How to buy gifts on a budget : Life Kit Human connection can seem out of reach this year, but there are still ways to show your loved ones that you care. Harper's Bazaar editor Tiffany Dodson joins Julia Furlan to talk about how to give better, more thoughtful gifts — while spending less.

This holiday, spend less on gifts but make them more thoughtful

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Here we are in what feels like the eleventy billionth day of quarantine, and there is a lot of sorrow. And one of the ways that I found to combat that overwhelm and the exhaustion is reaching out to folks in my life with gifts to remind them that even though I can't see them or hug them that I care. I sent cookies to two of my friends who are dealing with COVID, and I sent my parents a bunch of doorstopper books to keep them busy and to remind them that I love them.

But, you know, I'm just a regular person. I'm no gift-giving expert. And I wanted to make sure that as the holiday season approached that I was getting some advice from somebody who really knows what they're doing.

TIFFANY DODSON: I really think any time is a great time to give a gift.

FURLAN: That's Tiffany Dodson, who's here with some evergreen advice that you can use all year round, not just during the holidays. Tiffany writes a lot of gift guides for Self magazine, where she works. She's put together roundups of gifts for the wine afficionado in your life, gifts for your friend who's obsessed with Co-Star. I asked Tiffany why people give gifts.

DODSON: Giving someone a gift is really just a physical expression of, you know, your love and appreciation for their value in your life. I think that's really just the larger meaning of gift giving.

FURLAN: This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Julia Furlan. In this episode, we're covering how to give better gifts. Whether it's homemade granola, a charitable donation or a fancy bathrobe, we'll take you through how to think about gifting a loved one something that will surprise them and delight them.

What does gift giving mean?

DODSON: (Laughter) Gift giving, to me, is really just all about taking the opportunity to show someone that you care and appreciate them. That's always really valuable, but I think especially right now, since, you know, we're in the midst of a pandemic and we're not able to see friends and loved ones as often as we normally would. And, of course, we're under so much stress at the moment. And I think it's more important than ever to show, you know, someone that they're loved and appreciated with a nice reminder like a gift.

FURLAN: Absolutely. I know that that's happened to me. I feel like I've been giving more gifts than ever just because it feels like you're reaching out to touch somebody. You know, if you send them - even if it's just a little letter, it feels like it's more significant than just a Zoom call or a video chat or a phone call.

DODSON: Absolutely, absolutely.

FURLAN: So I feel like, you know, you have experience doing this for Self for that particular audience. But I wonder, when you're going to give a gift in your own life, what are the things that you consider about the other person?

DODSON: When I think about giving gifts in my, you know, personal life, the first thing, aside from budget, of course...

FURLAN: Classic.


DODSON: ...Is really just like, you know, considering who the person is at their core and, you know...

FURLAN: Right.

DODSON: ...What interest they might have or something they might want to get into while they're at home right now and how I can best help them meet this moment during the pandemic. I think that's, like, really important.

FURLAN: You know, if somebody lives in a small space or if they just, like, really have adopted that Marie Kondo minimalist lifestyle, they don't really like stuff...

DODSON: I wish I did that more often.


FURLAN: Same. What do you get for somebody who doesn't like stuff?

DODSON: So there are a lot of creative ways to give impactful presents that someone can enjoy and, you know, have a smile brought to their face from. Perhaps donating money to charity on behalf of someone would be a great option, whether that's $5, $10 or $100. You know, you could also get a gift card to maybe their favorite restaurant in their community and then take them out for, you know, a nice socially distanced dinner one night. Or perhaps they're OK with a little stuff - you know, maybe choosing to shop at a Black-owned business or a local store that could really use the support right now. I think those are all great options.

FURLAN: I want to talk about, like, doing good with your gift. I feel like there are a lot of causes to donate to right now. And I think that - you know, not even just donating, but, like, putting your money where your heart is and, like, supporting local businesses. Are there ways that people can think about gift giving as like an act of service to their community?

DODSON: I do think that gift giving could be kind of like a double gift in a way because you can easily give back to your community just simply by purchasing something and then giving it to someone that you care about. So it's kind of just like supporting your community all the way around, but also just, you know, supporting the person that you're shopping for, also.

FURLAN: Yeah. Times are really hard. I think a lot of people this year are having budgeting issues, of course. And I think it's especially difficult for big families or, really, families of any kind. So what are your suggestions for alternatives to giving a gift to every single person in a family?

DODSON: Yeah, I think an alternative could be maybe just gifting something to your parents or grandparents or just, you know, deciding that you and your significant other are just going to exchange gifts this year, and then that's it.

But I think you really don't have to spend, you know, a ton of money to, you know, give an impactful gift. And sometimes it feels even more special to celebrate big moments with small gestures of appreciation, like, for instance, my sister. This is not really holiday-related, but it's gift-related. But my sister recently moved into a new home, and I surprised her with a bundle of small kitchen utensils that she didn't realize that she needed, like a whisk and a spatula.


