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Only get $7 back after selling your $350 textbooks? Here’s a gift guide perfect for students on a (very tiny) budget.

The Broke College Student Holiday Gift Guide

Cheer on a Dime

Only get $7 back after selling your $350 textbooks? Here’s a gift guide perfect for students on a (very tiny) budget.

By Ashley Wertz, University of Pittsburgh


The holidays are upon us, and you’re probably wondering, “Who even needs a gift guide this late in the game?”

But, if you know anything about college students, it’s that they tend to put things off: Laundry, homework, studying and especially scenarios that involve spending money. This time of year can often be a chaotic nightmare, but for those living on ramen and a bag of bread, it can be all the more stressful. There’s a lot of pressure to spend boatloads of cash on things your recipients will probably forget about in a few months tops.

The thing is, the holiday season is supposed to be a time for forgetting how shitty winter is and how much you miss the sun. It shouldn’t be spent worrying about blowing your life’s savings on the “perfect” presents. Even with a small budget it’s totally possible to let the most important people in your life know that you’ve been thinking about them. Here are three ways to get memorable gifts without spending unforgettable amounts of money.

1. Get Crafty

This is one of the most obvious routes, but I’m a firm believe that gifts made with your own two hands are the best. Not only do hand-made gifts show that you put some time and effort in rather than just buying an iTunes gift card (does anyone buy individual songs anymore?), but they can be easily customized to suit different people.

The Broke College Student Holiday Gift Guide
Image via Pinterest

There are so many options that the hardest part is just finding what you want to make. Pinterest is always a good starting point, though it’s also a black hole. Once you get scrolling through those cookie recipes, there’s no telling where you’ll end up. So here are some suggestions.

Beginner: Chances are that the people you’re even shelling out dough for are people you’ve known for a long time. Old photos make great gifts, but you’ve gotta spruce them up a bit. Ornaments, coasters or straight up transferring a photo onto a slice of cool wood are some fancy options. For closer friends or family members you might even want to throw together a quick scrapbook.

Intermediate: Maybe simple photographs don’t seem like enough of a challenge, though. If you’re a bit more ambitious, try more of a clothing DIY. You can turn a cheap pair of craft store sneakers into something you’d see on Urban Outfitters. Recycle some old but cozy sweaters by making them into pillows. Gifts like these give you the freedom of using materials you might already have on-hand. But taking a trip to the thrift store is kind to your pockets as well. And if all else fails you can always gift all the ugly sweaters you found.

Advanced: If you’re a creative person, you’ve probably already decided everyone on your list is getting knit beanies or mini paintings. But yarn and paint adds up fast. To make the most out of your precious resources, make a bunch of smaller gifts, like coffee cozies or mugs decorated with Sharpies instead of paint. You can still get super intricate, but marker work takes much less time to dry than paint. Not to mention plain-white mugs are dirt-cheap.

2. Pop Some Tags

Okay, maybe you don’t want to get everyone mom jeans and vintage t-shirts, but thrift stores and clearance sections are your best friend. For useless trinkets, mugs with Dilbert on them and clothes, the local Goodwill is your best bet. There’s a high probability you’ll find at least one thing that reminds you of an inside joke with a friend. Or maybe your idea of a gag gift is something as nonsensical as a copy of a Smash Mouth CD paired with “The Best of Handel.”

On the other hand, the clearance sections at Target or Wal-Mart are a treasure trove of discount items that make more sense as gifts. Five-dollar movies, cheap graphic tees and half-price books are always winners. Pair them up with other less expensive things like candy and gum.

But depending on where you live, you might have more options in terms of secondhand paraphernalia. Go to used-book stores to find a copy of your friend’s favorite book, hit up flea markets and support local artists or browse the closest record store for bargain vinyl and cassettes.

3. Party Hard

You and your pals are probably in similar monetary situations. It’s usually preferred to just forego gift-giving entirely and enjoy one another’s company with a game of Monopoly and cookies (or whichever substance of choice).

Winter is a dreary time of year unless you’re lucky enough to live somewhere with only two seasons, and you probably haven’t seen most of your friends since Thanksgiving break or longer. So instead of bringing gifts, use the gathering as an excuse for everyone to bring food and their beautiful selves instead.

Make it more than a usual get-together though. This is a gift-substitute kind of shindig, after all. A Friendmas, if you will.

Make a playlist, put up decorations, build a gingerbread house (or eat the components of one), brew some butterbeer and hang out with the host’s dog. As cheesy as it sounds, the memories you make with your friends are going to mean a hell of a lot more than any material item will.

The Broke College Student Holiday Gift Guide
Image via Food Network

If, for some reason, you feel that the holiday cheer is missing without some kind of gift exchange, organize a Secret Santa so you’ll only have to worry about buying for one person. But the main downside with Secret Santa is that you typically end up buying for somebody you’re not as close with, so you end up buying a pair of socks and a candle.

Although it’s fun to give and receive gifts, the act itself has slowly evolved into more of a chore than anything else. The best money-saving advice I can give you for this holiday season is to only account for the people in your life that really impact you on a daily basis. These are the ones worth your time and money. And usually those people are the easiest to buy for anyway, as you know them inside-and-out. So don’t dig yourself into a financial hole in the name of holiday spirit.

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