4 (mostly free) alternatives to buying holiday gifts

Even if you feel economically secure over the holidays, you might find yourself window shopping and thinking, "Will this cheese wheel really convey how I feel about my mom?"

Sure, she loves cheese, but will she really remember this gift and be blown away? Well, maybe. Who doesn't love cheese? And there are all sorts of selections in this wheel, from Roquefort to Camembert.

Still, if you're wondering whether you should get something a bit more meaningful for a friend or family member, or you simply don't have the funds to get a pasta maker for your grandmother or a GoPro for your spouse, keep in mind that you don't have to spend much to make a powerful and positive impact over the holidays.

[See: Prepare Your Finances for the Holidays.]

If you're looking for inexpensive, unique gift ideas for the holiday season, consider these.

Give the gift of ... letters. Audra Hamlin, a public relations consultant in Villa Park, Illinois, has had a lot of success in giving letters as gifts. About 20 years ago, she bought a scrapbook and asked her two younger siblings to contribute. They each wrote 10 letters to their mother, and each of the letters focused on a certain topic.

One of Hamlin's letters was about how her 16th birthday had been one of her favorite birthdays.

"My sister wrote one about how my mom always made her favorite dinner, chili, when she had a bad day," Hamlin says. "Basically, the point is to write about thoughts and memories you have that involve the person. Things they may not know you think about."

[See: Your Ultimate Holiday Tipping Guide.]

It was such a successful gift that her mother said that from then on, she didn't want gifts at holidays – just another letter from her kids. And then last year, for her mother's 60th birthday, Hamlin bought a glass box and emailed her mother's friends and family, asking them to each write a letter sharing a special memory.

"I placed all 60 letters in the box. Again ... tears of joy," Hamlin says. And another time, Hamlin took 365 pieces of paper and had the kids and grandkids, who all live out of state, write a short note on each. Hamlin placed them in a large apothecary jar.

"This was a way for her to hear from one of us every day of the year," Hamlin says, adding that the notes were all simple with messages like, "Love you, mom," and "Have a good day, grandma."

Click through for creative DIY gift ideas:

Give the gift of ... rocks. This may not sound like your cup of tea, but it's worked out well for Nancy Dewar, who lives in Whitefish, Montana, and publishes "406 Bark," a regional magazine about animals. She says that one of her go-to gifts costs her nothing, and people love them.

"I find beautiful rocks at the beach or in the woods and write a note or a quote on them with a bold Sharpie pen. Each is personalized for the individual. Last Christmas, I gave each member of my family a rock that said what I loved most about them," Dewar says.

Of course, you have an advantage if you live somewhere with mountainous and beautiful terrain, as Dewar does. If you live in the cornfields of Illinois or Indiana, you might struggle a little more to find rocks worth giving away.

Give the gift of ... pictures. Photos of family or friends may be inexpensive but will probably be the first thing your loved ones grab if their home is being attacked by a fire or flood.

Pamela Danziger, a market researcher in Stevens, Pennsylvania, says that her daughter-in-law is a professional photographer (which, yes, is an advantage) who works for Olympus, the camera company.

"For the last three years, she has given us priceless books chronicling our twin grandsons' year for Christmas," Danziger says. "The first year's book was amazing, as she took pictures of the twins every day of their first year, so we had a day-by-day look at them growing and changing."

But the second year was also impressive – one photo of the twins, each week.

"The third year, she took pictures of the boys and placed them in an Alphabet spelling book, so they could learn their letters and key words while seeing themselves," Danziger says.

Obviously, Danziger's daughter-in-law spent a lot of time on these gifts – but hardly any money. Speaking of which ...

Give the gift of ... time. You could, for instance, give parents coupons, offering your free services to babysit. Or clean a family member or friend's home.

Heather Frushour, a business consultant in Tucson, Arizona, says that one of the best gifts she ever received was when a friend and the friend's son cleaned all of her carpets and tile throughout the house. They owned a cleaning business on the side, and so that was a big advantage, having the equipment and expertise already. But they still had to take the time to do it.

[See: 10 Fun, Frugal Ways to Spend Your Free Time.]

The idea of cleaning carpets or somebody else's toilet probably isn't your idea of a good time, but that's the point. It isn't fun for anyone. So if you don't have the money to pay for a cleaning service and want to do something nice ...

"It made such a difference for us because I'm a single mom with four kids, with three of them being teenagers, and I work a good amount of the time," Frushour says. "I would have almost never had a chance to do this on my own. We had a beautiful house for the holidays, thanks to their thoughtful gift."

Or you could spend time doing something mindless but meaningful.

Dale Wolbrink, a public relations director for an aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut, says that her best friend once took her extensive CD collection and put all of it onto her iPod.

"This gave me access to my favorite music without having to spend what would have been a fortune to buy the music again or the investment in time it took to accomplish such a great feat," Wolbrink says, adding: "Not only do I appreciate the music every time I utilize my iPod, but it always reminds me of what she had done for me."

Copyright 2016 U.S. News & World Report