DODSON: Yeah, thank you. But, yeah, she was really touched, and it really meant a lot to her, even though, you know, the gift itself didn't cost me too much. But it, you know, made her transition a little easier.

FURLAN: Right. And it's like - I think that cliche, it's the thought that counts, it's popular for a reason. It's true. You know, even just knowing somebody is thinking about you is really meaningful.

DODSON: Absolutely.

FURLAN: Yeah. And I guess my next question is, what are some of the things that everybody should ask themselves at that moment before they're shopping for a gift or as they're buying a gift?

DODSON: It all, of course, goes back to budget (laughter). That's, like, No. 1, I would say. And then, you know, just keeping in mind what that is for each gift, and then honestly being realistic about it and being thoughtful about who you're gifting, what they could use in their lives right now or something that would genuinely brighten their day. And I think those are really strong starting points to think about when shopping for other people.

And then, also, I think, you know, a homemade gift is a great option as well, and it's something that shouldn't be ruled out, you know?

FURLAN: Yeah, absolutely.

DODSON: Like, you know, you can knit someone, like, a throw for their favorite chair or paint them a picture or bake them something delicious. I think those are all great options.

FURLAN: Absolutely. I think that people miss out on the homemade gifts. I think the homemade gifts can really be very heartwarming and sweet.

DODSON: Definitely.

FURLAN: I have some friends who, I mean, every single year, I look forward to this particular gift, which is that they make granola, and they put it in little Ball jars for everyone. And...

DODSON: I love that.

FURLAN: ...They put a ribbon around it. And, like, that granola - I wait all year. Could I figure out how to make it myself? Probably. Am I going to do that? No, I'm not going to do that.

DODSON: I actually have a similar story, but not quite as delicious, but still heartwarming. Yeah, my fiance - we've been together for 10 years now, which is incredible to think about. But he actually wrote me - handwrote me a poem and framed it. And then he gave it to me one year on Christmas, and it's still one of the most special gifts that I've ever received from him. And, you know, it took him...

FURLAN: Oh, that's so sweet.

DODSON: Thank you so much. And it really didn't cost him anything to put together.

FURLAN: Exactly, exactly. I feel like you can't discount those homemade gifts, especially now.

One thing that one of my friends does that is so smart is, like, keeps, like, a running note of times that a friend has, like, mentioned something so that when it comes time to give that gift, you have a go-to, like, list of things.

DODSON: Oh, wow.

FURLAN: I wonder if you have any sort of life hacks for gift giving.

DODSON: I really think it really boils down to just knowing who you're giving the gift to and I think just, you know, understanding who they are at their core, just really paying attention. And I think, like, what your friend is doing with, like, you know, writing things down, like, over months or weeks is really smart because it's like you're really honing in on what that person needs, who that person is and what, like, small things can help them live a little bit easier and relax a little more.

FURLAN: Absolutely. It's being thoughtful - like, putting thought into something, you know?

DODSON: Totally, totally.

FURLAN: Yeah. Just thinking back on, like, some of the best gifts that I've received, one of them was a video of all my friends singing a song that I really love. And it was, like, so hard to put together. And, you know, it was just, like, friends from across the world. This was already in quarantine, so it was - it felt really moving to get to see everybody sort of, like, singing some Beatles together.

DODSON: That's so sweet.

FURLAN: Yeah. I mean, I just feel like I don't want to forget, like, homemade gifts can be digital, too.

DODSON: Right.

FURLAN: I'm thinking of this because you said surprises. Like, that was such a huge surprise. It was really lovely.

DODSON: Oh, wow. I love that so much.

FURLAN: Oh, my God. I know. If I think about it too hard, I'm going to start crying. What's the best gift you ever received?

DODSON: Oh, that's so difficult. It's really hard to narrow down, I think. They're all meaningful to me. I do think that framed poem was really, really special. I still have it. So I think that's one of them - definitely one of them, yeah.

FURLAN: And what do you think qualifies, like, the best gifts that you've ever received? Is it that they're personal? Like, what makes a really good gift not just for you, but I guess for everyone?

DODSON: I think something that's personal, something that feels really like the person giving the gift to the other person - like, you see them, even if that's, like, you know, I know that you always lose your socks, like, every month, and I wanted to give you this beautiful pack of cashmere socks. It's a little luxe, but (laughter).

FURLAN: Listen.

DODSON: Yeah, something just, like, that they know that you get them. I think...

FURLAN: Yes, yes.

DODSON: ...You know, a gift - that's really what it comes down to.

FURLAN: Also, you just said something that, like, sparked an idea in my head, which is, like, getting somebody a little bit of a fancier version of something that they already have.

DODSON: Totally.

FURLAN: Like, I have socks. I don't have a lot of cashmere socks. But I sure love them, you know? Like, and it's the kind of thing I wouldn't buy for myself.

DODSON: Right.

