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As we lean into the holiday season, we continue to face the novel coronavirus pandemic as a nation. Because the Trump administration consistently fumbled the pandemic response, not only are people staring down a potentially deadly virus, but high unemployment rates, housing and food insecurity, and isolation from friends, family, and coworkers. In short: This combination of factors can make for a holiday season that’s both mildly depressing and has a lot of pressure riding on it. Because so many of us are feeling stressed, bored, and overwhelmed, we can feel a whole new level of eagerness to make gift exchanges or (pandemic-safe) holiday celebrations extra magical.

But what if you, like so many, are facing unstable or entirely diminished employment and don’t have a budget for holiday gifts? You can still spread some love, cheer, and care to people in your life. Let’s check out some free or pretty low-cost gift options below.

1. Write someone a letter

When was the last time you wrote someone an actual letter? Depending on how comfortable you are with your words, this option might feel a little cringe, but a letter doesn’t have to be pure poetry to make someone smile. (Though you can, of course, include a poem should the desire strike you.) If you go for a real letter, this option also gives you the chance to support the United States Postal Service by buying stamps. You can also include a photo, drawing, song lyrics, or other small and light mementos inside most envelopes. If you don’t want to go the traditional route, you can also always send a thoughtful email. The point? Letting people know that you’re thinking about them.

2. Make a playlist 

If you really do not want to work on your way with words, going for music is a fun choice. If you still have the equipment, burning CDs is a super fun blast from the last decade. Free or inexpensive apps like Spotify and YouTube also make it easy to create and share playlists with people.

3. Make a photo album

If you want to make a photo album that’s truly free, you can make and share one virtually. People can then print or frame photos if they’d like on their own. If you do want to spend a small amount, there are many websites that allow you to upload your photos (even directly from social media accounts) and customize captions, cover images, and the like. If you have the right supplies at home, you can also print and frame photos yourself.

4. Make a holiday card by hand

If you’re crafty (or hey, even if you’re not), making your loved ones or neighbors holiday cards by hand is one of the easier and charming options when it comes to low-cost gifts. If you happen to have the stationery supplies at home already, they’re effectively free!

5. Cook or bake their favorite meal

If you’re sheltering in place with a loved one or roommate, you can gift them a home-cooked version of their favorite food. Obviously, depending on what you keep in your kitchen, this idea isn’t truly free as ingredients and cooking utensils do need to come from somewhere. But you can be surprisingly creative with few ingredients, and cooking at home is sometimes less expensive than ordering takeout. Depending on your specific shelter-in-place situation, you may be able to cook or bake in bulk (potentially saving money overall) and do porch drop-offs to loved ones.

6. Hike or walk in a new or special place 

Getting out into nature is perhaps one of the best ways to spend time while people are practicing social distancing. Depending on where you live, this option unfortunately won’t be safe or doable for everyone, but if you do live in an area where you can get outside safely, it can be a great way to make memories. Walking, hiking, biking, bird-watching.

7. Take over some of their labor

If you live with someone and want to give them a thoughtful gift, why not perform some of their labor? While this option doesn’t have the most flashy ring to it, taking over domestic tasks for a loved one or roommate might help alleviate stress and overwhelm. For example, offering to walk a roommate’s pet, cook family dinners for the week, or cover child care for a sibling.

8. Play board games virtually or IRL (can even rent from the library)

Playing board games is a classic group activity, but if you’re spending the holiday season isolated from family or friends, you might expect that you can’t enjoy your favorite games. In fact, many games now have virtual versions where you can play against people (either users you know or strangers) online. If everyone has a copy of the game, you can also organize a game night where you all play “together” over a video call. You can also look into renting games for free from your local library.


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