Everything I Need to Know: Big Ribbon Gifts on a Shoestring Budget

AdviceIt’s time once again when the email queries of those seeking advice are answered with the wisdom of romance novels. Today’s letter reads:

Dear Smart Bitch Sarah:

You’ve been posting a lot of gift ideas lately, and while some of them are hilariously awesome and adorable and I giggle at the idea, the fact is, I’m broker than broke. I was low on funds before the market went down, and now that things are really tight, I’m having trouble with student loans for next term, rent, food, everything.

I do, however, have an awesome girlfriend, and I adore her. We started dating in October, and I’m so, so happy. I’d love to get her something special, but so far everything I come up with is way out of my budget. She’s from a pretty well-off background, and I can’t even think of anything she couldn’t easily get for herself. She loves romance novels (and she loves your site so I hope she doesn’t guess who I am!) but the idea of giving her one book doesn’t really encompass everything I want to say.

Do you have any gift ideas that cost next to no money? I feel cheap even writing that, but I’m really lost as for what to do.


Out of Funds, But Full of Love

Dear Out-Full:

First: yay! Yay that you are happy! Yay that someone in your life makes you smile! Yay yay yay! No matter how stressful, tense, or panicked the economic status of the US might make you and your student self feel, you have someone who makes you happy, and you make her happy as well.

Second: that’s your gift. Celebrate that. You, in fact, are a gift. Even if your girlfriend had every dollar in the world, you are the special thing that can’t possibly be duplicated and purchased. So: yay for you!

Third: How to put that in a gift?

Look, I’m as happy to receive the Tiffany box as the next girl, but the best gifts I’ve received are things that cost very little. Not everyone – come to think of it, not anyone I know personally – has ever tied a giant ribbon around a new car and parked it in the driveway. Personally, I’m a big fan of experience gifts, or tokens of larger significance, so aim for that.

A few options off the top of my head:

Pictures: if you have a digital camera, take some photographs of places that are significant to the two of you, from the sofa where you watch TV together to a restaurant where you ate a great meal, or the spot where you met. Whatever. Take your digital camera, zoom in, zoom out, lie down on the floor and shoot upwards, and take a bunch of photographs of those places. Pick the best three – make them black and white, even! –  and have them printed on photo paper. Many printers have this feature, but if yours does not, you can get a 4×6 print through many local drugstores or Target stores for very little money.

Frames can get expensive, so even if they are pinned to a corkboard or placed inside a clearance frame from a local discount chain, or glued inside some sticks made into a square, homemade counts a lot. Just ask the parent of any child who has painstakingly hand made a gift. The effort and care are as much the present as the item itself.

Another idea: something you write. Words are so valuable, and even those who are full of words to share take them for granted (until they disappear and then you’re bereft without them). Write out all the things you adore about her. Score some paper in different colors, or even paper that’s plain white. Write in crayon, pen, or print them out, and cut them up into strips. Roll the strips up into tiny tubes. Place them in a jar, a wine glass, whatever, and when she’s feeling shitty, she can be reminded that someone out there thinks the world of her.

Or, as was featured here earlier this month (but damn if I can find the link right now) take a romance cover of a vintage book, and affix cut outs of key words from the story to it in a random pattern, making sure the words are meaningful and expressive of you and how you feel. Custom art + romance novel = AWW & WIN.

Don’t get hung up on the monetary cost or even value of your gift. Really. Consider all the billionaire tycoons who have every possible convenience, including acres of time with which to sulk in their Italian villas with their irascible female relatives instead of spending every waking minute running their multinational corporations, but who are utterly at a loss when confronted with the woman of their dreams. Women may be “bought for the billionaire’s pleasure” but they don’t remain there because they were paid for. Love is a much more valuable currency between people – one that does not decrease in value with the stock market. You can’t buy love, obviously, but just as important: sometimes purchases can’t express love adequately. So don’t feel like something with a lot of numerals before the decimal point on the price tag is the only way in which to share a gift with someone you love.

The world will be a lot happier this holiday season if there’s a few less scented candles in it, I think (achoo!), and if instead more thought and purpose are put into holiday gifts. From Etsy to items on consignment or even charitable gifts in honor of your loved ones, meaning is more important than money, in my opinion.

