A Gift List For People Who Actually Need Gifts

'Tis the season for "Best Gift Ideas" lists in every magazine.  These tend to be trendy, expensive, and full of soon-to-be clutter.  They also seem to be for people who already have everything they need and most of what they want.

Here in northern California, devastating fires have destroyed thousands of homes and businesses.  While insurance will eventually help most people recover, many are currently homeless, jobless, and needing to move elsewhere to start over.  I haven't seen any "Best Gift Ideas" that would have value for them.

You may have friends or family who are seeking work, others who are in "starter" or other low-wage jobs, some who are paying off student loans or consumer debt, who are living on a fixed income, or who are living frugally in order to save toward a goal (a car, a house, their kids' college, etc.).  You don't want to insult someone or come across like a financial know-it-all, but you don't want to ignore the situation either.

Several polls have shown that young adults with student debt overwhelmingly prefer money to pay the debt, rather than a typical holiday gift.  That's probably true for anyone under the burden of debt, unemployment, or dependence on Social Security.  Haven't we all been in situations where just a little help would go a long way toward making life simpler and less stressful?

Give a gift that can make a difference.

Let's spread a little comfort and joy.  Suggestions are listed by category, but there's plenty of overlap.  Gifts in one category might be perfect for someone in a different situation.

For the currently or recently unemployed

  • Make a utility payment.  Your brother mentioned he's fallen behind on the electric bill.  Why not offer to pay the next one, or help him catch up on back payments?
  • Make an insurance payment.  Whether it's auto, homeowner's, or health insurance, having a policy canceled for lack of payment is a potential disaster.  Offer some peace of mind.
  • Give groceries.  You never want anyone to choose whether to pay a bill or buy food.  Give a grocery card in the largest amount you can afford.
  • Give gas.  Not the kind from your homemade chili (though they might appreciate a batch of that for their freezer), but the kind to get them where they need to go.  A gas card is a boon to anyone short on cash.

For those just getting started

  • Pay the deposit on their new apartment.  It's a wonderful housewarming gift.
  • Buy transportation.  A 30-day (or longer) transit pass for their city will give them lots of mobility.
  • Give a treat.  Your niece barely has money for rent, let alone fun.  Give her a movie theater gift card, a restaurant gift card, or some other splurge she'll enjoy.

For those paying off debt

  • Make a student loan payment.  Almost 70% of students polled would receive this gift with thanks.  The rest might too, if it were offered.
  • Teach a skill.  Share your frugal-living knowledge.  Offer to teach and/or buy basic equipment for gardening, cooking, sewing, home DIY, auto maintenance, etc.).

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For those on a fixed income

  • Pay a medical bill.  Medicare doesn't pay everything, and unpaid medical bills are some of the most depressing.  Lift some of that burden.
  • Provide a jump or a tow.  Especially if their car is older, a one-year AAA membership will help them feel more secure.
  • Offer free labor.  When money is tight, things are left undone.  Offer to do yard work, home repairs, carpet cleaning, or whatever is needed.
  • Share an outing.  When money is tight, luxuries are cut.  Take your aunt for a manicure and then to lunch.  Take your mom and dad to a play.  Don't just give the tickets; give your time.

For those using frugality to reach a goal

  • Give family fun.  A one-year membership at the zoo, aquarium, or a favorite museum is worth far more than the cost.
  • Pay for extras.  Your sister and brother-in-law want the best for their kids (that's why they're saving for college).  Offer to pay for sports or music lessons that aren't in their budget.
  • Support their efforts.  Give a gift that enables frugality, such as a programmable slow cooker for easy homemade meals, an electric clipper and some shears to banish $30 haircuts, a cold brew coffee maker and a pound of coarsely-ground organic coffee to replace expensive take-out brews. 

You may feel sorry for a friend who's had a tough year, but you're not giving out of pity.  You care about his self respect.  Communicate your thoughts with a brief note:

Dear Aunt Faye, a gas card doesn't seem very exciting, but I wanted to give a gift I was sure would be used.  At least you won't have to find a place for it or keep it dusted!

Dear Brian, student loans are no fun, especially when you're just starting out.  I had some myself, which is why I'd like to help with a payment.  If that makes you feel weird, you can just pay it forward to someone else someday.

Dear Jean, you've done a great job keeping things together for the kids since the divorce.  I'm glad you felt you could confide in us about some of your financial challenges, and I hope you'll let us help out a bit as our holiday gift to you.

Give gifts that make a positive difference, and they'll bring comfort and joy now and in the future. 


Updated November 2022


  1. Pick up the current issue in a local bookstore and wrap that, then when they open the gift let them know they’ll get a new one in the mail every month. Toy HQ

  2. I am a regular reader of your blog, Amazing content with proper examples. Thank you admin. dried flowers for sale


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