Christmas gifts that won't break the bank

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When it comes to bad Christmas presents, Jane Forrester, a marketing manager from Redditch in the West Midlands, has had her fair share. “One year my parents gave me a packet of dry pasta and a colander,” says Jane, 26. “That would have been strange enough, but I’d recently been diagnosed with coeliac disease – an allergy to gluten. Another year they gave me size 16 pyjamas. I don’t even wear pyjamas and I was a size 6 at the time.”

Buying presents for loved ones is a tricky business. We waste an estimated £78 million on unwanted gifts every year, according to research by PayPal. It found 79% of people admitted to returning presents, with 17% returning gifts from their spouses, and 12% gifts from parents. These figures don’t provide much comfort as we head out to scour the shops for the perfect presents this month.

Despite it being the season of goodwill, Christmas shopping can be an incredibly stressful experience, particularly when budgets are tight as they are this year.

But buying gifts for your friends and family doesn’t have to be an expensive nightmare. With a little thought and planning, it is possible to find great presents without breaking the bank.

Tim Booth, creative director of online gift seller, believes you can put a smile on someone’s face whether you splash out or spend just a few pounds: “The state of the economy means that we are having to make our money go further, but this gives us the opportunity to put more thought into the gifts we give.”

Christmas list

In preparation, it is a good idea to jot down some gift ideas for each person on your list. Patricia Davidson, shopping expert and author of The Gift Book, advises: “It’s important to know your recipient before you go anywhere near the shops – what they do, their style and hobbies.”

This should throw up some ideas. Are they interested in travel, cookery, photography or a certain sport? A book related to their interest is a pretty safe bet, but there are plenty of other, more imaginative options.

Gift sets are an easy purchase, but the glitzy packaging bumps up the cost and only goes to waste on Christmas morning. Selecting and combining items yourself is one way to add a personal touch, as well as being less expensive.

A garden lover might like a collection of items such as some hand tools, gardening gloves and a few packets of seeds, for example. Equally, someone who loves to cook might appreciate some quality utensils and specialist ingredients.

Tickets to a concert or a show are always a good option. “One of the best Christmas presents I ever received was tickets to a Paul Weller gig from my girlfriend,” says Mark Drayton, 33, an electrician from Nottingham. “I’d been wanting to see him for years and she’d wrapped the tickets up with his greatest hits CD to get me in the mood.”

A gift to compliment what someone else is giving is also a great idea. If you know your niece or nephew is getting an iPod from their parents, for example, some iTunes vouchers would be a welcome addition. But it’s important to check what the recipient already owns, as Graham Barker, a snowboard instructor from the Wirral, warns.

“When I was a kid my aunt gave me a mountain bike helmet and protection pads. I didn’t even have a bike,” remembers Graham, 28.

Take the hint

Davidson advises looking out for hints throughout the year and in the run-up to Christmas. “Listen when members of your family mention they would love those Ugg boots or the new Pro Evolution video game. By storing these hints up until you need them, you can buy something you know they covet and score points for being thoughtful.”

Be careful not to take comments too literally, though. Just because your mum says she needs a new ironing board, it doesn’t mean she wants to unwrap one on Christmas morning.

Caution should be taken with practical gifts in general. While some people will really appreciate essentials like socks and household equipment, especially if they’re living on a tight budget, not everyone will. Davidson also warns never to buy something just because you like it. “This is the most common mistake that people make,” she adds.

These general rules can be followed for everyone on your list, even difficult-to-buy-for people, such as extended family members or those who seem to have everything. If you don’t know the person well, ask those close to them for clues because guessing is never a good idea – as Eileen Peters from London found out.

“The worst and most inappropriate present I was given was from my boyfriend’s stepmother,” explains Eileen, 38, who runs a T-Shirt website called

“Having never met me and not knowing my size, she bought me a pack of knickers from Marks and Spencer a whole two sizes smaller than I was. I was mortified opening her gift in front of 25 people on Christmas day – 22 of whom I had never met – who clearly saw they weren’t going to fit.”

When giving goes wrong

Underwear, like clothing, is a tricky area and should be avoided unless you know the recipient’s style and size. “Buy something in the wrong size, shape or colour and it can be embarrassing,” says Davidson. The same rule applies to jewellery. Unless you’re certain whether they wear gold or silver, chunky or delicate, steer clear.

