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updated 12/18/2008 9:42:40 AM ET 2008-12-18T14:42:40

Christmas is a time for giving — giving to your friends, your family, your neighbors, your postman. The list goes on and on. But how do you give to others when you’re not receiving a paycheck yourself? 

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I got the pink slip on Oct. 16. For the first time since graduating college, I had to take a hard look at my spending and create a strict budget with my husband. We started eating out less, grocery shopping more often, making coffee at home, and generally cutting back. We changed our standard of living. 

Next thing I knew, the holidays arrived and I was still jobless. I had to do to Christmas what I had done to my life: downsize. This Christmas, I had to change my standard of giving. 

I decided to spend $100 total for everyone on my list. Since I regularly exchange presents with 12 people (eight family members and four friends), that came out to roughly $8.33 per person. Now, I’m no stranger to bargain hunting — after all, I did buy my wedding dress for $100 on eBay — but I knew this would be a challenge, even for me.

Reduce, reuse, recycle … regift
I’m a firm believer there’s nothing wrong with recycling old gifts or items around your house as long as it is something you know the receiver will need or appreciate. 

My 9-year-old niece Virginia loves to come over and rummage through my jewelry drawer. I picked out a thin silver bracelet punctuated with little hearts to give her. 

For my newly engaged friend Erika, I took a cue from the old saying “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a silver sixpence in her shoe,” and gave her the sixpence I used at my wedding to complete her list of must-have items. Two gifts down and a hundred bucks still left to go …

Christmas is for children (not debt)
Wal-Mart is the unemployed gifter’s paradise. The toys and clothes are supercheap and the store is always running specials.

For my 6-year-old nephew Drew, who is obsessed with all things Army, I found the perfect camouflage long-sleeved T-shirt for $6 and a camo do-rag for $1.44. For my niece Olivia, 5, I bought a $10 Hannah Montana sleeping bag. I picked out a $9.97 Elmo cell phone for my 2-year-old nephew Adam. Thanks to Wal-Mart, I was finished shopping for the kids in my life, and I’d spent just $29.60 after taxes.

Online deals, steals and free shipping
Around the holidays, the Internet is a great place to find hot deals and free shipping.

I drew my hardworking sister Jennifer, who lives in South Carolina, in the family swap, and wanted to give her something that would help her relax throughout the year. By using ClarkHoward.com (an Atlanta-based site that helps consumers “save more, spend less and avoid rip-offs”), I found BestDealMagazines.com, where I bought Jennifer a one-year subscription (six issues) to “Garden & Gun,” a magazine that spotlights “the sporting culture, the food, the music, the art, the literature, the people, and the ideas” of the South. Cost: $4.69.  For another $4.95, I bought the December ’08/January ’09 issue of the mag to go under the tree. (It’s nice to give a physical gift instead of just a note that says, “Your gift is a subscription.”) 

For my friend Jenny, who lives in New York, I bought a handmade cinnamon and clove scented soap bar from Etsy.com for $5 with free shipping. Etsy is the eBay of all things handmade, and a great place to find original gifts and stocking stuffers. 

My friend Meg is getting married on New Year’s Eve. I have a fabulous picture of her with her fiancé taken at my wedding. I bought a 4x6 print of it for $.15 from Kodak.com (shipping was free because I bought my wedding pictures when I ordered this shot and the total was over $50) and framed it in a plain black IKEA frame that cost $4.99.

Running total (after taxes): $50.18

One man’s trash …
The Salvation Army and eBay are great sources for finding things you can’t find anywhere else … and those items that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

My dad is a voracious reader, so I picked him up a hardback copy of Pat Conroy’s “My Losing Season” for $1.99 at the Salvation Army. I figure my dad, who played basketball at Clemson, will love this book about Conroy’s basketball career at the Citadel. Dad is also a Civil War buff, the kind who does grave rubbings at places like Antietam and Appomattox. For a bookmark and a laugh, I bought a fake Confederate bill for $.99 on eBay with $.60 shipping.

My mother just got her ears pierced this year, so she probably knows what we’re all getting her. But I wanted my gift to be unique, so I decided to make earrings. I bought a pair of vintage ruby-encrusted buttons from eBay for $5.50 plus $2 shipping. Then, I flattened the backs of the buttons and added earring posts that I’d already bought in bulk from Michael’s months ago. The key to this project was to use superstrong glue. Goop did the trick. 

Running total (after taxes): $61.43

Awesome gift on aisle four
Most people go to the grocery store and see shelves filled with foodstuffs and future dinners. I see fabulous, cheap gifts.

My husband George drew my brother-in-law Jim in the family swap. Jim loves “good” beer (translation: heavy and dark), so I found a green “Precision bottle cooler” that holds 12 bottles or 18 cans on Craigslist for $5. This cooler runs for about $20 retail. I filled it with a 12-pack of a local brew from the grocery store that I know Jim likes — Sweetwater 420 — which cost $12.99. Good beer ain’t cheap.

For my greenest friend, Alix, I bought a reusable Trader Joe's bag for $1.99. I put a bottle of Two Buck Chuck (Trader Joe’s signature cheap wine), which costs $2.49, inside and topped it with a red bow.

Running total (after taxes): $85.30

‘I’m broke, but thinking of you’
Although I’d finished buying for people on my list after spending only $85.30, I knew there were other neighbors and friends I’d like to give small presents. For these miscellaneous gifts, I baked homemade Ghirardelli chocolate-chip cookies (I followed the recipe on the back of the bag) and put them in nine red-and-white plastic containers I bought at IKEA ($1.99 for a pack of three). I made the cookies as small as possible so that they would seem like the gourmet niblets I always see in specialty food stores. The only things I had to buy for this project were one package of Ghirardelli chocolate chips for $1.99, baking soda for $.60 and light brown sugar for $.99. 

Nothing says “I’m broke, but I’m thinking about you” like baked goods. 

Running total (after taxes): $95.61

It’s not cheap, it’s a signature
Gift wrap is one of those little things that always add up at the end, so — with just $4.39 left — I had to think outside the proverbial box.

I bought 12 shiny bows for $3 at the Dollar Store to top my cookie containers. Then I used only what I had around the house to wrap everything else. Luckily, I save bags, boxes and ribbons/bows year-round. The only thing I didn’t have was gift tags. With my budget nearly used up, I grabbed two J.Crew catalogues and cut out pictures of mittens, taped them to my wrapped gifts and wrote the “To” and “From” in black ink on the pictures. This became my signature on all the gifts.

Coming in under budget!
My Christmas grand total was $98.84, and despite my initial concerns, it turned out to be the most fun I’ve ever had giving. Sure, I had to do a little more advance planning and was constantly aware of my budget, but I found that I put more thought into the recipient than I had in years past. 

Come Dec. 25, I’m sure my friends and family will see the time and care that went into selecting their gifts.

By the way, if you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned my husband, it’s because we decided it was more important to give to others this Christmas. There will be plenty of years ahead — years marked by paychecks — to shop for each other.

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