IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The procrastinator's guide to cheap, thoughtful gifts you can DIY

Here's how to finish up your holiday gift list without breaking the bank.
High Angle View Of Woman Holding Christmas Present On Table
You can go DIY (and eco-friendly) with your wrapping paper too, by painting a winter scene on brown craft paper. Ana Silva / EyeEm / Getty Images

This holiday season, I decided to make all my friends and families’ Christmas and Hanukkah gifts from scratch. This struck me as the best way to keep down costs, reduce holiday waste and give back to people in a way that felt more meaningful than simply clicking “add to cart”.

I had it all planned out. Most recipients would receive short stories I’d pen based on a good memory we shared. For my mother, a hopeless pack-rat, I’d devote an entire weekend to organizing her closet. My husband would receive a scrapbook of photos and ticket stubs from our honeymoon, along with a short story.

Fast forward to a few days before Christmas and I’m in a cold sweat — both because I have bronchitis, which I certainly didn’t anticipate — and because I have about 15 gifts left to figure out. The one person whose gift I could put off until after the big day — my mother’s — flopped before it even began when I told her my closet-cleaning idea so as to make sure she was OK with it, and she basically hung up on me.

DIY is perhaps the more honorable — and definitely the harder — route

So, here I am, coughing and stressing and realizing that I took on a really tough challenge. Life, as usual, got in the way and I found myself with far less time on my hands than I’d predicted these past few weeks. I’ve never so badly wanted to throw a credit card at the problem.

“Buying gifts at a store is a quick solution to the whole gift-giving holiday season,” says Adina Mahalli, a mental health consultant and family care specialist with Maple Holistics. “A 'no bought gifts' experience may be great for your bank account, but it can be extremely difficult if you don’t have a close relationship with everyone you need to give a gift to. There’s also a limit to how many things in this world are free. We, as humans, are wired to think about gifts in a very physical and literal way. It’s hard for us to think outside the box of what is normal to us and still give a gift that would be appreciated.”

Focus on ‘purpose instead of product’

Meggie Francisco, an event planner and designer, kindly notes that though DIY Christmas gifters should have started in October, it’s not too late. I just have to shift my focus.

“The best way to avoid a mental breakdown from DIY gifting, though, is to focus on purpose, rather than end product,” Francisco says. “Ask yourself: What is it that you really want to come from your do-it-yourself gifts? Dig deep and find some purpose. If you're hoping to create deeper connections, a heartfelt letter encouraging someone's journey in the new year would do the trick. If you want to help the environment, you can cook a vegetarian meal with someone who doesn't know their way around vegetables. If you're tired of giving gifts out of obligation, maybe it's best to give nothing at all. You might free someone else to do the same."

I could hug Francisco for these encouraging words as they really did help to get me calm and recentered — but I was still determined to do my best in terms of the “end product”. Fortunately, I was able to round up 10 examples of last minute DIY gifts that I can do in a pinch and on a budget. What I love most about the following ideas, is that they show that you can still have a touch of fanciness in even the most frenzied DIY present. I’ll definitely be taking a stab at the Castelvetrano olives and the family podcast.

10 last minute DIY gifts you can make for cheap

1. Premade classic cocktails for two

"Pre-batched and aged cocktails have been a big trend in cocktail bars and restaurants this past year,” says Mark Addison, designer, entertaining expert and author of “Cocktail Chameleon”. “The pros typically make large batches of cocktails and store and even age them in small casks. Now, home bartending enthusiasts are getting in on the trend and can easily pre-batch (or pre-make) classic cocktails at home using their favorite spirits, a few empty bottles and good well balanced all-spirit based cocktail recipes. This holiday I am downsizing the trend making two person serving-sized cocktails in small 6 oz. bottles and giving them as holiday gifts. The small size makes perfect stocking stuffers for the cocktail lovers on your holiday list. One can use any price level spirit they’d like and who’s to know if you used high-priced whisky over a bargain brand?”

Manhattans, classic Martinis and negronis are ideal for this project, Addison says. Just add a gift tag with the name of the drink and you’re set.

2. A homemade tea mix

“Ideally you grow the herbs yourself (mint, lemon balm, fennel, etc.) or forage them (dandelion, sassafras, nettle, heal all, pine needle), but they can be purchased as well,” says Alan Muskat, founder of No Taste Like Home, a foraging tour company. “It doesn’t have to be in tea bags; it's more attractive loose in a jar anyway, and loose tea works better. You just pour it through a strainer after steeping.”

3. A recipe zine

“Make a zine of your favorite recipes of the year,” says Cadry Nelson, a vegan food writer and recipe creator at Cadry's Kitchen. “Print them out into a booklet or make them more professionally online.”

