My wallet is filled with things that aren’t money. If Cinnabon frequent-buyer cards and expired Borders gift certificates worth $.75 were the currency of this country, I’d be Oprah. Every holiday season, my friends would smile as I burst through the doors of our holiday party, arms piled high with expensive gifts, yelling maniacally, “You get a car! You get a car! You get a car!”

Unfortunately, no respectable retail establishment cares that I’ve been one stamp away from a free Cinnabon for eight years now, so I have to get creative when it comes to giving gifts. Here are some DIY gifts ideas that will help you get the most for your dollar, even if you only have a few dollars to spend:

1. Matchbox Shrine (under $5)

If your budget is tiny, why try to finagle a larger-than-tiny gift? Nothing makes me make weird noises and stupid faces like things that are tiny and cute. These little matchbox shrines are a great gift to give when you only have enough money for a card. I got a box of 30 matchbooks for a dollar, but I put this craft in the under $5 category in case you are a creative genius and want to take things a little bit farther.

What you need:

  1. A matchbox.
  2. A hot-glue gun and some glue.
  3. Photos, paper, ticket stubs, beads, sequins, broken earrings, tiny fake flowers, dollhouse furniture, buttons, Polly Pockets, Stewart Little, nanoparticles, pinky toes, dust mites (ya know… SMALL STUFF).

How to do it:

  1. Come up with a theme for your box. I made mine about friendship because I had a picture of my friend Erinn laying around my friends are the most important thing to me. You can make yours about anything, though. Think: nature, flowers, dreams, prom, spring break, ice cream, etc.
  2. Get gluing. Use hot glue to put your doodads and photos in and on the box. I made mine really tacky and crazy, but you can make yours as refined as your self-control will permit. To neatly glue tiny things into the box, use a safety pin or a sewing needle as an applicator. Use the sides of the inside of the box to write a secret message or some song lyrics.

    Matchboxes also make great packaging for tiny gifts like mood rings and friendship bracelets. For bonus points, wrap the outside like a teeny-tiny present using a bit of wrapping paper and some ribbon.

2. Garland (under $10)

I’m not sure who gave Christmas full custody of garlands, but I’m appealing the decision. Garlands are an awesome and overlooked decoration! Nobody has ever frowned at a colorful rope of… well, anything. Garlands are also super cheap to make. These instructions can easily be generalized for other materials. Think: rope, flags, beds, doo-dads, etc.

What you need:

  1. Fishing line (you’ll probably have to buy a whole roll, but if you already have some handy, you only need to cut the length of the garland plus about three inches on each end).
  2. A needle with a large eye (large enough to thread with fishing line).
  3. Lots of pompoms (I bought mine at the dollar store).
  4. A bouquet or two of fake flowers.

How to do it:

  1. Cut a piece of fishing line about as long as you want your garland to be. Mine was a little less than 10 feet.
  2. Thread the strand through your needle. Leave a tail of about three inches at the end so it doesn’t unthread while you are sewing.
  3. Start threading the pompoms onto your fishing line. Be sure that when you put the needle into the pompom you are penetrating the meaty part and not just the fluff (that was a weird sentence to read back to myself). You could string the pompoms in a regimented pattern, or you could just be a ~free spirit~ like I was and string them randomly straight out of the bag.
  4. Every foot or so, add a flower. Pull the flowers off their stems and use the needle to poke through the little plastic nub left behind. DO NOT PUT THE NEEDLE THROUGH YOUR FINGER. Getting the needle through the flower is difficult and requires a little bit of force. This would be a great time to break out your collectable The Shining thimble. (Also a great gift idea!!)

  5. Repeat these steps until your garland is long enough. To keep the pompoms from falling off, loop the ends of the fishing line back through a single pompom five or six times.

To keep the garland from tangling when you give it as a gift, loop it around something flat like a book or a piece of cardboard a few times.

3. Homemade Chai Tea Kit (under $25)

I was a weird kid who started fawning over things from Crate & Barrel when I was like six. I love food, so gifts that are about eating really put me over the top. If you have someone in your life who is like me, or maybe just someone who really loves tea, this homemade chai kit might be a good gift. It’s homemade because you assemble the box yourself, but also because the tea that comes from it is better tasting and more labor intensive than that Starbucks crap.

What you need:

  1. A plastic box or little jars or any other cool vessel for spices (I got mine at the hardware store).
  2. Black tea (any old black tea will do, loose or in bags).
  3. Spices (you should order these online if you can, or buy them from someplace where you can scoop from a bulk bin, like a health-food store or ethnic-food store—it’s cheaper than buying packaged spices in the supermarket).

Here are the spices to get. If you can’t find one of them, don’t worry—this won’t ruin the tea or your gift:
• Fennel seeds
• Whole black peppercorns
• Whole cardamom pods
• Ground ginger
• Cinnamon sticks
• Whole cloves
• Brown sugar/white sugar/other sweetener

Finding all of the ingredients will be the most difficult part of this gift. Again, USE THE INTERNET (as if I even have to tell you to).

How to do it:

  1. Spoon the spices into their respective compartments. How much you add of each doesn’t really matter. Your recipient will do all of the measuring when they make the tea.
  2. Typeset (or handwrite!) a recipe for chai and print it out on some better-than-usual paper. I used this one from the Food Network and substituted one tablespoon of ground ginger for the fresh ginger, and three bags of tea for the loose tea. You can use whatever recipe you want, just make sure to alter the ingredients you include in your box accordingly.
  3. For bonus points, you can add a little diagram, so your friends know which spice is which. If your friend is Martha Stewart, you can skip this step.

  4. Finally, tie everything together with a nice ribbon and try to act humble when your friends swoon over how great your gift idea was. ♦