Wishing you and your girlfriend a warm, happy, and very special holiday.


General Bitching...

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  1. 1
    tracykitn says:

    Yes, thank you! I’m seriously thinking about giving my hubby a book of homemade coupons for stuff like two days/month out hunting (during season) or six hours of fishing with no grumpiness from me…‘cuz I don’t know what to get him.

    Actually, come to think of it—we just bought a house and there are all these little household chores he promised to do. You know, refinishing a table, hanging shelves, looking at the wiring of the non-functional ceiling fan,  putting up a clothesline. If he can get those done by New Year’s, he will be getting a Very Special Celebration ‘round about midnight….*nudge, nudge*

  2. 2
    nikki says:

    Aw, don’t feel cheap! I think it’s lovely you’re putting so much thought into getting your girlfriend a prezzie.

    Okay, I’ve been broke for … well, ever, and so I’ve always had to be inventive when it comes to presents. I think the important thing is to think about what you want to express, and also consider the things that your s/o loves – maybe small things like watching a sunrise or getting her feet rubbed or chocolate cakes … and then come up with a way to package that beautifully. You could make tokens – me and my friends have swapped many hand-written certificates that promise amazing future gifts!

    If your girlfriend loves romance books – how about finding an old one in a second hand shop and altering the cover so it shows both of you? Chop up some photos and paste on et voila! Or maybe you could write her a wee poem or learn a song on guitar for her? I think the more imaginative your present is the more it will touch her.

    Hope you have a lovely festive season and good luck! ; )

  3. 3
    Jessa Slade says:

    Another idea: something you write. Words are so valuable,

    And if his girl reads romance, she LOVES words. The billionaire hero’s heartfelt declaration is always more important than the thing he buys.  Of course, it takes him ‘til the end of the book to figure it out, so Full of Love is actually ahead of the game.

  4. 4
    Julianna says:

    When I was broke I did the following for my boyfriend (now husband) for our anniversary.  I made thirty little notes in beautiful handmade envelopes about how wonderful he is and hid them in his apartment.  Then, every day, I emailed or phoned him and gave him hints on where to find them.  I hid them in significant places and clever places – in the case of the first movie we watched at his place, inside his tarot deck next to the Lovers, etc.

    I’ve also done him a spa day – you can find out how to do home facials with cheap ingredients a million places online.  Combine it with special homemade breakfast and lunch, add a massage, a walk some place pretty, and a nap, and it’s heaven.

  5. 5
    hen says:

    Sweet, nice advice,
    my husband wrote out his proposal in the cover of a book he gave to me (not a romance) and it was very dear to me – my grandfather wrote long inscriptions to my grandmother in books he gave to her and the one that I have is also very dear to me. (Walt Whitman – racy stuff)

    I think we smart bitches are all so upset at the previous entry that no one is managing to enjoy this one.

    As a small child I gave coupons good for a hug or a cup of hot chocolate. Getting hot chocolate is usually affordable even at fairly fancy places and kind of special in the winter.

    Does she need someone to assemble book shelves? Paint existing shelves? Actual woodworking is pricey, since materials are pricey but if she needs something and you do the work the item will be much more special. (Your labor is definitely free) I always want more shelves but maybe she needs a desk or cabinet or just wants to change everything around?

    Cooking/Plumbing/Auto work/Sewing/any necessary labor is a good gift. Just taking someone’s cat to the vet for them when they don’t have time can be a present. (Although, perhaps not the most romantic. – Presentation is key.)

    I like theme presents – a few small (or very small) things to set a mood –
    a good nights sleep – a new pillow/herbal tea/eye mask
    reading in bed – small light/book/snack that won’t leave crumbs on the sheets
    a day off – map of wilderness area or park within a reasonable drive/picnic food/guidebook or nature trailbook. The books can be from the library and stay in the car if you are driving. If you are in a city and walking, you can go to a park or do a walking tour of historic sites. Just some excuse to be out together for the day with some preparation to show you put effort into it. A hand-drawn map or photocopied map with personalized spots marked on it is very much like a treasure map, so the romance part is easier with this gift.

