We’ll never forget the story of the practical gift that saved a family — literally. A young man’s gift to his parents — a smoke detector — sat under the tree when a fire broke out in the house in the middle of the night. Fortunately, the giver had put batteries into his gift. Even though it was wrapped and under the tree, the smoke alarm did its job, and the family escaped unharmed.
We doubt most practical gifts will have so dramatic an outcome, but the truth is people want and need practical gifts in 2021. If you or your loved ones are on a budget or a fixed income, ignore the inclination to exchange unnecessary sweaters and ties, and make over your holiday gift giving with practical presents. Even better, these useful gifts can be inexpensive to buy.
To make your practical Christmas, birthday or holiday gift a winner, choose something that’s a special treat that people on a budget wouldn’t buy themselves or a way to help offset the cost of something they enjoy or need.
Here are some affordable, practical gifts to consider this year.
Practical health and safety gifts
Sticking with the safety theme to start, you can find plenty of safety items and kits that your friends and family have been meaning to purchase but never get around to buying.
Fire extinguishers are something many people don’t think to replace, but they do have expiration dates. Replacements aren’t expensive, which makes them a perfect practical — and thoughtful — holiday gift for our list. You can find various types of fire extinguishers online, ranging from the traditional metal canister to the aerosol sprays that are easy to use and easy to store in the kitchen.
A fireproof document box is a great place to store valuable documents and items so that they are easy to grab during an emergency. Include a money gift inside to add to the surprise.
Carbon monoxide detectors can be purchased as a combination carbon monoxide and smoke detector, or separately. These start at very affordable prices, so you can get one for everyone on your list, or add one to a gift with other safety items.
Electric toothbrush. A thrilling gift? No. Something they’ll use at least twice a day? Probably (at least, their dentist hopes so). My dental hygienist says that electric toothbrushes keep your teeth cleaner and are less likely to damage gums and enamel. Whether you get a basic no-frills $5 model, or a fancy option with a water flosser, it’s a gift that will keep them buzzing. (The fancy ones are a staple at membership clubs like Costco, or check your pharmacy and use your rewards from its loyalty program.)
Emergency road kits. Everyone should have an emergency road kit and first aid kit in their car. It’s a great practical gift for folks who commute long distances, live in snowy climates or enjoy road tripping. Throw in a warm throw blanket or sweatshirt to complete the gift. While you’re thinking about cars, consider a gas card. Gasoline is definitely expensive, which is why someone with on a limited income might appreciate filling up the tank for free.
Movie theater and/or restaurant gift cards. When people cut back on spending, often it’s recreation like dining out or going to the movies that’s the first to go. A night out without having to hit the ATM would be a welcome gift for a special couple in your life.
This doesn’t have to be a fancy restaurant; pick up a gift card at their favorite local chain, coffee shop or ice cream shop. Plus it’s a great time to buy these, as there are tons of gift card bonus offers available in November and December that can benefit you, too.
Membership to a local zoo, museum or botanical garden. Membership to a local museum or zoo can drastically reduce admission pricing for families who love to go on educational outings. You can often purchase gift memberships at galleries and other places of interest. These practical gifts can also be a great way to support local institutions.
Subscriptions. A magazine subscription is a gift that can be enjoyed all year, and will save the recipient from making impulsive newsstand purchases at higher rates. If your loved one is always running out of free articles for online newspapers, buy them an online subscription; some are just a few dollars per month. TV and movie lovers might enjoy a subscription to a couple of months of Netflix or Hulu Plus, while readers may enjoy a subscription to Audible or Scribd.
The Entertainment Book. For those who hate paying full price for their entertainment, this giant coupon book includes deals for thousands of area businesses, restaurants and attractions. Or for a modern spin on local discounts, a Groupon gift card lets the recipient keep watch for local deals that are too good to pass up.
Practical gifts for the home
Coupons or gift cards for a service. For example, the parents of young children would be thrilled to receive certificates from you that entitle them to a few hours of babysitting. You could also offer pet-sitting or walking services. Other options are for yard work, meal delivery, car detailing or oil changes — whether you can perform the service or purchase a gift card for them. Be sure to include an expiration date, so they’ll redeem the coupons promptly.
Rechargeable batteries. Disposable batteries eat money because you constantly have to replace them, making rechargeable batteries a gift that will save your friends and family money month after month. Rechargeable batteries are more expensive than disposable ones, so many people don’t think to buy them for themselves. But with many people receiving electronics for the holidays, they’ll be grateful for such a practical gift. Combine with a battery charger for a thoughtful touch.
Electric blanket. Know someone who is always cold? They’ll be thrilled to curl up under a toasty blanket on a chilly evening. Or how about a heated shawl that plugs into the USB port of your computer?
Photo calendar. A calendar personalized with photos of family and friends will brighten up anyone’s kitchen or office. It’s an especially nice gift for older relatives who don’t get to see their younger family members all that often. Or pick a calendar/planner that works with your loved one’s organizational style or personality. You’ll find tons of colorful designs to choose from, as well as more professional-looking versions.
New pillow. If you’ve read anything about pillows, they are gross — filled with skin cells and dust mites. Basically, these need to be washed and replaced way more than most of us do it. Yes, pillow comfort is a personal thing, but many people gave this Coop pillow good reviews, so we think it’s a safe bet. And it has a 100-day guarantee.
School care package. For those students already in college, create a care package for them to take back to the dorms. A practical gift could be a themed “cram session kit” stocked with snacks, a coffee mug, index cards and a pack of highlighters.
Creative cash gifts. Give rolls of quarters to college students and apartment dwellers who may need to feed the washer and dryer and urban dwellers who need to feed the parking meter. Buy videogame-obsessed kids Robux or currency in their favorite game. A small financial gift on your end can be a big winner.
Book of stamps. Yes, there are still folks who use stamps. Think of your Aunt Tillie and other relatives who don’t pay their bills via the Internet and who still like to send old-fashioned greeting cards by snail mail. But instead of buying that big roll of flag stamps, get creative. The USPS has holiday stamps available in the forever stamp. Is your grandmother a history buff? Buy a sheet of these commemorative stamps. Check out dinosaurs, Star Trek or other special stamps for enthusiasts.
A Costco, Sam’s Club or Amazon Prime membership. Belonging to a warehouse club like Sam’s or enjoying free shipping and other benefits of Amazon Prime can add up to tons of savings for savvy shoppers, especially if the membership fee is taken care of by a thoughtful gift giver.
A contribution to a child’s 529 plan – Saving for college sometimes falls to the back burner for those paying off debt or saving for retirement. That’s why this is a good gift if you have grandchildren, or nieces and nephews, and contributions can be as little or as much as you’d like.
For more great holiday tips, read these articles:
- Kitchen gifts under $25
- Thoughtful holiday gifts on a budget
- Homemade food gifts
- Free cheap and homemade gifts for pets
- Homemade soup gifts that will warm the heart
- Save by shopping early