2013 No-Buy Gift Guide

by Grace Bonney

Every year I like to end the holiday season with ideas for gifts that don’t involve buying anything. Over the past two years we’ve shared tons of ways to celebrate the people you love, from creating a day off for them and babysitting to home spa days and boxes full of letters. So this year I wanted to share a few more ideas for anyone looking to celebrate someone special in their life without heading to the mall. Hopefully these ideas will come in handy if you’ve felt stumped or come up against a budget restraint that makes gift ideas few and far between. I think gifts like this really get to the core of the holiday and what it means to thank someone for their continued friendship, love and support. Happy holidays…xo, grace

Image above: free downloadable holiday tags

Click through for all 8 ideas (from being a goal partner to inspiration boards) after the jump…

DIY Gifts:

DIY gifts are a given for this guide, but this year I wanted to suggest things that are a bit more personalized. So if baking if your thing, why not bake someone something that comes with a story, special connection or a recipe or poem related to them? For example, if someone lost their grandmother this year, and you know how much your friend loved to work in their grandmother’s rose garden, you could bake them something that use rosewater as a main ingredient or as an accent. Then include a card that explains the connection and how much you remember that being something they cared about so much. You could also cook something inspired by that person’s achievements that year. For example, if someone worked hard to finish a marathon, maybe you could create an infused olive oil that uses scents and ingredients native to that area. Then include a tag that explains how proud you were of their achievement and how you wanted to make something to remind them of that great step in their life.

*BUMP IT UP: This would be made even more special if you create a handmade recipe book that includes the recipe and maybe a few other cherished dishes you think they would like (and why). Including little stories is a nice touch. Perhaps it’s a recipe book inspired by a trip you took together (ie: appetizer recipes inspired by your Italian getaway) or just friend memories you share.

Start a Garden:

If someone in your life loves to garden or wants to start trying, you can gift them with a planting from your garden, seeds or even just with your time to help their garden start growing. No matter what you gift, make sure it comes with a note explaining how to plant/grow/propagate that particular piece. Better yet, you could come show them how and spend time with them while you teach them how to make their garden flourish.

*BUMP IT UP: This would make a great surprise gift if you’re able to coordinate with someone’s roommate, significant other, etc. If you have an excess of a certain type of plant, you could sneak in to plant them or create a flower bed in their yard while someone else ensures they’re out. Then leave a note on how to care from there on out.

Charity Work:

It’s not unheard of to make charity donations in someone’s name as a gift, but what about giving the gift of your time? If your friend is devoted to a particular cause or charity, why not donate your help for a day, document the process and then share that experience in a card where you explain how you wanted to do something for a cause they felt deeply about.

*BUMP IT UP: You could turn this into a whole day together by inviting the friend, picking them up and doing the charity work together.

Family Activity Time:

Babysitting or babysitting coupon books are always a sweet gift, but why not bump that up a notch and offer a gift that’s good for the whole family? It would be sweet to present a themed day for the kids that they can do with you (while you babysit and give the parent/s a night off) or something the family can do together. For example, you could carve a range of stamps made from materials around the house (vegetables, potatoes, dried pasta, ec.) and package them nicely and combine them with a little booklet of ideas they can try using the homemade craft supplies. Better yet, offer to stay with the kids and oversee the craft day while the adults get a day or night off.

Custom Art Portrait:

If you’re artistic, giving someone a piece of your own work is always a nice thought. But customizing and personalizing that thought a bit further and even more special. If you’re able to draw or photograph something well, why not offer up a custom home painting, family portrait or even a sweet pet portrait. A family friend gave my parents a watercolor of their dog, Scout, and it’s still one of my mom’s most prized possessions.

Inspiration Gift Box:

Amy and I both fell in love with the idea of “dream boards” or “inspiration boards” last year when I made one that seemed to actually “come true” in a way I never expected. We made simple collage boards using images and words that meant something to us and treasure those little boards as something that reminds us of the goals in our lives. Why not create something similar for a friend using all the things that inspire them? You can create a little board (framed or unframed) that has special things pinned that you know will motivate them. You can combine quotations from books, poetry, images, pieces of fabric or color swatches- anything you know means something to them and will inspire them to follow their dreams and goals.

*BUMP IT UP: You could also present this as a day activity where you have them over for a meal you cook and you sit together to both create boards. It’s a nice way to spend time with a dear friend while getting to learn more about them and their hopes, fears and dreams. All you need is a piece of poster board (old cardboard works, too!), glue, scissors and some old magazines or catalogs.

Goal Partner:

I’ve never been a big New Year’s Resolution person, but most of the people in my life love to set goals and often need help sticking to them. If you know someone close to you has been wanting to attempt something but has been too scared to try, why not commit to making that happen with them, as their partner? If your friend wants to run a 5k but is too scared, join them, train together and help them reach their goal! It could be something like learning a new language together or even climbing a mountain together- whatever means something to them, if you have the energy to join them and help them make their goals happen, this would be an amazing gift idea.

*BUMP IT UP: You could present them with a trip or celebration at the end of the goal to celebrate their (and your!) hard work. It could be as simple as a home-cooked Italian meal after learning Italian together or as big as a trip somewhere to run a half-marathon together.

Coupon Book of Specialized DIYs:

IOUs and coupon books are fun, but they’re often stocked with more of the same thing. While endless amounts of hugs and kisses are great and definitely appreciated, why not offer something truly unique and specialized to that person that will inspire them to actually cash in all their gifts? For example, for your friend who loves karaoke, Thai food and 80s movies, you could offer them a karaoke night out (where you promise to sing a solo), a home cooked pad thai dinner, an 80s movie night where you come up with fun costumes to wear, etc. I find these really personalized and fun DIY event ideas are so funny that people actually remember to tear them out and use them- and you get the benefit of spending more than just one single day/event with your friend!

Suggested For You


  • Last year, knowing that my husband wanted to read more but was feeling overwhelmed with finding the right books, I made a list of titles I thought he’d enjoy. The book list became a tiny, hand-bound book, with one-sentence descriptions and a few illustrations. It took some research (our tastes are different), but he was really happy with it.

  • these are wonderful ideas especially the “bump ups”. Every year my small “art group” meets in january to evaluate how well we did on goals set the previous year and new goals for the coming year are set. We don’t meet as often as we used to although some of us are more productive. Having the group is just a comforting thing, a place to go for advice, feedback and inspiration. You’ve given me an idea for a goal that we all could share. thanks very much

  • Love these, Grace! I love that these ideas truly place relationships as the ‘gifts’ instead of material things. Blessings on you and yours in 2014!