    I have to keep this sort of present in mind, because I love to give presents and could easily bankrupt any budget with gifts. (Doesn’t every child in the world need two or three books? And a water filtration plant in the near vicinity? And…)

  6. 6

    Any romantic gesture will be welcome, I’m sure.

    Clean her apartment and make a romantic dinner for 2. (Every girl loves it when her man does some chores so she doesn’t have to.)

    Then, draw her a bubble bath. (Optional: add candles and a paperback romance.)

    If she loves getting stuff more than you, then dump her. She’s not worth it. You’ll never be able to keep her happy. Find a girl who loves you for you no matter how much money or stuff you have.

  7. 7
    L Violet says:

    Do people make mix tapes any more, or have CDs and iPods eliminated this wonderful practice? A special recording is romantic and personal—and used to be cheap and meaningful.

    I myself long for toe spacers but haven’t bought myself any. I’m waiting for a set to magically appear. Hmm…toe spacers combined with you custom-painting her toenails, massaging her feet…. but that’s me, not her.

    There are places, Uncommon Scents, for example, that will perfume lotion to your specifications, on the spot.
    Carve a wooden spoon for her. Carve your names in the handle.
    Bake her a basket of low-fat muffins or a plate of cookies iced with your names and sweet messages. I think you can buy personalized candy hearts and fortune cookies, too.
    Do something she wants but you’ve refused to do, like go dancing (real dancing) or to one of those glaze-your-own-ceramic-dish places, or whatever.
    Make her a fabulous drink, light candles, tuck her inside some cozy blankets or not-so-cozy lingerie, and read to her.

    I predict a happy holiday.

  8. 8
    June says:

    My boyfriend (at the time, husband now) took a romance novel and painstakingly whited out the hero and heroine’s names through-out the entire book and wrote in ours. 

    I was amazed that he took that effort, and still laugh picturing him as the swashbuckling, kilted, burly Scottish hero.

  9. 9
    Marianne McA says:

    My daughter is making ‘happy’ books for her two closest friends – for her best friend that includes photos of their friendship group, photos of her nieces (stolen from her Bebo page, I think), quotes from Pratchett, lyrics from her favourite song etc., etc. Just things that make her happy.
    For her closest male friend, it’s quotes from Dylan Moran, pictures of cups of tea, more song lyrics, and pictures of Hannibal Lecter etc.
    I suspect her female friend will appreciate it more than her male friend, but she’s really put some thought into it, and it’s surprising how much it says about what they’re like right now. Sort of thing it’ll be nice to look back on. (And inexpensive as well.)

  10. 10

    Do people make mix tapes any more, or have CDs and iPods eliminated this wonderful practice? A special recording is romantic and personal—and used to be cheap and meaningful.

    OOOhhhh… hey, if she’s got an iPod, you could buy her a few romantic songs,  make your own romantic playlist.

  11. 11
    Esri Rose says:

    My boyfriend (at the time, husband now) took a romance novel and painstakingly whited out the hero and heroine’s names through-out the entire book and wrote in ours.

    These days there are those little plastic gizmos with the white-out tape that you just roll onto the page. I’d be temped to replace other key words in a historical romance, like “Toyota” for “stallion,” “Dude” for “Aye,” and “laptop” for “dagger.” Romance meets Mad Libs!

  12. 12
    Leah says:

    A friend of mine’s boyfriend (now her husband) has a last name that is very close to “Hershey.”  He bought a bag of Hershey kisses and altered every little tag so they read “Hersey’s” kisses.  You could do the same—just mark out Hershey entirely.  And you know, it’s just that kind of romantic gesture we tell our grandchilden about.

  13. 13

    Yes!  I vote for something handwritten/handmade.  So much better than store-bought sentiments.

    A framed couple photo would be cute, too, but women are VERY picky about pictures of themselves.  You have to make sure it’s one she already loves.

    This is practical advice, rather than romantic:  keep it simple.  Don’t waste ten hours making a tower of hearts, or penning an epic poem.  She’d probably rather spend that time with you.

  14. 14
    Rachel says:

    Homemade is awesome.  I just got married a couple months ago, and one of the best presents I got was from my Poor Working Actor Friend.

