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Fabulously Frugal: Budget Holiday Gift Ideas For Trying Economic Times

By Russ Klettke

The season is already stressful enough, but this year we have that pesky economic collapse to deal with. Ho ho ho is more like boo hoo hoo. Still, gay men know the importance of a tasteful gift, and this year you'd like to do it without going (any more) broke. Can it be done? With a little creativity and some planning, you bet it can. Read on for some ingenious solutions to gay gift-giving in a thin year.

Three's the charm
Expert "giveologist," licensed mental health counselor, reformed shopaholic and author Jennifer Melnick Carota (Shop Smart Give More) has a method to get you started. "Give in threes," she says. "This creates a theme and doesn't make you look like a cheapskate." If you are on Jennifer's list (Isaac Mizrahi is one of her Facebook friends) you might recognize what she does:

  1. Start with a central item: Pick something to symbolize your theme—purchased perhaps at a clearance rack or a thrift-resale store. Jennifer suggests looking for "themes of relaxation, comfort and warmth." Coffee cups, books, bathrobes, maybe even thick socks would work (but maybe don't get that last one at the thrift store!).
  2. Add something homemade: Spend a little time in your kitchen and put something together that you can pack up with your recipe attached. Not a cook or baker? Get a bottle of wine (Three Buck Chuck from Trader Joes comes to mind) or an unopened bottle of liqueur that can be relabeled creatively and personally.
  3. Top it off with a book: Pick a personal favorite of yours and offer it as something to curl up with while enjoying the other two parts of this gift. Alternatively, burn a CD of your favorite music downloads.
So, a thick pair of winter socks, homemade brownies and a book, wrapped and tied together would do it. But can you pull this off for less than ten dollars? It is not such a tall order when you know where to go.

Nifty even while thrifty
Here's how to keep your costs under control. Start with the theme item, something you would source at a clearance rack or thrift store. The discounters—Marshall's and TJMaxx, for example—carry items at 30 to 40 percent off retail. This means that Calvin Klein underwear priced at twenty bucks at Macy's might sell for nine dollars at a discounter.

Tee shirts are a real opportunity. Target stores carry a nice line cut for the RealJock body, many priced under 10 dollars. And they have sales—you just have to check the stores and newspapers and ask a clerk if a sale begins soon.

Even better deals on other clothing and household items might be found at resale or thrift shops. Depending on where you live, you might be doing good at the same time by patronizing the very popular shops run by AIDS service and other GLBT organizations. Examples include: Chicago's Brown Elephant stores, New York's Housing Works café and thrift shops, and Out of the Closet stores in California and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Housing Works' twice-monthly 20-dollar all-you-can-stuff bag sale at their thrift shops warehouse in Long Island City can yield some otherwise pricey labels at a fraction of the cost.

Of course, this to some extent requires knowing your recipients' tastes, including their comfort with pre-owned items. If vintage clothes are too risky a choice, look for household items: an "orphan" (lost its set) fine china coffee cup, a single silver service spoon (polish it before gifting), or something that matches a hobby, such as old picture frames cleaned up with metallic paint.

For food items, the non-baker might learn a new skill with a simple baking pan and a store-bought brownie or corn-bread mix. Most just call for using eggs, milk and perhaps Canola oil. But take it one step better: mix in chunks of fruit (strawberries, apples, pears, blueberries; frozen is OK). More taste, less guilt—and only a wee bit like fruit cake. Alternatively, buy a one-dollar coffee mug at the resale/thrift store and fill it with self-ground coffee. Your hand written note might say you put your muscles to work so your friend will have a pleasant morning wake up. (If all such efforts fail, go to to purchase ten-dollar gift certificates redeemable for twenty-five dollars at specific local eateries.)

For that third item, your retail coup de grace is a book bought wisely. Think the best deals are at the chain and online stores? Perhaps yes, but quite likely not. Proprietor Ed Devereaux of Chicago's Unabridged Books, a 28-year old Boystown institution featuring general interest, travel, gay & lesbian and children's books, explains how they are able to sell popular remaindered (sale table) books cheaply and in high volume. "When a publisher releases a title in softcover, they then need to get rid of the hardcover inventory," says Ed, whose independent store has survived well against the onslaught of e-commerce. "We might be able to sell a book originally priced at $26.95 for as little as four dollars."

Note that these are sought-after books, often in hardcover. Ed explains that independent publishers are better at this because they can pinpoint which remaindered titles will sell best in their local market. But if you don't live near an independent bookstore, online options exist: see Remaindered Bargain Books Online.

Gifts that give again
Jennifer Melnick Carota urges giving more broadly, to the world and those less fortunate than you or your friends. Here are some additional suggestions for accomplishing that:
  1. Write letters: Yes, letters—thoughtful expressions of caring, love and appreciation. Blogger Lilia Fallgatter, Esq., an interpersonal communication specialist, tells you how and why at Theme it with photos, music CDs and a calendar with your own messages scribbled into dates in 2009. Give the money saved to charity.
  2. Temporarily tat with a rainbow peacock: Laura Silverthorn's Mother Ink created a peacock with rainbow colors in temporary vegetable inks. Cost: $4.95 each. It's less of a commitment than the real thing—note a promotion code of "prop8no" in your order and you don't have to pay the shipping charge.
  3. Keep the earth cool: Protect a half-acre of rainforest through Cool Earth in the name of your five best friends. Your 50 dollar donation will lock in 130 tons of carbon dioxide—what is typically produced in a year by, coincidentally, five households. You'll receive a certificate and news updates—forward them to your friends along with links to the web cams of your half acre.
  4. Forgot the wrapping paper: Go to Google Images and search for "free wrapping paper." Print a few pages of what you select, on recycled paper, and you're holiday gift is complete - without a stressful Visa bill in January.
So, with a little planning and some creativity, you don't need to spend the holidays hiding from friends and family—you can exchange gifts in style, and still make rent in January.

About Russ Klettke: Russ Klettke is a Chicago-based business writer, ACE-certified fitness trainer and author of A Guy's Gotta Eat, the regular guy's guide to eating smart with Deanna Conte, MS RD LD (Marlowe/Da Capo Press, 2004). His blog explores the connections between exercise and energy conservation.