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Expertise: The Gift College Students Can Afford

By this time of year, your wallet is probably feeling quite light indeed. Whether it was emptied by tuition and textbooks or by beer and video games makes no difference – you’re broke. But now that you’re an "adult," your family expects you to partake in holiday gift-giving, just like everyone else.

x mas gift by unkld on flickr Now you could try getting crafty and reliving your childhood, but macaroni necklaces probably won’t go over as well as when you were five. And ornaments made from maxi pads? My mom may find them funny, but she’s probably an exception rather than the rule.

Never fear! There are gifts you can give that are tasteful, cheap, and will even be appreciated! All you have to do is give the gift of what you know.

Giving Away Experience

In your time on this planet, you’ve surely managed to pick up a few skills, maybe even some skillz! Through careful study, or trail by fire, you’ve learned to accomplish at least a few tasks more complicated than tying your shoes. But did you ever think you could use your talents as free/cheap presents?

This concept is best communicated with examples:

Computer Knowledge

We college students have learned how to navigate the web (and Web 2.0), bother people on Facebook, move all of our contacts between different email providers and software, and do a ton of other things that we just take for granted. A lot of this stuff can be foreign and difficult to older members of your family. Even my mother, an early adopter who was programming in Basic in the 80s (yeah, really), hasn’t really gotten the hang of things like RSS yet.

Write up an I.O.U for a computer session and give it as your gift. You can sit down and teach someone how to accomplish a task that you know would make their life easier. Or, you can gather the feeds for the sites they like into Google Reader. And, for the sake of all of us, install Firefox and make them stop using Internet Explorer!

Gettin’ Crafty

Again – no macaroni necklaces! But maybe you have picked up some craft skills that you can use. Knitting and crochet are quite popular among my friends, even some of the male ones! But we knitters have learned that knitting presents for your whole family is both expensive AND time consuming, which pretty much knocks it out of the "frugal gifts" category.

Instead, teach the craft that you’ve learned. Wrap up some yarn and needles (or a crochet hook), or maybe a beginners needle-point set. Some people, upon receiving this gift, will demand that you start teaching them right then and there! That’s one way to get out of the holiday small talk for a few hours: "Sorry Uncle Phil, I’d love to talk fishing with you, but I’m trying to teach your daughter to knit. It’s her Christmas present!"

Bonus: people love to have good stories about how they learned a craft. Mine is kind of boring (I taught myself, from books), but it’s nice to be able to say "Someone really close to me taught me as a Christmas present!"


I can juggle! Barely. But I can certainly juggle better than my brother, and that’s the point, isn’t it? Fun skills like this are great gifts for the children in your family. In a few years I hope to teach my niece how to juggle (she’s 4), although I’ll probably have to wait a while to teach her infant brother. And yes, maybe I can teach my own brother a thing or two at the same time!

Installation and Assembly

Every family has that thing. You know that thing? That thing that’s in the basement! It was given to the family a few years ago, and it would be totally sweet to get it out and use it, but no one has taken the time to put it together or install it yet. (In my family, it was a jungle gym.)

If you’re capable, go down into the basement or out into the storage shed, find The Thing, and put to together so that people can finally get some use out of it. It might seem too hard, but maybe you can wrangle some siblings into helping you. And remember, most Things come with instructions! (If not, you could also Google it.)

The Key to Making This Work

There are hundreds of ways you can turn your expertise into a gift. But what you really need to do is make sure the gift will be appreciated by the recipient. Find and need, and fill it. Computer help probably won’t be wanted or needed by a teenage sibling or cousin. Listen to your friends and family talk for clue about what you could help them with.
"That darn computer never seems to work right!"
"Wow, that’s a great scarf, did you make that yourself?"
"I always wished I could juggle…"
"If only we had That Thing from the basement put together, I could really use it!"

Even when they don’t mean to, people will tell you what they need.

This post is a part of the College Money Network’s Frugal Holiday Ideas series. Check out these other posts in the series:
Holiday Gifts: Thoughtful is > Expensive
The Best Frugal Christmas Gift Ever
Frugal Gift Ideas

14 responses to “Expertise: The Gift College Students Can Afford”

  1. Lily

    I’m a cook, and I like to think I’m a good one. So, usually on top of a little present (always >$10), I head to the dollar store and buy cookie tins. This year, I have 10 people to make presents for, so that’s $10.80 (with tax). And sometimes, you can find really awesome tins.