4. Castelvetrano olives

“A great gift for olive lovers is warmed Castelvetrano olives,” says Nelson. “These flavor-infused olives can be enjoyed warm or at room temperature. Make a batch by sauteing olives with garlic, lemon zest and fresh thyme. Then move it to a jar.”

5. A homemade gift basket

Last year, I wrote about how to DIY a gift basket. This story is an evergreen resource for a last-minute gift that is inexpensive yet charming. For foodie friends who appreciate zero-waste, you might want to consider Nelson’s new suggestion of a pasta night basket. “Instead of a basket, use a colander. Fill it with a jar of marinara and a box of pasta. To make it extra fun, finish it with a DVD of an old school western. Call the gift ‘ode to a spaghetti western.’”

6. String-wrapped napkin rings

“Using a plastic shower curtain ring, wrap colorful embroidery floss or yarn around entire ring to create an inexpensive holiday napkin ring,” says Timarie Friesen, a stay-at-home mom and writer. “We did not have yarn on hand, so we used embroidery floss, and gathered scraps of the color scheme we decided would match our holiday table decor. A hot glue gun works well to secure each new string, and wrap tightly, covering the entire plastic ring. We used a new color each time the string ended, making a green and red candy-striped look. Do extra wrappings around the thinner notch of the ring, to balance out the circle shape. The cost of purchased napkin rings can be about $5 a piece, so this is a very cost effective craft, and quick to make.”

7. DIY photo ornament

“Creating an ornament is quick and easy to do,” says K.M. Robinson, a young adult author, public speaker and social media strategist. “Most craft stores and even places like Walmart have the clear ornament shells you can use. Print a photo that will be important to the person your gifting it to (I’ve used family photos, favorite book covers, puppy pictures, and more) and cut it into long strips. I recommend printing the photo on both sides so it’s colorful no matter how you view it. Use normal computer paper as photo paper is more difficult to work with for the next step. Once the long strips are cut, wrap them around a pencil to form curls, then add them to the ornament. Adding sparkly ribbon is a great way to make it pop, but keep in mind, you’ll need the kind with wire in it to maintain its shape. If you want to take it further, you can add glitter or fake snow. Tie a ribbon around the top to hang it and you’ve magically created a heartfelt gift within minutes. I’ve created these with my book covers before and given them to fans and contest winners and they love them.”

8. A homemade snowglobe with a gift-card backdrop

“Jazz up your gift-giving process by turning the gift card into a custom snow globe. Grab a mason jar, some ribbon, some fake snow, a tiny Christmas tree or figurine (which I often find at dollar stores) and some hot glue,” says Robinson. “Remove the lid from the jar — this will be used as the base for the snow globe. Arrange the tiny tree and the gift cards so that the jar fits over them and hot glue them to the lid. For this snow globe, the tree will act as the centerpiece and the gift card will act as the background for it. Before adding the jar over it, add the fake snow, then screw the lid on, and place the snow globe lid-down on the table. Add ribbons or decorate the outside, adding a jingle bell and a name tag.”

Pro-tip: If you don’t want to buy a gift card, consider using a book cover or decorated cardboard.

9. Handmade hand scrub

“My absolute favorite DIY gift to give loved ones is [homemade] hand scrub,” says Chloe Skupnick of Young Fun Mom. “This scrub smells scrumptious and works so well. Plus, you only need three things: A mason jar, sugar, and dish soap. Combine 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of “nourishing” scented dish soap (it’s usually pomegranate scented and comes in name brand or generic) and mix thoroughly. You can double or triple the recipe but make sure the ratio is 1:1 for viscosity. It’s thoughtful and useful.” If your budget allows, pair it with a store-bought hand cream.

10. A special ‘family’ podcast

"In a day I was able to create a sentimental Christmas gift for all five of my family members, while not spending a dime,” says blogger Madison Smith. “I created a podcast featuring 5 episodes, each episode was dedicated to a different member of the family describing 10 things that I loved about that one person or fun memories shared together. I recorded the episodes through the voice memo app on my phone, then downloaded those files to a Google drive, then put all those files in a shared folder titled ‘The Smith Family Podcast,’ and told each of them to check their emails with the link to the shared folder on Christmas. It was a big, heartfelt success. It's a simple way to give the gift of love and appreciation, even when you are short on time or money."

It’s tempting to feel guilty when you fall short of your goals. Try not to.

My DIY Christmas didn’t work out as I’d planned. But right now, I feel optimistic about DIYing my remaining Christmas gifts and able to resist the guilt I feel over procrastinating.

“You did good,” says Shannon Curry, clinical psychologist and the director of Curry Psychology Group. “It is impossible to perfectly anticipate any undertaking, and as such, life requires flexibility. It seems that you made this commitment for admirable reasons. You were intentional about preserving your financial health, the good of the environment, and in sharing meaningful experiences with loved ones this holiday season. What a wise and admirable intention. At the heart of this, is grace.”

More holiday tips and recipes

Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.