But that doesn’t mean you can't come up with something terrific for the friends and family on your list. Maybe they haven't had time to clean out their garage (in which case, VirgoMan's clutter control and a gift of a few hours will do the trick); or perhaps they've been dying to start a new business and have no idea how what to do first (you can pick up a binder and help them write a plan); or maybe they still haven't figured how to use the gadget they got for Christmas last year (teach them, or set up an appointment with a digital handyman).
That's only the beginning. We've compiled a list of free—or really, really, cheap—suggestions, courtesy of the O staff. Organization
"Archive photos and put them in an album (most people don’t have the time to put their pictures away and catalogue them). Take it even further by making your own scrapbook or collage." — Editorial assistant Sara Sugarman
- Offer to take on a massive cleaning project (say, sorting through an attic or basement), reorganizing closets, or dusting and scrubing an exhausted new mom's house.
- Help someone use digital tools to stay on top of things: Show them how to use online calendars, set up e-mail folders, or how to transfer music or data onto a computer or back-up hard drive.
- Collect recipes in a book or binder.
"After my daughter was born, my father always talked about his favorite book from childhood, David's Silver Dollar, so my husband found it for him on eBay (it's out of print) for something like $10. Lots of sentimental value for not much money." — Executive articles editor Deborah Way
- Frame a recent graduate's first business card.
- Personalize a travel or local restaurant guidebook with your own thoughts and recommendations.
- Make a "You Time" basket with a box of herbal tea ($2.50), a batch of Harlem Tea Room scones, and a printout of the 10-Minute Mind Spa.
"My husband and I always give each other the Christmas gift of not giving each other Christmas gifts. We put our time and energy (and money) into birthdays, when it's actually fun to come up with something and not just another thing on a mile-long to-do list." — Executive beauty editor Jenny Bailly
- Set a mutual $5 limit on gifts.
- One O contributor creates a gift of a movie and a recipe. She scouts video stores for inexpensive, previously viewed movies. Then she handwrites recipes on cardstock to accompany each film, wraps the movies and recipes with a big bow, and delivers them to the busy parents or multiplex-phobic people in her orbit.
- Another staffer and her friends take the money they'd spend on one another and dine out together to toast the season.
"Offer to be a buddy—if you know someone who is starting a diet, an exercise regimen, a meditation practice, a round of chemotherapy, or something that they might otherwise have to do alone. Even if you don’t need to diet, you can work out with the person, listen to their food diary, and encourage them." — Assistant editor Polly Brewster
Other Helpful Services
- Share you expertise with a friend in need of a résumé, website, or business plan. Or promise lessons in something you're good at—dancing sessions, basic foreign-language phrases before a vacation, yoga, knitting, etc.
- Be a "wingperson." Even if you're married, head out on the town with a single friend; it will mean a lot to him or her. Offer to help write or edit an online dating profile.
- Offer help to elderly friends or relatives with home maintenance repairs (lightbulbs, hanging pics, etc.)
- Create a gift certificate, promising to help with planting/gardening/lawn-mowing in the spring
- Help someone go green: Sign them up for CatalogueChoice.org, a free mailing list removal service, and get them a recycling bin, $1 canvas bags, and energy-saving power strips.
- Be a personal shopper: Take charge of returning unwanted gifts and doing exchanges for that set of harried parents.
The Old Standby: Homemade Treats
"I bake cookies for people, but they always seem to appreciate the time I put into it. Put a dozen chocolate chip cookies in a cute (and cheap) tin, and you've got yourself a nice gift." — Contributing editor Suzan Colon
Get started with: