Chicago Manual of Style—December 2, 2008

Even in dark economic times, there are ways to spread holiday cheer.

By Jessica Hester

Regardless of the season, looking at my bank statements always makes me feel like a bit of a Scrooge.

I can’t go home for the holidays empty-handed, but my bank account is looking pretty empty itself. I want to ring in the holiday season without ringing up a double-digit debt. Given the foreboding economic forecast, I assume I’m not the only one worried about spending big bucks this season. Whether the people on your gift list have been naughty or nice, here’s how to spread some thrifty cheer.

If you’re really strapped for cash, spend five dollars on baking supplies and go the frugal-but-fattening route. With just flour, sugar, and butter, you can make a batch of simple and succulent shortbread cookies. These melt-in-your-mouth cookies are standard holiday fare, but you don’t have to limit yourself to festive favorites. Friends with dietary restrictions or food allergies might appreciate a batch of gluten-free chocolate chip cookies or vegan brownies. A batch of delicious cookies that conforms to someone’s food restrictions may be enough to make their season bright. has thousands of yummy recipes for both the epicureans and the epicurious. You can toss your baked goods in a cute cookie jar ($5 at Target or Ikea) or arrange them on a decorative paper plate with colorful saran wrap.

If you’ve got $10 to $20, encourage your reclusive roommate to take a break from reading at the Reg by buying her a year-long subscription to a cool, quirky magazine. There are magazines geared to every interest, from cooking to comic books. A friend who is always rearranging the futons might like Domino, a feisty home-décor magazine that showcases colorful, cozy apartments ($10 per year). Someone who was more interested in the submarine than the snacks at MSI Night might enjoy a subscription to Smithsonian or National Geographic ($19 per year and $15 per year). has subscription information for hundreds of interesting titles. Browse them and you’re bound to find one for anyone on your list. A magazine subscription is a thoughtful gift that keeps giving all year long.

If you’ve got $25, you can assemble a homemade winter survival kit to repair winter-weathered skin and frozen spirits. Start with one of the monogrammed mugs from Anthropologie ($6). You can choose between a chunky version with block print and a delicate, Victorian-inspired version with cursive script. Stuff the mug with a few packets of hot chocolate—Nestlé with marshmallows if you’re low on cash, gourmet Ghirardelli if you’re splurging ($5—$10). Then, cheer up chapped lips with some Rosebud Salve lip balm ($6 at This luxe lip balm is infused with yummy mint extracts. Also pick up some L’Occitane en Provence Lavender Harvest hand cream ($10 at This ultra-creamy balm contains lavender essential oils that moisturize and nourish wind-burned hands. You also might want to throw in a cute pack of Kleenex or a bag of Halls, just for good measure. Winters in Chicago are long and brutal, but this set of gifts can help temper the weather.

You can also use your individual interests or talents to create a one-of-a-kind gift. The most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received were a scrapbook from my mom and a painting done by a friend. On the other hand, I often can’t remember who gave me the more generic gifts I’ve received over the years. Unique gifts are memorable, and they are often some of the most inexpensive. If you play the ukulele, record a sweet cover of a friend’s favorite song or, even better, write a song just for them. If you like graphic design, grab an iron and some transfer paper and make cool T-shirts featuring your work. If you take salsa dance, buy a friend a lesson so she can learn, too. They may not cost you anything, but these kinds of gifts are priceless to the people who receive them.

As the holiday season approaches, you want to save your green and avoid going into the red. Save those colors for cheesy decorations and pass out affordable, thoughtful gifts that are as fun to give as they are to receive.