If you do go down the sexy lingerie route, be careful who is around when the recipient opens the gift.

“We had a very embarrassing incident one year, when my mum opened a gift from her new gentleman friend on Christmas morning,” explains Carly Hobbs, 25, a writer from London. “She tore off the paper to reveal a skimpy black fishnet body suit. My brother and I couldn’t stop laughing and my 62-year-old mum was mortified.”

Bad presents tend to be not only inappropriate but also thoughtless. Lucy Benson, a 32-year-old freelance illustrator from Brighton, recalls: “I went through a pretty painful break-up with my fiance during December 2007. So you can imagine my reaction when I opened my younger brother’s Christmas present – a cookery book called Solo Dinners. I burst into tears.”

And if you decide to recycle an unwanted gift – as 24% of people admitted doing in the PayPal survey – be careful not to make the big mistake of giving it back to the person who gave it to you.

Fake goods and knock-offs should be avoided at all costs. Although popular Christmas presents such as official football shirts and designer perfumes are rising in cost, a cheaper copy is unlikely to impress. Instead, go for an alternative, such as the unique unofficial football T-Shirts from, or find genuine perfumes with up to 15% off the retail price at

Do something different

Darla Rainford started making her own Christmas gifts three years ago. “I realised my Christmas spending was getting out of control,” explains Darla, 52, who manages a hair salon in Edinburgh. She was running out of gift ideas so decided to bake a festive loaf with fruits and spices, and decorated it with icing sugar and holly.

“It looked delicious and everyone seemed to love it,” says Darla. “For the children in my family, I now buy them a puzzle each and put together a stocking of homemade cookies and fudge.”

For that special someone in your life, it’s worth putting a little more thought into their gift to show how much you care. “Last year, I’d been pretty stressed out at work in the run-up to Christmas,” explains Annie McCallum, 29, an actress from London. “So my husband surprised me by paying for me and a friend to spend Christmas Eve at a health spa, with lots of beauty treatments. It was a perfect present – just what I needed.”

‘Experience days’ from companies such as and are a memorable present. You can arrange for your loved one to try something they’ve always wanted to do, such as driving an Aston Martin for the day, doing a bungee jump or spending a day in a recording studio.

Alternatively, you can arrange a day or evening out for them and cut out the middleman.

A gift that allows you to spend time with a loved one is always a good idea. Lots of websites offer great deals, such as a free third night with two-night bookings at, or a three-night, four-star trip to Venice for £355, found on

Green presents

Ethical and environmentally friendly gifts are increasingly popular among those who want to give rather than receive at Christmas time. Options include making a direct donation to a charity in the recipient’s name, or purchasing virtual gifts in the form of much-needed products for the developing world, such as livestock, mosquito nets, first aid kits or seeds.

If your friends and family are unlikely to appreciate this kind of gift, you can still contribute to a good cause by purchasing goods from charities such as Oxfam and Save the Children, which have online shops with a huge range of gifts and Fair Trade products. Read more about charity Christmas giving.

If all else fails, ask. It’s far better for someone to unwrap something they want, even if they know what it is, than to face an awkward surprise on Christmas morning.

And, remember, while it’s nice to give presents to friends and family at Christmas, it’s really not worth getting stressed about or pushing yourself into debt. l

* Note: Some names have been changed to prevent family arguments this Christmas

Short of ideas? Great gifts that don’t cost a fortune

1. Tickets to a concert, musical or show

Providing you know the favourite entertainment of the person you are buying for, this is a great option. Be sure to purchase from reputable dealers such as or, and avoid buying from eBay or ticket touts, as the tickets may turn out to be fake.

2. Food and drink

A Christmas hamper filled with treats such as special cheeses, crackers and chutneys is a good idea, particularly as many families may cut back on luxuries this year. A bottle of their favourite tipple, or some special hot
chocolate, tea or coffee is also a nice gift.

3. Books, DVDs, CDs

Consider what genre they usually read, watch or listen to and try to buy something that fits. Vouchers aren’t very exciting, but better than guessing and getting it wrong.

4. Perfume or aftershave

The Perfume Shop advises buying products such as shower gel or body lotion from a range that your recipient already likes, or buying a new scent from the same ‘fragrance family,’ such as woody or floral.

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