Wednesday, September 14, 2011

10 Cheap Gift Ideas

Dear Bashionista,

I'm trying to figure out what to get my friend for her birthday, and at the same time I'm constantly being inundated by emails from Groupon. What is the etiquette for giving a massage Groupon for a gift? It is nice, or kind of chintzy?

Susan D


The kind of people who would open a card giving them a free massage and think LAAAME - she didn't pay full price! are not the kind of people I would want to be friends with. As far as I'm concerned, you could give someone the phone number of a massage student looking for practice clients and that would still be an awesome gift. However, one trouble with Groupon is that you need to remember to fit it into your life before it expires - in which case I highly recommend presenting the physical Groupon in a card or a box, rather than emailing it, so that your friend can tape it to her bathroom mirror until she remembers to schedule it.

The second trouble with Groupon, which is true for any gift certificate, is that yes, your friend, boss, or bridezilla will know exactly what you spent, and possibly judge you. If you find a deal that puts you so far below your gift-giving budget, pass some of the savings along to them, and make it a gift pack. Throw in some nice shea butter lotion so she can remoisturize and extend that heavenly massageousity, and your favorite kind of tea to continue her relaxation day.

But let's talk gift-giving etiquette in general now. If someone is throwing a birthday party or housewarming, you really shouldn't be showing up empty-handed. If the host is asking for everyone to bring beer or food, then ok, your hands are full. But if all you're being asked to do is show up and enjoy yourself, or if we're talking about the birthday of a dear friend and you would like to go above and beyond a six-pack of lager, then here are some gift ideas that will be warmly received without breaking the bank.

1. Mix CD
[Blank CD $.50 + CD case $.50 = $1]
This gift requires a maximum of thoughtfulness at a minimum of cost. You can burn songs you've already got, or buy some on iTunes - click here for some ready-made playlists you can download. Take some time designing a cool cover, or just cut out a square of wrapping paper and write the tracklist on the back. It's a great, personalized gift that will be enjoyed for years.

2. A Nice Card and an Instant Scratch-Off Ticket
[Card $4 + Lotto ticket $2 = $6]
A sweet or hilarious birthday memento and the chance to win thousands of dollars? Great gift, super cheap.

3. Lemon juicer and pitcher
[$9]
If your friend loves to cook, there are a million fun kitchen toys you can buy him or her. Personally, I love the ceramic lemon juicer my boyfriend gave me - it's sunny yellow, and won't crack from fatigue like my plastic one did. And now I mentally thank him everytime I need fresh lemon juice and don't have to gouge my fingers into the lemon like it owes me money.

4. A Great Book
[$9-20]
If you have a solid half hour to decide on a gift, head for the bookstore! Have a list in mind of your favorite books, but give yourself time to browse for the book that looks perfect for your friend. Or plan ahead - looks like my favorite book at the moment is only $9 on Amazon.

5. Adhesive Mustaches
[$10]
It's an instant mustache party! Make your friend's birthday memorable by making his friends look ridiculous. A steal at only $10 - and you should be able to find them for less at your local costume store.

6. A Big Bottle of Fancy Beer
[$10-20]
My faves at the moment are Shipyard Smashed Blueberry Beer, Sam Adams New World Tripel, and Unibroue Fin du Monde. These three are festive and lovely, very drinkable, and a little more money than most people will spend on their own beer consumption, so they make great gifts. If your friend loves hops, act accordingly - you will know the big hoppy beers because they will scream about it on the label.

7. A Cool Calendar
[$12]
Pick the right calendar to match your friend, and he'll be thinking of you all year long. I'm already on the lookout for the Pride & Prejudice & Zombies 2012 calendar.

8. Massage Groupon
[$49]
See! You are a great friend. This particular massage is valued at $105, but at half off, it's still quite the gesture.

9. Box of Table Linens and Dishtowel
[$35 tablecloth + $40 eight cloth napkins + $6 fun dishtowel = $81]
For less than the cost of a full-priced massage, you can put together an amazing box set of linens - something that will dress up your friend's table for the next decade.

10. Chipotle Chile Candied Pecans
[$30 ingredients + $1 canning jar or other container + optional bottle of bourbon]
Finally, here's a delicious gift that you can make yourself. This recipe comes from the book Gifts Cooks Love by Diane Morgan - it's an awesome find and I recommend it if you are the sort of person who loves spending more time than money on a gift.

Ingredients:
1 stick unsalted butter
1 tsp ground chipotle chile powder
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 large egg whites at room temperature
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 lb. large pecan halves

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 300degrees F. Have ready a large, rimmed baking sheet, preferably nonstick for easy cleanup.

2. Melt the butter on the baking sheet in the oven. Be careful not to let the butter brown. Set aside.

3. Combine the chile powder and brown sugar in a small bowl. Pour the vanilla over the brown sugar. Set aside.

4. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on medium speed until foamy. Add 1/4 tsp salt and beat on medium-high speed until soft peaks form. Add the sugar mixture 2 Tbsp at a time, beating on high speed to form a strong, shiny meringue. Remove the bowl from the mixer and use a rubber spatula to gently fold in the nuts until they are well coated.

5. Gently tip the rimmed baking sheet so the butter coats the bottom of the pan. Using a rubber spatula, spread the nuts over the butter, without stirring, to form an even layer without deflating the meringue.

6. Bake the nuts for 20 minutes. Remove them from the oven and stir the nuts with a spatula, moving the nuts at the center of the pan to the edges and the nuts at the edges closer to the center. Return the pan to the oven, bake the nuts for 15 minutes longer, and stir them again. Sprinkle the nuts with the remaining 1/2 tsp of salt.

7. Continue baking, stirring every 15 minutes, until the nuts are separated, have absorbed the butter and glisten, and are beautifully browned, 45 minutes to 1 hour longer.

8. Immediately turn the nuts out onto a counter lined with a long sheet of aluminum foil, spread them out, and let cool completely.

Yields 4 quarter-pound packages of nuts. They will keep for up to 3 weeks, stored in an airtight container.



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