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10 strategies for cheap, thoughtful gifts shares smart money-saving tips, including shopping at upscale thrift stores and trading your spare change for gift certificates.
/ Source: TODAY

This is definitely a year that our friends and family will appreciate thoughtful, inexpensive gifts. It’s the thought that counts, so really think about the kinds of gifts you can give that show you know their interests, without breaking the bank. These are my top 10 strategies for giving thoughtful gifts on the cheap:

Inventory your own gift cards
Over the course of the year, you may have received gift cards you forgot about. Our family scrounged up our gift cards and we came up with enough to buy a few gifts. That $10 Starbucks gift card I never used is now a gift for my husband!

Trade your spare change for gifts
Challenge your kids to find every bit of spare change in the house — search drawers, the cars and change jars. See if you have a Coinstar location (at near you that provides free change-counting service when you opt to redeem your change for a gift certificate. If so, you can cash in your change and its value will be applied to a gift certificate that prints immediately with no service charge. Your budget won’t even notice the cost of that gift. Gift certificate options include Amazon, iTunes, Lowe’s, Borders and more.

This is only a good idea if the gift isn’t used, does not have a personal inscription and is appropriate for the person receiving it. Take a look around your home. You may find unopened gifts that you intended to exchange, or you may have received duplicates of a gift you liked. This year I am re-gifting a digital photo key chain, a new book I already had and brand-new, unopened bath products.

Give gift cards and stretch their value with coupons
If your budget only has room for a $5 or $10 gift, you can get a gift card to a craft store and include the 40 percent off coupon from the newspaper to stretch its value. Do the same with a household store, hardware store, video store, bookstore or clothes store. Remember, the gift cards will also go further after the holidays on clearance merchandise. 

Buy discounted gift certificates and/or get bonus gift cards for yourself is now selling $25 restaurant gift certificates for 80 percent off, at a cost of $2. You can buy a general certificate to either print or e-mail as a gift, and the recipient can redeem it for a specific restaurant in their area for up to one year. Check for the most current code, as it changes every few days.

You can also buy restaurant gift cards from individual restaurant sites, and many will give you a free gift card for yourself with the purchase. Look for a coupon for that restaurant to give along with the gift card to stretch its value.

Transfer a prescription to a new drugstore to get a free $25 gift card
If you have a prescription to transfer, many pharmacies have coupons available that will give you a free gift card to their drugstore when you transfer a prescription from another pharmacy. Check the weekly ads from the Sunday paper or in the store for coupons, and ask your pharmacy if they accept competitors’ coupons (many will). You can also print a $25 prescription transfer coupon for Walgreens from the Coupon Mom blog (expires January 9). Use the gift card to get picture frames, perfume, bath products, books, stocking stuffers, sticker books, coloring books and more.

Get free and inexpensive bargains using drugstore coupons and rebates
National chains like CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid feature many items that are free, or practically free, after using coupons and their rebate programs. Check this week’s drugstore deals that started on December 14 and again on December 21 to find great last-minute freebies to use as gifts and stocking stuffers. You can create gift bags or baskets with free personal care products, hair care products, cosmetics and nail products. Next year start using the programs early to accumulate some free merchandise each week and “shop” from your own stockpile to create gifts next December. 

Visit thrift stores
Thrift-store shopping is a double gift because the money you spend at most thrift stores goes directly to help the less fortunate in the community. Thrift stores in more affluent communities generally have a better selection of merchandise because local residents donate the merchandise. Thrift stores can be a gold mine of little-used bargains. For example, if you want to give a gift to someone who loves to read, you can buy fairly new books for $1 or less at a thrift store. Buy an assortment of five books for $5 or less, which is less expensive than one new paperback book at a traditional bookstore. Create gift baskets on the cheap. Check the household section to find baskets, china, glassware, dishware, and even older appliances that have a retro look. Elegant glasses can be used in a gift basket with a bottle of inexpensive wine. Create a “baking basket” with a colorful mixing bowl and baking ingredients. Buy a basket to fill with the ingredients for a soup or a pasta dish. 

Dollar-store bargains are great stocking stuffersThe toy section is filled with games, cards, dice, books, party favors and art supplies. Find books, calendars, puzzles and more. If you plan to bake, you can find inexpensive containers and packaging to dress up your homemade treats.

If you still have traditional retail purchases to make, maximize your savings by shopping online through a cash-back Web site with coupon codes. Although we are down to the last day or two for free standard shipping in time for Christmas, many retailers may offer free two-day shipping as online shopping winds down. When you have a specific retailer in mind, use Google to find online coupon codes for discounts and for free shipping. 

Finally, be smart about shopping through a site that gives you cash back, and compare more than one cash-back site to get the highest percentage back. For example, I purchased a computer online with free shipping. After doing some comparing, I found that I was able to get a 5 percent cash-back rebate by shopping through the Discover Card site with my Discover card, which was higher than the 1 percent rebates I saw on other sites. A few percentage points saved makes a big difference on large purchases.

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