These budget-friendly gifts are just as thoughtful (if not more so) than a big-time splurge—and you don’t have to be a crafting whiz to make them.

By Lisa Milbrand
July 27, 2020

The best gifts aren’t always the most expensive. In fact, free (or almost free) presents usually require a bit more thought, care, and creativity than a “saw this at the mall and thought of you” gift. Giving of yourself and your time and energy will definitely be appreciated by the recipient—and if you’re trying to save money or budget better, it’s a win-win.

Check out these 23 free gift ideas to consider for the holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, or any other gift-giving occasion. Even if you aren’t particularly crafty, you should be able to pull off something special and meaningful to celebrate your family member or friend without spending very much money.

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1 Do something nice in their name

Spend some time volunteering for a charity or group that is especially meaningful for them. You can take a day to clean up trash on a park or beach, donate blood, or sign up for a shift serving others at a soup kitchen. It’s a totally free gift that will make you both feel great.

2 Create a 21st century mixtape

Craft a customized playlist to share with them. You can include songs that remind you of special memories or inside jokes from your past, or just create a playlist of new music you think they’ll love. If they’re old school, you can still burn a CD or put it on a cassette, or simply share it with them via Spotify or another streaming service.

3 Write down some wonderful moments with them

Remember that time? Make sure that they do, too. Write all of your favorite memories with them on small slips of paper, and place them in a pretty jar with a label like “Jar of Awesome.” Include some blank slips of paper so your recipient can continue the tradition with new memories as you make them. 

4 Regift wisely

Shop from home, literally. Odds are, you have something in your house that your friend or family member will love—whether it’s that vase your friend has always complimented, or a book you’ve finished that you know your sister will adore. Share generously. 

5 Cook them something tasty

Sure, you’ll have to spring for the ingredients, but who can turn down cookies or cake, a killer homemade granola, or another special treat?

RELATED: 11 Easy Recipes for Homemade Holiday Gifts

6 Give them the gift of time

If there’s anything we’ve learned in 2020, it’s the importance of spending time with the people you really love. So make your gift a commitment to spend time with them, whether it’s a monthly date for tea and conversation or a special weekend away with far-flung friends.

7 Grow them something

A pretty plant always makes a lovely gift. (Just remember that you’ll need to start early if you’re growing from seed or bulbs.)

8 Write them some “just in case” letters

Write a series of heartfelt letters to suit different occasions, and label them—“Read this when you’re feeling blue,” or “Read this when you have something to celebrate.” You’ll be there to send just the right message at just the right moment.

9 Plan a day of (free) fun

Give them a homemade gift card entitling them to a fully planned day of fun, whether you take your nephew on a tour of all the best local playgrounds or treat your mom to her favorite art museum (on free admission day).

10 Hand down your family’s secret recipes

Does everyone want to know the secret to your chocolate chip cookies or does Grandma have a killer pasta sauce recipe? Write out your very best dishes on recipe cards or compile them into a booklet for the perfect gift for cooks.

11 Send them flowers

If you have access to a garden, you can DIY a bouquet of lovely blooms. Tie them with a ribbon or a piece of twine, and you’re good to go.

12 Make your own mix in a jar

Upcycle old pasta sauce jars and layer in all the dry ingredients for oatmeal cookies, hot chocolate, or another favorite treat.

RELATED: 50 Mason Jar Gifts and Craft Ideas

13 Go old school with a pet rock

No need to spend for a “real” pet rock when there’s probably one waiting just steps outside your front door. All you need is a box and a link to one of the tongue-in-cheek care manuals online, and you’re in business.

14 Send a message to the future

Put together a time capsule and time stamp when it’ll be ready to open. This makes an especially nice (and free!) gift for the under-18 crowd. You can capture all of their current interests in passions so your tween niece will be able to look back at her K-POP obsession in a decade or so.

15 Print a favorite photo of them

Whether you make a copy of that pic of you and your BFF in full 90s grunge mode or a recent shot of a family vacation, the photo will likely find a place of honor in their home. (And odds are, you have an extra frame or two at home you can use for it.)

16 Create a video tribute

Celebrate them by compiling photos and asking other family members and friends to share their favorite memories and feelings about your recipient. Edit it together (we love Tribute for the ease of collaborating and editing), and you’ll have a priceless free gift for your loved one.

17 Showcase the family tree

Become the family genealogist and start Googling for details from the past. You can draw it out on paper and frame it for your history buff loved one.

18 DIY a family (or friend group) trivia game

Can everyone remember the name of your little brother’s imaginary friend, or which college roommate had the peach-and-mint color scheme? Write up the Qs and As and have a fun get-together to see who wins bragging rights. (If you’re feeling really creative, make up a full-on game with a board and playing pieces or a digital Jeopardy-style game.)

19 Give them some inspiration

If you have a pretty blank notebook at home, you can jazz up the cover and turn it into a gratitude journal for them. Use your best handwriting and adorn the pages with some inspirational messages (try a few famous positive quotes to get started).

20 DIY some art supplies

You can make play dough, slime, or even finger paints with some common ingredients you probably have at home right now.

21 Be their sitter

Coupons good for free house-sitting, pet-sitting, or babysitting would likely be welcome by any gift recipient.

22 Set up a scavenger hunt

Great fun as a group gift, you can send your recipients around the house, around the block, or around town looking for a list of items or activities. (Bonus points if you use a theme, especially if it’s objects or places that are special to you—i.e, “Take a selfie in front of our first apartment building”).

23 Share some mementos

Put together a little book or box with some priceless artifacts—old ticket stubs, brochures, playbills, and other items from times you’ve spent together. For bonus points, include a short sentence or two about what you remember from every adventure.