    From there, I bake. And bake, and bake. I have a list of who likes what cookies or brownies or food allergies (I’m totally anal, so I pick up on this stuff easily). It’s a whole weekend event, but since I enjoy it, it’s a pleasure for me. Also, the cookie dough is the unspoken perk.

    Everyone, particularly my friends who can’t cook, or who have moved away since graduation, LOVES this. Customized cookies in a fun tin.

    I also mock up little coupons for things. A homecooked meal for friends who can’t cook, or cooking lessons for those trying to learn, or an offer to sew on buttons or hem a pair of pants (my other homey skill). They’re things people don’t realize I’m willing to do, and it alleviates the weirdness of asking because it’s a gift!

  2. Syp

    I actually thought those “ornaments” made from maxi pads were slippers and thought they were the cutest thing! Until I realized how familiar the shape of the sole looked…

    Thanks for sharing your wonderful tips as always. Happy Holidays!

  3. Curious Cat

    Great post, I totally agree. Doing something for someone is so much more meaningful than buying something for them.

    Give tech support to your parents. You can use a product like co-pilot to easily connect to your parents computer (in case you are hading to Australia for Christmas instead of home) and fix whatever they broke 🙂 And if you do it on weekends it is free.

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  6. Student Scrooge

    Nice holiday article. I completely agree that expertise can be a great Christmas gift, and I think it is too often quickly dismissed as being an “inferior” gift. If you actually take the time to make it something that recipient can actually use, in my experience its an even better gift — people really appreciate you taking the time to help them out.

  7. Yolanda

    I like your post too. A neat example of your idea re: teaching crafts was done by my sister. She makes phenomenal origami pieces, but has no money as she’s a full-time artist. She gave family members a gift that consisted of not only a constructed piece of origami, but also the special paper and a beautifully hand illustrated set of step-by-step instructions so we could try it out ourselves.

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  9. Anne

    This is such a good idea. The last thing my grandparents need is more stuff.

    I’ve been a broken record lately but don’t forget about helping (probably elderly) relatives set up their DTV converter boxes this year. If they don’t have cable or a new TV they won’t have a signal in February. What’s really infuriating is that the best converter box deals are available online. I wrote out the whole gifty process here:

  10. Jillian

    I would love it if someone taught me to knit as a gift. Not so much because I need teaching but because I’ll never find the time if it’s left up to me.

    I’d also love it if I could convince my mum to use Firefox, but as it is I can’t even get her to upgrade to IE7 and I’d be in BIG trouble if I did it for her. I hate having to test my website in IE6 just so my own mother won’t complain that it’s broken.

  11. Charley Zero

    When I was in college, I used to make crafts like fashion jewelries made of natural materials, strings and beads. My sister really wanted to know how to make them. So, as my Christmas present for her, I taught her the basic steps on how to make beaded jewelries. Now, she uses the skill I taught her to earn her own income. She make simple beaded earrings and bracelets and sells them to her classmates and friends in school. She was really happy and told me that teaching her that skill was the best gift I ever gave her.

  12. Matt the gift-hunter

    Some great advice, particularly about listening to your family and friends to get an idea of what they would really like some help with. That kind of gift is always so much more appreciated than a present bought at some supermarket because it has some real thought put into it, and could help bring a family together more – which is the real meaning of Christmas! It goes to show the best things life are not only free, but shared with your loved ones as well. Nice article, keep up the good work!

  13. Kris - a gift assistant

    This was a great article, student are usually broke and just can’t afford a gift at any cost. The cost of even going to visit family during the holidays can be tough in itself. Many times though just the act of visiting family during the holidays is a gift in and of itself. Helping out with chores that’s family or friends are unable to do by themselves can be a life saver for them and is a gift with no value!

    I also liked the comment that Lily made about baked cookies as gifts. They are sooo cost effective and who doesn’t like cookies during the holidays!? I know I do :]

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