that…


  • I have two friends from high school that I re-gift books to every Christmas. It’s kind of a tradition at this point. We each re-gift a book to each other. In fact, the rule is it has to be a book you already own. It’s a nice way to share something with old friends that are avid readers.

  • love the music option. music is such a beautiful gift. personally, i love sending “mixed messages” (haha, mixed tapes that have a built-in message). here’s a example of one that i made as a party favor for my daughter’s birthday party favors. but i have made them for valentine’s day, birthday gifts, and christmas party favors. they are always a huge hit! just an idea for a variation on this idea. :) http://ashleyrachelle.squarespace.com/blog/2012/8/7/currently-on-repeat-eveys-dance-grooves-vol-2.html

  • The best griddle to buy if you enjoy making pancakes
    and French toast is the “Nonstick Electric Grill and Griddle. In fact, the other night, we used it to finish some hamburger patties I had started on the grill (I ran out of propane a couple minutes into cooking them) and it not only heated up quickly; it managed to finish the patties in a matter of minutes. Thats right; people continue to fry chicken even if they dont work for the eatery made popular by the Colonel.