FURLAN: You know, like, I wouldn't necessarily, like, spring for the extra luxe version. So springing for something that's, like, a little bit of the fancier version of whatever it is might be a cool idea.

DODSON: Absolutely. If you can afford it and, you know, it's within your budget, then I definitely think, like, go for it. I mean, gifting - or the holiday season is really the time to kind of, like, go the extra mile when you - when it comes to gifts, I think.

FURLAN: Absolutely. I was just looking at this account that I follow that's called No Waste Japan (ph). And it's a woman in Japan who has all these, like, little tricks for living life with less waste. And she had this, like, beautiful scarf that she was wrapping a gift in.


FURLAN: And it was, like, a beautiful technique for tying the scarf around a gift. But I wonder, what are your suggestions for wrapping a gift or for, you know, for giving a gift that, like, has that fun element of, like, opening the gift?

DODSON: Yeah, I'm all for that. I love that, honestly, although I'm the type of person that will really zhuzh (ph) up a gift by going to target and just getting all the fixings for, like, the top, you know?

FURLAN: Yeah, of course. Yeah. I mean, they look so good.

DODSON: They honestly do. But, you know, I do honestly have kind of mixed feelings about gift wrapping. You know, on one hand, it can be a little bit wasteful to some extent just because the paper is not exactly eco-friendly all the time. But, you know, it's a really nice way to make someone feel extra special about what they're receiving. Gift wrapping can be beautiful and eye-catching, for sure. And then, you know, there's also the option of being a bit more eco-friendly and maybe, like, wrapping your gift in something that you already have, like a material - a natural material, using twine and things like that - pine cones.

FURLAN: Yeah. Smart - pine cones, yes. I one year, like, really went all-in for gift wrapping, but I used newspaper, and then I made sort of, like, a collage on the outside that was, like, related to the person.

DODSON: Oh, wow.

FURLAN: You know, that can be really fun. It's so time-consuming (laughter).

DODSON: No, I love that. That's, like, you know, like, the throwback to when I was in high school. Like, my sister used to always make collages for me, like, you know? And we would frame them and things like that. I mean, that's super special. I love that.

FURLAN: Yeah. Can you give some advice about how to give, like, a particularly sentimental gift? Like, what are the things that go into a gift that feels really emotional?

DODSON: I think perhaps maybe a simple gift, like, that represents a family member that maybe passed away or perhaps an heirloom within your family that's being passed down can be super sentimental. And I think just telling the story that accompanies the gift can be an emotional experience for the recipient and the giver. But I think it's important to, you know, have these conversations, and just this is another way to express that. It's more about the sentiment behind the gift than the gift itself.


FURLAN: As we often do here at LIFE KIT, we're going to round up all of the things that we learned today in a tidy little bow for you.

Our first takeaway is before you start shopping, consider your budget. Keep it in mind, and stick to it.

Our second takeaway is that homemade gifts can be extremely meaningful, and, you know, they're much less expensive.

Our third takeaway is get creative about where you're getting your gifts. You don't always have to go to a big retailer, and oftentimes, a smaller seller will have a more personal touch.

Takeaway No. 4 is consider how you can do good with your gifts. Maybe there's a way to give back to your community. You can shop locally. You can make a donation in someone's name. And you can support a Black- or Indigenous-owned business.

Our fifth takeaway is gift wrapping doesn't have to be wasteful. Consider using recycled materials like old newspaper or brown grocery bags, and you can dress them up with something that you already have laying around, like magazine cutouts, stamps or even pine cones.

Our sixth takeaway is you don't need to splurge on a gift to show your love and appreciation. It's a saying, but it's a saying 'cause it's true. It's the thought that counts.

Oh, and here's a bonus takeaway. Not all gifts have to be a physical object. You could put together a heartfelt video. You could plan a very safe, socially distanced weekend getaway. You could give coupons for babysitting or back rubs. You know, get creative.

And here's a tip from, you know, 11-year-old Julia, who didn't want to be seen in public with her parents. One of the most embarrassing gifts I ever gave was when I was, like, peak preteen. I was, like, 11, and I gave my dad a coupon for a hug in public. And of all the things that I've ever given him, I think he still has that one.


FURLAN: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. They're all wonderful. I've hosted one about camping and another one about how to read more. You can find those at And if you love LIFE KIT, which I know you do, and you want even more of it in your life, subscribe to our newsletter at

And now a completely random tip, this time from Kate Epstein (ph).

KATE EPSTEIN: If you like to eat peanut butter or nut butter that tend to separate, if you store it upside down and every time you take some out to eat you flip it back over, usually there'll be some perfectly mixed nut butter adhered to the lid when you open it.

FURLAN: If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us a voicemail at


FURLAN: This episode was produced by the fabulous Audrey Nguyen. Meghan Keane is the managing producer, and Beth Donovan is our senior editor. I'm Julia Furlan. Thanks for listening.


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