December 1 2009|12.51 PM UTC

Samantha Eckles

12 Thoughtful Christmas Gifts That Are Better Than “Expensive” Ones

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It’s the same story every Christmas, isn’t it? Without fail, the same expensive “big ticket” items top seemingly everyone’s wish list. Whether it’s expensive jewelry, new cars or the latest video game system, each Christmas is inseparably linked with the hot gifts everybody wants that year. And sure, dropping big bucks on these items is a pretty sure-fire way of pleasing the people on your Christmas list. But what about originality? Believe it or not, you can put a smile on someone’s face this Christmas without spending hundreds or thousands of dollars – and without the same impersonal, cookie-cutter gifts everyone else is obsessing over. Here are 12 thoughtful Christmas gifts that show you did more than swipe a credit card.


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It’s a cliche, but sometimes the most warmly appreciated gifts are those that come from the heart. And few gifts are more heartfelt and personal than a lovingly constructed scrapbook. Whether the intended recipient is a spouse, child or friend, a scrapbook filled with your most cherished shared memories is sure to elicit smiles and appreciation for years to come. Fill it with anything significant that the two of you have shared: pictures, movie stubs, vacation tickets and souvenirs, bumper stickers, inside jokes, and anything else that captures your unique relationship with that person. The result will be a treasured keepsake your recipient enjoys forever.


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A great supplement or replacement for a scrapbook is a collage. Think of it as a scrapbook of just pictures. Begin with a large canvas (poster board works great) and a shoebox of pictures. Then, try to arrange them on the canvas in some symbolic or meaningful way. For example, if the recipient is your boyfriend or girlfriend, consider arranging photos of the two of you from different periods of time – say, beginning from when you met and ending with the pictures most recently taken. Much like a scrapbook, a well-done collage is more meaningful than any store-bought item because it is literally a tribute to one or two unique people. and similar websites offer great deals on starter supplies for any scrapbook you choose to create.

Pandora Charms (have unique meanings)

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Jewelry makes a great gift, but it isn’t usually very customizable. The diamond bracelet you buy your wife or girlfriend is being purchased by hundreds (if not thousands) of other men the very same day you bought yours. A rare exception to cookie-cutter jewelry are Pandora charms. Unlike most jewelry, Pandora bracelets and charms are 100% customizable. Begin with a bracelet or necklace and attach any of literally hundreds of different charms, ranging from animals to astrology signs to flowers. The charms can be purchased at virtually any mall in the country and at numerous online retailers.

Gift Certificates (spa, etc.)

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Some may be surprised to see gift certificates listed as a thoughtful, personalized gift. It is widely believed that gift cards reek of thoughtlessness. However, seen from another perspective, they might be the most personal gift you can give. Yes, it’s tough to put an original spin on a gift card to Subway or Burger King. But what about gift certificates to places you know the intended recipient loves, like bookstores or health and beauty spas? Chances are, these people have long lists of books they’d like to buy “eventually” or spa treatments they’d love to try “someday.” With some thoughtful gift card purchases, you can give these people exactly what they’ve been longing for all year.

Artifacts From First Meeting or Date

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Call us cheesy, but what better way to make your better half happy on Christmas morning than with artifacts from your earliest encounters? If you met on a beach, go back one day (alone, of course) and scoop up a small bottle of sand from where you met. If you met at a park, go and pick some fresh flowers and snap a photo of where you were standing. If you met at a bar, see if you can buy a glass or souvenir with the bar’s name on it. The idea is showing that your first kiss or meeting was memorable enough to you to encapsulate into a gift many months or years later, in recognition of when it all began.

Memory Boxes

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Another heart-warming way of capturing personal memories in your Christmas gifts is the memory box. Generally speaking, a memory box contains memorabilia from throughout your friendship or romantic relationship with another person. But remember – just because a gift is heartfelt doesn’t mean it has to be tacky. Don’t use a cheap cardboard box from the garage. Instead, visit a website like FindGifts or a local arts and crafts store. Special boxes are available for just this purpose, some of which can even be engraved with special quotes or phrases that personalize the memory box even more.

Locket With Photo Inside

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No list of thoughtful Christmas gifts would be complete without the locket and photograph. There’s a reason so many movies and soap operas show distressed women drawing comfort from having her husband or boyfriend’s picture close at heart. Dripping with personality and sentiment, it’s a gift all women love – and for good reason. If you’re looking to show a casual girlfriend that you’re ready to start taking things seriously, a locket with your photo inside (or one of the two of you) makes a wonderfully thoughtful Christmas gift!

Homemade Tree Ornaments

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One of the criminally under-appreciated romantic or family bonding moments of the Christmas season is decorating the tree. Luckily, this presents an opportunity for the creative gift-giver to work their magic. Homemade and personally significant Christmas tree ornaments make great gifts. Just wait until decoration night comes and all the usual ornaments are already put up. Then, spring out your gift-wrapped ornament and tell the recipient that they forgot one. Let them open it and watch their eyes widen with excitement.


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Unlike many gifts, books must be selected with particular people in mind. Your 15 year old nephew wont like the same books that your 40 year old sister does. This makes books an ideal choice for personalized and thoughtful gift-giving. If you have an avid reader (or several) on your gift list, think long and hard about the types of books they enjoy. Which books have you seen them reading or heard them talking about? Better yet, do they have public wish lists on websites like Amazon? Before long, you should have all the clues necessary to buy books that your recipients will truly enjoy getting as Christmas gifts.


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If you have young sons, daughters, nephews or nieces, what better to give them than the classic board games every generation loves? No child should grow up without playing Monopoly, Life, Clue or the other myriad games that make up traditional, early childhood play. If you’re looking for an alternative to mind-numbing shoot-em-up video games, look no further. These classics will develop critical thinking skills, stimulate imagination, and create priceless memories for any young person you give them to.


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The movie buff on your list will be happier to receive some timeless flicks than just about anything else you could buy them. Much like book-buying, being selective is critical here. Different people are going to like different kinds of movies, and you don’t want to be “that guy” who just buys whatever big box-office hit came out on DVD last week. Try to pay attention to the types of movies the recipient enjoys most, and hit the stores. Between Walmart and Amazon, there’s no excuse not to track down the exact DVD or video your recipient will love.

Personal Mix CDs

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Some people love books, some people love movies, and still others love music. And we’ve yet to meet the callous soul who doesn’t love listening to mix CDs burned especially for them. Knowing you took the time to carefully select each song on the track list makes the CD all the more special, and your recipient will think of you every time they listen. Of course, burning a personal mix CD as a Christmas gift works best if there is some kind of theme involved. Rather than simply burning a CD of random songs by their favorite bands, see if you can arrange them in some symbolic way – perhaps commemorating a period of the recipient’s life or memories the two of you shared.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Leksy December 1, 2009 at 2:05 pm

Great list — I’ve done most of them ;)

I’d add searching for inexpensive but unique gifts on Etsy — (Frida Kahlo drinking flask? Yes! Wool scarf shaped like the FireFox fox? Found!) Great stuff for under $40.


Wojciech Kulicki December 1, 2009 at 4:52 pm

Awesome list. We put together collages on a regular basis as gifts, so it was great to see that make it on. It’s not only frugal, but it’s such a personal touch and you can never make two of the same ones!

I have to say though–I loved making personal CDs for people, but with the proliferation of the Napsters and iTunes of the world, I think they are quickly being phased out. I haven’t seen too many people doing them recently.


Shelley December 1, 2009 at 6:51 pm

I’ve done most of them, myself, as well. And Etsy is a wonderful place to find unique items.

These are all great ideas for people that you know fairly well, or at least have contact with on a fairly regular basis. However, if you don’t really know the person, (like great-aunt Mathilda, or your new mother-in-law, or the secret santa party at work/church) bake!

Bake a cake or cookies from scratch and make a basket out of them. Or make homemade candy. And yes, everyone complains about eating too much over the holidays and all the sugar from all the dinners and parties and dinner parties. BUT, there are thousands of sugar free and healthy recipes for cookies and candies. And a lot of them are yummy, too. The person receiving homemade cookies will love it, ’cause face it, how many of us really *cook* anymore?


