Practical Christmas Gifts That Really Help Out

Marines collect gifts for childrenWhen you were deciding what to do with your holiday shopping budget, you may have followed the prevailing advice for making your recipients happy and spent on experiences, not items. this season.

But did you consider a possibly more important gift-giving goal than even the fun togetherness of eating out or going to an event together? How about making a more long-term difference in your recipients life? These types of practical gifts are more important than ever in this job-sucking economic climate, where even the people with jobs may have had their wages frozen, benefits cut or hours reduced.Donna Freedman, a staff writer at Get Rich Slowly, recently posted a long list of ways to give "gifts that make a difference," offering options to the standard department store or specialty shop purchase. Freedman's suggestions range from the frankly charitable and thoroughly practical (motor oil, allergy medicine and cough syrup, socks and underwear, kitty litter, a transit pass, yard work) to the creatively suggestive (a "green 'em up" package of CFL bulbs, low-flow showerheads and such) to ideas that are more universally accepted as gifts (annual passes to zoos or museums, warehouse club memberships, entertainment books and grocery store gift cards).

The big question, of course, is how will these gifts be received? While a community-supported agriculture membership would thrill me to pieces, my brother-in-law might grumble and end up throwing away most of those grown-with-love fruits and veggies. And I can too well remember the many practical gifts my grandmother bought the five of us Gilbert children. (The legend is, she cried when she found out my mother was pregnant with my youngest sister; at the time, my father was working for a Christian mission, barely making enough money to pay for food and newsletter paper.) One year it was bedsheets; another, flannel pajamas. And greening your in-laws? Umm, you'd better hope they're receptive to environmental sacrifices. Some people just like their showers long, hot and blasting.

So I asked around to find out how these financially-responsible gifts were working out in real life. A neighbor, Heather Anderson, has given Kroger gift cards in the past to her "irresponsible brother." She tells me, "It seemed safer than cash, and there was still the chance that he'd spend it on groceries or stuff for his kids (as intended)." He never complained, she told me, though she couldn't be sure the cards were indeed spent on necessary groceries and not a month's supply of Dorito's.

High school classmate Leslie Keating told me she's given one of Freedman's suggestion every year to her grandmother, with great results. "My grandma, on a very fixed income, loves to stay in touch with all her family and friends (and she has tons!) by sending birthday cards and other cards to every one. So I get her assorted greeting cards and stamps," Keating says. A Twitter friend had a similar story: "I have an uncle who is mentally challenged/low income and loves to write letters. We often send stamps with a stationary gift set."

Another Twitter friend said she's given grocery store gift cards, but anonymously, to friends and loved ones in need; she didn't get a response, but said she's love the gift herself!

When my husband was unemployed and looking hard for work about the same time I began freelancing full time, his Army Reserves unit included our information in the annual VA holiday gift box recipient list. The food box may not have been stocked with the sort of things I usually feed my family, but I was over the moon at the power company gift card. That $50 kept our power on the next month when we were juggling bills frantically, and I couldn't have been more grateful.

Think kitty litter is the most unromantic gift you can imagine? Allison McG, a Facebook friend, has one better. "My mom-in-law always includes a Costco pack of TP in our gifts," she wrote to me. The toilet paper is always appreciated, McG reports, and so are the other practical presents her mother-in-law has given them. "She's given us Costco memberships, car repairs, a dumpster for a few days, a new couch, a big bed (with room for the then-new baby) and countless other functional-yet-thoughtful gifts."

In the spirit of giving to charity and making your spending count, you can't do much better than a friend of the young son of an old colleague of mine, Roger Sinasohn. The friend has a birthday near Christmas and her parents threw her a party a few years back. "The invitation asked that instead of gifts, attendees bring an unwrapped toy to donate," Sinasohn reports. "During the party, all the kids took their toys and we walked down the street to the firehouse and gave them to the firemen. The kids felt good about it, they got to see the firehouse and trucks and it was a fun activity." The girl, five or six at the time, had come up with the idea on her own.

Kelly Anderson, a woman I know through blogging, came up with the same idea I'd considered after reading the Get Rich Slowly list, and she executed it beautifully: "This year, we made non-toxic green cleaning products (and provided the recipes) to give to everyone. My husband, daughter and I had a great time making them, and they've been warmly appreciated as people see them as a reflection of us." Her extended family has also made a pact to only give gifts they either made or already had. "My parents made kaleidoscopes from old building materials (they are building a house)," Anderson says, "and the kids loved them."

Through her work at an agency that provides services for the homeless, Anderson often helps deliver very practical -- and very appreciated -- gifts: monetary donations to the charity made in the name of friends or family. "The donor gets a tax benefit, and the honoree receives a beautiful card letting them know about the donation. It captures the spirit of the gift without the burden of stuff."

It's a lovely way to consider such gifts: not just practical and (often) boring staples, but in a spirit of generosity that comes from one's deepest and most firmly-held values, giving not just of your money, but of yourself. It may not always come through to your recipient, of course. But take some comfort in the old chestnut that it really is the thought that counts. And if your intentions are to be generous but frugal, fiscally responsible, and conserve valuable resources, those are WalletPop-approved thoughts, indeed.
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