    He wrote me this funny, touching poem about us and how happy he was for us.  He’s not a great poet and it didn’t cost him a dime to make, but you know? I don’t care one bit.  Somebody made me a poem and that is awesome. I have it on my wall at my house.

  15. 15
    Silver James says:

    For those of you in need of cheap ideas for the male SO’s in your life, you might try this – the The Perfect Gift for every man. However, if you get one of these certificates, be sure to read the fine print. I didn’t, lol, and had to edit this post. *blush*

  16. 16
    Ocy says:

    The two most thoughtful presents I’ve ever received didn’t cost a lot, financially.

    A few years ago, I lost my kitten, and so for Christmas, my roommate gave me a plush cat that looked just like him.

    More recently, a friend of mine bought a blank page notebook and then went through various magazines, cutting out images that had some special meaning to our friendship.  Characters from movies we’d seen together, gratuitous cats and shoes (which in our world, are never entirely gratuitous), and random phrases that suited us.  She glued all these to the cover of the book, covered it with a sheet of clear plastic to protect it, and wrote a personal inscription.

    I still have both these gifts in special places in my house.

  17. 17
    mrs.mj says:

    My husband will probably spend way too much on stuff for me this year (which will make next month tight, and leave me feeling guilty) but I would SO much rather have something he made me, or at least put a lot of thought in to. My Dad would hand-make my birthday gifts when I was young and I still cherish them. Nothing says ” I Love You” like your time and effort.
    Oh, my security word was:ideas37

  18. 18
    amy lane says:

    You could always get some old romance novels and cut and paste (kidnap-note style) a letter using all of the best lines, just for her!

    Or, if you’re not that type of guy, there’s always this.  One of my husband’s most romantic gestures was completely practical.  I was in school at the time and killing my back writing papers & stories, so he bought me an ergonomic chair, just for me and my ‘writing’ nook—it was so sweet, I almost cried.  It showed he REALLY knew what was important to me, even if it wasn’t hearts and flowers and gooey sentiment.  Maybe, you could make her a ‘book space’ for when she’s at your place—a special chair, a little shelf for her books, a nice light, a place to put her drink—her own space in your heart to do something she loves the most.  It wouldn’t cost much (a small shelf, a desk light, some coasters, a little practical redecorating) but it would probably mean the world to her.

  19. 19
    Tarah S says:

    I agree with Violet about music.  My bf this past year for my birthday gave me a mixed CD and surprisingly one of the tracks was him singing one of my favorite songs.  Music is timeless and every time she hears a song from it she will think of you and your great present!

  20. 20
    pkg says:

    One of the most romantic things I ever heard was what the boyfriend of a work-mate did for her on Valentines – but you could do it any time of the year really. They were both really poor students at the time and he wanted to do something special so he did a major clean of their apartment while she was at work, cooked a great dinner, lit candles all over the place and blew up a a packet of red and white balloons and taped them all around the front door of their apartment! I thought it was cute, didn’t cost much and it’s the kind of thing that shows how much you appreciate someone.

  21. 21
    tls says:

    On the side of things not to do – I was dating a guy once who walked into a department store at the mall (Penney’s), picked up the first article of clothing he saw, bought it and gave it to me for Christmas still in the store bag.  To make it worse, he’d walked into the men’s department.

  22. 22
    rm says:

    One Christmas, I got a bunch of what my family always called “hurricane candles”—the very tall, narrow candles in a glass container. You often see them in supermarkets with Roman Catholic saints on them, but you can get plain ones too. I glued pictures I thought each friend would like on them—a picture of the young Julie Andrews for a musical theatre actor friend of mine, for example, and then put Mod Podge on them to give them a glossy surface. Everyone loved them. Word of advice: if there’s something on the opposite side of the picture (if you’re cutting from a magazine or newspaper, say) it’s a good idea to first glue the picture to plain paper, just so the back doesn’t shine through when the candle’s lit.

    I realize that no one is probably reading this thread anymore, and I don’t want to come across as a scold—but I don’t see any evidence in the letter that points to the gender of the letter writer. Just a thought for everyone who leapt to the conclusion that it’s a he!

    Best wishes to all of you, and especially to the new lovers this post was written for.

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