Justin P. December 1, 2009 at 7:08 pm

Buy your kid a prom date for Christmas =


Alex December 1, 2009 at 8:37 pm

Is Ayn Rand even considered a gift? I think I’d rather gargle battery acid than read “The Fountainhead” again.

Very well done list though.


lukasgaertner December 2, 2009 at 12:24 am

rather go to a shop and buy something really creative, cause a gift card or a movie are the most uncreative things I ever got


HollyMai December 2, 2009 at 6:53 am

I have always thought that thoughtful gifts are always much better than the general junk you can buy in shops. As is mainly adults amongst my family and all earn a good living it becomes even harder to find things people want.

Another great idea is to bake a cake or biscuits and package them nicely with some personalised details. Alternatively, you could offer gift cards for holidays a friend of mine was going to Greece so I purchased some vouchers for that (got them from At least they can look forward to a holiday in the sun next year!


BobbyLee December 2, 2009 at 5:04 pm

Yeah… that particular photo locket pictured above costs somewhere in the range of $200-$350. I would think that falls under expensive. Perhaps a picture of a cheaper locket would be more representative?


Geoff Sebesta December 3, 2009 at 4:19 am

The Fountainhead?


Ayn would be pissed if she found you were just giving it away. THEY ARE SUPPOSED TO BUY IT.


Viv December 8, 2009 at 12:11 pm

For those that love fashion, check out @garancedore’s “fashion recipes” ( It’s an interesting idea.

I agree with everyone about Etsy. You can find really unique gifts there. I bought Snow’s Revenge ( as a gift for someone when it first showed up on Etsy.

And, as always, there are tons of holiday sales and promotions going on right now. Just take a look at Tons of gift guides and sales from places like Urban Outfitters, Forever 21, and Bloomingdale’s.


Amelia December 15, 2009 at 1:25 pm

My sister sent me a Teddy Delivery, kinda cute actually. From $13 at


CuriousEllie January 12, 2010 at 3:09 pm

Great list!

I’ll add another one that I’ve used many times:
Their stuff can be overpriced sometimes, but they usually run specials throughout the year. My favorite is the “message in the bottle” with message in calligraphy, glass bottle with cork, sand, other details. I also used for pens and other gifts with an engraved message of my own for under $US 30 gifts.

Thank you Bill, and thanks to all the comment posters that followed. Maybe you could make a Thoughtful Holiday Gifts 2010 follow-up when the time grows near and include all these great additions”?


bandsxbands February 1, 2010 at 12:34 pm

Reading these kind of posts reminds me of just how technology truly is ubiquitous in this day and age, and I am fairly certain that we have passed the point of no return in our relationship with technology.

I don’t mean this in a bad way, of course! Societal concerns aside… I just hope that as memory becomes cheaper, the possibility of transferring our memories onto a digital medium becomes a true reality. It’s one of the things I really wish I could experience in my lifetime.

(Posted on Nintendo DS running R4i DS BlogServ)


Cindy February 28, 2010 at 9:12 am

oved reading a of the comments regarding gifts…am hoping you can hep me with a project. Could you share a time when you received a gift that really touched your heart? Thank you.


Kristie Speakman July 2, 2010 at 12:35 pm

A friend of my husband’s ( or more likley his wife) embelished & framed our wedding invitation…it was one of the cooest gifts we got!


danny w December 19, 2010 at 12:40 am

about 5 years ago me and my wife got in a bad fight and she tore up our marriage license in a million pieces and i kept every piece she tore up well for the past month or so i was slowly getting it back together without her knowing what i was doing or the kids seeing me well a few days ago i finished it and bought a frame and put it in there put some bows all over it and she kept wanting it tonight so i give it too her and she was lost for words she cried and that showed her in my own special way how much i love her !!


Toni October 21, 2011 at 5:10 am

The most perfect and thoughtful gift (especially for the sentimental, romantic, and idealistic person) without breaking the bank is a Lovecapsule necklace ( You can capture someone’s favorite quote or memory inside a unique necklace capsule pendant to be carried around to motivate them, inspire them and to show how much you care about them.


Martha the inexpensive christmas gifts lady December 12, 2011 at 2:18 pm

The most thoughtful and precious Christmas gifts are really labours of love and feelings.


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